Wilson chronicles the life of Jonathan Roberts, a Quaker who served in the Union Army during the Civil War despite his pacifist convictions.
In the late 1840s, Roberts, an educated Quaker from New Jersey, moved to Virginia with other members of the Religious Society of Friends. They hoped to use their land to demonstrate that Virginia farms could be profitable without the use of slave labor. Roberts’ activism was not confined to modeling behavior, and he became known as an outspoken abolitionist voice in the area. As tensions mounted leading up to the Civil War, Roberts became a target for secessionist anger. When the war broke out, Roberts and his family declined to flee to the North, instead remaining in Union-occupied Alexandria. President Lincoln acknowledged the difficult situation of Quakers, writing: “Your people—Friends—have had, and are having, a very great trial. On principle, and faith, opposed to both war and oppression, they can only practically oppose oppression by war. In this hard dilemma, some have chosen one horn and some the other.” Roberts chose the side of war, joining the Union Army as a non-arms-bearing scout and serving as a sheriff. In the capacity of scout, Roberts witnessed combat in encounters such as the First Battle of Bull Run. Wilson—who is Roberts’ great-great-grandson—leaves no stone unturned in his search for the facts of Roberts’ life. The plethora of details on land deals, lawsuits and genealogy can become tiresome, particularly in the prewar and postwar sections of the book. However, Wilson does a fantastic job of capturing the escalating tensions in Virginia, as disagreements over slavery and secession go from election campaign smears to violent harassment to skirmishes over flags to outright warfare. He also uncovers fascinating accounts of relations between neighbors on opposing sides of the conflict—and those whose loyalties and convictions shifted. Wilson’s attention to detail allows readers to gain a more nuanced understanding of the gray areas, contradictions and compromises encountered during the Civil War.
An exhaustive biography, which serves as a welcome addition to American
Civil War and Quaker history.