Memorable Days: The Costs of War through the Eyes of a Free Black Woman

This is the third installment of Memorable Days: the Civil War through the eyes of a free black woman. To read an introduction of Emilie, click here. To read her take on the Battle of Gettysburg, click here.

1863, as we have noted, was a memorable year for Emilie Davis. A free black woman living in Philadelphia, Emilie celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation, twin Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, and steps toward lasting change as northern states like Maryland chose to end slavery voluntarily. But 1863 was also a year of devastation for Emilie, one in which she would witness the deterioration of her family as a direct result of the new rights that came along with the Emancipation Proclamation.

On Friday, July 31, 1863, just days after writing with relief of her father’s safety in the wake of the Battle of Gettysburg, Emilie recorded, “to day is the eventful day they being [begin] to Draft in the seventh ward Alfred and EJ are both drafted Mary is quite worried I hope he will not have to go.” Alfred was Emilie’s brother and though it is uncertain if EJ was a brother or an uncle, he was most certainly also family.

Broadsides and newspaper adds encouraged African American men to enlist, guaranteeing protection against Confederate threats.

Along with ending slavery in states still in rebellion, the Emancipation Proclamation invited African American men to enlist in the army. For many, this meant a call to a duty and a step towards proving that they too were equal of the burdens of citizenship. Broadsides galvanized free blacks in the North to join in the fight both to free slaves remaining in the South and to show themselves equal to white soldiers. Yet as the death tolls rose on the battlefields, both sides found themselves in need of more troops to prolong the war effort. With this pressing need came a new reality in 1863: the draft.

For the Davis family, the combination of these developments meant potential disaster.

By July of 1863, Alfred’s wife, Mary, was already quite sick. Emilie recorded with regularity the state of Mary’s health, which was never promising. As the draft continued in Philadelphia in the subsequent days, Emilie noted over and over again, “Mary is still sick,” “Mary is quite sick to day,” “Mary is sick,” “Mary is very sick yet i feel very ansious about her.” During what must have been a strenuous time for the family, Emilie indicates that she received letters from Alfred but appears not to have known his whereabouts.  It is clear though that care for Mary and her young son, Frank, became a family effort. Though Emilie does not mention it directly, the realities of the war are inherent in every reference to Mary’s failing health. With Mary’s life apparently coming to a quick end and Alfred drafted into the war, what would become of their son, Frank?

Finally, on September 14, Emilie’s diary reveals Alfred’s whereabouts and in between the acknowledged facts, one wonders if it also provides an explanation for Alfred’s absence at such a critical time. Davis comments, “I had a letter [...]informing me that alfred had gone to Cannada i am very sorry  Mary is still quite sick.” We do not know why Alfred went to Canada, and, it appears, Emilie may not have known either. But one cannot help but speculate if these series of events are connected – implementation of the draft, an ailing family potentially torn apart, and a father traveling out of the country in a time of war. Whatever his reasons for leaving though, on October 2 Alfred returned to Philadelphia.

Mary’s health appears to have reached a point of steep decline at the same time that her husband returned home. On October 7, Emilie recorded, “Poor mary is very ill i do not think she will be here long.” Within days, Emilie’s worst fears had been confirmed, “I went up to the Doctors with mary he sayes he can do nothing for her her lungs is too far gone now sad i feel very ansious.” As October ground along, few days went by that Emilie did not mention the state of Mary’s health. At the end of the month, Mary endured another attack of what appears to have been tuberculosis, and Emilie agonized that this time she did not think Mary would recover.

With the loss of his wife apparently imminent, Alfred Davis went to the provost marshal in an effort to obtain an exemption from the draft. However, because Mary was yet still alive, Alfred did not qualify for an exemption. Emilie chronicled this saga with defeat, writing, “Alfred went up to the Provost marshals they would not exempt him I feel quite ansious about him.” Her concern is understandable, as the prospect of going to war was sobering for all. But for a black family like the Davises, the threat was twofold because the Confederacy answered the Emancipation Proclamation with a threat to execute members of the United States Colored Troops. Perhaps to avoid this danger, or for reasons we cannot ascertain, Alfred chose to enlist in the U.S. Navy rather than the U.S.C.T. Enlistment records show that Alfred Davis, 25, Negro, waiter, 5’5’’ enlisted on October 27, 1863 and was assigned to the USS Mount Vernon.

Emilie details the ensuing tragedy in words that need no elaboration, “poor mary is very ill to day Alfred went on the ship to day i felt so badly about it to think he has to go away Just as this time when mary is so ill Alfred was home to day.”

November 3, 1863, “I went down and staid with her she died last night about 7 oclock she died very clam [calm] she was ready Alfred did not get to see her very long.”

Mary Davis' death record. Click to enlarge.

 In the ensuing days, Emilie described not just the loss of a loved one, but the destruction of a family. Absent a mother and with a father enlisted, little Frank Davis became a ward of the Association for the Care of Colored Orphans. While this might have been Frank’s best chance at an education, Emilie’s concern over his well-being indicates that it was not an easy decision for the family.

This heartbreak, lived out in a few short months in 1863, illuminates an experience shared by black and white families alike during the Civil War. To say that the war shattered families is obvious, but to watch that destruction unfold on the micro-level of a commonplace family like the Davises, is different entirely. Emilie’s words record desperation, resignation, determination, and hope played out in the minutes and days in between major moments like battles and draft riots. Feelings like these knew no color barrier, despite the segregation of their time. Likely one could find remarkably similar stories writ large over the landscape of the United States in 1863 as Americans, black and white alike, struggled with the monumental responsibilities and sacrifices of their time.

Read the rest of the series here.

Becca Capobianco is an educational contractor with Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park and an adjunct faculty member at Germanna Community College. ©

Sources and Further Reading:

 "Black Soldiers in the Civil War." National Archives and Records Administration.

Davis, Emilie Frances. Emilie Davis's Civil War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865. Edited by Judith Ann Giesberg and the Memorable Days Project. State College, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014.

Gallman, Matthew. Mastering Wartime: A Social History of Philadelphia during the Civil War. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.

“Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System,”