Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Woman's Civil War by Cornelia Peake McDonald

A Woman's Civil War cover

A Woman's Civil War:
A Diary with Reminiscences of the War,
from March 1862
by Cornelia Peake McDonald

Hardback: 314 pages
Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press
First Released: 1992

Source: Bought from Half.com

Back Cover Description:
On the night of March 11, 1862, as the heavy tramp of marching Confederate troops died away in the distance--her husband's regiment among them--Cornelia Peake McDonald began her diary of events in war-torn Winchester, Virginia.

McDonald's story of the American Civil War records a personal and distinctly female battle of her own--a southern woman's lonely struggle in the midst of chaos to provide safety and shelter for herself and her nine children. She relates the trauma that occurs when the safety of the home is disrupted and destroyed by the forces of war; when women and children are put out of their houses and have nowhere to go.

Whether she is describing a Union soldier's theft of her Christmas cakes, the discovery of a human foot in her garden, or the heart-wrenching death of her baby daughter, McDonald's story of the Civil War at home is compelling and disturbing. Her tremendous determination and unyielding spirit in the face of the final collapse of her world is testimony to this woman's will to preserve her family.

In the midst of the horror, she still conveys the delight of watching her children grow up, the joy and comfort of going to church, and even amusing moments. A Woman's Civil War is a captivating and moving story of a personal life lived through a great crossroads in history.

A Woman's Civil War was a fascinating view of the American Civil War through the eyes of a Confederate civilian. Cornelia lived in a town that was captured by the Union, then freed by the Confederates, then captured again by the Union, and then freed again. She described the events with vivid details that made me feel as if I were watching the events unfold.

There was a lot of suspense due to the constant uncertainty of what would happen in the next day, or even in the next minute. Would the Union soldiers take all of her food? Her house? How would she get more supplies when she refused to swear a loyalty oath to the Union general making his headquarters in town? How would they get firewood when their trees and all of their out-buildings were demolished for Union fires? Would the battle rolling over their front yard end in tragedy for the family or freedom from occupation?

Her diary showed what life was like near the battle fields and under occupation for a well-to-do gentlewoman with nine children and a husband who was a Confederate officer. Her expectations in how she would be treated by friend and foe alike showed the differences in manners back then...and how those manners changed over the course of the war. Her comments also showed how people at the time viewed the war and how the "why we're fighting" changed somewhat over time. Some of her remarks reminded me of things still being said today.

In the Reminiscences section (which picks up were the diary ends), she lived for a time in an area relatively untouched by war. It was interesting to see the contrasts with what she'd become used to.

Since she wrote this diary for her husband and later for her children, she sometimes didn't include information that they would have known. She also sometimes related news as she heard it that was incorrect. However, there were endnotes at the back that gave the correct or needed information on battles, events, who various people were, and information about them.

Cornelia did refer to God and think over Christian theology as it related to her dead child and events around her. I think most readers--unless dead-set again Christianity--would find her thoughts as an interesting part of the overall book.

I'd highly recommend this well-written and fascinating book to history buffs, those interested in the Civil War, and to anyone who thinks it sounds interesting.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

March, 1862--On the night of March 11th, 1862, the pickets were in the town; part of the army had already gone, and there were hurried preparations and hasty farewells, and sorrowful faces turning away from those they loved best, and were leaving, perhaps, forever. At one o'clock the long roll beat, and soon the heavy tramp of the marching columns died away in the distance.

The rest of the night was spent in violent fits of weeping at the thought of being left, and of what might happen to that army before we should see it again. I felt a terrible fear of the coming morning, for I knew that with it would come the much dreaded enemy.

I laid down when the night was almost gone, to sleep, after securing all the doors, and seeing that the children were all asleep. I took care to have my dressing gown convenient in case of an alarm, but the night passed away quietly, and when the morning came and all was peaceful I felt reassured, dressed and went down.

The servants were up and breakfast was ready. The children assembled and we had prayers.

I felt so thankful that we were still free, and a hope dawned that our men would come back, as no enemy had appeared. We were all cheerfully dispatching our breakfasts, I feeling happy in proportion to my former depression; the children were chatting gaily, Harry and Allen rather sulky at not having been permitted to leave with the army, as they considered it degradation for men of their years and dimensions to be left behind with women and children. Suddenly a strain of music! Every knife and fork was laid down and every ear strained to catch the faint sounds. The boys clap their hands and jump up from the table shouting. "Our men have come back!" and rushed to the door; I stopped them, telling them it must be the Yankees. Every face looked blank and disappointed.

I tried to be calm and quiet, but could not, and so got up and went outside the door. Sure enough that music could not be mistaken, it was the "Star Spangled Banner" that was played. A servant came in. "They are all marching the town, and some have come over the hill into our orchard."

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