Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War, by A Lady of Virginia
by Judith W. McGuire
Despite the constant flag waving and the endless rounds of patriotic speeches that inaugurate war, national unity eludes most countries when the fighting begins. Civilians are forced to confront practical and philosophical issues that challenge the most fundamental loyalties to family, to community and to nation. Having a loved one killed in a strange land and buried far away from home in an isolated grave; seeing mangled veterans return from the front, physically and emotionally broken; and surviving shortages of basic necessities cause many to wonder if God is really on their side, if the sacrifices of war are warranted and if the prosecution of the conflict is in able military and political hands. On the surface, Judith W. McGuire appears to be like so many elite Southern women who saw themselves as part of a noble effort that engendered the collective support of all people. Her representation of the war, published as a Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War, by A Lady of Virginia, however, reveals the internal tensions and conflicts that plagued the Confederacy, even while many Southern people, including McGuire, were making unbelievable sacrifices to defeat the Yankees.
In the spring of 1861, McGuire and her family left their beloved farm in northern Virginia and relocated to Richmond, where she took a job in the Commissary Department that paid her $125 per month. Her wartime observations of the Confederacy’s capital capture the turmoil of a place where the daily rhythms of life were largely determined by military campaigns. Battles inundated the city with wounded, military outposts around Richmond flooded the streets with stragglers and deserters, and the devastated Virginia countryside brought legions of poor people to an urban area, hoping to escape starvation and find work. Diary of a Southern Refugee ranks as one of the very best accounts of wartime Richmond.
Unlike the more famous Mary Chesnut, whose diary celebrates Richmond’s high society, McGuire writes of ordinary people and their heroic struggle to survive a war waged by the invisible enemies of inflation, housing shortages and market shortfalls. But like Chesnut, McGuire edited her diary for publication, and she purposefully shaped a story line that emphasized the devotion of poor people to the Confederate war effort. One illiterate and nearly indigent woman, for instance, asked McGuire to read a letter from her husband who was serving in Lee’s army. Hearing the words of her husband through McGuire calmed the poor woman, who took an old felt hat from the mantel-piece to show two bullet holes through the crown. The woman told McGuire that they “must have come ‘very nigh grazing his head’” at Chancellorsville. “We remarked upon its being a proof of his bravery,” McGuire recalled, “which gratified her very much” and the woman told her visitor that “she wanted her husband to fight for his country, and not ‘to stand back, like some women’s husbands, to be drafted.’”
This instance brilliantly captures how love and devotion to a spouse is intimately connected to a broader sense of national loyalty. But not all white Southerners, especially from the lower classes, reacted with such selflessness when it came to the cause. In a colorful passage on a stage ride in the Shenandoah Valley, McGuire writes of a poor woman who forced herself onto the coach over the protests of some wealthy men. When a Confederate soldier demanded to see a pass from the poor woman, she screamed at the unsuspecting Confederate: “I’se just a free white woman, and so is Kitty Grim, and we ain’t no niggers to get passes, and I’se gwine ‘long this pike to Strasburg. Now I’se done talking.” The soldier was not prepared to use the point of his bayonet to extricate the rebellious woman, and as the coach continued down the Valley Pike, she bitterly concluded: “I wish there warn’t no niggers. I hate Yankees, and I hate niggers too.” Hatred of Yankees and African-Americans was not, as McGuire probably assumed, a declaration of Confederate fidelity. This poor woman was angry at the world for a war that had taken her sons into the army, that had separated her from loved ones and that had destroyed customary rights and privileges that she had long enjoyed as a white woman. McGuire’s class and racial perspective did not prevent her from writing about lower-class unrest, but it did prevent her from recognizing that the rage of the lower classes was not only directed at a Northern enemy, but also at slaveholders who were seen as responsible for causing the Civil War.
Originally published in the September 2006 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.