Emilie Davis was a young twenty-something black woman living in the city of Philadelphia during the Civil War. Like many her age, she worried about school, employment, family and friends. Her activities did not make headlines, and her name is unlikely to appear in a textbook. Yet her story is important because it is the story of a cross-section of society previously unexplored. Moreover, Emilie’s story is everyone’s story, a narrative of a woman on the rise, confronting the daily realities of a nation at war at a personal level defined by relationships, experiences, and often the seemingly mundane.
Until recently, Davis had all but disappeared from the historical record. However, her personal diaries, diligently updated on a daily basis from 1863 to 1865, recently surfaced at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. How the Historical Society acquired these tiny pocket-sized diaries remains shrouded in mystery – records note only that they were purchased at an unnamed auction – but their value is immediately apparent.
What we know about Davis apart from what she tells us in her diary is limited and surrounded by silence. Census records are sparse and her family history prior to 1863 is almost entirely unknown. Though her father can be found and Emilie mentions his whereabouts repeatedly, she never mentions her mother and no documentation remains to suggest her identity. Family ties are simultaneously clear and confused, it is often difficult to discern who might be a brother, sister, or friend. Davis’ life, like so many others in the past, can only be pieced together in snippets, yet what she tells us about her reality and her world is detailed, poignant, and significant.
Opening with the appropriate words, “to day has bin a memorable day,” on January 1, 1863, Davis’ words offer a look into the lives of a segment of the population from which very few voices echo into the present. As a free black woman living in the North, Davis never knew slavery, though the reality of the institution influenced her life. She was politically active, but not on a scale often recognized in history books. Instead, Emilie represents a much larger portion of society, a group of people we are far more likely to identify with, who engaged with the monumental events of the time on a deeply personal level. However, Davis also stands out from many of her peers in the 1860s. She had the opportunity to attend school, a chance deprived of many women and African-Americans alike. Additionally, though during the Civil War Davis appears to have been a member of the working class, she spent considerable amounts of time with members of elite black society. In time, Emilie would also marry into a prominent Philadelphia family.
Ultimately though, despite being a member of a minority group, Emilie’s words remind us of a reality experienced by every American during the Civil War. Woven into ordinary events like outings for ice cream and shopping trips, are glimpses of the conflict ravaging the country. Rather than a timeline, Davis creates a patchwork. Indeed, her accounts of events are not restricted to the prescribed dates in her diary, but rather sentences and thoughts continue seamlessly from one day into another. This patchwork makes readily apparent the reality that the Civil War was a lived experience, something that did not take place in defined periods of time surrounding battles or major events, but permeated daily life.
For her part, Davis rarely mentions common flashpoints of the Civil War. For example, though she lived in Pennsylvania, she never refers to Gettysburg by name. The twin Union victories on July 4, 1863 are marked on July 7, when Emilie writes, “very few out great rejoicing here the surrender of Vicksburg to night.” However, Davis reveals what events struck closest to home in the “Memoranda” portion of her diary, where she utilized additional space to expand on particularly memorable moments. At times, the war seems to disappear almost entirely from Emilie’s world. Closer inspection though makes apparent that the war was never far from home. In the days leading up to the Battle of Gettysburg, as refugees flooded into Philadelphia from Harrisburg and beyond, Emilie notes her correspondence with her father, mentioning specifically on June 30, “I am almost sick worrying about father.” To record letters received or unanswered was not abnormal for Emilie, but these lines take on new meaning when we recognize that Emilie’s father, a free black man, lived in Harrisburg. As Robert E. Lee’s army made its way through Pennsylvania, soldiers kidnapped free blacks, transporting them south into slavery. Emilie’s worry then, as we piece these fragments of information together, speaks to the dangers even free blacks faced living on supposedly free soil and the myriad of hazards confronting noncombatants throughout the Civil War.
I first met Emilie as a new graduate student at Villanova University. As you may already know, grad students have the frustrating tendency to assume that academia should and will always have the last word on historical study. Fortunately, Emilie taught me rather quickly that history is best told through the eyes and words of the people who lived it and that in those words we find a much deeper and complicated understanding of their daily realities. These revelations resist generalization and simplification, reminding us that history, like the present, was lived in moments – minutes and inches – that can never be fully defined. I hope to share just a few of the lessons Emilie taught me in a series of upcoming posts entitled, “Memorable Days: the Civil War through the eyes of a free black woman.” In doing so, I must confess that I stand on the shoulders of explorers who got to know Emilie along with me, particularly Dr. Judy Giesberg, and fellow grad students Tom Foley and Ruby Johnson. Even years later, we are still sharing the new findings in Emilie’s words and many of the conclusions I have drawn are the result of group research and discoveries we embarked on together.
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
As mentioned previously, the original copies of the Emilie Davis diaries are owned by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. However, quotes are derived from a transcription completed by the Memorable Days Project. This transcription is fully digitized and available at www.davisdiaries.villanova.edu.
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.