Book Reviews

ROBERTSON (ed.): Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War (2013)

Posted 3/5/2014 Reviewed By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War edited by James I. Robertson, Jr.  University Press of Kentucky, 2013.  Cloth, ISBN: 0813144361.  $60.00.

Scholars have long viewed Judith McGuire's diary as a truly standout account of one upper-class, southern woman's experiences during the Civil War. However, as James I. Robertson, Jr., notes in this impressively detailed, annotated edition of the diary, until now, no one has taken the time to flesh out the numerous and fascinating specifics of this extraordinary piece of history. McGuire's account is particularly notable for its insights into life as a female refugee in the Confederate capital throughout four years of war. The diary not only provides intriguing — and in some instances, the only known — first-hand descriptions of events both national and local during the war, but it also allows readers to trace the economic and social impacts of the Civil War upon an upper-class refugee, as well as her responses to those impacts, throughout the seasons of the Confederacy.

Part of why McGuire's diary has provided such wonderful fodder for scholars over the years is its noteworthy detail to events military, social, and cultural in nature. Robertson is to be congratulated for his painstaking research into and identification of each of McGuire's references to various battles, generals, politicians, Richmond residents, songs, Biblical quotes, and literature. Delving deeply into census and tax records, genealogical research, the Official Records, Richmond’s numerous wartime newspapers, and other women's diaries, Robertson has added an invaluable richness to McGuire’s account of her Civil War experience. Additionally, his comparative work between McGuire's diary and other Civil War diaries of southern women, both within and outside of Richmond, provides important context for McGuire’s sentiments and stories and helps to further illuminate the complexities of a southern woman's experience of war.

Robertson has also pulled back the curtain, so to speak, on McGuire's processes of crafting, editing, and revising her diary in the postwar period. He has corrected many of her erroneous statements regarding specific dates, names, and casualty numbers while simultaneously explaining why and how the "fog of war," the proliferation of wartime rumor, the use of hearsay, and postwar tendencies toward exaggeration may have been responsible for those factual errors and overstatements. He also illuminates the ways in which McGuire clearly revised significant portions of her diary in the postwar years, noting numerous instances where McGuire relied on hindsight to flesh out the context of her entries and to more smoothly connect the entries into a free-flowing book. Additionally, Robertson helps readers to understand his own editorial process. He explains how he worked side by side with McGuire's own 1867 revisions while performing his annotations in order to ensure the most accurate and contextualized copy of the diary possible.

Robertson clearly identifies the three major themes of the diary in a solid introduction: the importance of religion and faith in shaping McGuire's experience and understanding of the war; her strong, pro-southern (and heavy-handed anti-northern) views that infused her perceptions of the war; and the "riches to rags" trajectory of her Civil War experience — the element of the diary that is perhaps the most interesting and rich for analysis. However, Robertson could have further enriched this edition of the diary by delving more deeply into what these three themes tell us about McGuire’s internalization of the war, and about elite southern women's experiences of and reactions to the war more generally. It would have been beneficial for Robertson to extend his introduction into something akin to C. Vann Woodward's in his 1983 edition of Mary Chesnut's Civil War, in which Woodward analyzes clear examples of how Chesnut’s views of class, gender, and social functions changed over time and reshaped both Chesnut’s public behavior and the ways in which she attempted to represent the war in her own writing.

Additionally, Robertson could have spent more time in his introduction discussing the specific content changes that McGuire made to the diary in the postwar period (and what those changes might say about the ways in which McGuire consciously tried to shape readers' interpretations of history). To that end, it appears that some of the revisions to McGuire's diary—though not nearly as many as those of other postwar diarists—were influenced by the ideology of the Lost Cause. Despite acknowledging McGuire’s education and "strong sense of history" (4), Robertson glosses over that fact and, in doing so, has missed an important opportunity to discuss McGuire’s diary as a product both of history and of memory.

Perhaps Robertson also could have spent more time analyzing what specific Biblical, literary, and cultural references within the diary reveal about McGuire’s own intellectual and emotional engagement with the war — and the ways in which those references both helped her understand and respond to the challenges of refugee life in Richmond. The diary contains many more footnotes discussing the details of military engagements than it does analytical footnotes discussing the social and cultural milieu of McGuire's world. Such context and analysis would have better drawn out some of the more significant emotional and social challenges with which both McGuire and fellow refugee women of her class were forced to contend during the war.

Additionally, Robertson could have spent more time in either the introduction or the endnotes highlighting change over time. Throughout the war, McGuire appears to feel increasingly alienated from upper-class society and the world over which she and her family, along with other distinguished Virginians, had once reigned. Robertson acknowledges the "riches to rags" theme briefly in his introduction, and he highlights the persistent sub-theme of class conflict throughout the diary. However, he never fully wrestles with, on the one hand, what some would consider the surprising irony of McGuire’s full fall from grace (and what her personal failures in this regard reveal about southern society during the war) and, on the other hand, what others have considered the inevitable and tragic decimation of southern society at the hands of the overpowering and unsympathetic northern foe. Rather, Robertson makes the blanket statement that McGuire's story is "illustrative of the Southern Confederacy" (4). Clearly, Robertson is aware of the dangers and unprofitability of proclaiming one individual’s story to be representative of his or her class, gender, race, or region; therefore, he could have provided a more thorough analysis of where, exactly, McGuire's experience fits in with fellow women of her class and background and how her story weaves into the work of scholars such as Drew Gilpin Faust, George Rable, Thavolia Glymph, and Joan Cashin on upper class women during the Civil War.

Yet overall, Robertson has brought impressive clarity to one of the richest and most enlightening diaries of the Civil War era. His detailed research and annotations provide an important new window into critical elements of the female refugee experience in Richmond. This new edition of McGuire's diary also lays the groundwork for future studies of McGuire's world and the complexities of the Civil War refugee experience.

Ashley Whitehead Luskey is a doctoral candidate at West Virginia University, where she is finishing her dissertation, "'A Debt of Honor:' Social Performance and Elite Women's Rituals of Identity, Authority, and Order in the Confederate Capital."

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