Before a trip to Richmond, Virginia, I was looking for books set in the South during 19th century. While Richmond is a veritable treasure trove of history, I was interested in learning about the more personal history of the town. In my search I found very few notable or interesting southern writers from that period so I was happy to discover Ellen Glasgow. Born in Richmond in 1873, when southern tradition had taken a beating after the restoration, Glasgow lived during a time of great change that included two world wars. I read her novel, The Sheltered Life, where she captures the melancholy of Southern life at the end of a charmed era. The way she writes of women who are governed by the rules of society reminded me of many of Edith Wharton’s books on the plight of privileged 19th century women.
After finishing this book I read her autobiography, A Woman Within, which is much more interesting than her fiction. Here, she details growing up in Richmond after the restoration and the decline of Southern tradition as it existed for over a hundred years. Her lifelong home still stands in central Richmond flanked by parking lots and businesses. You can imagine the neighborhood when it was filled with similar homes. Now it is an active law practice so you cannot see inside, unless you want to get a legal consultation.
Glasgow’s maternal family was well connected and her maternal uncle Joseph Reid Anderson successfully managed the Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond. Glasgow’s father later managed it. Word has it that when Confederates evacuated the city in April of 1865, the retreating troops were under orders to burn industrial warehouses that would have been valuable to the North. Supposedly, Anderson paid armed guards to protect the facility from arsonists and so the Tredegar Iron Works is one of few Civil War-era buildings that survived the burning of Richmond.
The 22-acre site and remaining structures serve as the main visitor center for the Richmond National Battlefield Park and on it sits The American Civil War Center. The museum has a good children’s program for visitors that help kids learn about the Civil War era through tactile experiences. Since most of the museum involves the written word, this program is a must-do if you have younger children.