Belles and Poets: Intertextuality in the Civil War Diaries of White Southern Women, a new book by Julia Nitz, analyzes the Civil War diary writing of eight white women from the U.S. South, focusing on how they made sense of the world around them through references to literary texts. In light of the holiday season, Nitz revisits some of these texts to explore how women during the late 1800s lived and interpreted their lives during the holidays.
One bitter cold Sunday this December, I returned to the Civil War diaries by southern women that I had been studying for the past six years to see what Christmas and New Year’s was like for them. Such diaries allow us a unique glimpse into people’s lives, and maybe, just as with Ebenezer Scrooge, they might teach us a lesson, or simply bring to light the common humanity we all share. So, let me take you back to the holiday seasons of the 1860s.
First, we enter the abode of twenty-one-year-old Sarah Morgan from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, as she is writing in her diary on December 31, 1863, during the height of the Civil War. At the time, Sarah, her mother, and her sister Miriam are refugees in Union-occupied New Orleans, staying with their half-brother, Judge Philip Hicky Morgan. At the end of an eventful year, with their home looted and all her brothers enrolled in the Confederate army, she looks back at the good and the bad and wonders whether everything is serving a divine agenda after all:
The last of 1863 is passing away as I write. Glad, or sorry, O my soul? How stand your records? Is it not singular how sentimentally attached we become to the old year as it expires, no matter what sufferings and heart-aches it caused us in its course? Day after day we pray “Let this pang pass away, or this grief be forgotten” and sob and moan in our souls for the dawning of the day that brings respite and oblivion—and yet—when time hastening to fulfill our prayers rolls rapidly away bringing the last moments of a year that has been trial and suffering, instantly it becomes “The dear old Year,” “The delightful past” and we forget its stings because, forsooth, its moments are numbered, and it will not long affect us for good or for ill. Pshaw! It is only mawkish sentimentality, or a vague idea that the rest of the world withdraw into their secret souls at this time and examine their past lives. Everybody may make the effort; but how many are profited by it? Much good I derive from the retrospect! I see a great deal of severe suffering, much pleasure, and an immense tract of neutral ground before me as a landscape; but as to one step forward of soul or mind—not one! And yet I am glad to have lived it, thankful for pain as well as pleasure; it all works for good, though I don’t see how, yet. Patience! I shall see yet!—Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman, edited by Charles East
Several hundreds of miles away, fellow Louisianan and Confederate refugee Kate Stone, twenty-two, is stranded with her family in Texas and also reporting on her Christmas holidays:
Tyler, Tex. Christmas Night : The day has passed most quietly, not a cake, not a visitor. We did have an eggnog but only the servants enjoyed it. Made of mean whiskey, it smacked of Texas [. . .]. Only one present on the place, a fine turkey from Mrs. Lawrence. Last Christmas morning when dear little Beverly raised up in bed, and looking at her stockings saw only some homemade toys, bedstead and chairs made of white pine by the plantation carpenter, hid her head, sobbing that she “would not have the ugly common fings.” Aunt Laura told her how bad that was and that poor Santa Claus had done his best but he could not get through Yankee lines. Presently the little, flushed face was raised and an apologetic little voice faltered out, “Table, I begs your pardon. Bedstead, I begs your pardon. I will keep you and play with you. You is nice.” What a dear little heart she is [. . .]. A Cold, moonshiny night, a warm room, and Mamma dozing at ease in our only rocking chair before a bright fire. The chair has accompanied us in all our journeys since leaving Monroe and, though not a thing of beauty, it is a joy forever and seldom without an occupant. Sad to say, it is showing signs of wear, but it has acted the part of comforter in our weary pilgrimage.—Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861–1868, edited by John Q. Anderson
Another southern refugee, fifty-year-old Judith McGuire, residing in Richmond, Virginia (the McGuires had to move thirty-four times during the war), complains about the shortage of food and the outrageous prices in her account of Christmas 1864:
26th [Dec. 1864] The sad Christmas has passed away. [. . .] The Church services in the morning were sweet and comforting. [. . .] The Christmas turkey and ham were not. We had aspired to a turkey, but finding the prices range from $50 to $100 in the market on Saturday, we contented ourselves with roast-beef and the various little dishes which Confederate times have made us believe are tolerable substitutes for the viands of better days. At night I treated our little party to tea and ginger cakes—two very rare indulgences; and but for the sorghum, grown in our own fields, the cakes would be an impossible indulgence. Nothing but the well-ascertained fact that Christmas comes but once a year would make such extravagance at all excusable. [. . .] Two meals a day has become the universal system among refugees, and many citizens, from necessity. The want of our accustomed tea or coffee is very much felt by the elders. The rule with us is only to have tea when sickness makes it necessary, and the headaches gotten up about dark have become the joke of the family.
—Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War, by Judith Brockenbrough McGuire, edited by James I. Robertson Jr.
The final home we enter is that of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas near Augusta, Georgia. In December 1862, she is pregnant with her seventh child and reports about her Christmas experience:
Turner [her son] was very much afraid Santa Claus would not bring him any think as he has a shrewd suspicion who Santa Claus is—Ma gave us an elegant dinner [. . .]. To form some idea of the extravagant prices of things and to compare them with the better times which I hope are coming I will mention that the apples for the dessert were 10cts a piece, the oranges 30 and 40 cts, the icing of a pound cake $1.50. The baked and boiled turkey would alone have cost 8 dollars —This is the last night of 1862. And I might moralise but will refrain as there is no one to hear it but myself.
A year later, circumstances have become so dire that Thomas’s children are afraid to find their Christmas stockings empty:
The last night of 1863. Mary Bell has been told that Santa Claus has not been able to run the blockade and has gone to the war—Yet at a later hour when I went up stairs Thursday night I found that with the trusting faith of childhood they had hung their little socks and stockings in case Santa Claus did come.
Another year later, Thomas reports on the way her “servants” are spending Christmas, having an inkling that the coming year will bring about profound changes.
Monday, Dec. 26, 1864
I am alone tonight while writing. [. . .] The children are upstairs asleep. Tamah is sick. America has gone down to see her mother and Fanny—Patsey has gone to see some of Bob’s family up town—all of them trying to pass “a merry Christmas.” I have just written a ticket for Daniel to go to a party at Dr. Ed Eve’s. While writing the idea occurs to me whether we shall have any servants to write tickets for when another Christmas comes round?
All the individuals mentioned in this passage are enslaved people. Christmas was the only occasion when the enslaved were allowed a holiday; to visit loved ones, they needed a ticket of passage from their enslavers. A year later, Christmas 1865, did not see the Thomas family without “servants,” but now they had to pay them for their services and tickets were no longer needed.
In 2020, the pandemic is turning the world upside down for people across the globe. I wonder how things are going to be for us next Christmas. However, unlike Ebenezer Scrooge, we have no ghost of Christmas to Come allowing us a glimpse into the future. We will have to trust that there will be an end to this crisis as there has been an end to every other crisis before. On this hopeful note, I wish you all a happy new year.
Julia Nitz is a lecturer in Anglo-American cultural studies at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany. She cofounded the Intercontinental Crosscurrents Network for the study of transatlantic women’s networks.
Belles and Poets: Intertextuality in the Civil War Diaries of White Southern Women establishes the extent to which literature offered a means of exploring ideas and convictions about class, gender, and racial hierarchies for women, particularly white women, in the Civil War–era South. In her study, Julia Nitz reveals that these references functioned as codes through which women diarists contemplated their roles in society and coped with the war and its potential threats to their way of life.