Monday, February 7, 2022

Review - "A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky: The Diary of Frances Peter" by Smith and Cooper, eds.

[A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky: The Diary of Frances Peter edited by John David Smith and William Cooper, Jr. (University Press of Kentucky, 2021). Softcover, photos, illustrations, footnotes, index. Pages main/total:xxxiii,203/255. ISBN:978-0-8131-5373-5. $19.95]

Between 1862 and her death in 1864 at the age of twenty-one, Frances Dallam Peter maintained a truly remarkable diary account of a divided wartime city, her hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. Selections from it were first published in 1976 under the title Window on the War. A greatly expanded hardcover edition, now titled A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky: The Diary of Frances Peter, was published by University Press of Kentucky in 2000. In it editors John David Smith and William Cooper added a scholarly introduction and more than two hundred diary entries not found in the original 1976 publication. Smith and Cooper's lengthy introduction provides a great deal of information regarding Peter's personal and family background. It also usefully contextualizes the Peter diary's place in the evolving historiography of women's Civil War memoirs, journal writings, and letter correspondence.

Absent the revelation in the book's introduction, the reader would never know that Peter suffered from epilepsy, the neurological disorder that would ultimately take her life in August 1864. In her diary, the topic of Peter's health and how it affected her life is never raised. Unlike many other Civil War home front diaries, issues of the domestic home and family take a distant back seat to Peter's firsthand and secondhand perspectives on the outside world. Making her task easier was the fact that the square near her house was a beehive of civilian and military activity throughout the war.

Leaving her home infrequently, Peter had four main sources of city and war news to draw upon: her own observations of happenings in the square below her bedroom window, a network of informed female visitors, northern newspapers, and her father. A great many of Peter's diary entries discuss military events in and around Lexington. Union forces garrisoned Lexington in near continuous fashion, but there were several notable interludes of Confederate occupation. In typical wartime partisan expression, Peter's colorful contrast of Union and Confederate soldiers, in both their behavior and appearance, is far from favorable to the latter. Her highly descriptive account of the Confederate entry into the city during the 1862 Kentucky Campaign led by Generals Bragg and Kirby Smith is probably unsurpassed in its richness of detail. That nearly five-week occupation was by far the longest Confederate military presence in the city, and the Peter diary provides an invaluable window into that unique period.

As was often the case even among Union officers, Peter's partisan-colored observations of enemy combatants often fails to accurately distinguish between enemy regular and irregular warfare. However, her testimony to the frequency of bushwhacking incidents in near proximity to the city reminds readers of how pervasive the guerrilla conflict was in Kentucky and that it was far from exclusively confined to the countryside.

The information war is another notable aspect of Peter's diary commentary. Intercepting civilian and military couriers conveying documents between the home and fighting fronts was one of the most common and demanding tasks that Border State occupation forces had to perform, and Peter's diary puts names and dates to a great many incidents of that kind.

Union soldiers campaigning in the South often observed that the female civilians they encountered in their travels were among the most outspoken supporters of the Confederate cause, such "She-Rebels" being a source of both exasperation and amusement. Peter is a fine representative of the other side of the coin.Though it's unknown how much venom escaped from the pages of her diary and into the ears of the "secesh" she despised so much in her writing, Peter was not shy about documenting in detail her disgust when it came to her perceptions of the character, appearance, hygiene, and courage of Confederate soldiers and their Kentucky home front supporters. The neighboring Morgan family (Confederate general John Hunt Morgan being its most prominent son) became a near obsession for Peter, as she delighted in reporting incidents of arrest or harassment along with news and rumors of fresh Morgan defeats on the battlefield. In stark contrast, she had few negative things to say about northern troops who camped nearby or passed through Lexington (her sole complaint being a particularly obnoxious, in her view, regiment of "abolitionist" Michigan soldiers).

Early on, Peter shared the common outlook of Border State Unionists who viewed saving the Union as the one true goal of the war and who opposed many of the Lincoln administration's domestic war policies. However, by mid-1863 Peter appeared entirely accepting of emancipation and enrollment of free and enslaved black soldiers from her state. Though resistance in many parts of the state would prove otherwise, she also claims that previously outraged Kentuckians as a whole were rapidly getting used to the proposition, with acceptance being framed in herself and others as a practical rather than ideological transformation. During that same period, it came to be her opinion that the activities of Peace Democrats (or even Unionists expressing opposition of any kind to the edicts of the Lincoln administration and congressional mandates) equated to treason. One particular incident of interest was her recording of the local reaction in Lexington to a speech by Col. Frank Wolford proclaiming his staunch resistance to black enrollment and other government policies. Even though Wolford was a Union Army leader of proven valor, Peter welcomed his summary dismissal from the service and wished his punishment to have been much more severe.

As the war entered its second half, Peter detected a sharp increase in felonious acts such as arson and theft in the Lexington area. Other home front writers have noted similar patterns, and the progressive breakdown of law in order in relatively stable areas behind the front lines is probably worthy of further study as an element of Civil War "dark history" yet to be explored much. Local military hospital operation is another subject upon which the Peter diary offers insights. Undoubtedly, nearly all of the hospital information Peter conveys was obtained through conversations with her father, Dr. Robert Peter, who was appointed to run the US military hospitals set up around Lexington.

In addition to the general introduction mentioned above, Smith and Cooper provide footnotes to most diary entries. While some of the sources used in their annotations remind us how much the literature and historiography (especially in the area of Border State scholarship) have improved and expanded just in the last twenty years alone, it's clear a great deal of research went into providing helpful background information associated with persons, places, and events mentioned in the diary.

Though rarity in authorship and location are on their own merits highly noteworthy aspects of Peter's writing, A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky is arguably one of the best civilian Civil War diaries of any kind. Beneath the vitriol lies a completely frank critique of local society, and the Peter diary embodies a highly informative record of Kentucky heartland military events and politics with added local flavor. Its unique depiction of day to day life in a divided city that was a major Kentucky urban center, garrison, and hospital post gives the diary enduring value as an important resource for current and future research. Hopefully, this reissue will grab the attention of those who missed this lesser-known gem the first time around.

No comments:

Post a Comment

When commenting, PLEASE SIGN YOUR NAME. In order to maintain civil discourse and ease moderating duties anonymous comments will be deleted. Comments containing outside promotions and/or product links will also be deleted. Thank you.