I wanted to save my posts for this Women’s History Month to highlight the lesser known contributions of women to the war effort. The soldiers, spies, and healers who defied traditional gender roles and took action to effect the course of the war instead of letting the war happen to them. At first glance, Sarah Morgan, a 19 year old young woman living in Baton Rouge with her family when the war started, may not exactly fit the bill. Though she never donned a uniform, or slipped secrets of the enemy’s whereabouts to her army’s commanders, Sarah Morgan’s candid writing made her one of the best known diarists of Civil War America and her words have helped countless generations understand the ravages of the war on the southern home front.
Sarah Morgan’s published diary, The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman, measures 615 pages and spans a time period from January 10, 1861 through June 15, 1865. A tome of that size might prove intimidating for an adult, so, author Debra West Smith decided to make it more accessible to a middle school audience. By editing the source volume and creating dialog from the material, Smith has crafted an engaging, and largely faithful recreation of Morgan’s diary.
The key to Sarah’s relevance is that she observed life from a young woman’s point of view, and much of it was emotional and visceral writing. That comes through in Smith’s adaptation and enhances the value of such a book to engender critical thinking and discussions with middle school students or family members.
One of Sarah’s earliest revelations is that the Union soldiers are not the monsters that prevailing sentiment claimed them to be. Sarah, feeling defiant with her friends, wears a homemade Confederate national flag pinned to her shirt when she goes to the State House. There she unexpectedly sees fifteen to twenty Union soldiers standing on a terrace, being watched like animals. Sarah says she is ashamed that she drew attention to herself, and claims she felt humiliated and conspicuous. At first, she lays the blame for her feelings on the idea that she has not been ladylike in her behavior. Just one paragraph later, she reveals the true issue…she hadn’t expected the Yankees to be such gentlemen--fine and noble looking “showing refinement and gentlemanly bearing.”
Sarah’s later interactions with the occupying Union force shows her earlier revelation about the Yankees drives her actions--taking food to the injured Union troops because she acknowledges that they have loved ones at home. She also hopes that someone would do the same for her brothers fighting with the Confederate forces.
Her revelation that she can be compassionate to men who wear another uniform and not compromise her loyalty to her brothers and her cause is described as doing the right thing, and is a lesson appropriate today.
There are some really good discussion opportunities for families and classes to discuss attitudes of slaveholders and how they perceive the motivations of their slaves as is evidenced in the passage in which Sarah watches the Linwood “servants” (Sarah uses “servants” much more frequently in her diary than she uses “slaves”) laughing in the sugar house while the master’s young guests play games and try their hands at stirring the boiling kettles of sugar. Smith’s Sarah says “It occurred to her that if Abe Lincoln could spend grinding season on the plantation he would recall his Proclamation. Never in her home, nor at Linwood, had she seen the cruelty abolitionists railed about, and the dark faces that joined her silly songs seemed far from miserable.”
In her diary, Sarah Morgan includes a lament of the same nature on November 9, 1862: “ And to think, Old Abe wants to deprive us of all that fun. No more cotton, sugar cane, or rice! No more old black aunties or uncles! No more rides in mule teams, no more songs in the cane field, no more steaming kettles, no more black faces and shining teeth around the furnace fires!
“If Lincoln could spend the grinding season on a plantation, he would recall his proclamation. As it is, he has only proved himself a fool, without injuring us. Why last evening I took old Wilson’s place at the baggasse shoot, and kept the rollers free from cane until I had thrown down enough to fill several carts, and had my hands as black as his. What cruelty to the slaves! And black Frank things me cruel too, when he meets me with a patronizing grin, and shows me the nicest vats of candy, and peels cane for me! Oh! Very cruel! And so does Jules, when he wipes the handle of his paddle on his apron, to give ‘Mamselle’ a chance to skim the kettles and learn how to work! Yes! And so do all the rest who meet us with a courtesy and ‘Howd’y young missus!”
This scene raises questions such as:
“I am going away to the Great House Farm! O, yea! O, yea! O!”
This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do. I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them.”
Since the text of Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman is available online, advanced readers can verify Smith’s version of events by checking it directly with the source material as they read along.
The only thing that keeps this from being a 5 star book is some confusing writing that results in Sarah’s mother magically appearing in the story several times without explanation. She was miles away and suddenly, there she is, back at the house in Baton Rouge or ministering to wounded soldiers in Sarah’s presence after she has tearfully taken her goodbyes and moved away. It is likely this is the result of the heavy editing required to trim 600 pages to 173 pages, and the excluded material probably helps with context, but more careful editing could have avoided these issues entirely.
Toni is a wife, mom and history buff who loves bringing the Civil War to life for family members of all ages.