Sunday, April 04, 2010

Armstrong: "'GOD ALONE KNOWS WHICH WAS RIGHT': The Blue and Gray Terrill Family of Virginia in the Civil War"

["God Alone Knows Which Was Right": The Blue and Gray Terrill Family of Virginia in the Civil War by Richard L. Armstrong (McFarland 800-253-2187, 2010). Softcover, maps, photos, notes, appendices, bibliography, index. 299 pages. ISBN:978-0-7864-4622-3 $38]

Many Civil War readers know something of the tragic Terrill family of Bath County, Virginia, but Richard L. Armstrong's new book "God Alone Knows Which Was Right" is the first to really provide an in-depth view of the family's background, relationships, and Civil War service. The author does this with a series of biographical narratives of varying length (seven in all -- father, four sons, one daughter and son-in-law).

At the center of Armstrong's family history is patriarch William H. Terrill, a longtime county prosecutor who himself served the Confederacy as a staff member and provost marshal. Of his eight children with Elizabeth Pitzer Terrill, four served as officers in the Civil War (one for the Union, three for the Confederacy), only one of whom survived. Dr. George Parker Terrill was a militia colonel and medical officer, the relative safety of his positions undoubtedly contributing to his survival. The same cannot be said for his brothers. William Rufus Terrill was disowned by his father upon remaining loyal to the Union. A regular army artillerist, William rose to the rank of Brigadier General and was famously killed at the 1862 Battle of Perryville. James Barbour Terrill, like George, was a VMI graduate. He served as a field officer in the 13th Virginia for much of the war before dying as a brigade commander at Bethesda Church on May 30, 1864. The fourth brother, Philip Mallory Terrill, abandoned his university studies at the outbreak of war and joined the 25th Virginia infantry regiment as a lieutenant. He later resigned and enlisted in the 12th Virginia Cavalry. He was killed in action in the Shenandoah Valley in November 1864.

The Civil War years comprise the heart of each biography, and the life and death of the best known of the four brothers, William R. Terrill, is explored at greater length and depth than the others. The women of the family are not ignored, with a chapter devoted to William H.'s daughter Emily Cornelia Clay Terrill and her husband George Alexander Porterfield. The Porterfield section is quite valuable, as not much has been published about this officer's life and career in the years since Eva Margaret Carnes's brief account from the early 1960s. Porterfield was the ranking officer of Confederate forces in western Virginia during the early months of the Civil War.

Also, many readers (including this one) may be surprised to learn that the story of the monument erected by William H. Terrill in honor of two of his sons (William Rufus and James Barbour) with the famous inscription, oft repeated in the Civil War literature, that "God Alone Knows Which Was Right" was a fabrication. In an appendix, Armstrong discusses his determination that no such monument ever existed. Other supplemental materials include a family tree, the burial address of William R., and information about light battery operation. Additionally, photographs are spread liberally throughout the text.

In assembling this series of select Terrill family biographies, Armstrong consulted a vast amount of manuscript material, and his detailed notes should be a great help to those wishing to learn more. "God Alone Knows Which Was Right" is a wonderfully rich look at a truly divided Virginia family that ended up paying a far higher price in blood than most.

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