Book Review: “A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time”

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In the midst of the traditional military studies about bayonets and bugles, it can be easy to forget the thousands stories of those behind the lines. A new book about a relief worker in Alexandria, Virginia seeks to re-focus the lens, and remind us of the legions of people who mobilized to help however they could.

Paula T. Whitacre’s book is built around the diaries of Julia Wilbur, an abolitionist and suffragist from Rochester, New York. Starting before the war, Whitacre’s work introduces the reader to Wilbur’s activities as a teacher and someone increasingly involved in the abolitionist movement, eventually becoming an agent of the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Sewing Society (RLASS). As part of the abolitionist circuit, Wilbur attends lectures given by Frederick Douglass and meets Harriet Tubman.

With the coming war, Wilbur sought more active ways to get involved. Whitacre’s narrative follows Wilbur to Alexandria, where she worked with the city’s population of former enslaved people seeking new lives. The chapters involving the war are the best part of the monograph because they give plenty of solid research for those seeking glimpses of what life was like for relief workers sent throughout the south. Whitacre shows very well how Wilbur’s everyday activities revolved around the contraband camps, hospitals, and housing in Alexandria

Whitacre also does a very good job of describing the obstacles Wilbur faced—namely, misogyny as both other civilian agents and army officials sought to limit the roles of women and especially grew impatient with Wilbur’s resolve and outspokenness. If this book were to have an antagonist, it would be the Superintendent of Alexandria’s Contraband Camps, Rev. Albert Gladwin, who constantly seems to step in and attempt to foil Wilbur’s designs.

Paula Whitacre has created a great book that deserves to be read by anyone seeking to get an understanding of the experiences of civilian relief agents.  As an addendum, an important part of the research of the book was a team of historians scanning and transcribing Wilbur’s diaries. Those diaries are available for reading online, and can be found here.

A Civil Life in An Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose
Paula Tarnapol Whitacre
Lincoln: Potomac Books, 2017
320 Pages, Bibliography, Endnotes, Index.


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