A View From the North: Union Women’s Wartime Memoirs
Confederate women are far better represented than their Union counterparts in published diaries, memoirs, and sets of letters. Accounts by Mary Boykin Chesnut, Phoebe Yates Pember, and Sarah Morgan, among others who wrote across the South, are widely known and cited. No Northern testimony has achieved comparable familiarity, or impact on historical writing, though Louisa May Alcott’s slim Hospital Sketches attracts attention because of its author’s fame as the creator of Little Women. Yet many fine titles illuminate the war from northern women’s perspectives, including two by a young African American who taught in South Carolina and the wife of a Democratic judge in New York City.
Charlotte Forten was born in 1837 into a prominent Black family in Philadelphia, enjoyed a privileged youth, and worked in the abolitionist community during the late 1850s. She decided in 1862 to seek a teaching position among freedpeople in Union-held areas off the Carolina coast, arriving at Hilton Head in late October. The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimké , edited by Brenda Stevenson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), chronicle Forten’s activities during more than 18 months among formerly enslaved people, Union officers and soldiers, and other northern civilians who dealt with the immediate challenges and consequences of emancipation. Forten encountered a profoundly foreign cultural and physical landscape. “Never saw anything more beautiful than these trees,” she wrote of first seeing live oaks. “It is strange that we do not hear of them at the North. They are the first objects that attract one’s attention here.”
The Black children on Hilton Head seemed, on the whole, “eager to learn,” and for the new teacher “their singing delighted me most. . . . They sang beautifully in their rich, sweet clear tones . . . . Dear children! Born in slavery, but free at last?” Music and songs—secular and religious—form a theme in Forten’s descriptions of African American life and culture in the islands.
On Christmas Day in 1862, the children sang “Look upon the Lord,” which Forten pronounced “the most beautiful of all their shouting tunes. There is something in it that goes to the depths of one’s soul.” As she worked among the freedpeople, Forten compiled biographies of individuals, heard about the travails endured under slavery, described religious practices and details of dialects, and otherwise immersed herself in the Low Country’s Gullah culture. Although sometimes patronizing in tone, she nonetheless forged a strong bond with children and adults on Hilton Head.
The Civil War put millions of people on the move, including abolitionist writers like Charlotte Forten, left. She left a comfortable life in Philadelphia to teach formerly enslaved people at the Penn School on Hilton Head Island, S.C. (Left: Presbyterian Historical Society; Right: Library of Congress)
Forten also encountered a number of notable individuals. Meeting Harriet Tubman on January 31, 1863, left the Philadelphian somewhat awestruck: “She is a wonderful woman—a real heroine. . . . How exciting it was to hear her tell her story. . . . My own eyes were full as I listened to her. . . . I am glad I saw her— very glad.” Brig. Gen. Rufus Saxton, the senior Union commander in the area, and Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, head of the First South Carolina Volunteers—both abolitionists—appear repeatedly in the journal. On New Year’s Day 1863, Forten dined with Higginson. “Col. H. is a perfectly delightful person in private,” she observed, “—So genial, so witty, so kind. But I noticed when he was silent a care-worn almost sad expression on his earnest, noble face. My heart was full when I looked at him.”
Robert Gould Shaw, colonel of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, also impressed her. His death at Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863, left Forten desolated. “It makes me sad, sad at heart,” she confessed. “It seems very, very hard,” she continued, “that the best and the noblest must be the earliest called away.”
Maria Lydig Daly never experienced the war in person, but Diary of a Union Lady, 1861-1865 , edited by Harold Earl Hammond (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1962; paperback reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000) affords readers a splendid array of colorful and perceptive observations.
Married to Judge Charles Patrick Daly, the son of immigrant parents from Ireland, Maria Daly personified loyal Democrats who supported a war to save the Union but heavily criticized Abraham Lincoln and the Republican Party. Well-placed in New York City’s society, the Dalys interacted with, and she commented about, a range of prominent people. Her diary entries discuss, among other topics, military leaders and operations, attitudes toward emancipation and African Americans (she manifested typically prejudiced opinions about Black people), politics, Irish Americans in New York, and social affairs.
Daly directed considerable vitriol toward Abraham Lincoln. In late September 1862, she railed against the preliminary proclamation of emancipation. “What supreme impertinence in the railsplitter of Illinois!” she fumed: “There is no law but the despotic will of poor Abe Lincoln, who is worse than a knave because he is a cover for every knave and fanatic who has the address to use him.” Even the “dreadful news” of Lincoln’s assassination elicited scant praise for the victim. “It will make a martyr of Abraham Lincoln,” wrote Daly coldly, “whose death will make all the shortcomings of his life and Presidential career forgotten in, as Shakespeare says, ‘the deep damnation of his taking off.’”
May God comfort and change the hearts of our so long vindictive foes!
Maria Lydig Daly
Partial to Democratic and Irish military officers, including Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan and Brig. Gen. Michael Corcoran, Daly questioned many of Lincoln’s choices regarding leaders. In the wake of McClellan’s removal from command of the Army of the Potomac in early November 1862, she recorded that soldiers “curse the Administration as the cause of all the reverses of the Union army.” Following Lincoln’s assassination, she remained upset that the president’s “political jealousy kept one of our ablest generals unemployed for two years” and because of his “vanity and self-sufficiency lost us Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg.”
Joy and an impulse toward reconciliation marked Daly’s reaction to news of the Rebel surrender at Appomattox. “Glory be to God on high; the rebellion is ended! . . . and peace soon to descend to bless this land again,” she wrote on April 10, 1865. Ulysses S. Grant’s generous terms, Daly hoped, meant “the animosity that has so long reined will now pass away. May God comfort and change the hearts of our so long vindictive foes! They will have much to suffer for their folly and ambition.”
The journals of Forten and Daly remind modern readers of the great variety of attitudes among loyal citizens who supported a war to suppress the rebellion. Union victory, in the end, required a sustained national effort.
this article first appeared in civil war times magazine
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