A "Sisters' War": Kentucky Women and Their Civil War Diaries
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A "Sisters' War":
Kentucky Women and Their Civil War Diaries

On February 18, 1862, Woodford County resident and Confederate sympathizer Martha Buford Jones penned a brief entry in her diary: "We had news of the fall of Fort Donelson—feel badly enough about it." Just twenty miles away, on the same date, Frances Dallam Peter reported in her journal that a salute of forty guns was fired in Lexington that evening to commemorate the victory of Federal forces in Tennessee. An ardent Unionist, Peter was in full sympathy with the celebration.1

The fall of Fort Donelson had a much more personal impact on another Kentuckian, Unionist Josie Underwood. Her family home, a sizeable farm just outside Bowling Green, had been occupied since the previous September by Confederate brigadier general Simon Bolivar Buckner and his bivouacking forces. Upon their arrival, Josie had written in her diary: "The Philistines are upon us!" Josie's father, Warner Underwood, was committed to the Union cause, and the family endured continuous harassment and anxiety during the Confederate occupation of their property. In early January 1862, the Rebels forced the family to leave their home and settle temporarily [End Page 481] behind Union lines. It was only with the fall of Forts Henry and Donelson that the Confederates retreated from Bowling Green, freeing the Underwoods to return to their home. Josie's joy was short-lived, however, as the family arrived to find their house still smoldering from Confederate arson. Josie declared in a March 1, 1862, entry: "Ruin devastation, desolation everywhere!"2

Harrodsburg native Lizzie Hardin, too, found herself in the midst of chaos in the wake of the fall of Fort Donelson. At the time, Lizzie, her mother, and her siblings were visiting Nashville. A zealous Confederate, she later wrote in her diary: "I beheld a city upon which the foe was advancing. Those who have once witnessed such a scene need no description . . . the streets were filled with carriages, horses and human beings from the doomed city. Men, women, children, the rich, the poor, white and black mingled in one struggling mass which gave way for nothing but the [retreating Confederate] soldiers marching through the city." Shortly after the Confederate defeat, the Hardins returned to Kentucky.3

These Kentucky diarists had several common characteristics. They were female, relatively young (Peter, Underwood, and Hardin were in their late teenage years and early twenties during the war—only Martha Jones was over the age of thirty); they were white and relatively affluent. And as residents of Kentucky, they felt the impact of the nation's most catastrophic war in a border state torn by divided political and national loyalties and splintered personal and familial relations. Whether they were Confederate or Union, issues of community and family division pervade their description of wartime life.4

Writing on the occasion of the Civil War centennial in his short [End Page 482] volume, The Legacy of the Civil War: Meditations on the Centennial, Kentucky native Robert Penn Warren claimed that the Civil War was for Americans "our only 'felt' history—history lived in the national imagination. . . . It is an overwhelming and vital image of human, national, experience." Today, fifty years later, and one hundred and fifty years after the Civil War raged, Warren's statement rings no less true. Of all the ways of connecting to and "feeling" the war, reading diaries of people who lived through it is one of the most compelling. In Kentucky, as elsewhere, female diarists wrote some of the most revealing and candid commentaries on the war. While the Civil War in the Bluegrass State is so often referred to as a "brothers' war," they prove that the war belonged no less to Kentucky sisters. This essay will focus on some of common themes and revelations present in the published wartime diaries of Kentucky women and also will address how their experiences both reflect and complement recent shifts in historiography on women's Civil War home-front experience.5

The two best-known published diaries penned by Kentucky women are those of Frances Dallam Peter and Elizabeth Pendleton ("Lizzie") Hardin, two women who endured very different wartime experiences...