Women: Preserving & Destroying Primary Sources

The world has no right to my heart…
They don’t get to know what I said
I’m burning the memories

Yes, I listen to the Hamilton soundtrack too much (even though it’s not Civil War era), and “Burn” is an intriguing, beautiful, tragic song. Yes, I get frustrated when I can’t find Civil War letters or diaries that would answer a lot of questions about feelings or relationships quickly for biography projects. However, I do find it rather powerful when we know that someone intentionally destroyed primary sources. Exploring the reasons why can be just as compelling as wondering about what got destroyed.

With these thoughts in mind, two women and their primary sources have been on my mind this Women’s History Month: Mary Chesnut and Arabella Barlow. Let’s take a closer look at these two Civil War women and what happened to their construction, deconstruction, or reconstruction of their own stories for future generations.

Mary Chesnut, 1860’s

Mary Boykin Chesnut.

One of the most famous female diarists of the American Civil War era, Mary Boykin Chesnut’s diary provides witty and harsh commentary on Southern life, the Confederacy and its leaders, and war morale according to upper society. Married to James Chesnut, a wealthy South Carolina plantation owner and enslaver, Mary started the Civil War years in relative easy and luxury and readily able to observe the societal workings of the Confederacy due to her husbands military and later governmental positions. Mary had no children of her own, but suffered bouts of poor health and melancholy (possibly a form of depression); all of these factors gave her time and inclination to write and write and write. Her war-era notes recorded her hopes, sadness, illnesses, fears, frustrations, guilts, and joys, creating a very personal reckoning of her life even as she tried to record and make sense of the war.

However, Mary later created a puzzle for historians through the creation of her diary…because she intentionally destroyed parts of it. Later, she tried to rewrite some of those missing parts. And then regularly edited the diary until her death, trying to remove some of the harsher or “less agreeable” things she had written.

In fact, as Woodward points out in the introduction of the 1981 publication “we know know that the version of this work know to the public as ‘diary’ was written between 1881 and 1884, twenty years after the events presumed to have been recorded happened.” What Mary actually did was write a journal or notes as she called them which she later rewrote into her 1880s diary which is a fairly chronological account of the Civil War from her perspective. It’s important to understand the revisions and “splicing” that she did to her own writing.

Mary Chesnut writes that she destroyed parts of her “notes” in 1863 when she feared that Union cavalry would reach Richmond. (Ugh. I really need her Richmond gossip notes from the winter of 1863. Oh well…) Unfortunately or fortunately, she didn’t even try to reconstruct that period from memory when writing the “diary” years later. From her papers and lack of entries in her “diary,” she probably didn’t keep consistent journaling or “notes” during the parts of 1863 and 1864 that appear light in content in her finished version.

So, should we discount Mary’s “diary” because we know she revised it? Personally, I don’t think so. There is a wealth of information to be gleaned from her writings and there’s a lot that she didn’t cover up. Her commentary on slavery is heart-wrenching, brutally honest, and yet other times almost obviously justifying, a shocking micro-study on its own. Her writings about her own health and mental state are quite raw and sometimes surprising that she didn’t edit that out. She pulls no punches about ambition, power, marriages, literary commentary, social customs, etc. etc. (By the way, Woodward’s edited version includes parts of the original “notes” with the “diary” whenever possible to more fully reconstruct both version’s of Mary Chesnut’s writings — 1860s and 1880s — and show her revisions.)

Ultimately, she was editing herself. Her own primary source. She was making that diary the version she wanted to be read. To some extent, she was reconstructing the story, but yet what she chose to leave in — even in the era of emerging Lost Causism — is pretty remarkable.

There’s one passage of her notes/diary that really makes me shiver when thinking about document preservation:

February 23, 1865. Isabella has been reading my diaries. How we laugh. My sage ratiocinations — all come to naught. My famous insight into character — utter folly. They were lying on the hearth, ready to be burned, but she told me to hold on — think of it awhile. Don’t be rash. [From the 1865 notes: the 10 volumes of memoirs of the times I have written…still I write on, for if I have to burn—and here lie my treasures, ready for the blazing hearth—still they have served already to while away four days of agony]

Imagine if Mary Chesnut had burned up all her journaling notes and never constructed her diary. True, it was hers; she could do whatever she wanted with that writing. But what a loss that would have been! And yet how many other women’s writings have been lost to flames and we don’t really know what we have missed?

Arabella Barlow (Sketch by Winslow Homer)

Arabella Griffith Barlow.

In Civil War history, she’s the wife of Union General Francis C. Barlow and a volunteer nurse with the U.S. Sanitary Commission. In the Antebellum years, she seems to have been a somewhat unconventional[?] socialite[?] in New York City. In theory, she should have a lot of letters. So far, I’ve located the whereabouts of two.

I’ve been seriously working on Arabella Barlow research for about four years now. It’s been successful in many, many ways. But so far, it’s still a mini tragedy that we don’t have more of her own writings. Unfortunately, even her husband’s letters that I’ve seen thus far are quite lacking in actual details about her, though plenty can be reasonably inferred.

There’s a working theory that I have about the lack of A.’s letters. (Her husband called her “A” in some of his correspondence; affectionately, I think, but when he was in a hurry.)

Here are the simple facts:

  1. She was educated and a good communicator, evidenced by one of her letters that I have seen and how her husband says that she will write to important, powerful people in their acquaintance.
  2. She died in July 1864 and her death devastated her husband, evidenced by writings of his friends who were with him when he received the news and in the days immediately following.
  3. In 1866-67, a detailed and flattering biography of Arabella appeared in Women’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, a book that honored the war volunteerism of Northern civilian women.
  4. After 1867, she drops out of the main historical record – even most publicly published reminiscences after 1867 where I expect to find details do not mention her. (O.O. Howard is a notable exception.)
  5. In 1867, widower Francis C. Barlow married again; his second wife was Ellen Shaw.

Theory: Many of Arabella’s letters to her husband could have been lost or destroyed in the course of the war. As part of his grieving or out of respect for his new wife, Francis Barlow could have destroyed or put into some place of safe-keeping any remaining letters to/from Arabella still in his possession. Out of respect for Ellen and her family’s losses during the war (Robert Gould Shaw, brother, and Charles Russell Lowell, Jr., brother-in-law), Ellen’s “war record” of sacrifice did not need to be overshadowed by reminiscences of the first Mrs. Barlow’s more active war service. Some of the main reminiscences writers who should’ve mentioned Arabella would have personally known Francis and Ellen, too, suggesting a reason for their omissions. Through this silence from acquaintances, Arabella’s name slips from the records for the more general biographers and memorialists, letting her slide deeper into lesser-known history for decades.

As far as I know today, Arabella did not destroy her own primary source record. There’s always a possibility that she destroyed some correspondence for privacy. (After-all, who knows what they could’ve been writing while her husband was particularly bored in camp in 1861 just after the wedding.) However, even if she burned or waterlogged a few letters, there should be plenty of others to family or friends that would be normal G-rated 19th Century correspondence.

I’m currently theorizing that someone else destroyed or hid the majority of her correspondence. Certainly, with evidence of 2 letters existing in the files of people in her friend circle, there is reason to believe there could be more lurking, unlabeled in folders and possibly passed over when archivists developed the finding aids.

There are strong hints that Francis Barlow did not easily forget Arabella, even though he built a new and presumably affectionate family life with Ellen. As his health declined in later years, he told a friend who had met Arabella during the war years that he wanted to build a memorial to honor his first wife and the service of Northern civilian women during the Civil War. He did not want her memory to be forgotten. But what happened to her letters? Could he have intentionally destroyed them to protect and preserve for himself the memory of their relationship? Or did he preserve them and give them to someone for safe keeping?


While Mary Chesnut personally burned sections of her notes and then later reconstructed her diary and story, Arabella Barlow didn’t have that chance. One of these women lived through the war and got to rewrite her story. The other woman died, and with a slight stretch of the imagination, her husband folded away or gently burned her writings or saved letters as he grieved or tried to make room for a new woman in his life.

“They don’t get to know what I said” echoes from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lyrics for Eliza Hamilton to the papers of other women that have been intentionally destroyed through the years. While the fears, lack of confidence, heartbreak, or loss are all understandable reasons for the destruction of a private journal or letters, perhaps the world suffered a loss that we’ll never quite know how great because these women or those closest to them decided to let go of the pages of memories.

And yet, that is a choice. There is something powerful still in that choice to silence those written words. Something that should make us take note of that exact silence. Is it respectful, concealing, malicious, protecting? There are times that the thought of the world getting to “know what I said” is unbearable for some reason, and so sometimes fire turns the written feelings and facts into smoke and question marks. Letting the secrets remain.


Mary Chesnut, edited by C. Vann Woodward, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).

Bierle’s research files: Arabella Barlow, Francis C. Barlow, Ellen Shaw Barlow. (Numerous collected sources)

3 Responses to Women: Preserving & Destroying Primary Sources

  1. I have just finished Rose Greenhow’s “My Imprisonment,” annotated and edited by the amazing Emily Lapisardi. I like Emily lots–she is smart, fun, and I would love to see her impression of Greenhow. Greenhow I don’t like nearly as much. I see her likeness in a couple of current Republican harridans–er–ladies, and they are unpleasant in either guise–in my opinion. I sort of feel the same way about Chestnut. I guess mean girls have a long history.

  2. I had similar thoughts when I watched Hamilton for the first time. It’s agonizing not to know more about certain people due to a lack of primary sources through accidents or purposeful destruction. It’s a willful act of “erasing myself from the narrative” and I can respect that decision, but oh, for the historians who are left wondering! Great post.

  3. I’ve also done considerable research. Mostly on Frank but have learned there were very few letters between them after she joined the sanitatary commission. Reason being they were generally close to each other and exchanged notes via ambulance drivers.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!