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March 12, 2001

CIVIL WAR DIARY UNLOCKS SECRETS OF DAILY LIFE IN TEXAS

 

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DALLAS (SMU) -- On Christmas Day in 1859, 21-year -old Lucy Pier Stevens arrived in Travis, Texas, from her home in Ohio to visit her aunt and uncle, Lu and James Bradford Pier. She never anticipated a Civil War would postpone her return for five years.

Those years in Texas are chronicled in Lucy's diary, written on two accounting ledger books used as journals since paper was in short supply. The diary acquisition also includes a leather-bound photo album and a scrapbook. All of these were recently acquired by Southern Methodist University's DeGolyer Library Special Collection when they were plucked from a California estate sale after years of gathering dust in someone's attic.

"This diary is extremely valuable to researchers because the woman who wrote it was well-educated and a keen observer," said David Farmer, director of DeGolyer Library. "There are a number of diaries from the mid-1800s in research collections, but they don't come on the market very often. A diary like this is at the very heart of the materials our users find important to their work."

The diary depicts day-to-day life in Travis, Texas, a small town that burned in the late 1870s and was never rebuilt. Travis lies near present-day Brenham. In careful and thrifty penmanship, Lucy records her thoughts on farming, wine-making, health, weddings, schools, childbirth, death, slavery and church revivals. On June 7, 1863, Lucy recounts her birthday dinner: "roast pig, green corn, potatoes, succotash, pickles, egg bread, biscuits, honey, fruit, pound cake, cheese, sure enough coffee and a bottle of nice wine."

"Sure-enough coffee" was Lucy's term for a real cup of coffee. During the war, coffee was scarce and substitutes, like dried okra and potato peelings, never satisfied her. Her diary mentions other shortages, such as cloth, shoes and paper.

Despite her Northern roots, as Lucy's stay in Texas lengthened she became more politically aligned with her Southern family. Lucy's words trace her changing loyalties from "Yankeedom" to "Rebeldom."

Her diary includes names of local men who enlisted in the Confederate army, including her cousin, Sammy. It tells of her caring for the family's 14 slaves during a measles outbreak.

Studying Lucy's diary has been a labor of love for Vicki Tongate, an SMU graduate student in English who began the painstaking and tedious process of reading, transcribing and annotating the diary's contents in January 2000 as her senior thesis. The DeGolyer Library plans to publish the diary and Tongate's paper as part of The Library of Texas, a series of books about regional accounts of 19th-century Texas. The diary and Tongate's 138-page thesis, "Transcendent Ties, A Northern Girl's Sojourn in Confederate Texas," are available for study in the DeGolyer Library.

Tongate's research into the diary took her to a tiny cemetery -- the only remains of Travis, Texas -- and to meetings with Pier family descendents. There, she discovered that diaries of Lucy's Aunt Lu and cousin, Sarah, are in the Texas Collection at Baylor University, so Tongate traveled to Waco to see their diaries, too.

"I felt an obligation to accurately and respectfully represent Lucy," Tongate said. "She is very much a real person to me. I owe it to her to do as good a job as I can."

Many of the entries represent the three women's accounts of the same events, such as Sarah's wedding. Because Lucy's diary ends abruptly, it is Sarah's diary that records Lucy's safe return to Ohio after the Civil War.

Lucy's diary tells that she received her first correspondence from Ohio in early 1865 after her arrival in Texas seven years before. She learned then that her youngest sister had died two years before, which intensifies her desperate attempts to return home to Ohio. As the Civil War begins to come to an end, her careful script becomes hurried.

"Her decision to get out of Texas is very revealing," said SMU history Professor Ed Countryman, who is Tongate's faculty adviser. "It's as if something hits her."

Attempting to return to Ohio in a conventional manner fails, leading Lucy to choose to travel aboard the blockade-runner Fox to Havana, Cuba, despite danger and the objections of friends. Despite being shot at as it speeds past the Union boats guarding Galveston, the boat arrives safely in Havana to see the flags of Union ships at half-mast, mourning the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Another ship takes her to New York where she embarks on a train to Cleveland, arriving home on May 6, 1865.


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