Banner titled Overshadowed: The Value of Judith McGuire’s Diary During the War, by Tim the History Nut (Tim Sheehan)

How do Civil War and women’s history scholars regard Judith McGuire’s Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War? What sources overshadow Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War? All the answers are found in this work.

See also Economy Rules the Day: The The Civil War Sacrifices of Judith Walker McGuire for more background information about Judith McGuire and her Diary.


Table of Contents

Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War provides Judith McGuire’s account of her Civil War experience. McGuire recorded the struggles she and her family encountered as wartime refugees, as well as her contributions to the Confederate war effort. In the introduction to Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War, Judith McGuire claimed she only intended for her family to read her wartime journal, not the general public. Others encouraged her to have it published to reveal the wartime suffering of the South. The Diary first became available to readers in an 1867 printing by E.J. Hale of New York. A second printing occurred the following year. J.W. Randolph & English of Richmond, VA published a third edition in 1889. 1

Civil War memoirs by soldiers and politicians sold far more copies than McGuire’s Diary. Readers of the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries valued the male perspective of the Civil War over the female perspective of the War. Although such works may have overshadowed McGuire’s work during that time, readers did appreciate the historical content the Diary provided. One Judith McGuire obituary in The Times (Richmond, VA.) states that the Diary “has been considered the best inside history of the Confederate war.”2 Matthew Page Andrews’s The Women of the South in War Times, first published in 1920, contains excerpts from various diaries and letters in order to make the reader aware of the sacrifices women made for the Confederacy. In this work, Andrews showers McGuire’s Diary with the following praise: “Her story is the simple record of a courageous, self-sacrificing wife and mother who endured privations without complaint, encourage Southern soldiers on the way to battle, and comforted the sick and wounded sent back to homes or to hospitals.” A large amount of McGuire’s Diary entries are provided in this work.3

Civil War Books: A Critical Bibliography, edited by respected Civil War historians Allan Nevins, James I. Robertson, Jr., and Bell I. Wiley came out in 1967. This work reviews Matthew Page Andrews’s The Women of the South in War Times. Civil War Books mentions that Andrews’s work contains excerpts from McGuire’s Diary, which the editors claim to be “one good Civil War diary” containing details on Richmond during the war.4

During the 1960’s, women’s accounts of historical events began to be widely used by historians in their scholarly works and narratives, providing the public with accounts and recollections of history from a female perspective. In 1966, Mary Elizabeth Massey’s Bonnet Brigades provided accounts of southern and northern women’s activities and contributions during the American Civil War. Massey also authored Refugee Life in the Confederacy and Ersatz in the Confederacy: Shortages and Substitutes on the Southern Homefront, both of which were published prior to the Bonnet Brigades. All three of Massey’s works mention accounts from McGuire’s Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War.5

One would think that Judith McGuire’s Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War would be a more valued research tool to historians as women’s history became mainstream. However, McGuire had competition from other diarists and women in Confederate and Civil War history. Whereas McGuire’s Diary has been public since 1867, historians were discovering other sources that appealed more to their tastes of women making achievements during the War. Why has McGuire’s Diary struggled to appeal to historians?

In identifying with the Confederate cause, Judith McGuire contributed to the war effort through typical gender roles of the times. Society regarded sewing, bringing food and cheer to soldiers, and, to a minor extent, visiting the wounded as acceptable wartime functions for women.6 Judith McGuire did manage to live up to these expectations during the war for a few years, despite the limitations she encountered as a refugee. She sewed and, for the most part, supported the soldiers with enthusiasm. The visitation of the wounded was a long-term devotion she made throughout the war. Even home manufacture and clothing repairs for herself were acceptable tasks, although McGuire’s engagement in these tasks did end her sewing for soldiers. However, with the Confederate economy in shambles, it was necessary for McGuire to join the workforce. Not only was it inappropriate to McGuire, but working limited the time she devoted to the Robertson Hospital. Judith McGuire did not view joining the workforce to be an accomplishment.7 As a result, her views about gender roles during the Civil War may disenchant readers with a more liberal, feminist viewpoint.

Other southern women diarists went beyond gender roles of the time or challenged them. Some embraced the opportunities the Civil War provided them. Kate Cumming and Phoebe Yates Pember took pride in their employment at Confederate hospitals, at times going beyond the call of duty.8 Judith McGuire was a volunteer who read the Bible to patients. Cumming, Pember, and many others managed their hospitals. Their achievements may be more impressive to historians researching women in the workforce.

Other diarists, notably Mary Boykin Chesnut, privately expressed in journals their frustrations regarding gender roles of the time.9 Historian Sylvia D. Hoffert wrote an article titled “Mary Boykin Chesnut: Private Feminist in the Civil War South,” providing several explanations for the popularity of Mary Chesnut to historians and the public. Chesnut never publicly challenged the gender role expected of her, which, according to Hoffert, appeals to conservative readers of Chesnut’s diary. Yet, because Mary Chesnut’s diary also contains feminist views, she appeals to liberal historians and readers. Chesnut also questioned some of slavery’s evils, especially miscegenation. Although she did not denounce the institution of slavery or the benefits it provide her, her doubts about certain aspects of slavery appeal to liberal readers, according to Hoffert. Judith McGuire, on the other hand, wholeheartedly supported the gender roles of her time, as well as slavery. Such viewpoints do not appeal to progressive historians and readers. Perhaps these are the reasons Anne Frior Scott does not cite McGuire in “The War” chapter of The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics, a book that highlights Southern women’s history.10

The late eighties and early nineties saw two new works focusing on the economic changes white southern women endured during the Civil War, as well as the challenges such women faced while retaining the traditional racial and gender roles during and after the War. George C. Rable quotes from McGuire’s Diary in Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism. Rable, however quotes and cites Mary Chesnut’s work far more frequently. Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War only mentions McGuire twice in this study. Accounts from other elite southern women, including Chesnut, receive more attention. Both historians admit they had a wealth of resources for their works.11 It appears that Chesnut and the other sources added more value to these narratives of the southern women’s Civil War experience than Judith McGuire’s Diary of a Southern Refugee.

Judith McGuire is even overshadowed in encyclopedias. The “Diaries, Civil War” entry in The Companion to Southern Literature gives McGuire a two sentence description, mostly about her work as a Commissary Department clerk. Mary Chesnut, of course, gets an entire paragraph, as do other women diarists.12

Judith McGuire does not have an entry in the four-volume Encyclopedia of the Confederacy. Mary Chesnut has a page and a half. McGuire is mentioned in the entry for “Plantation Mistress.” However, McGuire was a minister’s wife, not a plantation mistress.13 Other works briefly mention McGuire and classify her in error. Kirsten Wood mentions McGuire in her work Masterful women: slaveholding widows from the American Revolution through the Civil War, although McGuire was not a widow until after the Civil War.14 Little is known of Judith McGuire, resulting in mistakes by scholars.

Scholars know more about Mary Chesnut than Judith McGuire. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War edited by C. Vann Woodward is an excellent work that makes Chesnut accessible. Woodward explains the evolution of Chesnut’s journal into printed format. He also provides a brief Mary Chesnut biography. The diary itself is annotated, providing additional background information to the reader. Readers of Mary Chesnut’s Civil War obtain a better understanding of Chesnut than by reading Chesnut’s A Diary from Dixie.15

Although C. Vann Woodward found gaps in the actual “journal” Mary Chesnut kept during the Civil War, he did have access to notes, newspaper clippings, and revisions Chesnut added to her diary over a twenty year period.16 Unfortunately, the original diary McGuire kept cannot be compared to the printed editions, because the original diary is not known to exist. In her article “Judith W. McGuire. A Lady of Virginia,” Willie T. Weathers claimed that a portion of the Diary’s manuscript was found in Tappahannock, Virginia decades after McGuire’s 1897 death. This copy was subsequently donated to the Museum of the Confederacy. The Museum of the Confederacy reported this item missing in 1999. Therefore, any content McGuire added or omitted from her original record is unknown.17

Although Judith McGuire’s Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War was republished in 1972 and 1995, these editions do not annotate McGuire’s Diary. The 1995 edition has an introduction to the Diary by historian Jean V. Berlin. However, the introduction is more of a summary of the Diary rather than a biographical sketch of McGuire.18 Any future reprint of Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War should be modeled after C. Vann Woodward’s Mary Chesnut’s Civil War.

Some historians feel that McGuire’s Diary of a Southern Refugee has been overlooked. Jean Berlin states in her 1995 introduction to Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War that Mary Chesnut dominates the subject of women in Civil War Richmond, Virginia. Berlin concludes that Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War should be regarded as a genuine wartime experience of McGuire’s class.19 Janet E. Kaufman authored Judith McGuire’s entries in the first and second editions of American Women Writers. Kaufman concludes both entries by stating that it’s “unfortunate” McGuire’s Diary hasn’t received major attention.20

Several works from the last decade have given Judith McGuire notoriety. The encyclopedia Women in the American Civil War gives McGuire a full entry. The Virginia at War 1861-1864 books, edited by William C Davis and James I. Robertson Jr., includes the full Diary of a Southern Refugee entries up to 27 July 1864. The remainder of the Diary will appear in the forthcoming Virginia at War, 1865. In each Virginia at War volume, Robertson provides background information about McGuire and the Diary. The reprint of the Diary, edited by Robertson, contains annotations explaining, verifying, and disputing McGuire’s account of events.21 This source is a good introduction to Judith McGuire and her Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War.

It is doubtful that the Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War will ever be a lost account of the Civil War. However, this resource will continue to be overshadowed by other accounts of the Civil War. Readers may find the Diary too conservative. More articles should be written about McGuire and the Diary. A fully-annotated, one-volume edition of Diary of a Southern Refugee would enhance McGuire’s work. Once such an edition is published, perhaps Judith McGuire may rival Mary Chesnut as the southern woman’s account of the Civil War.

Addendum: 20 August 2017

James I. Robertson Jr. combined his edited and annotated Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War entries that appeared in Virginia at War 1861-1865 into a single volume, published in 2015. This edition of the Diary includes a Selected Bibliography and Index. It is the best edition to read.

Will Robertson’s edition add value to Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War? There is currently a high anti-Confederacy sentiment swelling in America. This sentiment is justified. The Confederacy was formed to protect slavery and the oppression of African Americans. Supporters of the Confederacy committed treason against the United States government. A violent Civil War took over 600,000 lives due to the Confederacy’s desire to fight for slavery. Although slavery ended in 1865, Southern States have stubbornly clung to African American oppression, using the people and symbols of the Confederacy to achieve this means. People are fed up. Many Confederate flags and statues are coming down.

Judith McGuire’s family owned slaves. She supported the Confederate States of America and never questioned slavery. Judith McGuire should not be praised due to her involvement with this evil and greedy endeavor. However, her account of the Civil War, as well as the accounts of other Confederates, should be valued. We need to understand their experiences. We need to know the reasons for their actions. We need to learn from their mistakes. I'm for eliminating the symbols of black oppression in public places. I'm against book and archive burning. Confederate history must not be eliminated.

I value Judith McGuire’s Diary because of the gender role changes McGuire encountered. She had a comfortable life at the beginning of the Civil War. She immediately became a war refugee. McGuire desperately tried to cling to expected gender roles. Economic necessity forced her to work outside of the home. Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War is a valuable Civil War and women’s history resource that should not be forgotten.