The Civil War Era Diary of a Free Black Woman

Villanova University students encounter conflict and emancipation, like nothing found in textbooks.



Photo by Edward Fierros.

Someone once asked Becca Capobianco if she identified with Emilie Davis, whose life she explores in the book Emilie Davis’s Civil War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865. Emilie was Capobianco’s age then. They’re both women. But none of that, she says, gives a leg up on understanding another person’s experience.

“People in the past were just as individualistic as we are today, so it’s important not to let your own historian-narrator voice overshadow theirs,” says Capobianco. “Historical voices speak best when they speak for themselves. 

“The awesome thing about Emilie’s diary is she tells us so much. All we had to do was try to provide context, and it was readily apparent what her words were telling us.”

In April, the nation marked 150 years since the Civil War’s end and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The sesquicentennial is what Villanova University professor Judith Giesberg had in mind when she found the three pocket-size diaries at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania years ago. Jan. 1, 1863, when Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation, is the first date in the Davis diaries. Emilie was 24.

In a graduate seminar on the Civil War era in spring 2012, Giesberg asked students to transcribe the diaries. Emilie’s words—those of a seamstress who traveled into Germantown and East Falls for domestic work—recount three years of war and emancipation, as well as the social, religious, cultural and political life of Philadelphia. 

Several students, including Capobianco, delved deep, researching and annotating references for almost two years. They then tried to expose the diary to a broader audience through the university-hosted “Memorable Days” website and by visiting school classrooms, colleges and conferences. 

“What we found, which surprised us, is how different the war felt when it was lived day-to-day, instead of focusing on the big events we teach when we teach the war, the game changers and turning points,” Giesberg says. “When you’re living it day- to-day, it basically feels so different. The anxiety is deeper. In the summer of 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg lasted three days. For Davis, it went on for weeks. In a way, it makes the war seem strange again.”

Primary accounts of the war from young, working-class black women who were born free are almost non-existent. “It represents a group of voices that were largely silent in the historical record,” says Capobianco.

Famous narratives by former slaves exist, but they were often written after the events they chronicle and with help from white abolitionists. “By writing daily in her diary, Emilie Davis has provided historians and students of history with an important and rare perspective of a critical time in our history,” says Tom Foley, another of the project’s students. “Seeing the war years through her lens sheds new light on the ways in which the African-American community worked on behalf of former slaves, celebrated emancipation, participated in the war, and fought for civil rights.”

Several of Davis’ relatives and friends fought for the Union. From her Seventh Ward home, she volunteered with the Ladies’ Union Association and organized events—usually fairs—to raise money and collect supplies for freemen in the South and wounded Union soldiers. She often notes the sight of both colored recruits and troops—“the boyes”—and of Confederate prisoners.

The writing displays her mourning of President Lincoln and her uncertainty about the future. On April 15, 1865, she noted, “Very sad newes was received of the murder of the President the city is in deep mourning.” Then, between April 22 and April 24, she remarks on his public viewing: “The President comes to town this afternoon … went down to see the President but could not for the crowd … i got to see him after waiting tow [two] hours and a half it was certainly a sight worth seeing.” She calls John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s
assassin, “som Confederate villain.”

Davis also wrestles with prejudice, racism and an unstable sort of freedom in the North. She once complained after seeing black entertainer Blind Tom, “We had to sit up stairs which made me furious.”

But her accounts also introduce readers to a well-led life in a supportive community. The diaries refer to organizations like the Sons of St. Thomas, an African-American beneficial society; her school, the Institute for Colored Youth; and attendance at lectures on emancipation, equality and the war, often led by Frederick Douglass. They even show her joy over the more mundane: “I have had my first lesson the sewing machine succeeded admirably I worked all the afternoon.”

Her diary reveals an essential humanness that sometimes gets overshadowed by the larger-than-life figures of history, Foley says. Davis goes for ice cream with friends, celebrates weddings, mourns the deaths of relatives, worries about the health of a romantic interest, attends school (sometimes without a teacher), builds community in her church, misses loved ones when she works for a summer in Germantown, and more.

Giesberg’s students are now working on a history of the Institute for Colored Youth, tracing the careers of its first 37 graduates. (Davis never finished.) One, Rebecca J. Cole, became the second-ever black physician, and she openly addressed a primary health challenge facing black Philadelphia: the refusal of white doctors to treat blacks.

“I’ve studied this period for so long, but in this little diary, I’ve learned so much more,” Giesberg says. “The diaries are a window into more than the Civil War, and we hope this project helps us to find more—other diaries found in an attic that have a story just like Emilie’s.”

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