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[Detail] Hezekiah J. Crumpton and Washington B. Crumpton.

Collection Overview

First-Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920 contains accounts of the American South drawn from diaries, autobiographies, memoirs, travel accounts, and ex-slave narratives. The collection contains stories of prominent individuals as well as everyday people including women, African Americans, enlisted men, laborers, and Native Americans. The collection was compiled from printed texts from the libraries at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Special Features

There are currently no special features for this collection.

Historical Eras

These historical era(s) are best represented in the collection, although they may not be all-encompassing.

  • The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1850-1877
  • Development of the Industrial United States, 1876-1915
  • Emergence of Modern America, 1890-1930

Related Collections and Exhibits

These collections and exhibits contain thematically-related primary and secondary sources. Browse the Collection Finder for more related material on the American Memory Web site.

Other Resources

Recommended additional sources of information.

Search Tips

Specific guidance for searching this collection.

Search for first-person accounts using the keyword search, or by browsing the Subject Index, Author Index, and Title Index. When you locate the bibliographic record for an item you would like to view, select View this item to see your selection.

For help with general search strategies, see Finding Items in American Memory.


First-Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920, includes hundreds of diaries, autobiographies, travel accounts, and memoirs dealing with life in the southern states before, during, and after the Civil War. The collection, directly tied to the "Documenting the American South" collection at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, allows one to explore a variety of historical topics from the viewpoints of subaltern perspectives often overlooked in more traditional surveys of the period. Texts from women, slaves, enlisted soldiers, and common laborers abound in the collection and often surprise the reader with their depth of feeling and universality of sentiment on such subjects as abolition, regional pride, and wartime survival.

The Civil War

The history of the southern United States from 1860-1920 can appropriately be described as the history of the American Civil War. Although the war only lasted from 1861-1865, its effects echoed in the decades that followed. In addition to the great issues such as slavery and states' rights that found their forum in the violent struggle, more than half a million men -- a whole generation of Americans -- lost their lives. The survivors represented in First Person Narratives of the American South chronicle the experiences of southerners from all stations in life -- white and black, rich and poor.

One of the great strengths of this collection is the inclusion of many documents that relate the common soldier's perspective on the war. Although readers may be familiar with the great military campaigns and famous generals who led the armies, the collection affords a wonderful opportunity to explore the lives and views of the soldiers who fought the battles and followed their leaders through four long years of deprivation and suffering. For instance, a search on Stonewall Jackson yields several documents including John S. Robson's account of his service as a private in Jackson's army. Robson speaks for many of his generation when he states:

. . . though the historians will tell, with eloquent pen, of the grand movements of armies and of the deeds of the Generals, he will hardly stop to explain how the private soldier was evolved from the farmer, the clerk, the mechanic, the school-boy, and transformed into the perfect, all-enduring, untiring and invincible soldier, who broiled his bacon on a stick and baked his bread on a ramrod.

Page 8, How a One-Legged Rebel Lives: Reminiscences of the Civil War

Regarding the Battle of Antietam, Robson relates:

We left Harper's Ferry on the 16th, and joined General Lee the same evening, and our commanders, on both sides, were busy arranging for the big battle that was to come off tomorrow, as coolly as farmers getting ready to plant corn. It was no new business to us now - for the novelty was all worn off - but we did wish for our twenty thousand stragglers in Virginia. The ball opened at daylight, on the 17th, and as one old soldier expressed it, "we fought all day before breakfast, and went on picket all night before supper." "Fighting" Jo Hooker was immediately in front of Jackson's line; anybody that complained of employment that day was hard to satisfy.

Page 122, How a One-Legged Rebel Lives: Reminiscences of the Civil War

  • What is the significance of the common soldier's perspective?
  • What was the importance of the common soldier's experience to the post-war South?
  • Would you describe Robson's tone as humble or arrogant? Why?
  • Do you think that Robson's description of the commanders is flattering or derogatory?
  • Who do you think was Robson's intended audience? Who might be most likely to read works like this now?

Some of the most fascinating and arresting texts in the collection are those written by, or about, operatives behind enemy lines. These accounts contain some of the most biased and vindictive criticisms of the Federal army in the collection and will help readers appreciate the intensity of the sectionalism that divided the country. A search on prisons yields several documents including Miles O. Sherrill's A Soldier's Story: Prison Life and Other Incidents in the War of 1861-'65. Sherrill's brief story relates his wounding at Spottsylvania and the subsequent amputation of his leg by Federal surgeons. After the tortures of the field hospital, though maimed for life, Sherrill relates that he was eventually imprisoned in Elmyra, New York where smallpox, starvation, and dysentery were the norm. Upon arriving at the prison:

The commanding officer, Major Beal, greeted us with the most bitter oaths that I ever heard. He swore that he was going to send us out and have us shot; said he had no room for us, and that we (meaning the Confederate soldiers) had no mercy on their colored soldiers or prisoners. He was half drunk, and I was not sure but that we might be dealt with then and there. Then we were searched and robbed of knives, cash, etc., and sent into various wards. While we were standing in the snow, hearing the abuse of Major Beal, some poor ragged Confederate prisoners were marched by with what was designated as barrel shirts, with the word "thief" written in large letters pasted on the back of each barrel, and a squad of little drummer boys following beating the drums. The mode of wearing the barrel shirts was to take an ordinary flour barrel, cut a hole through the bottom large enough for the head to go through, with arm-holes on the right and left, through which the arms were to be placed. This was put on the poor fellow, resting on his shoulders, his head and arms coming through as indicated above; thus they were made to march around for so many hours and so many days. Now, what do you suppose they had stolen? Why, something to eat. Yes, they had stolen cabbage leaves and other things from slop barrels, which was a violation of the rules of the prison.

Pages 9-10,A Soldier's Story: Prison Life and Other Incidents in the War of 1861-'65

  • Why do you think that accounts from prisoners and spies are the most vindictive?
  • What is the effect of Sherrill's detailed description of the use of barrel shirts for punishment?
  • What other types of writing might try to persuade a reader to sympathize with the author's plight? Who might write such works?
  • What might prompt an ex-prisoner to write about his/her experiences?

A search on spies yields five documents, all written by women. Nineteenth-century social mores placed women above suspicion and, when they were implicated in illegal activity, thus provided more leniencies. This, in short, made them effective spies. The texts represented in this collection present an array of loyalties and motivations.

The autobiography of Belle Boyd, the infamous Confederate spy, details the wartime activities of that Southern firebrand while Kate Plake's The Southern Husband Outwitted By His Union Wife relates that Kentucky author's concurrent quest for matrimonial peace and national freedom. Madame Loreta Janeta Velazquez' The Woman in Battle, describes her years of service in the Confederate army disguised as a man, and provides a wealth of gender related topics for discussion.

Women, whether they saw action or not, bore the brunt of the war's effects upon the region's domestic life. The Civil War was fought almost entirely in the South and its battlefields were the wilderness, farms, and towns of the region. The scorched earth policy adopted by Federal military leaders late in the war deprived the southern population of wares and food. Many cities such as Atlanta and Richmond were almost entirely destroyed by bloody campaigns. With the exception of the Revolution, the Civil War was the only prolonged U.S. conflict in which the civilian population was directly affected by the actions of the combatants. In A Diary From Dixie, Mary Boykin Chesnutt describes the situation of a Virginian family that had become refugees in her South Carolina home:

The Fants are refugees here, too; they are Virginians, and have been in exile since the second battle of Manassas. Poor things; they seem to have been everywhere, and seen and suffered everything. They even tried to go back to their own house, but found one chimney only standing alone; even that had been taken possession of by a Yankee who had written his name upon it.

Pages 347-48, A Diary From Dixie

  • Why might the Yankee have written his name upon the Fants' chimney?
  • How would it have felt to be a refugee? What sorts of challenges did refugees face?
  • What items might have been hard to find in the Confederacy?
  • Do you think that conditions on the homefront affected soldiers in the field? How?


Simply put, slavery was the hottest political, social, and economic issue in the mid-nineteenth century United States. Anti-slavery activists in the North pitched their arguments from the moral high ground and, in their writing and oratory, used extreme examples of cruelty and degradation. Southern defenders of slavery countered with equally extreme examples of benevolence and custodianship. The documents in First Person Narratives of the American South contain sentiments from both ex-slaves and ex-masters. In the former case, slavery is recalled with an uneasy mixture of hatred and tenderness. The latter defend slavery as a noble and necessary institution that became tainted by northern agitation and influence. In either case, the writers acknowledge that the institution supported a way of life that died with emancipation.

The Subject Index heading, Slaves' writings, American, yields fifteen documents including The Narrative of Bethany Veney: a Slave Woman. Although questions of authorship arise in such cases where the "writer's" testimony is transcribed by others with agendas of their own, Ms. Veney's narrative is a compelling story of trial and redemption. Students of the period will benefit from Veney's descriptions of life in the slave South. In the following passage she describes her former master:

Master Kibbler was a Dutchman, - a man of most violent temper, ready to fight anything or anybody who resisted his authority or in any way crossed his path. His one redeeming quality was his love for his horses and dogs. These must be fed before his servants, and their comfort and health always considered. He was a blacksmith by trade, and would have me hold his irons while he worked them. I was awkward one day, and he struck me with a nail-rod, making me so lame my mistress noticed it, and asked Matilda what was the matter with me; and, when she was told, she was greatly troubled, and as I suppose spoke to Kibbler about it, for he called me to him, and bade me go a long way off into a field, and, as he said, cut some sprouts there. But he very soon followed me, and, cutting a rod, beat me severely, and then told me to "go again and tell my mistress that he had hit me with a nail-rod, if I wanted to."

Page 11, The Narrative of Bethany Veney: a Slave Woman

  • In what ways is Veney mistreated here?
  • Do you think that her story is credible?
  • What might the transcriber's motives have been in taking down Veney's story?
  • What did former slaves such as Veney have to gain or lose by allowing their stories to be published?

The plantation was a fief in which the master and his mistress ruled -- sometimes cruelly and sometimes with compassion -- over their slaves. The social interactions of these two groups came to form a complex, mutually dependent culture. In the years following the Civil War, many writers sought to glorify the deceased slave/master relationship.

A search on plantation yields twenty-nine texts. Many of these documents were written decades after the defeat of the Confederacy by old men whose memories of youth were directly tied to the glories, imagined or real, of the Old South. For instance, R.Q. Mallard introduces his Plantation Life Before Emancipation with remarks about slavery that are both nostalgic and defensive:

The purpose of the author has been to portray a civilization now obsolete, to picture the relations of mutual attachment and kindness which in the main bound together master and servant, and to give this and future generations some correct idea of the noble work done by Southern masters and mistresses of all denominations for the salvation of the slave.

Page vi, Plantation Life Before Emancipation

  • What assumptions does Mallard make about slavery and about his audience?
  • What do you think Mallard considers "noble work"?
  • Why might Mallard have taken on a defensive attitude in his writing?
  • Why might men such as Mallard have written their autobiographies?

Abolition and Emancipation

The abolitionist movement in the North, with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as its most famous literary product, has been rightly credited with providing the moral thrust for the abolition of slavery. However, abolitionists were also active in the South. As in the North, the impetus for abolition originated in religion, specifically the pacifist, ethical creed espoused by the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Among the relevant texts in the collection is the autobiography of Samuel M. Janney of Virginia, a Quaker religious leader and one of the leading southern abolitionists of the period. Janney's document, as well as a host of other abolitionist tracts, can be located either by searching on abolitionists or by browsing the Subject Index heading, Quakers-Biography. In his autobiography, Janney relates that in the late 1820s, his society drafted a petition to Congress for the abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia. The following excerpt is representative of the prevailing attitude among southern abolitionists of that time:

The existence among us of a distinct class of people, who by their condition as slaves, are deprived of almost every incentive to virtue and industry, and shut out from many of the sources of light and knowledge, has an evident tendency to corrupt the morals of the people, and to dampen the spirit of enterprise by accustoming the rising generation to look with contempt upon honest labor and to depend for support too much upon the labor of others. It prevents a useful and industrious class of people from settling among us, by rendering the means of subsistence more precarious to the laboring class of whites; it diminishes the resources of the community by throwing the earnings of the poor into the coffers of the rich, thus rendering the former dependent, servile, and improvident, while the latter are tempted to become in the same proportion luxurious and prodigal.

Page 32, Memoirs of Samuel M. Janney: Late of Lincoln, Loudoun County, Va.: A Minister in the Religious Society of Friends

  • What problems with slavery are identified in this passage?
  • Who do these problems affect?
  • Who is responsible for these problems? How might these people also suffer?
  • What reasons compelled abolitionists such as Janney to live in the slaveholding South?

When Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, millions of people in the slave-holding states were thrust into a legal status of freedom that for many had been little more than a vague, however much sought after, idea. Although it would not be until the end of the war that this transformation could be codified and secured, the immediate realization was overwhelming and, in some cases, frightening for African Americans south of the Mason-Dixon line. A search on slavery results in numerous texts pertaining to emancipation, of which Booker T. Washington's autobiography, Up From Slavery, is perhaps the most well known. Washington ably articulates the benefits as well as the attendant problems and complications that his race encountered not only in attaining, but also in asserting, its freedom. In his narrative, Washington describes the scene at his childhood plantation home on the occasion of emancipation:

For some minutes there was great rejoicing, and thanksgiving, and wild scenes of ecstasy. But there was no feeling of bitterness. In fact, there was pity among the slaves for our former owners. The wild rejoicing on the part of the emancipated coloured people lasted but for a brief period, for I noticed that by the time they returned to their cabins there was a change in their feelings. The great responsibility of being free, of having charge of themselves, of having to think and plan for themselves and their children, seemed to take possession of them. It was very much like suddenly turning a youth of ten or twelve years out into the world to provide for himself. In a few hours the great questions with which the Anglo-Saxon race had been grappling for centuries had been thrown upon these people to be solved. These were the questions of a home, a living, the rearing of children, education, citizenship, and the establishment and support of churches. Was it any wonder that within a few hours the wild rejoicing ceased and a feeling of deep gloom seemed to pervade the slave quarters? To some it seemed that, now that they were in actual possession of it, freedom was a more serious thing than they had expected to find it.

Pages 21-22, Up From Slavery

  • What does Washington mean when he describes freedom as "a more serious thing than (the slaves) had expected to find it?"
  • What do the responsibilities and questions listed in this passage reveal about the condition of the slaves?
  • What is Washington's tone? Does he sound like a disinterested observer or one caught up in the action? How does the tone contribute to the effect of his narrative?
  • How do you think that the slaves depicted in this passage might have felt about their former masters?
  • Are accounts by former slaves more or less credible than those of former masters, or are they equally suspect?

Reconstruction, Resistance, and Acclimation

During Reconstruction, Federal soldiers were stationed throughout the South as the confederate states were gradually readmitted into the Union. Many southerners resented the presence not only of troops, but of opportunistic northern businessmen, known as "carpetbaggers," and of politicians who sought to secure gains from the impoverished region. Northern encroachment took many forms, and there was considerable controversy when the Federal goverment, realizing that the region teetered under the weight of poverty, established a bureau to handle the needs of the recently freed black population.

The Freedman's Bureau provided blacks with opportunities to learn practical trades as well as to receive an education. Operating with varying degrees of success throughout the South, the Bureau was also the focal point for voting education and, as such, became the target both of northern opportunists seeking to promote favorable candidates and of southern leaders fearful of a mobilized, informed African-American vote. Some southern whites, however, recognized the need to educate and assist the black population. A search on reconstruction leads to several documents including Richard Taylor's autobiography, Destruction and Reconstruction. Displaying great sympathy for the newly-emancipated race, the author describes the often violent manipulation of the relatively naïve African-American voters that led to the establishment of a Freedman's Bureau in his native Louisiana.

Conservative southern whites reacted to African-American empowerment by banding together in clubs and societies. The most infamous among the secret societies that sprang up in Reconstruction-era South, was the Ku Klux Klan, which sought to inspire fear among the African-American population. Although ostensibly organized on both the local and national levels, the Klan really operated as a collection of loosely organized vigilante terrorists whose members took quick and often violent action to prevent African-American organization and empowerment. A search on Klan directs the reader to Laura Elizabeth Battle's Forget-me-nots of the Civil War. Battle, a southern belle whose family suffered a severe financial setback due to the war, does not attempt to hide her passive support of the Klan's activities. In the following passage, Battle describes an action by North Carolina Klan members to prevent the meetings of local blacks who were trying to organize a militia group known as the "Red Stringers":

This lady whose husband, I suppose was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, told of a company of grotesque figures that had been seen the night before, mounted on horseback, appearing like the heads of skeletons illuminated, their grinning teeth and horrible looking sockets glittering with lights shining out from a white robe that enveloped both horse and rider. She related further that a negro, who had made threats against some of the white people had been found, killed and quartered and hung from Neuse river bridge, with a notice of warning to the other negroes and "Red Stringers." However, that cured our county of such lawlessness . . . so that the Society of Red Strings disbanded and never drilled again.

Page 173, Forget-me-nots of the Civil War

  • Why might the word "lawless" seem ironic in this passage?
  • What is the effect of Battle's description of the Klan members?
  • What did the Ku Klux Klan and its supporters fear from the African Americans?
  • How does the situation described by Taylor and Battle compare with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s?

It is important to remember that, although Reconstruction introduced changes to the region, life had to go on -- crops harvested and families fed. Soon after the war, those individuals who still possessed land realized that a system of sharecropping -- previously extended to poor white farmers, -- would keep the black labor force in the fields. Conversely, many of the newly-emancipated blacks, reluctant to leave behind the security of the farms and families that they had known most of their lives, desired to stay and work the land. In A Woman Rice Planter, Elizabeth Pringle details the hardships and rewards that attended her efforts to subsist on the Georgia farm worked by her antebellum forebears. The document, located through a search on planter, reveals a woman eminently familiar with the costs and margins attendant to the planting and harvesting of a profitable crop. Pringle was successful in her agrarian endeavors, however, only because she was able to assess and adapt to post-emancipation labor relationships and motivations:

I assembled the hands and told them that all who could not support themselves for a year would have to leave the place. With one accord they declared they could do it; but I explained to them that I was going to take charge myself, that I was a woman, with no resources of money behind me, and, having only the land, I intended to rent to them for ten bushels of rice to the acre. I could advance nothing but the seed. I could give them a chance to work for themselves and prove themselves worthy to be free men. I intended to have no overseer; each man would be entirely responsible for the land he rented.

Page 2, A Woman Rice Planter

  • In what ways does the offer that Pringle makes to her workers differ from that made to slaves?
  • Do you think that Pringle uses her gender to her advantage or disadvantage in this passage?
  • Does Pringle's offer to her workers sound fair?
  • What other ways might poor southerners have survived if they did not want to be sharecroppers? Do you think that they had any options?

Freedom Becomes Education

Numerous texts in the collection written by African Americans detail the importance of education and literacy in shaping their lives, both as slaves and as free persons. Five items are listed under the Subject Index heading, Afro-Americans-Education-Southern States, including Robert Russa Moton's autobiography, Finding a Way Out. Born in 1867, at the height of Reconstruction, Moton describes his early years working as a houseboy on the plantation to which his father had hired as labor boss. Moton's mother, who taught him to read, shared the common view that Virginia whites did not like blacks to become literate. As Moton relates, however, one fateful night, the mistress of the house knocked on the cabin door in the middle of a lesson:

My mother was tempted to hide the book when she discovered who was at the door, but my father objected, saying we were free and that he would leave the Vaughans if they made any objections; that he could find plenty of work at good pay at any one of a dozen plantations in the district. So the door was opened and in walked "Miss Lucy", to find us in the very act. She expressed the greatest surprise when she discovered what was taking place, but she astonished us equally when she indicated that she was very much pleased, and commended my mother on the fact that she could read and told her she was very wise to teach her son to read.

Page 21, Finding a Way Out

  • What does this passage reveal about the relationship between work and education? Slavery and education?
  • What would it be like for education to be a crime?
  • What advantages did literacy bestow in the late nineteenth-century South?
  • Would learning to read have the same meaning for those with access to schooling as it had for Moton?

More typical, however, was the white community's general suspicion of African-American education. In the antebellum period, several states had passed laws making it illegal to educate slaves. With emancipation, however, African-American leaders such as Booker T. Washington worked to establish schools for their race. In My Larger Education, also accessible under Subject Index heading, Afro-Americans-Education-Southern States, Washington describes the resistance that he encountered from various groups in establishing the Tuskegee Institute, a trade school for African Americans:

The questions came to me in this way: Coloured people wanted to know why I proposed to teach their children to work. They said that they and their parents had been compelled to work for two hundred and fifty years, and now they wanted their children to go to school so that they might be free and live like the white folks--without working. That was the way in which the average coloured man looked at the matter. Some of the Southern white people, on the contrary, were opposed to any kind of education of the Negro. Others inquired whether I was merely going to train preachers and teachers, or whether I proposed to furnish them with trained servants. Some of the people in the North understood that I proposed to train the Negro to be a mere "hewer of wood and drawer of water," and feared that my school would make no effort to prepare him to take his place in the community as a man and a citizen.

Page 21-22, My Larger Education

  • According to Washington, what objection did some African Americans have against learning a trade? What other objections might African Americans have had to a trade school?
  • What, according to the passage, is the difference between why southern and northern white people objected to the establishment of a trade school for African Americans?
  • What distinctions does the passage draw between manual and intellectual labor?
  • Would the establishment of an academic institution raise different questions than the establishment of a trade school? Why?
  • What motivations did people such as Washington have for starting schools?
  • Do you think that Washington's assessment of people's views is accurate? On what grounds might you question its accuracy?

The "Lost Cause" Movement

The materials in First Person Narratives of the American South reveal a region of proud people struggling to reaffirm their independence and unique character within a legacy of defeat. After the war, the antebellum South, with the plantation at its core, took on the reputation of a golden age in the region's history. Post-war sermons, ceremonies such as monument dedications, veterans' reunions, and special holidays glorified the Old South and constituted what historians have called a "Lost Cause" movement, in which regional identity took the place of the Confederacy.

Although few southerners could afford to maintain large tracts of land after the war, the plantation and the codes of honor that it perpetuated were a source of pride for many who had fought for the Confederacy. The First Person Narratives of the American South collection contains numerous documents by former planters recalling the glory of their pre-war existence. Several documents fall under the Subject Index heading, Plantation life-Southern States-History. Typical among these texts is Memorials of a Southern Planter, written by Susan Dabney Smedes in remembrance of her father, Thomas Smith Gregory Dabney, a southern planter and slave-owner:

A Southern plantation, well managed, had nearly everything necessary to life done within its bounds . . . The land in cultivation looked like a lady's garden, scarcely a blade of grass to be seen in hundreds of acres. The rows and hills and furrows were laid off so carefully as to be a pleasure to the eye. The fences and bridges, gates and roads, were in good order. His wagons never broke down. All these details may seem quite out of place and superfluous. But they show the character of the man in a country where many such things were neglected for the one important consideration, - the cotton crop.

Page 82-83, Memorials of a Southern Planter

  • What relationship does Smedes establish between the appearance of the land and the character of its owner? What does her description of the land indicate about the character of its owner?
  • Does the setting described in this passage seem idyllic or realistic?
  • What motivations would people such as Smedes have for publishing their recollections?

For the enfranchised upper class, the end of the Confederacy meant the end of a profitable economic and easy social way of life that their families had known for generations. Edward J. Thomas echoed the common lament of his peers when he prefaced his memoirs by stating:

My young manhood having spent in the South just before, during and after the War of Secession, I may say I lived in two distinct periods of our Southern history, for this war completely severed the grand old plantation life, with all its peculiar interests and demands, from the stirring and striving conditions that followed. The first was a life complete in all things to foster intelligence and honor; the second simply, for me, a constant struggle and a hard fight to keep the proverbial wolf from the door, but with pluck, frugality and endurance the fight was won, and now, in my old age, with kind relatives and good friends, I have found happiness and contentment.

Page 5, Memoirs of a Southerner, 1840-1923

  • What does the author identify as the cause of great change in his life?
  • Do you think that the passage is flattering to the author?
  • What aspects of the Old South do you think "fostered intelligence and honor"? What other qualities do the authors assign to the Old South?
  • What criticisms, if any, would a man such as Smedes or Thomas have of the Old South?
  • How might the events of Reconstruction have affected the Lost Cause movement?

Expansion, Exploration, and Movement (1880-1920)

The decades following the Civil War were ones of unprecedented growth for the United States. The West was settled and the last free Native American tribes were exterminated or tamed and sequestered to reservations. Industrialization, which took a firm hold of the North, crept into the South as urban centers such as Atlanta and New Orleans sought to keep up with national production trends. Transcontinental railroads were built and new technologies made large-scale farming in the West a reality. Also, during these years, the United States broke from its isolationism to fight in two foreign wars. In all this, southerners played a part, and several documents from this collection relate individual experiences with these momentous forces of change.

The Spanish-American War is perhaps best remembered as the event that made Teddy Roosevelt a hero and catapulted him into public office. The war also made a big impression on Kentuckian Fess Whitaker who, though having won the office of jailer in his native Letcher County in the later years of his life, chose to entitle his memoirs History of Corporal Fess Whitaker to reflect his army rank during the war.A search on Spanish-American War directs the reader to Whitaker's document, in which the author humorously recounts his first meeting with Roosevelt:

After I spent thirteen days with my mother I slipped off and walked to Jackson, Ky., a distance of sixty-five miles, and enlisted for two years and was sent to Cuba and was signed to Col. Teddy Roosevelt's brigade. That was where Teddy and I first met. He soon took a liking to me, and after the Battle of Santiago Teddy, without a wound and I with a bullet wound in my left arm, took me by the hand and said: "Fess, we have gained a great battle for our country. You or I will be the next President of the United States, and if you get the nomination I am for you, and if I get the nomination I want you to be for me, for you have a great influence in the United States." We shook hands and parted. So Teddy was from the North and had more votes than the South and beat me to the nomination. But I was for him and am still for him.

Page 41, History of Corporal Fess Whitaker

  • Do you believe Whitaker's story? What does it reveal about him?
  • How would an early twentieth-century audience have reacted to this passage?
  • What role does humor play in Whitaker's description?
  • Would the above statement have helped or hurt an aspiring politician?

The First World War had been raging for several years before the United States entered the conflict in 1917. Although Woodrow Wilson had won the presidency with the slogan, "He kept us out of war," Americans rallied when Germany resumed its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and supported a U.S. declaration of war soon after. African Americans served in the U.S. Army in France and African-American leaders used this fact to support the claim that their race was a fully integrated, beneficial component of American culture. The principal of the Talladega School, Robert Russa Moton, was appointed by a presidential commission to study the conduct of black soldiers and, in that capacity, visited France. In his autobiography Finding a Way Out, Moton relates:

While in France, I visited nearly every point where Negro soldiers were stationed. At most of them I spoke to the men, and at each place I was most cordially welcomed by the officers and men. I also had the privilege of conferring with Col. E. M. House; Bishop Brent, senior chaplain of the American Expeditionary Forces; General Pershing, and many other high officials of the American and French governments, all of whom I consulted with reference to the record which had been made by Negro troops, and received only words of very highest praise and commendation on their character and conduct in all branches of the service.

Page 251, Finding a Way Out

  • Do Moton's claims seem credible?
  • What biases might the author have had?
  • How would other African-American leaders have benefitted from Moton's conclusions?
  • Is it necessary to serve in a war to establish loyalty? What stake did African Americans have in World War I?

Several documents in First Person Narratives of the American South pay witness to the consolidation of a national system of railroads, the introduction of science and technology to everyday life, and the ideological struggle between the tenants of natural history and creationism. A search on evolution directs the reader to the Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte, an eminent scientist, travel writer, and natural historian.

A search on railroads yields The Last Flag of Truce, Dallas T. Ward's brief, but touching, account of commanding the train that delivered a flag of truce to General Sherman, preventing the destruction of Raleigh, North Carolina.

Readers will also find Fess Whitaker's (see above) account of railroad service in Texas just after the turn of the century informative as to the operation, opportunities, and dangers of early rail travel. A comparison of John A. Wyeth's account of his education as a surgeon in the Union Army and African-American physician Thomas William Burton's What Experience Has Taught Me offers an opportunity to study the evolution of medicine during the latter half of the nineteenth century.


Critical Thinking

The First-Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920, collection is aptly suited to the needs of researchers and historians. The diaries, memoirs, and journals that comprise the bulk of the collection's materials allow for exploration of major historical themes through intimate, personal accounts. Projects that benefit from the collection's rare perspectives include those that take into account change over time as well as those involving issue and/or object analysis.

Chronological Thinking: The Civil War

The collection contains a wealth of diaries, letters, and memoirs pertaining to the Civil War. These materials present events of the war from personal perspectives and provide a valuable opportunity to examine the evolution of southerners' attitudes and sentiments over the course of the conflict. Readers may use indices and tables of content to correlate the major events of the war to individuals' lives. A search on diaries yields a broad selection of documents including Leon Louis' Diary of a Tar Heel Confederate Soldier, Sarah Morgan Dawson's A Confederate Girl's Diary, and the Journal of Meta Morris Grimball.

Grimball's diary is of particular value due to the author's copious and insightful observations of the war as she experienced it from her South Carolina home. The journal's vivid narrative begins with the flush of excitement and hope felt throughout the new Confederacy and ends with the somber desperation of a doomed cause and a worried mind. For instance, Grimball's entry on May 12, 1862, reflects the heightened sense of emergency in the region as a Union blockade of the coast, and Federal victories to the West, bring the war close to home:

May 12, 1862:
We are now in a great state of excitement, all the low country getting into the upper country. Flying from our Ruthless foes, we expect an attack and people are leaving their houses and families[,] servants and furniture, crowding up to the Rail Road. The upper districts are crowded with this unusual population and food is not abundant or cheap. The people in many instances take advantage of this state of things and put a great price on their houses refusing to rent but choosing to sell.

Page 52, Journal of Meta Morris Grimball

  • How did non-combatants first feel the effects of the war?
  • How would you describe Grimball's attitude toward the refugee population?
  • What things does Grimball name as the most important necessities of refugees?
  • How would you expect this entry to differ from entries that were written earlier in the war?
  • What value does this piece hold for a historian?

By the following year, the full scope of the war had come home as Confederate defeats in the field tested the resolve of its citizens. Grimball's entry on August 4, 1863, reflects the upheaval that the war's turmoil brought to the ordinarily serene domestic life:

Vicksburg has fallen, Port Hudson followed of course, the Mississippi is in possession of our foe, Charleston is beseiged with a large force, Naval and land. Lees advance was not a success, he has returned after a direful battle at Gettysburg Pennsylvania, in which we lost 15 thousand & retreated. There have been riots in New York opposing the draft. And now we are to have a fast day on the 30th and in the mean time Charleston holds out. Lee is ready to fight, Johnston is some where in the West with his Army, and people generally feel very much depressed. This in the public state of affairs.

Page 94, Journal of Meta Morris Grimball

  • How does this entry compare with that of May 12, 1862? How would you describe the difference, if any, in the tone of each entry?
  • What do you think were some of Grimball's sources for information on the war?
  • Why do you think that Grimball included information about New York in this entry?

Near the end of the war, Grimball relates the despair and devastation that gripped the region and expresses her fears for the safety of surviving family members. The following entry, dated March 6, 1865, is the last entry she makes before Lee's surrender at Appamatox a little more than a month later:

I have no heart to write a journal now. The war goes on but so much distress and suffering. Charleston evacuated, Columbia sacked & burned, Cheraw[?] , Winnsborough, Camden, Society Hill & other places visited by the Army of Sherman & sacked and burned. Our Army now under Johnston following Sherman and all things in gloom & trouble. Arthur & Berkley are with the troops from the Coast in Raleigh & Hillsborough. Lewis was with us for 10 days, looking quite well, he is now with the Army in North Carolina. Harry received an appointment from the Gov, for the Arsenal, & to day left us for Greenville where they are to be located. This has been a great trial to me for he is the youngest and not yet sixteen. I fear all the fatigue & hardship he will not be able to stand; and my heart yearns over this child. He left a very good school for this appointment and they have no books to educate the Cadets. - My only comfort is in prayer.

Pages 111-12, Journal of Meta Morris Grimball

  • How does this entry compare with the two entries previously discussed?
  • What are Grimball's two main concerns for her youngest brother?
  • How do Grimball's descriptions of the military situation and her own situation compare?
  • How would you characterize Grimball's tone in this late entry?

By comparing several documents from chroniclers of varying social status, readers will come to appreciate the manner in which the evolution of the region's ideology, morale, and resolve was influenced by popular sentiment.

Historical Comprehension: Women's Rights

The social customs in the southern states before and after the Civil War dictated a secondary role for women. Although women filled many positions during the war years that they would not otherwise have held, traditional roles reasserted themselves at war's end.

When southern women spoke out against their status, it was considered at best scandalous, and at worse treasonous, to the spirit of their region by many of the elite class. The collection contains several documents written by relatively progressive women decrying their status as social inferiors. Browse under the Subject Index heading Women's Rights-Southern States for Old Times in Dixie Land by Caroline Elizabeth Merrick and A Slaveholder's Daughter by Belle Kearney. Both of these texts contain a wealth of material defending the rights of women in the late nineteenth-century United States.

  • How might progressive women have pitched their arguments to appeal to their mostly conservative audience?
  • How might the relatively low-profile issue of women's rights have been viewed by Reconstruction-era southerners?

A search on women's suffrage yields the autobiography of educator and suffragette, Rebecca Latimer Felton, Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth. The text also includes several of her persuasive speeches and writings. In her 1915 essay, "Why I Am A Suffragist," Felton condemns the sluggishness of the southern states in giving women the right to vote:

Shall the men of the South be less generous, less chivalrous? They have given the Southern women more praise than the man of the West - but judged by their actions Southern men have been less sincere. Honeyed phrases are pleasant to listen to, but the sensible women of our country would prefer more substantial gifts.

Pages 251-52, "Why I Am A Suffragist"

  • To whom does Felton address her argument?
  • What differentiates the assumptions made by Felton and Leigh concerning the place of women in society?
  • Do you think that this passage convincingly defends the issue of women's rights in the South?
  • What classes of people might have wanted to avoid open discussion of women's rights? Why?

By accessing the Documenting the American South collection, readers can view two selected works from Thomas Dixon, Jr., the conservative novelist, preacher, and lawyer whose works dealt with themes such as the need for racial purity and the maintenance of traditional women's roles. In The Leopard's Spots (1902), Dixon's lead female character Sallie, described as "A daughter of the old fashioned South," engages in a series of observations concerning romance with a friend visiting from the North. Commenting on the differences between men from the two regions, her Yankee friend remarks:

Pencil drawing of beautiful woman in flowing dress, hair up, holding flowers.

Sallie. Illustration from The Leopard's Spots.

In Boston it's a serious thing for a young man to call once. The second call, means a family council, and at the third he must make a declaration of his intentions or face consequences. Down here, the boys don't seem to have anything to do except to make their girl friends happy, and feel they are the queens of the earth, and that their only mission is to minister to them. And some of your girls are engaged to six boys at the same time."
"Don't you like it?"
"It's glorious. I feel that if I hadn't come down here to see you I'd have missed the meaning of life."

Page 248, The Leopard's Spots

  • What does the northern friend identify as the "meaning of life"?
  • How do Dixon's idealized women differ from those suggested by Felton's argument?
  • What implicit argument against women's rights does Dixon's narrative offer?
  • What do you think Dixon considers the proper relationship between men and women? Women and society?
  • How do Dixon and Felton each depict the differences between northern and southern society and women's roles in each?

Historical Analysis and Interpretation: Religion and Slavery

Although many southerners recognized that slavery was unsustainable as an economic system even before the Civil War decided the question for them, the morality of slavery was hotly debated. Many southern clergymen defended slavery as an institution sanctioned by the Bible and their arguments found their way into the diaries and memoirs of laymen, who, even after the close of the war, continued to extol slavery's virtues.

A close reading and analysis of these sermons is a valuable exercise for anyone interested in the rhetorical underpinnings of cultural ideology. The didactic, meticulously constructed arguments for the Biblical support of slavery reveals the degree to which southern clergymen actively furthered the Confederacy's cause.

One such clergyman was Stephen Elliott. On August 21, 1863, Elliott preached a sermon entitled Ezra's Dilemma to a sympathetic Savannah audience. Accessible through the Documenting the American South collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Elliott argues that northerners profited by selling slaves to southerners and then persecuted the buyers for engaging in slavery. Further, Elliott contends that southerners, doing their best to Christianize African Americans, had been martyred for their efforts.

  • Why might pro-slavery documents appeal more to a reader's sense of reason than emotion?
  • How differently might a historian and a modern clergyman view the pro-slavery sermons?

Also available through the Chapel Hill site is Joseph Ruggles Wilson's sermon, Mutual Relation of Masters and Slaves as Taught in the Bible (delivered January 6, 1861, in Augusta, Georgia). Wilson begins his sermon with a thorough explication of the Biblical use of the word "servants", which he proves to mean "slaves."

There are several words, conveying different shades of thought, which Grecians were accustomed to employ in speaking of servants, inasmuch as there are several kinds and degrees of servitude. But no one of them does so emphatically set forth the true and simple idea of domestic slavery as understood in these Southern States, as the word ????? --the word whose plural form opens our text . . .

Continuing, Wilson supports his pro-slavery argument with a scripture lesson from Ephesians that deals with the relationship between masters and servants.

. . . Now, we have already seen that the Holy Spirit employs words which He has intended to be understood as distinctly enunciating the existence of domestic servitude--that He has sent to all the world a volume of truth, which is indisputably addressed to men who hold slaves and to the slaves who possess masters--and that, from the connections in which these highly suggestive words occur, He has included slavery as an organizing element in that family order which lies at the very foundation of Church and State.

Pages 6-7, Mutual Relation of Masters and Slaves as Taught in the Bible

  • Why would it be important to base a pro-slavery argument on religious texts?
  • What role does Wilson assert that the Bible gives to slavery?
  • How might an abolitionist attack Wilson's reasoning?
  • Does Wilson leave any possibility for doubting the truth of his assertions?
  • What conclusions can readers draw regarding the character of Wilson's audience?

Although outnumbered in the South by their pro-slavery counterparts, abolitionist clergymen attacked slavery and suffered the often violent consequences. Unlike their northern brethern, these clergymen experienced the effects of slavery firsthand. Like the pro-slavery contingent, however, these religious leaders also culled evidence for their argument from the Bible. One such orator was the Kentucky missionary John G. Fee, whose autobiography, accessible under the Subject Index heading Slavery in the bible, describes how he proposed to deliver his anti-slavery message in hostile territory.

For reasons manifest my audiences were small. Many whose sympathies were with the principles of justice and liberty were afraid to be seen listening to me in public audiences. I saw I must try and reach the people at their homes, at their firesides; and I decided I would write and publish an anti-slavery manual, a hand-book showing the testimony of God's Word against slavery, - the evil consequences of slavery upon society, and with these show the unity of the human race - that verily "God hath made of one blood all nations of men." The matter for this manual I prepared, and, for best effect, decided to publish in Kentucky, - in Maysville, a city near by.

Page 49, Autobiography of John G. Fee

  • What arguments does Fee propose to include in his manual?
  • Why would Fee's anti-slavery manual be more effective if published in Kentucky?
  • Do you think that Fee's use of a quotation from the Bible is effective or appropriate?
  • How might a pro-slavery clergyman have responded to Fee's manual?

Historical Issue Analysis and Decision-Making: Slavery and Freedom

The First Person Narratives of the American South collection includes several slave narratives, many produced before the Emancipation Proclamation. During this time, abolitionists published numerous slave accounts to arouse public sentiment and to refute the claims of pro-slavery activists. Firsthand accounts are valuable to contemporary researchers because, whether transcribed by a sympathetic mediator, or written by the fugitive's own hand, they offer a rich emotional sensibility that personalizes an issue all too often treated as an abstract, or essentially political issue by histories of the era.

A search on slavery yields dozens of documents including Harriet Ann Jacobs' Incidents in the Life of a Slavegirl (1861). For seven years, Jacobs hid from her cruel master and mistress in a cramped attic until a chance to escape to the North presented itself. In the following passage, she describes her feelings upon learning that her freedom had been purchased by abolitionist benefactors in New York:

My brain reeled as I read these lines. A gentleman near me said, "It's true; I have seen the bill of sale." "The bill of sale!" Those words struck me like a blow. So I was sold at last! A human being sold in the free city of New York! The bill of sale is on record, and future generations will learn from it that women were articles of traffic in New York, late in the nineteenth century of the Christian religion. It may hereafter prove a useful document to antiquaries, who are seeking to measure the progress of civilization in the United States. I well know the value of that bit of paper; but much as I love freedom, I do not like to look upon it. I am deeply grateful to the generous friend who procured it, but I despise the miscreant who demanded payment for what never rightfully belonged to him or his.

Pages 300-01, Incidents in the Life of a Slavegirl

  • What conflicting feelings does Jacobs have regarding her manumission papers? Why?
  • What can a researcher learn from this passage that would not be available simply by looking at Davis' manumission papers?
  • What can a researcher learn from this narrative that would not be available in secondary source materials written about slavery?
  • How might fugitive slave accounts differ from one another? How might they differ from accounts written by African Americans who never fled the South?

The slave narratives in this collection vary according to the circumstances of their authors. In Fifty Years in Chains (1859), Charles Ball relates his experiences as a slave, his escape, and his situation as a fugitive hiding in Philadelphia. Solomon Northup, on the other hand, was born a freeman in New York City, but in 1841, he was kidnapped by slave traders and sold into bondage in Louisiana. In 1853, Northup was rescued from his misery and published his story, Twelve Years a Slave.

Northup's account is particularly valuable in that he begins life as a free person and, as such, is able to offer a rare perspective on the South's peculiar institution. Southern planters believed that African Americans born freemen made poor workers and generally avoided using them as slaves for lack of a clear, legal hold on their person. In the following passage, Northup has accidentally informed a prospective buyer that he has spent time in New York, although he does not reveal his status as a freeman. When the kidnapper threatens death if such a mistake is repeated, Northrup observes:

I doubt not he understood then better than I did, the danger and the penalty of selling a free man into slavery. He felt the necessity of closing my mouth against the crime he knew he was committing. Of course, my life would not have weighed a feather, in any emergency requiring such a sacrifice. Undoubtedly, he meant precisely what he said.

Page 61, Twelve Years a Slave

  • How does Northup characterize his value to his kidnapper?
  • How do you think that Northup's perspective differed from that of African Americans that were born into slavery? How does the passage reflect this?
  • What reasons might explain the necessity of kidnapping free African Americans?
  • What assumptions about freedom are shared by Jacobs and Northup?

Historical Research Capabilities: The Confederate States of America

The First Person Narratives of the American South collection affords an excellent opportunity to study the short-lived Confederate States of America. A search on Confederate States of America provides researchers with dozens of documents that trace the rise and fall of that rebel nation.

For a political perspective, researchers will want to explore Louise Wigfall Wright's A Southern Girl in '61: The War-Time Memories of a Confederate Senator's Daughter. Wright's memoir, liberally sown with correspondence between her father and high-ranking confederate politicians, is a wonderful example of how the collection's wealth of subaltern perspectives allows readers to research large historical events at the level of intimate, firsthand experiences. One such series of letters details a falling out in relations between Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, and Wright's father, who had made accusations against a general whom Davis favored for command. This letter is followed by a note from General Longstreet that requests the senator to not allow personal feelings to interfere with the operation of the Confederacy.

  • How might a researcher benefit from a document such as Wright's?
  • What disciplines of study would be enriched by considering such documents?

Mary Boykin Chesnut's A Diary From Dixie, details her experiences as the wife of a U.S. senator from South Carolina who resigned his post in order to become an aide to Jefferson Davis. Chesnut's diary is strewn with stories of dinner parties, social engagements, and meetings with prominent Confederate figures. Of particular value is the insider's perspective which she is able to offer on the workings of the fledgling country's government:

Mr. Chesnut has three distinct manias. The Maryland scheme is one, and he rushes off to Jeff Davis, who, I dare say, has fifty men every day come to him with infallible plans to save the country. If only he can keep his temper. Mrs. Davis says he answers all advisers in softly modulated, dulcet accents.

Page 55, A Diary From Dixie


  • How does Chesnut characterize the workings of the Confederacy? What is her tone?
  • What problems, limitations, and biases would researchers have to consider when using first-person narratives?
  • What other sorts of documents would complement first-person narratives?

Given that the Confederate States of America was born and died in conflict, it's not surprising that accounts of military life abound in the collection. Exemplary documents in this vein include: A Soldier's Recollections by Randolph H. McKim, which offers the reminisces of the then young private's battle experiences; the Diary of Brigadier-General Marcus J. Wright, C.S.A., which contains a plethora of bibliographic footnotes; and Memoir and memorials by Elisha Franklin Paxton whose letters relate an intimate understanding of life as an officer under the famous Confederate general "Stonewall" Jackson.

Finally, The memoirs of Colonel John S. Mosby offers that redoubtable Confederate commander's perspective on both the politics and military operations of the war. Mosby, who led rebel troops in operations past the point of Lee's surrender, is uncompromising in his attacks not only upon the enemy, but the reputation of his fellow Confederates. One of the most passionate defenders of the C.S.A., Mosby's journal entries surprise in their depth of feeling.

  • What advantages and disadvantages do firsthand military accounts present to the modern researcher?
  • How might the impressions of the Confederacy differ between non-combatants and soldiers?

Other research topics that lend themselves well to the collection include studies of social stratification in the South both before and after the Civil War, the positive and negative results of strong regional pride, and the problems associated with African-American emancipation.


Arts & Humanities

The materials in First-Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920, lend themselves well to a study of American rhetoric and prose. Indeed, the years covered by the collection are from a unique period in American letters -- just before radio, television, and other modern means of communication changed the literary landscape. Like the rest of the country, southerners wrote letters, kept diaries, delivered speeches, and composed memoirs, all of which abound in the collection. Though each form offers different advantages to a researcher, all forms were part of a tradition of personal, reflective writing at the height of its popularity.

Introductions and Prefaces: Establishing the Truth

Nineteenth and early twentieth-century reading audiences were as attracted to true or real-life stories as are today's audiences. Many of the collection's narratives include an introduction or preface that defend the work's veracity. Because so many of the collection's documents contain an introduction or preface, readers can simply browse under Subject Index headings of their choice to find interesting examples. These documents-within-documents establish a contemporary perspective on the work that helps to place the document more clearly in the context of its reading audience.

In most cases, a well-respected member of the author's community wrote the preface. Of course, in some cases, the author, posing as a third party, may have written the introduction to his or her own work. For instance, the author of the introduction to Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, identified only as a "Friend of the South," testifies to his limited role in the publication of the infamous Confederate spy's life story:

I took the manuscript, promising to look it over, and return it with an estimate of its merits. I have done so; and hence the publication of "Belle Boyd, in Camp and Prison." The work is entirely her own, with the exception of a few suggestions in the shape of footnotes - the simple, unambitious narrative of an enthusiastic and intrepid schoolgirl, who had not yet seen her seventeenth summer when the cloud of war darkened her land, changing all the music of her young life, her peaceful "home, sweet home," into the bugle blasts of battle, into scenes of death and most tumultuous sorrow.

Pages 2-3, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison

  • Why do you think that the preface assures that "the work is entirely her (the author's) own"?
  • What is the preface author's tone in this passage? How might it influence a reader's expectations and reactions to the narrative?
  • What methods might a researcher use to find out if Belle Boyd wrote her own introduction?
  • What segment of Belle's reading audience would have been interested in her book's introductory statement? Why?
  • How are introductions different today?
  • How do modern writers, performers, and artists seek to establish authenticity?

A great number of the documents in the collection are memoirs and autobiographies that were published decades after the events that they describe. The introductions to these works generally include statements that argue the work's value, describe its composition, and extol the author's virtues.

Notable among these documents are the Memoirs of W. W. Holden, the introduction to which informs the reader that the narrative was dictated following an attack of paralysis which soon after killed the author. David Johnston's The Story of a Confederate Boy in the Civil War is introduced by a Methodist minister who informs the reader that, although now friendly neighbors, the two men served on opposite sides during the war. Bethany Veney's narrative, introduced by the Rev. Bishop Mallalieu, offers the ex-slave's story as an example of the evils that slavery necessarily entails.

  • How might the knowledge that a memoir was dictated after an attack of paralysis and just before the author's death affect one's reading of it?
  • What is the effect of prefacing a story about the Civil War with a message of reconciliation? Why might the writer or publisher have decided to do this?
  • What might be the differences between an introduction to a living author's work and an introduction to a deceased author's work?
  • Why might the author of an introduction want to tell the reading audience about him- or herself?
  • What types of documents would include didactic introductions?
  • What types of documents would be more likely not to have an introduction or a preface?


The collection contains several epistolary documents that offer a unique window into the characters and lives of their authors and into the historical circumstances surrounding their composition. Like diaries and journals, letters provide immediate access -- ostensibly free from the interference of time's passage or concerns of composition -- to the writer's thoughts and feelings. Unlike those other mediums, however, letters convey immediacy, suggest spontaneity, and invoke intimacy.

Because a letter necessarily involves a dialogue between a writer and a silent "other," researchers are able to draw conclusions about a writer's character and personality by considering how he or she portrayed him- or herself to another individual.

A search on letters yields eight documents including the wartime correspondence of General George Pickett to his betrothed, Sally Corbell. Published under the title The Heart of A Soldier, Pickett's letters impart firsthand experiences in many of the most famous battles of the war. The reports are particularly striking for their profusion of personal sentiment. For instance, in the June of 1862, Pickett wrote the following lines:

Thus, my darling, was ended the Battle of Seven Pines. No shot was fired afterward. How I wish I could say it ended all battles and that the last shot that will ever be heard was fired on June first, 1862. What a change love does make! How tender all things become to a heart touched by love - how beautiful the beautiful is and how abhorrent is evil! See, my darling, see what power you have - guard it well.

Page 48, The Heart of A Soldier

  • How might Pickett's letters be different if they had been written to a fellow soldier? What aspects of his experience of the war might Pickett have written about only to his fiance?
  • What do we learn about Pickett from his letters that we might not otherwise have known?
  • How might our understanding of Pickett be different if we learned about him only from military history books?
  • Do you think that it is important to know about a historical figure's love life? Why or why not?

Memoirs and Autobiographies

The collection abounds with memoirs and autobiographies -- documents written with the purpose of reflecting on the author's own life and times. In many instances, the texts were composed without expectation of compensation, monetary or otherwise. Indeed, the recalling of a lifetime seems to be the overriding purpose behind their composition.

A search on memoirs yields eight documents; a search on autobiography yields twenty-two. Some of these texts have a prosy, didactic, storytelling tone such as Bill Arp from the Uncivil War to Date and Edward J. Thomas's Memoirs of a Southerner.

Thomas recalls the days of his affluent youth in the antebellum South through a series of artfully rendered vignettes concerning runaway slaves, scenes of nature, and educational endeavors. With a wealth of detail and clear description,

Thomas's memoirs stand comparison to the prose styles of Charles Dickens or Mark Twain. For instance, Thomas observes that in contrast to the worries and problems that bothered his parents:

My brother and I had a nice time catching birds in traps we made with sticks; the bulfinch, the red or cardinal bird, the speckle-breasted thrush - and, killing them, made a fire in the woods, broiled the poor little devils, and had a quick lunch; and as a boy I thought them fine until one day we caught a crow, but his meat was more than our appetites would permit. Sometimes we sat on the front porch in summer with bare feet and legs, to see which could kill the most mosquitoes.

Page 17, Memoirs of a Southerner

  • What might Thomas have wanted to convey about himself with this passage?
  • Does this passage imply wealth or poverty? Interest or apathy?
  • What types of readers would find memoirs valuable or interesting?
  • Who might have been interested in publishing memoirs or autobiographies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries?

Other memoirs and autobiographies from the collection sacrifice style for information -- names, dates and places -- that provide a researcher with a wealth of historical reference points. Perhaps not surprisingly, many memoirs and autobiographies written by Confederate officers are of this type. Browsing under the Subject Index heading, Confederate States - Officers, provides access to the wartime autobiography of Lt. General Jubal Anderson Early, simply entitled Lieutenant General Jubal Anderson Early, C.S.A., and The Memoirs of Col. John S. Mosby.

Most of the autobiographies and memoirs in the collection alternate or blend art with information. These documents, mostly written near the end of the authors' lifetime, have the careful tone of a humble offering to future ages. For instance, in the Autobiography of Col. Richard Malcom Johnston, the ex-Confederate writes:

And then I bethought me to become an author. I had already written a few short stories intended to illustrate characters and scenes among the simple rural folk of my native region as they were during the period of my childhood, before the time of railroads. To this period I have always recurred, and I do so now, with much fondness, and indeed with high admiration for the good sense, the simplicity, the uprightness, the loyalty to every known duty that characterized the rural people of middle Georgia.

Page 71, Autobiography of Col. Richard Malcom Johnston

  • What role does Johnston assign to railroads?
  • What explanation does Johnston give for writing short stories?
  • What types of documents might compliment research done on a particular autobiography or memoir?
  • How have biographies changed since the nineteenth century?


A search on diaries yields sixteen documents. Diaries are among the most personal, as well as the most suspect, documents in the collection -- personal, because they were ostensibly never intended for public perusal, suspect because publication gives rise to questions of authenticity. For instance, in the introduction to Sarah Dawson Morgan's A Confederate Girl's Diary, her son writes that long after the close of the war, a northern gentleman requested a copy of his mother's diary, but, upon receiving it, questioned the document's authenticity:

Her transcription finished, she sent it to Philadelphia. It was in due course returned, with cold regrets that the temptation to rearrange it had not been resisted. No Southerner at that time could possibly have had opinions so just or foresight so clear as those here attributed to a young girl . . . Keenly wounded and profoundly discouraged, my mother returned the diaries to their linen envelope, and never saw them again.

Page xi, A Confederate Girl's Diary

  • Why does the northerner conclude that the manuscript is not authentic?
  • Why might Dawson have wanted to make her private documents public?
  • What is Dawson's daughter trying to prove about her mother's diary in this passage?
  • Why would someone want to publish Dawson's diary?

Questions of authenticity aside, however, the diaries in the collection are among the most valuable resources available to a historian interested in more than the surface details of an individual's life. Frances Hewitt Fearn's Diary of a Refugee, which the author later adapted for the stage, tells of her experiences in wartime Lousiana. The Diary of Bartlett Yancey Malone concisely relates the author's daily observations concerning items such as the weather, the condition of his fellow North Carolina volunteers, camp rumors overheard, and spiritual lessons learned.

Emma LeConte's journal, listed in the collection as Diary, 1864-1865, contains the then seventeen-year old girl's observations on the last year of the Confederacy. LeConte's descriptions of the quotidian details of her life reflect the sometimes mundane, sometimes overwhelming, concerns of her youth. For instance, at the height of the Confederacy's crises, she writes:

A horrid day. Rain, rain, rain. I have been sitting over the fire knitting and reading. Mother sitting opposite with her knitting asked me such endless questions in regard to her stocking that I put down my book impatiently and am trying to write. I feel awfully cross and out of sorts, and can't at all understand how so simple an affair as knitting a stocking should appear an insoluble problem.

Page 5, Diary, 1864-1865

  • What is LeConte's tone in this passage? What does it reveal about the author?
  • How does LeConte characterize her mother?
  • How do words like "horrid," "endless," "cross," and "affair" affect the style of the passage?
  • Is journal keeping still popular today?

Public Oration

Several of the documents in the collection are transcriptions of speeches. As an important traditional vehicle for conveying ideas, public oratory, often accompanied by dramatic bombast and colorful exaggeration, was popular throughout the country during the period. Many of the speeches in the collection were delivered before clubs ranging in character from abolitionist societies to reunited Confederate military companies.

A search on address yields Howard Melancthon Hamill's The Old South: A Monograph, which is more or less a transcription of a prepared lecture given before the students of Georgia's Emory College. It also yields Rebecca Latimer Felton's speech to the Georgia Legislature's women's clubs, which is excerpted in her autobiography, Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth.

  • Why might a group be interested in a written copy of a speech?
  • What rhetorical devices would help to adapt a speech to print?
  • How is the reading of a speech affected by its presentation within an autobiography of its author?

In almost every instance, lectures grew from life stories that were felt to hold merit for others. In the second volume of The Adventures of Two Alabama Boys, accessible through a search on lectures, Washington, the younger Crumpton boy, relates the series of events that led him to turn his story into a public lecture for the Baptist Young People's Union of Sterling, Kentucky. Delivered under the title "The Original Tramp, or How a Boy Got Through the Lines to the Confederacy," Crumpton opened his speech:

I once heard a blind man sing - I remember one line of the chorus: "A BOY'S BEST FRIEND IS HIS MOTHER." How true is that and the poor boy doesn't realize it until the mother is taken from him. After she is gone out of the home, the world is never again what it was to him. My home was broken up by the death of my mother when I was only thirteen. I became a wanderer.

Page 75, The Adventures of Two Alabama Boys

  • Why might Crumpton have begun his speech with a quotation?
  • How is this passage from Crumpton's speech suited to his audience?
  • What elements of delivery cannot be conveyed on the printed page?
  • What are some famous speeches? What makes them memorable?