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WOMEN’S DIARIES offer some of the richest firsthand perspectives of the war. One of the best is Judith Brockenbrough McGuire’s Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War. McGuire was 48 when the war began, married to a widower Rev. John McGuire, and stepmother to his five children. The Rev. McGuire served as headmaster of the Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va. His wife enjoyed a warm relationship with her stepchildren and also her husband’s pupils. Judith, who came from one of Virginia’s leading families, had been raised among Richmond’s elite and was very well educated. Astute enough to realize the significance of the events that culminated in war in 1861, she began her diary shortly after Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, S.C. Judith volunteered in Sally Tompkins’ Richmond hospital, where she rubbed elbows with the Confederate capital’s elite as well as middling and poor white women. She also found work as a clerk in the Confederate Commissary Department—a shocking turn of events for a woman who had spent much of her childhood at the Richmond estate owned by her cousin, Dr. John Brockenbrough, which later became the White House of the Confederacy. The excerpts from Judith McGuire’s diary that follow help to illuminate how Confederate endurance and determination, which lasted to the war’s bitter end, also shaped white Southerners’ responses to their drastically changed postwar world.



At Home [Alexandria, Va.], May 4, 1861—I am too nervous, too wretched to-day to write in my diary, but that the employment will while away a few moments of this trying time. Our friends and neighbors have left us. Everything is broken up. The Theological Seminary is closed; the High School dismissed. Scarcely any one is left of the many families which surrounded us. The homes all look desolate; and yet this beautiful country is looking more peaceful, more lovely than ever, as if to rebuke the tumult of passion and fanaticism of man. We are left lonely indeed; our children are all gone—the girls to Clarke, where they may be safer, and farther from the exciting scenes which may too soon surround us; the boys, the dear, dear boys, to the camp, to be drilled and prepared to meet any emergency. Can it be that our country is to be carried on and on to the horrors of civil war? I pray, oh how fervently do I pray, that our Heavenly Father may yet avert it….The taking of [Fort] Sumter without bloodshed has somewhat soothed my fears, though I am told by those who are wiser than I, that man must fall on both sides by the score, by the hundred, and even by the thousand. But it is not my habit to look on the dark side, so I try hard to employ myself, and hope for the best….I paused, to ask myself what it all meant. Why did we think it necessary to send off all that was so dear to us from our own home? I threw open the shutters, and the answer came at once, so mournfully! I heard distinctly the drums beating in Washington. The evening was so still that I seemed to hear nothing else. As I looked at the Capitol in the distance, I could scarcely believe my senses. That Capitol of which I had always been so proud! Can it be possible that it is no longer our Capitol? And are our countrymen, under its very eaves, making mighty preparation to drain our hearts’ blood? And must this Union, which I was taught to revere, be rent asunder. Once I thought such a suggestion sacrilege; but now that it is dismembered, I trust it may never, never be reunited. We must be a separate people—our nationality must be different, to insure lasting peace and good-will. Why cannot we part in peace?

June 6 [1861]—Still at Chantilly….Mrs. General Lee has been with us for several days. She is on her way to the lower country, and feels that she has left Arlington for an indefinite period. They removed their valuables, silver, etc., but the furniture is left behind. I never saw her more cheerful, and she seems to have no doubt of our success. We are looking to her husband as our leader with implicit confidence; for besides his great military abilities, he is a God-fearing man and looks for help where alone it is to be found.

July 19 [near Winchester]—This day is perhaps the most anxious of my life. It is believed that a battle is going on at or near Manassas. Our large household is in a state of feverish anxiety; but we cannot talk about it. Some sit still, and are more quiet than usual; others are trying to employ themselves. N is reading aloud, trying to interest herself and others; but we are all alike anxious, which is betrayed by the restless eye and sad countenance. Yesterday evening we were startled by the sound of myriad horses, wheels, and men on the turnpike. We soon found the whole of General Johnston’s army was passing by, on its way to join [Gen. P.G.T.] Beauregard, below the mountain….After midnight the heavy army wagons were lumbering by….We did not retire until all was still, and then none of us slept.

Tuesday [July 23]—The Victory is ours! The enemy was routed! The Lord be praised for this great mercy.



In January 1862, the McGuires were on the move again, leaving Winchester for Strasburg and then continuing on to Richmond, where Robert McGuire managed to secure a “clerkship in the Post-Office Department” in February. During their travels they met a woman who did not benefit from the security of Virginia’s planter class, but possessed a powerful sense of her own rights and her ability to protect them. Judith McGuire recorded the encounter with dismay as well as amusement.

Westwood, Hanover County, January 20, 1862—I pass over the sad leave-taking of our kind friends in Clarke [County] and Winchester….As we were leaving the suburbs of the town, the driver drew up before a small house, from which issued two women with a baby, two baskets, several bundles and a box. The passengers began to shout out, “Go on, driver; what do you mean? There’s no room for another; go on!” The driver made no answer….The woman with the baby said she would get in; she was “agwine to Strasburg to spend Christmas with her relations, whar she was born and raised, and whar she had not been for ten year, and nobody had better right to the stage than she had, and she was agwine, and Kitty Grim was agwine too—she’s my sister-in-law; and so is baby….”

Our heroine [after forcing two men to ride with the driver so she and “Kitty Grim” could have their seats] remained perfectly passive until we got to the picket- post, a mile from town. The driver stopped; a soldier came up for passports. She was thunder-struck. “Passes! Passes for white folks! I never heard of such a thing. I ain’t got no pass; nuther is Kitty Grim.” Just at that time a Tennessee soldier had to confess that he had forgotten to get a passport. “You can’t go on,” said the official; and then the soldier got out. Presently the woman’s turn came. “Madam, your passport, if you please.” “I ain’t got none; nuther is Kitty Grim (that’s my sister-in-law);…and I never heard of white folks having passes.” “But, madam,” began the official—“You needn’t to ‘but, madam’, me, ‘cause I ain’t agwine to git out, and I’d like to see the man what would put me out. This is a free country, and I’se agwine to Strasburg this night; so you might as well take your lantern out of my face.” “But madam, my orders,” began the picket. “Don’t tell me nothing ‘bout orders; I don’t care nothing ’bout orders; and you needn’t think, cause the Tennessee man got out, that I’se agwine to git out—cause I ain’t. Ain’t I got three sons in the army, great sight bigger than you is? And they fit at Manassas, and they ain’t no cowards, nuther is their mother; and I ain’t agwin to git out of this stage this night, but I’m agwine to Strasburg, whar I was born and raised.”

The poor man looked non-plussed, but [made] yet another effort; he began, “My dear madam.” “I ain’t none of your dear madam; I’se just a free white woman, and so is Kitty Grim, and we ain’t no n——s to git passes, and I’se gwine ’long this pike to Strasburg. Now I’se done talking.” With this she settled herself on the seat, and leant back with the most determined air; and the discomfited man shut the door amid peals of laughter from within and from without.



As spring approached, the McGuires remained in Richmond, with Judith volunteering as a nurse in Sally Tompkins’ hospital.

[February] 12th—…A few days ago, on going there [to the hospital] in the morning, I found Miss T[ompkins] deeply interested about a soldier who had been brought in the evening before. The gentleman who accompanied him had found him in the pouring rain, wandering about the streets, shivering with cold, and utterly unable to tell his own story. The attendants quickly replaced his wet clothes by dry ones, and put him into a warm bed; rubbing and warm applications were resorted to, and a surgeon administered restoratives. Physical reaction took place, but no clearing of the mind. When soothingly asked about his name, his home, and his regiment, he would look up and speak incoherently, but no light was thrown on the questions. He was watched and nursed during the night. His pulse gradually weakened, and by the break of day he was no more….All seemed so mysterious, my heart yearned over him, my tears fell fast. Father, mother, sisters, brothers—where are they? The morning papers represented the case, and called for information. He may have escaped in delirium from one of the hospitals! That evening, kind, gentle hands placed him in his soldier’s coffin, and he had Christian burial at “Hollywood,” with the lonely word “Stranger” carved upon the headboard.

Later that summer, news of the Confederate defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg arrived.

[July] 8th—Accounts from Gettysburg very confused. Nothing seems to be known certainly; but Vicksburg has fallen! So says rumour, and we are afraid not to believe. It is a terrible loss to us; but God has been so good to us heretofore that we can only say, “It is the Lord.”

July 11—Vicksburg was surrendered on the 4th of July. The terms of capitulation seem marvelously generous for such a foe. What can the meaning be? General Lee has had a most bloody battle near Gettysburg. Our loss was fearful….

[July] 14th—To-day spent in the hospital; a number of wounded there from the fatal field of Gettysburg. They are not severely wounded, or they could not have been brought so far. Port Hudson has fallen! It could not be retained after losing Vicksburg. General Lee’s army is near Hagerstown. Some of the casualties of the Gettysburg fight which have reached me are very distressing…. They all went with bright hope, remembering that every blow that was struck was for their own South. Alas! alas! the South now weeps some of her bravest sons….

October 24—Since writing in my diary, our plans have been entirely changed. Our old friend, Mrs. [Catherine] R[owland], offered us rooms in Richmond, on such terms as are within our means, and a remarkable circumstance connected with it is, that they are in the house which my father once occupied, and the pleasant chamber which I now occupy I left this month twenty-nine years ago….One room answers the purpose of dining-room and sleeping room, by putting a large screen around the bed; the girls have a room, and we use the parlour of the family for entertaining our guests. For this we pay $60 per month and half of the gas bill….

[November] 11th—…I have just written to Colonel Northrop, Commissary-General, to ask an appointment as clerk in his department. So many of the young men have been ordered to the field, that this office has been open to ladies….They require us to say that we are really in want of the office—rather a work of supererogation, I should say, as no lady would bind herself to keep accounts for six hours per day without a dire necessity.

[November] 13th—My appointment to a clerkship in the Commissary Department has been received, with a salary of $125 per month….If I could afford it, I would give up the appointment, but, as it is, must submit with the best grace possible, particularly as other ladies of my age have to submit to it.



[January] 28th—Our hearts ache for the poor. A few days ago, as E[mily McGuire] was walking out, she met a wretchedly dressed woman, of miserable appearance, who said she was seeking the Young Men’s Christian Association, where she hoped to get assistance and work to do. E[mily] carried her to the door, but it was closed, and the poor woman’s wants were pressing. She then brought her home, supplied her with food, and told her to return to see me the following afternoon. She came, and with an honest countenance and manner told me her story. Her name is Brown; her husband has been a workman in Fredericksburg; he joined the army and was killed at the second battle of Manassas. Many of her acquaintances in Fredericksburg fled last winter during the bombardment; she became alarmed, and with her three little children fled too. She had tried to get work in Richmond; sometimes she succeeded, but could not supply her wants. A kind woman had lent her a room and a part of a garden, but it was outside of the corporation; and although it saved house-rent, it debarred her from the relief of the associations formed for supplying the city poor with meal, wood, etc. She has evidently been in a situation little short of starvation. I asked her if she could get bread enough for her children by her work? She said she could sometimes, and when she could not, she “got turnip-tops from her piece of a garden, which were not putting up smartly, and she boiled them, with a little salt, and fed them on that.” “But do they satisfy your hunger,” said I? “Well, it is something to go upon for awhile, but it does not stick to us like bread does, and then we get hungry again, and I am afraid to let the children eat them too often, lest they should get sick; so I tries to get them to go to sleep; and sometimes the woman in the next room will bring the children her leavings, but she is monstrous poor.” When I gave her meat for her children, taken from the bounty of our Essex friends, tears of gratitude ran down her cheeks; she said they “had not seen meat for so long.” Poor thing, I promised her that her case should be known, and that she should not suffer again. A soldier’s widow shall not suffer from hunger in Richmond. It must not be, and will not be when her case is known. Others are now interested for her….



By the spring of 1865, the McGuire family’s sorrow and anguish had deepened, but Judith still clung to her faith in Confederate victory.

[March] 31st—A long pause in my diary. Every thing seems so dark and uncertain that I have no heart for keeping records. The croakers croak about Richmond being evacuated, but I can’t and won’t believe it. There is hard fighting about Petersburg, and General A.P. Hill has been killed….A week ago we made a furious attack upon the enemy’s fortifications near Petersburg, and several were taken before daylight, but we could not hold them against overwhelming numbers, and batteries vastly too strong for any thing we could command; and so it is still—the enemy is far too strong in numbers and military resources. The Lord save us, or we perish! Many persons think that Richmond is in the greatest possible danger, and may be evacuated at any time. Perhaps we are apathetic or too hopeful, but none of us are desponding at all, and I find myself planning for the future, and feeling excessively annoyed when I find persons less sanguine than myself.

April 3—Agitated and nervous, I turn to my diary to-night as the means of soothing my feelings. We have passed through a fatal thirty-six hours. Yesterday morning (it seems a week ago) we went, as usual, to St. James’s Church, hoping for a day of peace and quietness….How short-sighted we are, and how little do we know of what is coming, either of judgment or mercy!…The services being over, we left the church, and as the congregations from the various churches were being mingled on Grace Street, our children, who had been at St. Paul’s, joined us….After the salutations of the morning, J[ames] remarked, in an agitated voice, to his father, that he had just returned from the War Department, and that there was sad news—General Lee’s lines had been broken, and the city would probably be evacuated within twenty-four hours. Not until then did I observe that every countenance was wild with excitement….Oh, who shall tell the horror of the past night! Hope seemed to fade; none but despairing words were heard, except from a few brave hearts. Union men began to show themselves; treason walked abroad….About two o’clock in the morning we were startled by a loud sound like thunder; the house shook and the windows rattled; it seemed like an earthquake in our midst. We knew not what it was, nor did we care. It was soon understood to be the blowing up of a magazine below the city. In a few hours another exploded on the outskirts of the city, much louder than the first, and shivering innumerable plate-glass windows all over Shockoe Hill….About seven o’clock I set off to go to the central depot to see if the cars would go out. As I went from Franklin to Broad Street, and on Broad, the pavements were covered with broken glass; women, both white and coloured, were walking in multitudes from the Commissary offices and burning stores with bags of flour, meal, coffee, sugar, rolls of cotton cloth, etc; coloured men were rolling wheelbarrows filled in the same way. I went on and on towards the depot, and as I proceeded shouts and screams became louder. The rabble rushed by me in one stream. At last I exclaimed, “Who are those shouting? What is the matter?” I seemed to be answered by a hundred voices, “The Yankees have come.” I turned to come home, but what was my horror, when I reached Ninth Street, to see a regiment of Yankee cavalry come dashing up, yelling, shouting hallooing, screaming! All Bedlam let loose could not have vied with them in diabolical roarings. I stood riveted to the spot; I could not move nor speak….

Sunday Night [April 16]—…Strange rumours are afloat to-night. It is said, and believed, that Lincoln is dead, and Seward much injured….Of course I treated it as a Sunday rumour; but the story is strengthened by the way which the Yankees treat it….I trust that, if true, it may not be the hand of an assassin, though it would seem to fulfill the warnings of Scripture. His efforts to carry out his abolitionist theories have caused the shedding of oceans of Southern blood, and by man it now seems has his blood been shed. But what effect will it have on the South? We may have much to fear….

General Lee has returned. He came unattended, save by his staff—came without notice, and without parade; but he could not come unobserved; as soon as his approach was whispered, a crowd gathered in his path, not boisterously, but respectfully….When I called in to see his high-minded and patriotic wife, a day or two after the evacuation, she was busily engaged in her invalid’s chair, and very cheerful, and hopeful. “The end is not yet,” she said, as if to cheer those around her; “Richmond is not the Confederacy.”

The McGuires left Richmond at the end of April 1865, having accepted Judith’s cousin’s offer to allow them to live at Westwood, one of the family’s homes in Hanover County. They appreciated such generosity, but were shocked to see the faded beauty of the old house and discover the absence of the family slaves, who Judith McGuire had believed would remain, content in the “happiness both of master and servant.”

W[estwood] [April] 24th—On Saturday evening my brother’s wagon met us at the depot and brought us to this place, beautiful in its ruins. We have not been here since the besom of destruction swept over it, and to us, who have been in the habit of enjoying the hospitality when all was bright and cheerful, the change is very depressing. We miss the respectful and respectable servants, born in the family and brought up with an affection for the household which seemed a part of their nature, and which so largely contributed to the happiness both of master and servant. Even the nurse of our precious little S[arah], the sole child of the house, whose heart seemed bound up in her happiness, has gone. It is touching to hear the sweet child’s account of the shock she experienced when she found that her “mammy,” deceived and misled by the minions who followed Grant’s army, had left her….

May 4—General Johnston surrendered on the 26th of April. “My native land, good-night!”

Susannah Ural is the Blount Professor of Military History at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her latest book is Don’t Hurry Me Down to Hades: The Civil War in the Words of Those Who Lived It.

Originally published in the August 2014 issue of Civil War Times. To subscribe, click here.