1861: The Dark River
This five-part essay series on Kate Stone and her Civil War is modified from a paper I presented at the New York Military Affairs Symposium in October 2011.
It’s easy for a casual enthusiast of the Civil War to be seduced by the arrows and lines on battlefield maps and to forget the rich lives those engagements destroyed. It’s easy to skim past the details when armies ravage entire regions, easy to blink past sterile, blurred photos of the scorched buildings in Richmond, the rows of corpses at Atlanta, or the terrified refugees from all parts of the collapsing Confederacy.
But the Civil War can never be completely understood without a closer look at the men and women who endured this cataclysm, those who endured the brutal strangling of conquered cities, those who fought on the front lines, and those who littered the blasted landscapes.
For twenty-year-old Kate Stone, her story began in Brokenburn, the chronicle she began in 1861 to record the momentous era dawning over her life.
The diary was named after her family’s cotton plantation in northeastern Louisiana, near the Mississippi River, about 30 miles northwest of Vicksburg. Stone shared the mansion with her widowed 37-year-old mother, two uncles, five brothers and a younger sister. Her father died in 1855, and three other siblings died before 1861. About 150 slaves served in the house or tended the estate, which stretched over more than 1,200 acres of bayous, forests and cleared fields.
Stone was born in Mississippi Springs, Miss., on Jan. 8, 1841. She was educated at Nashville Female Academy in Tennessee. “I am tall,” she wrote in 1861, “Not quite five feet six, and thin, have an irregular face, a quantity of brown hair, a shy, quiet manner, and talk but little.” She was a rich girl, essentially, who generally enjoyed a life of leisure, and under normal circumstances she could expect much more of the same for the next several decades.
She spent her days playing chess and playing the piano, attending Sunday church and reading the Bible, picking berries, embroidering, entertaining visitors, and visiting friends and family. She loved riding her horse, Wonka. She was intelligent, well-educated and well-read. She loved literature, particularly the works of Victor Hugo, Alfred Tennyson, Edgar Allen Poe, Walter Scott, and William Shakespeare.
She was a romantic who admired her mother’s “great power of attracting love, the first and greatest gift that can be bestowed on anyone.”
Stone viewed her world with affection and optimism, and she strolled through it armed with a sharp wit, a smart self-deprecating sense of humor, and acidic sarcasm — qualities that glitter throughout her diary.
Stone never thought she was beautiful, even when her mother insisted she was. “I was the ugly duckling of the whole family,” she recalled. Her grim self-image, she wrote, “has been the shadow on my life.” In 1861, Stone’s mother explained why her father doted on her so often. Stone had always thought that her father praised her mind because he found so little to praise in her appearance. Her mother assured her that he had considered Stone wholly “perfect.”
Stone confessed to her diary that she was surprised but tremendously relieved: “The knowledge of this will change my life from this night.” She promised herself that would “try to put away the morbid thoughts … [including] … the fear that, being ugly and unattractive, no one could ever really care for me, and that I was doomed to a life of loneliness and despair.”
The trumpet of war
As the spring days of 1861 warmed, Stone and her family, at first, saw a bright future ahead. She recalled that the latest cotton crop had at last made a profit for the family, “and hereafter we would have nothing to do but enjoy ourselves.” She looked forward to long months of leisure through the rest of the year, and 1862 promised a family vacation in Europe.
But in the months after the 1860 presidential election, dark political clouds quickly building in the East cast long, chilling shadows over Brokenburn’s blossoming gardens. Spring 1861 brought a virulent war fever to the region, especially after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in April. Stone and her relatives regularly read Northern newspapers, and the publications’ “horrible stories” about the South infuriated her.
Stone felt herself swept away by the waves of aggressive emotion swirling through Southern society. “Throughout the length and breadth of the land,” she wrote in May 1861, “the trumpet of war is sounding … men are hurrying by thousands, eager to be led to battle against [President Abraham] Lincoln’s hordes … willing to meet death in defense of the South. … Never again can we join hands with the North, the people who hate us so.” A few days later she added, “We should make a stand for our rights — and a nation fighting for its own homes and liberty cannot be overwhelmed. Our Cause is just and must prevail.”
She was deeply offended whenever she encountered someone who failed to share her depth of passion for the Confederate cause. When a dinner companion, an immigrant from Hungary, regarded the South’s motivations as “a grand humbug … something to be mocked and sneered at,” she seethed with contempt. “I could shake him,” she wrote. Stone and her neighbors also kept a bitter eye on a handful of known Unionists living in a hamlet nearby. “[W]e think they should be sent North to a more congenial people,” she grumbled.
The prospect of glory and honor gained from a victorious struggle for independence electrified Southern imaginations, and Stone was no exception. John Q. Anderson, the editor of Stone’s journal, wrote in his introduction that “Kate shared the widespread belief of Southerners that the war would be an outing for dashing young officers in splendid uniforms, inspired to deeds of valor by patriotic maidens.”
Stone’s very first entry in her new journal focused on one such man hoping to be a dashing young officer: her brother William. On May 15, she wrote the journal’s first lines: “My Brother started at daybreak for New Orleans. He goes as far as Vicksburg on horseback. He is wild to be off to Virginia.”
Kate Stone’s brother William, whose departure she mentioned in her first diary entry, arrived at the assembly area too late to join his preferred infantry company, so he returned to Brokenburn. By May 25 he was on the road again, this time with their Uncle Bo, intent on joining the Jeff Davis Guards. Mourning his departure for a second time, Stone admitted feeling more than a twinge of guilt. “They go to bear all hardships,” she wrote, “while we whom they go to protect are lapped safe in luxurious ease.” The Jeff Davis Guards were sent to fight in Virginia.
Stone’s mother sent the new soldiers on their journey with three well-supplied horses and Wesley, a slave. Stone said Wesley “was very proud of the honor of being selected” to accompany “Marse Will” into the war. Uncle Bo, Stone reported, expected to be a private in a unit named the Volunteer Southerns, and he elected not to take a “body servant” because he didn’t think an enlisted soldier should have one. “[B]ut if he changes his mind,” Stone added confidently, “a boy can be sent to him at any time.”
A few weeks later, on June 19, Stone reported seeing a fugitive slave run across the grounds. Men were sent to catch him, but he escaped. “I was glad he escaped,” she wrote. “I hate to think how he will be punished.” She imagined the slave, if caught, would be “whipped unmercifully.” On June 29, she complained that the “house servants have been giving a lot of trouble lately — lazy and disobedient.” She warned that they may have to be sent out to work in the fields. “I suppose the excitement in the air has infected them.”
Stone’s view of slavery, as reflected in her journal, was typical of her time and class. The slaves were described warily, from a distance, with amusement and with pity. From her perspective, the slaves were shadowy, abstract beings, occupying their natural, proper and deserved place in her Southern civilization, forming the foundation of the life she and her family enjoyed. But she also saw the slaves as a threat — a potential threat before the war, and a real, looming threat during the war.
Stone and her neighbors were tormented by rumors of a general slave uprising scheduled for sometime in July 1861. She added that the slaves were “well watched in every section where there are any suspects,” sounding like a prison guard who wondered if she was the real prisoner.
Brillancy and beauty
As spring turned to summer, domestic worries darkened the thoughts Stone poured into her journal. She reminded herself to save seeds from the family’s flourishing garden, “as we will get no more from the North.” Her mother ordered as much planted as possible because she anticipated the plantation would have to become as self-sufficient as possible. “Strict economy,” Stone sternly determined, “is to be the order of the day.” She anxiously looked forward to the arrival of mail and newspapers, improved her sewing, studied French, critiqued the books she read, and savored the ripening fruit on the trees, vines and bushes around the plantation.
It was as if, despite her attempts to lose herself in her pre-war hobbies, Stone felt the power of distant events and marching armies move the ground beneath her feet. “Oh! to see and be in it all,” she wrote with anxious frustration. “I hate weary days of inaction. Yet what can women do but wait and suffer?”
As she made the best of the imperfect serenity around her, Stone was pleasantly and briefly distracted by a celestial gem soaring across the summer sky. On the last day of June she wrote, “There is a comet visible tonight. … It is not very bright but has the appearance of a large star … with a long train of light seen dimly as through a mist.”
It was the Great Comet of 1861, officially named C/1861 J1. It passed closest to Earth on June 30, the day Stone first noted its appearance. By July 4, as more and more volunteers rushed to form new military units under consecrated flags, Stone reported that the “comet increases in brilliancy and beauty every night.” Astronomers around the world studied the object for months before it faded away in May 1862. They calculated that Earth would not see it again for more than 400 years.
Never to return
By the end of July, Stone calmly rejoiced when news arrived of a great battle at Manassas Junction in Virginia. “[O]ur side victorious, of course,” she wrote. Her optimism was eclipsed, however, by journal entries reporting severe fevers, chills, and coughs among her relatives, her neighbors and the slaves. Incessant rain drenched the region for weeks, and malarial fever spread. As summer gave way to fall, wave after wave of sickness swept through Brokenburn.
On Nov. 11, Stone reported that Ashburn, her young maternal uncle, was terribly ill. Her next entry came 16 days later, and the first few lines said it all: “How can I write the record of the last two weeks? … Ashburn, our darling, has gone, never to return.” Stone could write little more than that. Two days later, she officially reported that Ashburn died at 11 p.m. on Nov. 12; the cause was “swamp fever,” most likely malaria.
On Nov. 29, Stone recorded that “[h]ere at home all seems strangely dull and sad.” She wrote most beautifully during great tragedy, and Ashburn’s death inspired grievous words: “[O]ne of our dearest and best has bidden farewell to Earth and floated out on the dark river.”
Stone’s 1861 ended quietly, the household still mourning Ashburn’s death. “This is the first Christmastime in our recollection that was not a time of fun and feasting.”
Works cited or consulted for this essay series:
Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 1996. Print.
—. Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace and War. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri, 1992. Print.
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. New York: Vintage, 1986. Print.
Johnson, Ludwell H. Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1958. Print.
Kronk, Gary W. “C/1861 J1 (Great Comet of 1861).” Cometography.com. n.d. Web. 11 Sept. 2011.
Long, E.B. and Barbara Long. The Civil War: Day by Day. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. Print.
McPherson, James M., ed. The Atlas of the Civil War. New York: Macmillan, 1994. Print.
—. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford UP. 1988. Print.
Parrish, T. Michael. Richard Taylor: Soldier Prince of Dixie. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP. 1992. Print.
Stone, Kate. Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861-1868. Ed. John Q. Anderson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana UP. 1995. Print.
Sullivan, Walter. The War the Women Lived: Female Voices from the Confederate South. Nashville: J.S. Sanders & Company. 1995. Print.
Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: W.W. Norton, 1962. Print.
Wooster, Ralph A. Civil War Texas. Texas State Historical Association. 199. Print.