Emilie Davis’ Civil War: The Diaries Of A Free Black Woman In Philadelphia, 1863-1865, edited by Judith Giesberg
A book like this is a tough one to review. On the one hand, the mere existence of this book as a commonplace diary that tells of a politically motivated young black woman writing short daily entries in the midst of a busy life as a house servant in Civil War Philadelphia is impressive. If the author’s writing is not very articulate, it is clear enough and the author shows a firm commitment to seeking a good life for herself as well as education and social and political involvement to the greatest extent possible. The book provides a worthwhile perspective that is filled with sorrow over the immense deaths and crushing loneliness that the author had to face within her world. The work is well worth being read and provides a glimpse on how the course of the war was felt by someone who had a great stake in its outcome, and the work that has been done by the Memorable Days project in transcribing this particular diary is impressive, even if it is still not known exactly who the author’s beau Vincent is at this time. This is a work that is far easier to respect and appreciate than it is to read, but that is not always a bad thing.
This book is very straightforwardly organized. It features an introduction by the editor that frames the author’s unconventional and sometimes deliberately obscure writing as an act of resistance against white norms. I happen to think that the author was writing in a book that offered little space and that she wasn’t educated enough to write as articulately as some would. The book starts on January 1, 1863, which the author calls (very appropriately and very biblically) a jubilee, and then progresses to the end of 1865. Each year takes up the same amount of space, which reflects the narrowness of the space that the author had to work with. At the end of every year there is a section for memoranda and here the author includes quite a few articles that demonstrate her as a savvy reader of the news at the time. The entries look at the service of a young woman who is finished with her schooling but who appreciates self-education, concerts, and political action and show her having seasonal depression in the summer when she is isolated away from the city in service, patterns that become evident when you look at the entries as a whole.
By and large, this is a book which I wholeheartedly recommend to a reader who is okay with terse and not very polished efforts that gives a perspective one may not know a lot about. If you are already used to reading primary source documents about the Civil War and want to see what a literate and somewhat educated free black woman thought about such matters who was not shy about expressing her opinion or trying to keep up with the political affairs of the tie, this is a worthwhile book. For the author’s comments about the reluctance of contemporary not for profit groups in showing off black-made items to buy at a community fair and for her concerns about her father being kidnapped by the Confederates who invaded Pennsylvania before Gettysburg alone this book is well worth reading as the perspective of a civilian. There are all kinds of nice touches too like the way that the author appears to have been quite desirous of marrying, something that would not happen to her until after this journal collection was finished, and something about which the elusive and obscure Vincent appears not to have taken the hint.