During the early years of the Civil War, Rebecca Harding Davis produced several of her most critically acclaimed short stories and novels just as her writing career was beginning. Several weeks before the firing on Fort Sumter, her first published short story, “Life in the Iron Mills, ” appeared in the April 1861 edition of the Atlantic Monthly. It met with immediate critical success and has since been heralded as a pioneering work of American realism. Though this story focuses on the evils of industrialization rather than on the brewing national conflict, several of her later stories depicted the brutality of war and addressed the issue of race relations. By the end of the Civil War, Harding Davis was a nationally recognized writer, and one who continued to produce throughout the rest of the nineteenth century.
Born in Washington, Pennsylvania, Rebecca Blaine Harding spent her early childhood years in Alabama. When she was five years old, the Harding family moved to Wheeling, Virginia, on the Ohio River. Her father held several civic positions in Wheeling, including city treasurer. Her mother, an exceptionally well-educated woman, tutored Rebecca during her girlhood. At age 14, she enrolled at Washington Female Seminary, located in the town of her birth. In 1848, she graduated at the top of her class and returned home to help her mother manage the family household. Although her parents employed servants, Rebecca was needed to assist her mother with the cooking, the sewing, and the care of several of her