A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur's Struggle for Purpose

A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur's Struggle for Purpose

A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur's Struggle for Purpose

A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur's Struggle for Purpose


In the fall of 1862 Julia Wilbur left her family’s farm near Rochester, New York, and boarded a train to Washington DC. As an ardent abolitionist, the forty-seven-year-old Wilbur left a sad but stable life, headed toward the chaos of the Civil War, and spent most of the next several years in Alexandria devising ways to aid recently escaped slaves and hospitalized Union soldiers. A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time shapes Wilbur’s diaries and other primary sources into a historical narrative sending the reader back 150 years to understand a woman who was alternately brave, self-pitying, foresighted, petty—and all too human.

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre describes Wilbur’s experiences against the backdrop of Alexandria, Virginia, a southern town held by the Union from 1861 to 1865; of Washington DC, where Wilbur became active in the women’s suffrage movement and lived until her death in 1895; and of Rochester, New York, a hotbed of social reform and home to Wilbur’s acquaintances Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.

In this second chapter of her life, Wilbur persisted in two things: improving conditions for African Americans who had escaped from slavery and creating a meaningful life for herself. A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time is the captivating story of a woman who remade herself at midlife during a period of massive social upheaval and change.


People often ask me about how I “found” Julia Ann Wilbur and her diaries, which she kept in various forms from 1844 to 1895. We connected through Alexandria Archaeology, part of Alexandria’s extensive local history program, in 2010, when I volunteered to research the more than thirty Union hospitals that sprang up during the Civil War. Among other sources, I consulted Julia Wilbur’s diaries on microfilm in the Alexandria Library’s Local History and Special Collections Room.

One thing led to another— first I offered to transcribe the Civil War years of the diaries. Then I decided to learn what Julia Wilbur did right before the war to set the stage, then right after, then long before, etc. Finally, after peering at microfilm for a year or so, I visited the originals in the Quaker & Special Collections at Haverford College. Douglas Steere— respected Quaker thinker and activist and Julia’s great-great-nephew (direct descendant of her youngest sister Mary)— donated the diaries to the college, where he taught from 1928 to 1964.

At the time of my first visit to Haverford, Julia Wilbur’s papers lived in four gray boxes, about the size of shirt boxes (since transferred into six more neatly partitioned containers). I opened the first to find her pocket diaries, each a small, leather-bound volume. Nice. It was amazing to touch what I had only peered at through a microfilm machine. But I really jolted when I opened the next box. There sat several dozen packets of cream-colored stationary, about 5x7 inches in size, tied up with red ribbon, a parallel set of diaries that began in 1844 (more than ten years before the pocket diaries). in them she waxed on for many pages on one day, then wrote maybe just a line or two on the next. the collection ends abruptly in 1873, but in reading them and her other diaries, I assume later years got lost. Known to scholars and others who used the collection, these diaries surprised my colleagues in Alexandria and me.

But I had just spent two years transcribing the pocket diaries. If . . .

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