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Diary of a Union Lady, 1861-1865

by Maria Lydig Daly

Internal discord, debate and bitter disagreement afflict all nations at war. The latitude given to dissenting opinions tells us a great deal about that nation’s commitment to democratic principles. Northerners in the Civil War were quick to exercise their Constitutional liberties by protesting the war despite a systematic crackdown on free speech. Sympathy for the Confederacy was not the source of discontent. Criticism largely derived from a philosophical disagreement over the methods used to pacify the South and whether the war’s goals should include emancipation. Opposition groups vilified Abraham Lincoln for expanding Federal authority and, by the autumn of 1862, for embracing emancipation as an objective.

Ironically the North’s virtual insulation from the war might have contributed to the volatility of its politics. Without the destructive presence of an invading army, Northern civilians did not feel compelled to close ranks and silence those who questioned the war. Although most Northerners supported the troops in the field, many critics found fault with a conflict that was no longer a conservative war for union but rather a revolutionary conflagration that threatened to consume the South’s social order. Maria Lydig Daly, an upper class woman from a prominent New York family, was like many dissenting Northerners who backed the troops while condemning a war that violated her most sacred belief in a Union of limited government.

Daly’s journal, published as Diary of a Union Lady, 1861- 1865, is an invaluable commentary from a loyal critic of the war. Fiery entries against the Lincoln administration are in abundance, but even as she denounced the way the war was being waged, she gave herself to the cause, devoting much of her time to the U.S. Sanitary Commission. She was particularly outraged that the war had evolved from a conservative conflict for union to a revolutionary war for emancipation. Daly was a conservative Democrat, much like her hero George B. McClellan, and remained so to the end of the war. Her political activism and engagement might surprise readers who expected women of the war era to be either apolitical or dutiful caretakers of the home. The war, however, did inspire political action by women, especially those from the Northeast who had become increasingly public in their views throughout the 19th century.

Anyone who believes that 19th-century women simply followed the popular tide of male public opinion will reconsider after reading Diary of a Union Lady. After Lincoln’s assassination, for instance, Daly lamented the killing of the president but also worried about how the tragedy might distort American memories of the war. “It will make a martyr of Abraham Lincoln,” she predicted, adding that his “death will make all the shortcomings of his life and Presidential career forgotten.” She was particularly upset by the wave of arrests of New York City residents who, in response to Booth’s murderous actions, were caught in the streets saying: “Pity it had not been done before.”

Daly’s hypercritical take on the world stemmed from her aristocratic upbringing. She was at heart a mid–19th century conservative who believed that inequalities existed among all humans. Her acceptance of female dependency fits within a broader view that not all people were entitled to the same rights. Daly shared with many Southern slaveholders a similar commitment to hierarchy, but she parted ways with them when it came to their extreme stance on slavery and their defense of secession. Their radicalism, Daly believed, fed the extreme behavior of the abolitionists, and it was because of both groups, she argued, that a murderous war had erupted. “It is a pity that the abolition female saints and the Charleston female patriots could not meet in fair fight,” she wrote, “and mutually annihilate each other.”

It is unfortunate that Daly never saw beyond her class blinders, which prevented her from discovering the nobility and idealism behind Northern radicalism—an extremism, despite its many faults and limitations, that deserves a great deal of credit for the liberation of more than 4 million slaves.


Originally published in the September 2007 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here