Civil War Memoirs of Southern Women

Table of Contents


Civil War of 1861-1865 was known as the deadliest war in the history of the United States. After the War had ended, the slavery was abolished in the price of more than half million people. The country restored the significant role of the federal government but still the consequences were evident. The Civil War was especially hard for women that served in combat in greater numbers and played even more significant roles than other histories knew. The military actions experienced by women were reflected in numerous stories described in the diaries, memoirs, and family letters. These writings reveal the valuable information about the hardships that women had to overcome. They were the bright pieces of evidence of the major historical battles where women served as nurses that bravely face the endless deaths and saved the lives. The book A woman’s civil war: a diary with reminiscences of the war from March 1862 by Cornelia Peake McDonald highlighted the fate of women in the light of the military events. The book is the story of courage and fight; it is the testimony of fear and chaos. Cornelia McDonald was the embodiment of braveness and honor that sacrificed her life for the sake of the others.

McDonald’s story of the Civil War reveals a uniquely female struggle in the south to provide the shelter and safety in the center of chaos. She delivers the actual events that happened inside the house, when every second woman was in the anticipation of destruction and danger. She witnessed the grief of the children and other women losing their home with no other way to go. Her reminiscences are full with the important details of the atmosphere and the shock of mothers and children whose consciousness rejected to recognize the War. The book rendered the all injustice that women had to stand without the right for discovering their true feelings and emotions.

Cornelia Peake McDonalds’ brief biography

Born June 14, 1822, in Alexandria, Virginia, to a family of Anne Lane and Humphrey Peake, Cornelia spent most of childhood in Missouri. She married to Angus McDonald in 1847 and created the family of nine children in Winchester. The outset of the Civil War manifested the beginning of the destruction of McDonald’s family. As Cornelia and her husband were the supporters of Confederacy, they never considered the slavery as the positive institution as their conditions of life in the South left much to be desired. She cared became more aware of the losses of the southern slaves. Furthermore, the Emancipation Proclamation awoke her consciousness and radical racial views. Cornelia supported the middle- and upper-classes women from the South whose houses became empty because of war. After her husband entered the Confederates military service, Cornelia promised to carry records of her war experience. Hence, she remained alone in her house and was the one for her children to rely on. McDonald’s wartime experience was hard. Being a mother, she was obliged to protect her children from the invading armies (Frank, 385). The promise given to her husband was not the only reason her decision to write the memoir as she felt the necessity to reveal the story of a woman and mother during the Civil War. She was not able to keep all the pain and suffering within her heart so that the book was the salvation and liberation from emotions and fear following her throughout the War.

McDonald’s vision of the womanhood during the Civil War

A woman’s civil war: a diary with reminiscences of the war from March by McDonald’s helped to keep the Civil War alive in the course of generations thus perpetuating the pieces of evidence and events. The narration is of great value as it uncovers the war through the retrospective of experience in the domestic sphere. Cornelia was convinced that her book bears an in-depth historic importance not only for women of her time; book is still alive and acknowledged by other female authors. Her devotedness to her husband and was a kind was respect and honor after his death. Hence, she kept her diary carefully and desperately at the same time.

Beginning from March 1862, Cornelia rigorously described her terrible experience, and the fate of family and children. The main goal of memoirs was to prove that the role of southern women was as valid as the military actions. Cornelia touches upon the numerous social and political issues including racial discrimination, slavery, and feminist movement.

The major topic is the topic of motherhood and the price they should pay to set their children free form violence. Mothers served as the guardians of their children’s homes whose braveness and fidelity, the power of maternal love forced them to fight to the end. In the middle of Civil War, Cornelia wrote about her grief at the death of her daughter: “I felt as if my heart was lead, I still held her but could see of feel nothing but that it was only her lovely clay that I held, and that I must let go my hold” (McDonalds 71). Her tortures caused by the death of her baby daughter did not stop to continue the writings. On the contrary, she became even more involving into the effects of war. Her writing served as the incentive for other women to narrate the war through their own retrospective thus showing other dimensions of life and the conditions of disorder as well as a severe confrontation between the South and the North. Cornelia showed what exactly meant to be a woman and a mother in wartime and what challenges they must to surpass. Hence, she agreed with the idea the domesticity is the main feature of a southern women. Such a conservative model of femininity is also narrated in The Civil War Diary Of A Southern Woman by Sara Morgan. She supported the concept of female ideals of McDonald believing that Civil War destroyed many emotional, physical, and ideological images cultivated from since her childhood. The absence of harmony forced to seek for any opportunity to find the equilibrium. Morgan believed that a woman should have stayed a woman despite the inevitable influence of the Civil War. Regarding that, she wrote, “In my opinion, the Southern women, and some few of the men, have disgraced themselves by their rude ill mannered behavior in many instances” (Morgan 122). Through Morgan’s narration, we could observe the feature and the culture of Southern, their political and social view on the Civil War. Anyway, the book showed her gradual transformation from a gentle young girl into a rigid avenger.

Another female diary writer, Marry Chesnut, also followed the traditions and ideas of femininity during the Civil War Era. Her ideas presented in writing were also the reflection of her hard wartime experience. Her records center on the life of a southern lady. As she was a woman of manner and intelligence, she could afford to reveal her outrage. Instead, she tried to conform to the stereotypes of a southern woman thus trying to be aware of every military event. Her journal was of great value since it promoted the establishment of noble image of womanhood of Confederacy. Additionally, she managed to contribute to the picture of a well-educated woman as the education gave more opportunities in the Civil War Era. In comparison with McDonald’s outlook on the femininity, her own philosophy was based on pride and honor. Chesnut rejected to subject to the circumstances thus believing that such a position would help more. However, both writers fully reflected the reality from different dimensions and described the actual life of southern women. Both heroines considered it necessary to render the history of womanhood in the context of the Civil War. Chesnut had a more revolutionary goal for her writings. She strived not only to describe the life of women but also to actively participate in the military events. Hence, she wrote, “I do not allow myself vain regrets or sad foreboding. This Southern Confederacy must be supported now by calm determination – and cool brains. We have risked all, and we must play our best for the stake of life or death” (Chestnut 4). In her diary, she expressed the radical spirit whereas Cornelia tried to preserve the conservative and conventional views in women as mothers and housekeepers. On reading McDonald’s diary, one could trace an exclusively female narration of the Civil war, in her daily routine life, whereas Chesnut’s memoirs dwelled on feministic view on the women’s mission in the war. Being always surrounded by males, she kept pace with the recent war events.

Civil War from McDonald’s point of view

The McDonald’s understanding of Civil War was reduced to the description of the events that took place beyond the hostility. Suffering and death generated Cornelia’s outright anger of the North. She was in the constant fear of her home to be destroyed by the invading Union army. Being oppressed by indifference to the women’s fate she writes:

I sit every day and see this lovely place converted into a wagon yard. The smooth turf has disappeared, and roads go over and across in every direction Under the dining room windows runs one, and mules and horses pass, driven by men cursing and swearing, uttering oaths that make my blood curdle (McDonalds 120).

A mere description of the actions taking place near her house managed to convey the mortifying atmosphere that was gradually changing for the worse. Cornelia intended to render the powerful emotion was of that time that no other textbook was capable to do. The writer depicted the images of the battles on the background and her own personal attitude to the war. The narrative was also a manifestation of a woman that strived to live in peace.

Contrasted outlooks

Like in McDonald’s diary, other records of southern women proved their direct participation in the military actions. Hence, Alice Williamson’s diary is the story narrated by a 16-years-old Confederate partisan that also experienced her missions under the occupation of the Union army. In her journal, she managed to cover different aspects of Southern women’s experience. Like Cornelia, her diary was the means to express her hatred for the Union invaders. The challenge Williamson met was disclosed in her in the following lines. “Our king (old Payne) has just passed. I suppose he has killed every rebel in twenty miles of Gallatin and burned every town. Poor fellow! You had better be praying, old Sinner!” (Williamson 1). The wise and rigid views of young girls emphasize the mentality and identity of southern women. Williamson shows that southern women were capable to raise the reform movement and encourage their husbands during the War. Hence, the diary uncovers another side of women – not a mother and the symbol of femininity – but a soldier.

Her recorded reminiscences disclose the female attitude to the slavery and the humility of African Americans. In that regard, McDonald states:

There seems no doubt that the Yankee army is disgusted with the war, now that the real object of it has been made manifest, and many go so far as to say that they will fight no longer if the fight is for the freedom of the negroes (McDonalds 81).

As it could be observed, Cornelia was an outright adversary of the racial discrimination even being a white southern woman as she know what it was like to a southern woman and to in the slavery. In the face of the Union aggression, she forced to abandon her home with other slaves. She had a negative attitude to slavery and believed that the Civil War was to change that outlook. The endless browsing and no hope to return to the native land scared the southern women because the home was the most valuable thing they had and the only way to keep their mind and soul together.

Racial Issues in the wartime

The racial issues raised in many other records of southern women’s diaries. Many women see slavery as a necessary evil. As for Cornelia had two slaves but she did not consider them inferior, so that she helped them with laundry and cooking. In her records of 1861, she writes:

I never in my heart thought slavery was right, and having in my childhood seen some of the worst instances of its abuse, and in my youth, when surrounded by [slaves] and daily witnessing what I considered great injustice to them, I could not think how the men I most honored and admired, my husband among the rest, could constantly justify that…(McDonalds 247)

The Morgan family, like other families in the South had their own slaves. As she originated from the elite family, the slaveholding was taken for granted by Sarah. She believed that slaves must be used for good of evil. In that regard, slavery identified her status in society. Sarah could not neglect the master-slave relationships, as that was part of perception of the current society. In this respect, war distorted her outlook on the social relationships and forced her to think over her moral and ethical values. Morgan confessed: “Wicked as it may seem, I would rather have all I own burned than in the possession of the negroes” (Morgan et al 200).

The Civil War Era forced women to re-evaluate their destination in social life. They broke the stereotype that the Civil War was a man’s fight. The conventional image of gender roles radically changed as women was directly involved into the battle. Similar to men, they lived in camped because they lost their homes and suffered in prisons (Laas 441). Their braveness shocks and frightens even now, as southern women were ready to sacrifice their femininity and to enter the severe and merciless fight. In other words, the Civil War Era created a new type of southern women who support the cultural identity of the South.

Based on the above, southern women undergone the domestic reconstruction the refusal from the femininity. In her reminiscence, Cornelia McDonalds expressed her opposed view thus narrating her personal domestic vision on the Civil War. The value of the book, thus, lies in the enlightenment of the cultural subjects thus transferring the history to the domestic sphere. She tried to reincarnate the womanhood thus explaining that even in the wartime women should stay ladies to be a support foe their men.


Reviewing A woman’s civil war: a diary with reminiscences of the war from March 1862, Cornelia Peake McDonald is a veritable representative of Southern womanhood. In her book, she brilliantly represented the role of women in the Civil War. The records are rather true to life depiction of the hardships a mere woman should overcome. At the same time, she managed to convey the role femininity in the military actions as the embodiment of domesticity. In comparison with other female southern diarists that mostly advocated radical roles of womanhood in the Civil War Era, McDonald’s preserved the image of a real woman. Anyway, other women’s memoirs equally contributed to the female history in the wartime.

Works Cited

Chesnut, Mary Boykin Miller, Woodward Comer Vann, Muhlenfeld. The private Mary Chesnut :the unpublished Civil War diaries. US: Oxford University Press US, 1984.

Frank, Lisa Tendrich. Women in the American Civil War, Vol 2. ABC-CLIO, 2007.

Laas, Virginia J. “They Fought like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War.” Journal of Southern History 70.2 (2004): 441+

McDonalds, Cornelia Peake. A woman’s Civil War: a diary with reminiscences of the war from March 1862. US: Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1992.

Morgan, Sara The Civil War Diary Of A Southern Woman. US: Touchstone, 1992.

Williamson, Alice. Alice Williamson Diary 1864. Web.

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