Words by Women During the Civil War

Mar 28, 2017

It may seem like an invasion of privacy to read someone’s diary, but for historians they are treasure troves.  Because they’re not written for public consumption, like a memoir or a letter, they open a window into the deepest thoughts of the writer. The Historic Fredericksburg Foundation has organized a lecture series featuring the diaries of three women who lived in there during  the American Civil War begins this week. 

What started out as a way for a young widow to pour out her grief, became one of the most important records of life in war torn Fredericksburg, Virginia during the civil war.  In the 1850s Jane Howison Beale was left with 9 children to care for after her husband died of a heart attack, but events of the day soon eclipsed that heartbreak with something even more sweeping.

“The civil war really to this, is community what Katrina is to New Orleans. “ Everything was either before of after that moment.”

Jane Howison Beale kept a diary during the Civil War which has become one of the most important documents of the era in Fredericksburg, VA

Civil War Historian, John Hennessey wrote the introduction to the published version of Beale’s private writings, called, “A Woman in a War-Torn Town.”

He says, Beale wrote with vigor after her husbands death, but her pace gradually slowed, but when the war began, “She takes up her pen with the regularity and volume that turns her diary into one of the 3 or 4 most important sources we have on this part of the world’s experience during the civil war.”

It includes a vivid account of the day her family was caught in the battle of Fredericksburg on December 11th 1862.

“They spent a memorable day in the basement of their house on Lewis street, huddled against the Union shells, praying rather vociferously and intensely, until and finally at the end of the day as the sun’s going down are evacuated to the country side as were a couple thousand of the white residents of Fredericksburg.”        

Many of the town’s enslaved people remained in those houses during the battle. And even though the it went down as a confederate victory it became clear to Beale that life as she knew it was changing and the old order was passing away before her eyes.

“She writes most spectacularly about the end of slavery in this community and what it meant for her… And hers is an entirely typical perspective in the community here; She was not happy about it. She didn’t see any justice in it and she resented it mightily.”

And this is where the transgressions of the past, disturbing as they are, can be viewed and explored in their original state, the raw material of a writer who never expected them to be viewed by her contemporaries nor by readers from another time.

Sometimes the words of a person like a Jane Beale are also a cautionary tale.  How a good person an outstanding person can hold beliefs that we as a society need to address and move beyond.”

Jane Howison Beale and her family spent the bombardment of Fredericksburg in the basement of this house. They later evacuated the city.

According to the historical record, during the battle of 1862 Union soldiers destroyed or looted many homes . Beale’s house was spared, but that’s all we know, because her diary entry 2 days later was the last she would write, though she lived for several decades after.

Iyla Ling is Beale’s great, great,, great, great, grand daughter.  She lives in Blacksburg.  Here she is reading from the diary.

“Monday December 14, 1862.  We heard a few guns in the morning, but the firing ceased presently and we heard nothing more all that day and the next, but the moving of the wounded and burying of the dead. Various reports reached us, one of which was that General Lee intended destroying the town, thus driving the Yankees from their place of refuge.This came upon me with a great shock of distress, as I had just heard that my house was still standing.  We afterwards heard that the presence of old and helpless females in the town prevented our noble, tender hearted general from availing himself of this advantage.”

The lectures series in Fredericksburg beginning this week features Jane Howison Beale’s Diary. Two other women’s diaries are also part of the series, they belonged to Mary Blackford, a union sympathizer and the teenaged Lizzie Alsop.  The programs will take place at the historic circuit courthouse in Fredericksburg.