Book Review: Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary

Josie Underwood (Nancy Disher Baird, ed)
Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary
University Press of Kentucky

The story of how Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary came to be published is just as remarkable as the diary itself. The Preface of the book describes the journey of Josie’s diary – or what can be confirmed about it – and the difficulties in turning her manuscript into a book. The two-part diary itself passed down through the family through wills and estate sales, but became lost somewhere along the way in the 20th century. Only a photocopied transcription of the first volume of the diary remained in the Western Kentucky University’s Kentucky Library Manuscript Division with other Underwood documents. In 2006, descendent Catherine Coke Shick partnered with Nancy Disher Baird to publish Josie’s diary and add historical commentary on the events Josie and her family experienced between December of 1860 and September of 1862.

What makes Josie’s diary stand out amongst other primary sources, are the continued conflicts between personal and political loyalties, which strained many of her relationships throughout the war. The documentation of her intimate and raw feelings toward secession and the war is candid and engaging. The Introduction more fully prepares the reader for what to expect in the remaining 178 pages, explaining the political and social standing of the Underwood family before the war, as well as some interesting context to Josie’s life after the final page was penned.

Josie’s father, Warner Lewis Underwood, a staunch Constitutional Unionist, had served as a U.S. Representative and spoke openly about his opposition to secession, believing that the South could better address their grievances within the Union than outside of it.(p. 34) Josie adopted her father’s political views and memorized many of his impassioned speeches. Residing in Bowling Green, Kentucky – considered the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy” – they lived in a veritable microcosm of the regional and political divisions that led to the war. The state declared neutrality at the onset of the conflict, initially refusing to send troops to either side. But, as Josie wrote, “The policy of the state is neutral but the people are not.”(p. 58) Throughout her diary, her Unionism shines through, combating the views of her secessionist neighbors and often shunning their company, as in the case of her longtime friend, Lizzie Wright.(p. 62, p. 199-200). She wrote how she regretted the friendships and ties that were “breaking faster than the Union.”(p. 79) Yet, there were several close relations that could not be fully forsaken, such as the case of her uncle – her mother’s brother – who resigned from the U.S. Army to join the Confederacy, garnering the wrath of his sister who renounced him “as one dead”(p. 92). A year later, she exhibited true grief when it was reported that her brother had been wounded during the Seven Days Battle in July of 1862.(p. 188-189) Such contradictions and duplicitous devotions are a recurring theme through the diary, illustrating the “brother against brother” nature of the Civil War. One incident within the family found William Western and Benjamin Grider – both brothers-in-law – on opposing sides of a Kentucky battlefield during a skirmish in August of 1862.(p. 196)

The war became even more personal when Union troops occupied Mount Air, demolished their fences, rifled the family’s food stores, and performed sham battles on their grounds that tore up the once beautiful landscape that she described so eloquently.(p. 127) Her father’s outspoken political views made fast enemies of the Confederates in Bowling Green, bringing ruin and hardships upon his family. Despite her strong Unionist views and the devastation of her home and town, Josie is not so two-dimensional when it comes to her opinions toward Confederate soldiers. In the summer of 1862, after Bowling Green had switched hands to the Union, she had enacted a bit of charity upon Confederate prisoners on a train passing through town. A Union soldier confronted her and said, “as a friend I would advise you to be careful giving aid and comfort to Rebels.” Josie was quick to retort, “When I wish advice I will seek it of my friends. Pardon me for not thanking you for yours.”(p. 181) Another incident involved an intimate relationship with Tom Grafton, who later enlisted in the Confederate army. It may be implied that he might have come the closest to winning her heart – out of the many potential suitors that come in and out of her life throughout the diary – but she bemoaned that “his secessionism is a great barrier between us.”(p. 52) Even elements of her love life were pervaded by politics and alliances.

Each chapter (there are only five) begins with a brief paragraph or two to give context to what was taking place on a national and local level during the period in which Josie had written. With so many names and relations just within Josie’s circle, it’s hard to keep track. Luckily, an Appendix is available in the back of the book for this exact reason, listing short bios of each name mentioned. (Warning: Don’t look at the names until you’ve finished reading the diary in its entirety to avoid spoilers). A Selected Bibliography directs readers to complimentary resources regarding Kentucky in the Civil War. The sparse footnotes throughout the diary are more to provide other primary or secondary source support, or extra context to selected entries. The provided Index is also handy for quick reference.

The historical commentary is minimal, but Josie makes up for that in her detail-rich diary entries. Still, she lamented later in her diary that she only recorded “my unimportant doings in the midst of all important happenings.”(p. 182) If only she knew that 160 years later, historians would find her diary an invaluable asset to understanding life as a Southern Unionist in the war-torn town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.

4 Responses to Book Review: Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary

  1. I enjoyed getting to know Josie Underwood several years ago through her diary. She was a delightful and spirited young woman. And she wrote extremely well for a 19-20 year old. Her diary is, as you’ve described, an interesting window into how the war divided friends and family in southern Kentucky. I liked the book so much that, shortly afterwards, I visited Bowling Green and the general area where her family home once stood. I also enjoyed the wonderfully restored Louisville & Nashville RR train station in Bowling Green and its museum’s extensive railroad exhibits.

    1. I enjoyed getting to know Josie as well. She sounds like a spunky gal, not afraid to speak her mind. I was sad to close the book, but I found out recently that the second volume of her diary – the one she wrote in Scotland – was found and published in an issue of The Kentucky Historical Society’s publication, The Register. It’s their summer 2014 edition, vol 112, no 3. I’d love to get my hands on a copy and find out what she thought of Scotland.

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