1865: The Happiest Year
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.
As the new year dawned, Kate Stone held out hope that Southern victory was inevitable, no matter how long the war went on, asserting that “the darkest hour is just before the dawning.” She despised anyone who failed to share her fiery determination to win the war.
The mesmerizing images of handsome young officers, gleaming scabbards, soaring songs and fluttering banners were long since scourged from her mind. What remained was bitter anger and a lust for revenge. For years, her faith had sustained her as she endured one emotional maelstrom after another. Her faith gave a meaning to the destruction, it explained why her family’s suffering had to happen, and it justified in some elemental way the deaths of her brothers, of Ashburn, and of so many young friends.
Her world was destroyed. Her faith explained why it had to be destroyed. Buried in those ashes were the seeds of a new future. Somehow, she must have repeated to herself, Lee would find a way to defeat the North. Somehow, the light would reach those seeds, and a strong new independent nation would grow and blossom.
It may be true
Kate Stone refused to listen to any dejected opinions. She clung to every rumor that proclaimed success, every prediction that meant one more day of Confederate survival. Rumors began to fly about a possible surrender to the North. Stone remembered how people tried to act normally, and yet “over every pleasure sweeps the shadow of the evil news. It may be true. It may be true.” By April 28, she received news she could easily believe: Lincoln was dead. “All honor to J. Wilkes Booth, who has rid the world of a tyrant and made himself famous for generations.”
By May, the brutal military reality could not be denied. Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va., on April 9. Other Confederate units still limped through the smoldering landscape. Confederate warships still sailed the seas. President Davis and his officials were still unaccounted for. But for those who put their hopes in the Army of Northern Virginia, the war was over.
” ‘Conquered, submission, subjugation’ are words that burn into my heart,” she wrote in mid-May, “and yet I feel that we are doomed to know them in all their bitterness … [W]e will be slaves, yes slaves, of the Yankee Government. The degradation seems more than we can bear.” She may have asked herself what had been gained by the war? “The best and the bravest of the South sacrificed,” she wrote bitterly, “and for nothing.”
Not only had the Confederacy been defeated. Not only had Lee been defeated. Kate Stone had been defeated.
Out of time
Stone had struggled to build a life separate from the war. She was so successful, despite the losses and defeats, that she considered 1865 the “happiest year of my life.”
But her mother was anxious to return to Louisiana. By mid-June, her brother William rejoined the family in Texas. He then headed east to reclaim Brokenburn before the Federal government confiscated the estate.
Stone admitted both regret and dread over the prospect of leaving Texas. She had found a degree of serenity and happiness in Tyler. Perhaps, over time, she realized she had to leave the old Kate Stone behind, the defeated Kate Stone, and create a new woman in Texas. But now, it was time to go back to Brokenburn, and she could only imagine the ruins and memories that awaited her.
Also awaiting her was a new reality in which former slaves were now entitled to a fair wage for their labor. “Our future is appalling,” she wrote on Oct. 10. “[N]o money, no credit, heavily in debt, and an overflowed place.”
By Nov. 10, the Stone family had returned to Brokenburn. Stone was heartbroken over the neglected fields, the echo of empty rooms, the house stripped of furnishings. She admitted the estate was not as devastated as other plantations, and the towering trees and soft grass softened the starkness of a ravaged estate.
Nevertheless, she found herself looking back west with longing. “How I fear that the life at Tyler has spoiled us for plantation life. Everything seems sadly out of time.”
Beyond the war
Brokenburn ultimately failed as a plantation. Kate Stone married Henry Holmes on Dec. 8, 1869, a month before her 29th birthday, and they had four children. She died in 1907. Holmes died in 1912.
Stone’s daughter Amy lived long enough to see her mother’s journal admired as a gem of Southern literature. She was 77 when thousands gathered in Tallulah, La., on March 17, 1955, to celebrate “Kate Stone Day.”
In late 1900, a middle-aged Kate Stone revised her journal, and in November she wrote a sentimental introduction to the new edition. “Life seemed so easy and bright before us,” she mourned, before “the great events that swept away this joyous future and set our feet in new and rugged paths.” As Stone stood on the brink of a new century, she spoke for her generation when she wrote that “we are still walking the same rough path, laden with heavy burdens.”
The losses, tragedies and horrors she encountered and endured on those paths molded her into a strong woman who would withstand with silent defiance a life defined by Confederate defeat and the end of slavery.
Life goes on
John Q. Anderson, editor of Brokenburn, asserted that the journal “records the rosy optimism in the beginning; the dogged determination as war brought shortages, defeat and death; the hazardous flight of women and children before invading armies and their plight as refugees; the death struggle of the Confederacy; the bitter acknowledgement of defeat and the return to a devastated homeland; and finally the struggle against poverty after the war.”
Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard professor and president who wrote her own introduction to Brokenburn, celebrated Stone’s journal as “an invaluable portrait of the Confederate home front, of the world of women war created, or war’s challenges to accustomed privileges of race and class as well as assumptions and delineations of gender … War forced Kate Stone to question much of what the first two decades of her life had led her to assume about who she was and what she might expect to become.” Faust added that the diary was Stone’s way of playing a role in the war, “to claim the experience as her own.”
Anderson pointed out the tremendous value of the journal as more than a war diary. It was a social history of the upper class Louisiana society, of the frontier life of Texas and its friction with war refugees from its neighbor states. It was a bittersweet illustration of the intricacies of plantation society and a snapshot of how slaves were managed before and after the war. It was a chronicle of an educated Southern woman’s literary history.
We gain from Stone’s book a better understanding of the lives of ordinary people in wartime, enduring war’s physical and psychological violence, tormented by hopeful rumors of military victories, or staring hard across dark frontiers of a looming, unimaginable future. And yet, somehow, life goes on.
Nosy matrons still try to match up single men and women. Tutors still try to teach boys and girls. Thunderstorms rage. Toothaches annoy. Crops are harvested. Fevers decimate families. Babies are born and babies die. Broken, sobbing, contented and loving people move on with the emotional remnants their lives.
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.