Echoes of Reconstruction: A Young Charleston Lady Reflects on the End of the Confederacy

Emerging Civil War is pleased to welcome back Patrick Young, author of The Reconstruction Era blog.

Fort Sumter in 1865 (Photo by George Barnard, Library of Congress)

Emma Holmes was a twenty-two year old woman when the Civil War began. The scion of a well-connected Charleston family, she had rejoiced when the Confederates had attacked Fort Sumter. She kept a diary from the weeks leading up to the firing on Fort Sumter until the Confederate surrender and beyond into 1866. On April 22, 1865, after Lee’s surrender and after Lincoln’s murder, she wrote about the rumors of a negotiated settlement in which slavery would be maintained in exchange for the aid of former Confederates in fighting against Emperor Maximillian in Mexico:

we were…bewildered by hearing that negotiations for peace were arranged between the generals on the terms that we were to go back into the Union on the footing we had previously been, all our rights, privileges, property & negroes as far as possible on condition we would fight the French.”

To go back into the Union!!! No words can describe all the horrors contained in those few words. Our souls recoiled shudderingly at the bare idea…The blood of our slain heroes cried out against such an end-as if end it could be. Peace on such terms is war for the rising generation…Our Southern blood rose in stronger rebellion than ever…” [The Diary of Miss Emma Holmes ed by John Marszalek p. 436-437]

On May 10, 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was captured near Irwinville, Georgia while trying to escape pursuing Union forces. Confederate partisan Emma Holmes wrote about hearing of Jeff Davis’s capture at the end of May:

“…poor President Davis-I grieve for his saddest of fates…President Davis certainly seems to have erred very much to the injury of our cause by his strong prejudices for and against certain generals and other public men, but it is wrong to put the entire failure of our great cause upon his shoulders, when laxity of discipline, corruption, speculation, avarice, desertion & staying at home were the faults of the army and nation. And to think that he and his officers must suffer ignominious deaths! May God guard and protect them in these dark hours of trial.”

On June 10, she returned to the subject of the captured Confederate leader:

We are indeed a conquered people. Each day brings the dread fact more strongly to view, but none alas more humiliating and painful to every feeling heart than the fate of our President and great officials….I wept as I pictured [to] myself the hideous fate to which Yankee malignity had condemned ‘those I had delighted to honor.’ Oh God I shudder when I think of it-a living death, for him who wielded our destinies for four years. Great as his errors of [judgment] have been and much as our failure may have been owing to his obstinate prejudices…still he was a pure minded patriot….To me, it is [a] dreadful idea that not only must he bear in his living tomb the consequences of his own misuse of power, but the execrations of thousands of his countrymen, who lay all the blame of our fearful failure on his shoulders. If there is anyone I pity I & feel for from the depths of my heart, it is Jefferson Davis…”

Holmes imagines President Davis spending the rest of his life inside a prison cell, under Yankee guard:

“…two soldiers always in the same room, guarding, yet never allowed to exchange a single word with their captive…Lights are not allowed him…and thus leave him to linger out life in the horrible blankness of the tomb…The malignity of such fiends as the Yankees could not invent keener torture.” [The Diary of Miss Emma Holmes ed by John Marszalek pp. 443-444 and 451-452]

2 Responses to Echoes of Reconstruction: A Young Charleston Lady Reflects on the End of the Confederacy

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!