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War seemed a million miles away from a cheery winter camp, but too close when it finally struck home.

Septima Maria Levy Collis, at age 19, experienced the Civil War like few other Americans. Although raised in the planter’s world of Charleston, S.C., she married young Irish-born American Charles Collis, who went on to lead a Union regiment of Zouaves. “I went with my state,” she quipped, likening herself to General Lee, “— my state of matrimony.” Her 1898 memoir, A Woman’s War Record, 1861-65, vividly recalls wartime Frederick, Md; Philadelphia; Washington and visits to her husband’s regiment. In this excerpt, her story unfolds like a novel: she witnesses the celebratory atmosphere at the opening of the war, then experiences sobering losses, first with her Confederate brother, then with her husband. Along the way she meets President Abraham Lincoln and comes away charmed by the pensive commander in chief.

That winter of 1861-62 will be remembered in Frederick till those who enjoyed its “spirit-stirring drum and piercing fife” by day and its “sound of revelry by night” have passed away. There were the swell Bostonians of the Second Massachusetts Regiment, the Hortons, Shaw, Quincy, Choate, and others whose names but not their handsome faces now escape me, and whose waltzing was as gallant then as was their fighting afterwards; and there were the jovial roysterers of “the Twelfth,” who from Colonel Fletcher Webster (Daniel’s son) down to the humblest subaltern could find in every deed of mischief “a hand to resolve,” “a hand to contrive,” and a “hand to execute”; and, above all, giving license and encouragement to the playful side of the soldier’s life, but presiding over it with a dignity which would brook no violation of discipline or decorum, was the urbane and genial General [Nathaniel] Banks. Among the ladies who spent the winter with us were Mrs. Banks, Mrs. Holabird, Mrs. Abercrombie, Mrs. Copeland, and Mrs. Scheffler, the wife of one of those German staff officers who had come over to teach our officers the art of war, but who went back home with improved educations. Mrs. Scheffler was a charming woman, thoroughly naive, but could not speak a word of English, and depended much upon me as her interpreter. Upon one occasion, in General Banks’ presence, she was fluently expressing to me her views in very complimentary terms regarding his personal appearance, when, to her horror, the General, laughing heartily, thanked her in a very excellent specimen of her native tongue, and we then learned for the first time, and to our discomfiture, that the General was, besides his other accomplishments, an excellent German scholar.

There were dress parades of regiments and imposing reviews of brigades and divisions whenever the weather would permit, and to these we women cantered in our saddle, and stood beside the generals while the troops marched by in their picturesque uniforms to splendid music, for at this time every regiment had its special uniform and a brass band, all of which had changed when I witnessed the grand review in Washington at the close of the war, where all were dressed in blue, regiments had been thinned down to companies, and bands of music were few and far between. It seems to me that every Union citizen of Frederick gave a ball or some other entertainment that winter, and many of the regiments returned the courtesy by such improvised hospitality as the scanty accommodations of the camp would afford.

Even thus early in the campaign I came near losing my life. While crossing a ford of the Monocacy River in a light wagon which my husband was driving, we suddenly became aware that the heavy rains had raised the stream to a torrent, and, it being almost dark, we lost our way in mid stream. If you have never been in a wagon in a river when the water became so deep that your horse commenced to swim, you can have no proper appreciation of my sensations. To this day I hardly know how we escaped, but I remember the soldiers on the far-off bank of the stream shouting to us and preparing to leap in to our rescue when our wagon should overturn, which seemed inevitable. It kept its equilibrium, however, and our horse was wheeled around and found a footing, where we remained until the gallant boys in blue waded waist high to our relief.

The piece de resistance of the season, in the way of amusement, was a ball given by Colonel and Mrs. [William P. Maulsby] Maltby, who lived in the suburbs of the town. The Colonel, if I remember rightly, then commanded a Maryland regiment or brigade. Their very large and well appointed residence was admirably adapted to gratify the desire of our hostess to make the occasion a memorable one; the immense hall served as the ballroom; the staircases afforded ample sitting room for those who did not participate in, or desired to rest from, the merry whirl, while the anterooms presented the most bountiful opportunities of quenching thirst or appeasing appetite. Perhaps never did grim War appear to smooth his wrinkled front and yield himself to the divertissement of the hour as he did in this charming town in that memorable winter, yet he was really marshaling his hosts for the deadly combat which was to open in the spring. Alas! How soon it came! On Washington’s birthday, by express command of President Lincoln (who was chafing under the tardiness of our generals), the army of which my husband and his hundred zouaves were a part, crossed the Potomac River at Harper’s Ferry, and we poor women, who would willingly have followed, were ordered home.

Extraordinary as it may appear, I did not fully realize that we were in the midst of a great war until I returned to Philadelphia. In camp the constant round of pleasurable excitement and the general belief that hostilities would be of short duration presented a bright picture without a somber shadow, and as we bade our loved ones adieu we had few misgiving for their safe return. But at home all was bustle and excitement; a dozen large stores on Chestnut Street had become recruiting stations; public meetings were being held every night to encourage enlistment; politicians were shouting: “On to Richmond!”’ young girls were declaring they would never engage themselves to a man who refused to fight for his country, and the fife and drum were heard morning, noon, and night.

Yes, indeed, we realized what war meant then much more than we had when among the light-hearted soldiers in the field. The Girard House had, for the time being, been converted from a fashionable hotel into a vast workshop, where the jingle of the sewing-machine and the chatter of the sewing girl, daytime, nighttime, and Sundays gave evidence that the government was in earnest. Every woman who could use her needle found employment, and those who did not need compensation worked almost as assiduously. About this time some well meaning woman discovered that General Havelock had provided his troops in India with a cotton capt-cover and neck-protector to shield them from the sun of the tropics, and the manufacture of “havelocks” became the ruling mania of the hour. The sewing societies made nothing but havelocks; the shop windows were full of them, and the poor fellows in the army were so inundated with them that those who had the fewest relatives and sweethearts were much the best off.

Vague rumors reached Philadelphia in the early summer of 1862 that General Banks’ army had had several days severe fighting with Stonewall Jackson, and had been defeated, and the tension to which our nerves were wrought in our restless anxiety for fuller news was terrible. Upon one of those ever memorable days I had great difficulty in procuring my favorite newspaper, and was compelled to gather what meager intelligence I could from other sources. It was not until some time afterwards that I learned that the newspaper had been purposely kept from me. It contained a message from General Banks himself to the Secretary of War, in which he said “Captain Collis and his company of Zouaves d’Afrique were taken prisoners, “ while an enterprising correspondent of the same paper reported that they had been “cut to pieces.” My husband, however turned up all right. He had covered the retreat of the army, and, being cutoff by the enemy, found his way with his zouaves through the mountains of West Virginia to the Upper Potomac.

My friends—and thank Heaven I had some good and tried ones (among them a judge of the Supreme Court of the State, whose portrait will always find as choice a place in my home as his memory does in my heart)— brought me glad intelligence at midnight, and shortly afterwards Mr. Collis was ordered to Philadelphia to increase his command from a company to a regiment. Thus sooner than I expected, my camp life was resumed; but instead of Frederick, Md., with its dances and routes, I found my husband hard at work enlisting men in the city in the morning, and drilling them in Germantown in the afternoon, where he had a charming camp, which he retained until, with a thousand men, early in August of the same year, he once more returned to the field. Antietam, Fredericksburg, Burnside’s muddy march, now came on in quick succession, and my husband was kept so busy with his enlarged command, that although he gladly allowed others a leave of absence, he hesitated to leave the front himself. The suspense in these days was something dreadful—at times, letters arrived quite regularly, and then there followed the long silence and the great anxiety, for we knew when our letters failed us that “the army was moving.” Things were very expensive too, especially the necessaries of life; common muslin, I remember, which is now ten cents a yard, then cost a dollar, and the pay of an officer was very small with gold at an enormous premium, so that after he had paid for his “mess” and his servant there was little left for his family at home though he sent them every dollar he could spare.

What better illustration of the abnormal condition of society in those days can be given than a statement of the fact that my daughter was born on September 25, 1862, and that her father, although within twelve hours’ reach of us, did not see her until June, 1863;—and he would not have seen her then, but that he was brought home, it was believed, to die. Careful nursing and desperate fighting by myself and one or two faithful allies restored him soon to health, and he returned to the front, —and to find himself at twenty-five years of age in command of a brigade. This promotion was of course gratifying to my pride, but how much more did I value it when I learned brigade commanders could have their wives with them in camp during the winter, while the officers below that rank could not. Yet with all my joy at God’s mercy to me, some days came to me laden with great sorrow. My brother, David Cardoza Levy, a handsome, gallant lieutenant in the Southern army commanded by General Bragg, was about this time killed at the battle of Murfreesborough; seen by his companions to fall, his remains were never found, though General Rosecrans, to oblige my husband, made every effort to discover them.

This was the horrible episode of the civil war to me, and although I had many relatives and hosts of friends serving under the Confederate flag all the time, I never fully realized the fratricidal character of the conflict until I lost my idolized brother Dave of the Southern army one day, and was nursing My Northern husband back to life the next.

I very often went to Washington while the Army of the Potomac was lying along the Rappahannock River, and my husband would manage to run up for a few hours to see me. On one of these visits I was presented to President Lincoln, and had a private audience. I shall never forget that wonderful man, and the pressure of the immense hand which grasped mine, so fervent, true, and hearty was his manner. I was very young, and was dressed in such height of fashion as my means afforded—and how strange that fashion seems to me a quarter of a century later. It was forenoon, and yet my out-of-door costume consisted of a pale-pearl silk dress, trimmed with cherry color, immense hoops, and a long train, such as is now very rarely worn even in a ballroom; a black lace shawl, and a little pearl-colored bonnet, with a white illusion veil under my chin. There were no bustles in those days, except the one worn under the back-hair to support the chignon, which was more commonly called the “waterfall,” and though our foreheads were innocent of bangs or crimps, yet, equally absurd, we twisted our hair around pliable little cushions, which were known as rats and mice.What would a tailor-made girl think if she ran across such an outfit on Fifth Avenue to-day? Mr. Lincoln wore a dress suit, I remember, his swallow-tailed coat being a terrible misfit, and it puzzled me very much to tell whether his short-collar was made to stand up or to turn down—it was doing a little of both. He was entirely at ease, and impressed me as being pleased with the diversion which my visit gave him. He referred in complimentary terms to my husband’s services, and to the requests of his superior officers for his promotion to Brigadier-General, adding, in a quaint and earnest way, “but he is too young.” I replied promptly: “He is not too young to be killed in the service, and make me a widow.” “Well,” said he, with the bonhomie of a courtier, “you would have no trouble in finding promotion then,” which, for Mr. Lincoln, was, I presume, quite a flirtatious remark. Perhaps he thought that, under the circumstances, I might agree with Madame de Sevigne, who said (with great provocation, it is true): “Would to God we were born widows.”

While we were thus chatting pleasantly, the door-keeper handed him a card with a woman’s name upon it, and whispered a few words to the President as he was putting on his eye-glasses. Mr. Lincoln uttered a long and agonizing sigh—perhaps I should call it a groan,—and then, turning to me, in a tone of voice as full of sadness as, a moment before it had been full of mirth, said: “This poor woman’s son is to be shot to-morrow.” I confess I was so overpowered by his distress that I had hardly the strength to speak, but, by way of comfort, I ventured the opinion that I presumed such things were inevitable in time of war. “Yes,” said he, slowly and pensively, as he threw his head far back and pressed his brow with his hand, “that’s so; but there’s so many on ’em, so many on ’em.” Of course this brought our interview to a close, and I gave way to the broken-hearted mother, who, I am sure, left that great presence as full of hope as I did of love and reverence for this remarkable man. I never again saw him until I met him at City Point, Va., a few days before the assassination.


Adapted from A Woman’s War Record, 1861-65 by Septima Maria Levy Collis.

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.