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1861: The Dark River

February 16, 2012

This five-part essay series on Kate Stone and her Civil War is modified from a paper I presented at the New York Military Affairs Symposium in October 2011.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences.

It’s easy for a casual enthusiast of the Civil War to be seduced by the arrows and lines on battlefield maps and to forget the rich lives those engagements destroyed. It’s easy to skim past the details when armies ravage entire regions, easy to blink past sterile, blurred photos of the scorched buildings in Richmond, the rows of corpses at Atlanta, or the terrified refugees from all parts of the collapsing Confederacy.

But the Civil War can never be completely understood without a closer look at the men and women who endured this cataclysm, those who endured the brutal strangling of conquered cities, those who fought on the front lines, and those who littered the blasted landscapes.

For twenty-year-old Kate Stone, her story began in Brokenburn, the chronicle she began in 1861 to record the momentous era dawning over her life.

The diary was named after her family’s cotton plantation in northeastern Louisiana, near the Mississippi River, about 30 miles northwest of Vicksburg. Stone shared the mansion with her widowed 37-year-old mother, two uncles, five brothers and a younger sister. Her father died in 1855, and three other siblings died before 1861. About 150 slaves served in the house or tended the estate, which stretched over more than 1,200 acres of bayous, forests and cleared fields.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

Stone was born in Mississippi Springs, Miss., on Jan. 8, 1841. She was educated at Nashville Female Academy in Tennessee. “I am tall,” she wrote in 1861, “Not quite five feet six, and thin, have an irregular face, a quantity of brown hair, a shy, quiet manner, and talk but little.” She was a rich girl, essentially, who generally enjoyed a life of leisure, and under normal circumstances she could expect much more of the same for the next several decades.

She spent her days playing chess and playing the piano, attending Sunday church and reading the Bible, picking berries, embroidering, entertaining visitors, and visiting friends and family. She loved riding her horse, Wonka. She was intelligent, well-educated and well-read. She loved literature, particularly the works of Victor Hugo, Alfred Tennyson, Edgar Allen Poe, Walter Scott, and William Shakespeare.

She was a romantic who admired her mother’s “great power of attracting love, the first and greatest gift that can be bestowed on anyone.”

Stone viewed her world with affection and optimism, and she strolled through it armed with a sharp wit, a smart self-deprecating sense of humor, and acidic sarcasm — qualities that glitter throughout her diary.

Stone never thought she was beautiful, even when her mother insisted she was. “I was the ugly duckling of the whole family,” she recalled. Her grim self-image, she wrote, “has been the shadow on my life.” In 1861, Stone’s mother explained why her father doted on her so often. Stone had always thought that her father praised her mind because he found so little to praise in her appearance. Her mother assured her that he had considered Stone wholly “perfect.”

Stone confessed to her diary that she was surprised but tremendously relieved: “The knowledge of this will change my life from this night.” She promised herself that would “try to put away the morbid thoughts … [including] … the fear that, being ugly and unattractive, no one could ever really care for me, and that I was doomed to a life of loneliness and despair.”

The trumpet of war

As the spring days of 1861 warmed, Stone and her family, at first, saw a bright future ahead. She recalled that the latest cotton crop had at last made a profit for the family, “and hereafter we would have nothing to do but enjoy ourselves.” She looked forward to long months of leisure through the rest of the year, and 1862 promised a family vacation in Europe.

But in the months after the 1860 presidential election, dark political clouds quickly building in the East cast long, chilling shadows over Brokenburn’s blossoming gardens. Spring 1861 brought a virulent war fever to the region, especially after the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter in April. Stone and her relatives regularly read Northern newspapers, and the publications’ “horrible stories” about the South infuriated her.

Stone felt herself swept away by the waves of aggressive emotion swirling through Southern society. “Throughout the length and breadth of the land,” she wrote in May 1861, “the trumpet of war is sounding … men are hurrying by thousands, eager to be led to battle against [President Abraham] Lincoln’s hordes … willing to meet death in defense of the South. … Never again can we join hands with the North, the people who hate us so.” A few days later she added, “We should make a stand for our rights — and a nation fighting for its own homes and liberty cannot be overwhelmed. Our Cause is just and must prevail.”

She was deeply offended whenever she encountered someone who failed to share her depth of passion for the Confederate cause. When a dinner companion, an immigrant from Hungary, regarded the South’s motivations as “a grand humbug … something to be mocked and sneered at,” she seethed with contempt. “I could shake him,” she wrote. Stone and her neighbors also kept a bitter eye on a handful of known Unionists living in a hamlet nearby. “[W]e think they should be sent North to a more congenial people,” she grumbled.

The prospect of glory and honor gained from a victorious struggle for independence electrified Southern imaginations, and Stone was no exception. John Q. Anderson, the editor of Stone’s journal, wrote in his introduction that “Kate shared the widespread belief of Southerners that the war would be an outing for dashing young officers in splendid uniforms, inspired to deeds of valor by patriotic maidens.”

Stone’s very first entry in her new journal focused on one such man hoping to be a dashing young officer: her brother William. On May 15, she wrote the journal’s first lines: “My Brother started at daybreak for New Orleans. He goes as far as Vicksburg on horseback. He is wild to be off to Virginia.”


Kate Stone’s brother William, whose departure she mentioned in her first diary entry, arrived at the assembly area too late to join his preferred infantry company, so he returned to Brokenburn. By May 25 he was on the road again, this time with their Uncle Bo, intent on joining the Jeff Davis Guards. Mourning his departure for a second time, Stone admitted feeling more than a twinge of guilt. “They go to bear all hardships,” she wrote, “while we whom they go to protect are lapped safe in luxurious ease.” The Jeff Davis Guards were sent to fight in Virginia.

Stone’s mother sent the new soldiers on their journey with three well-supplied horses and Wesley, a slave. Stone said Wesley “was very proud of the honor of being selected” to accompany “Marse Will” into the war. Uncle Bo, Stone reported, expected to be a private in a unit named the Volunteer Southerns, and he elected not to take a “body servant” because he didn’t think an enlisted soldier should have one. “[B]ut if he changes his mind,” Stone added confidently, “a boy can be sent to him at any time.”

A few weeks later, on June 19, Stone reported seeing a fugitive slave run across the grounds. Men were sent to catch him, but he escaped. “I was glad he escaped,” she wrote. “I hate to think how he will be punished.” She imagined the slave, if caught, would be “whipped unmercifully.” On June 29, she complained that the “house servants have been giving a lot of trouble lately — lazy and disobedient.” She warned that they may have to be sent out to work in the fields. “I suppose the excitement in the air has infected them.”

Stone’s view of slavery, as reflected in her journal, was typical of her time and class. The slaves were described warily, from a distance, with amusement and with pity. From her perspective, the slaves were shadowy, abstract beings, occupying their natural, proper and deserved place in her Southern civilization, forming the foundation of the life she and her family enjoyed. But she also saw the slaves as a threat — a potential threat before the war, and a real, looming threat during the war.

Stone and her neighbors were tormented by rumors of a general slave uprising scheduled for sometime in July 1861. She added that the slaves were “well watched in every section where there are any suspects,” sounding like a prison guard who wondered if she was the real prisoner.

Brillancy and beauty

As spring turned to summer, domestic worries darkened the thoughts Stone poured into her journal. She reminded herself to save seeds from the family’s flourishing garden, “as we will get no more from the North.” Her mother ordered as much planted as possible because she anticipated the plantation would have to become as self-sufficient as possible. “Strict economy,” Stone sternly determined, “is to be the order of the day.” She anxiously looked forward to the arrival of mail and newspapers, improved her sewing, studied French, critiqued the books she read, and savored the ripening fruit on the trees, vines and bushes around the plantation.

It was as if, despite her attempts to lose herself in her pre-war hobbies, Stone felt the power of distant events and marching armies move the ground beneath her feet. “Oh! to see and be in it all,” she wrote with anxious frustration. “I hate weary days of inaction. Yet what can women do but wait and suffer?”

As she made the best of the imperfect serenity around her, Stone was pleasantly and briefly distracted by a celestial gem soaring across the summer sky. On the last day of June she wrote, “There is a comet visible tonight. … It is not very bright but has the appearance of a large star … with a long train of light seen dimly as through a mist.”

It was the Great Comet of 1861, officially named C/1861 J1. It passed closest to Earth on June 30, the day Stone first noted its appearance. By July 4, as more and more volunteers rushed to form new military units under consecrated flags, Stone reported that the “comet increases in brilliancy and beauty every night.” Astronomers around the world studied the object for months before it faded away in May 1862. They calculated that Earth would not see it again for more than 400 years.

Never to return

By the end of July, Stone calmly rejoiced when news arrived of a great battle at Manassas Junction in Virginia. “[O]ur side victorious, of course,” she wrote. Her optimism was eclipsed, however, by journal entries reporting severe fevers, chills, and coughs among her relatives, her neighbors and the slaves. Incessant rain drenched the region for weeks, and malarial fever spread. As summer gave way to fall, wave after wave of sickness swept through Brokenburn.

On Nov. 11, Stone reported that Ashburn, her young maternal uncle, was terribly ill. Her next entry came 16 days later, and the first few lines said it all: “How can I write the record of the last two weeks? … Ashburn, our darling, has gone, never to return.” Stone could write little more than that. Two days later, she officially reported that Ashburn died at 11 p.m. on Nov. 12; the cause was “swamp fever,” most likely malaria.

On Nov. 29, Stone recorded that “[h]ere at home all seems strangely dull and sad.” She wrote most beautifully during great tragedy, and Ashburn’s death inspired grievous words: “[O]ne of our dearest and best has bidden farewell to Earth and floated out on the dark river.”

Stone’s 1861 ended quietly, the household still mourning Ashburn’s death. “This is the first Christmastime in our recollection that was not a time of fun and feasting.”


Works cited or consulted for this essay series:
Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 1996. Print.
. Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace and War. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri, 1992. Print.
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. New York: Vintage, 1986. Print.
Johnson, Ludwell H. Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1958. Print.
Kronk, Gary W. “C/1861 J1 (Great Comet of 1861).” n.d. Web. 11 Sept. 2011.
Long, E.B. and Barbara Long. The Civil War: Day by Day. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. Print.
McPherson, James M., ed. The Atlas of the Civil War. New York: Macmillan, 1994. Print.
. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford UP. 1988. Print.
Parrish, T. Michael. Richard Taylor: Soldier Prince of Dixie. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP. 1992. Print.
Stone, Kate. Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861-1868. Ed. John Q. Anderson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana UP. 1995. Print.
Sullivan, Walter. The War the Women Lived: Female Voices from the Confederate South. Nashville: J.S. Sanders & Company. 1995. Print.
Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: W.W. Norton, 1962. Print.
Wooster, Ralph A. Civil War Texas. Texas State Historical Association. 199. Print.

  1. Very well written and sadly true story.

  2. I’m hooked. I will continue reading as time permits. Thanks for writing a very personal and poignant story.

  3. e you to read another side of the southern experience during the Civil War-“War Between the States”-it based on the true story of my great x2 grandfather who fought for NC and was a prisoner of war for three years. We had no plantations, the “slaves:,were more like poor share croppers-not much worse off than many whites. I do not in any way condone slavery or its horrors, but many of us were simply fighting for hearth and home, just as the soldiers north of us were. I will follow your wonderful, informative blog.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. 1862: Ruin and Disaster « stillness of heart
  2. 1863: Demons « stillness of heart
  3. 1864: Day to Day « stillness of heart
  4. 1865: The Happiest Year « stillness of heart
  5. Kate Stone’s Civil War: ‘Death in defense of the South’ « stillness of heart
  6. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The stir and mob of angry life « stillness of heart
  7. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Whipped unmercifully « stillness of heart
  8. Kate Stone’s Civil War: They thought me so ugly « stillness of heart
  9. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Gallantly fought and won « stillness of heart
  10. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The fevers « stillness of heart
  11. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The war inches closer « stillness of heart
  12. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Gladden our hearts « stillness of heart
  13. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The noble, gentle heart « stillness of heart
  14. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Rainy days « stillness of heart
  15. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Sad Christmas « stillness of heart
  16. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Happy birthday « stillness of heart
  17. Kate Stone’s Civil War: They close in and kill « stillness of heart
  18. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The little creature « stillness of heart
  19. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Victory will be ours « stillness of heart
  20. Kate Stone’s Civil War: A perfect love of a lieutenant « stillness of heart
  21. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Burn our cities « stillness of heart
  22. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Fashion is an obsolete word « stillness of heart
  23. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The sleep that knows no waking « stillness of heart
  24. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Trembling hearts « stillness of heart
  25. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Capable of any horror « stillness of heart
  26. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The fire of battle « stillness of heart
  27. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Beyond my strength « stillness of heart
  28. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Tragedy after tragedy « stillness of heart
  29. Kate Stone’s Civil War: His sins against the South « stillness of heart
  30. Kate Stone’s Civil War: A lady’s favors « stillness of heart
  31. Kate Stone’s Civil War: She was heartbroken « stillness of heart
  32. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Preparing to run « stillness of heart
  33. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Hoodoo woman | stillness of heart
  34. Kate Stone’s Civil War: It made us tremble | stillness of heart
  35. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The pistol pointed at my head | stillness of heart
  36. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Tears on my cheek | stillness of heart
  37. Kate Stone’s Civil War: A horrid flight | stillness of heart
  38. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The greatest villian | stillness of heart
  39. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Flaming cheeks and flashing eyes | stillness of heart
  40. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The glory of the family | stillness of heart
  41. Kate Stone’s Civil War: His father’s sins | stillness of heart
  42. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Baffled beasts of prey | stillness of heart
  43. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Useless to resist | stillness of heart
  44. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Southern hearts | stillness of heart
  45. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Like mad demons | stillness of heart
  46. Kate Stone’s Civil War: On the road for Texas | stillness of heart
  47. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The dark corner | stillness of heart
  48. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The dirtiest people | stillness of heart
  49. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Scowling, revengeful faces | stillness of heart
  50. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Despondent and chicken-hearted | stillness of heart
  51. Despondent and chicken-hearted | Catching up with stillness of heart | Hey Sweetheart, Get Me Rewrite!
  52. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Makes us tremble for Texas | stillness of heart
  53. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Lose our scalps | stillness of heart
  54. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Conquer or die | stillness of heart
  55. Kate Stone’s Civil War: My pen is powerless | stillness of heart
  56. Kate Stone’s Civil War: They call us all renegades | stillness of heart
  57. Kate Stone’s Civil War: It makes us shiver | stillness of heart
  58. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Years of grinding toil | stillness of heart
  59. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Destroyed by the Yankees | stillness of heart
  60. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Two distressed damsels | stillness of heart
  61. Kate Stone’s Civil War: This is too disgraceful | stillness of heart
  62. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The heart of a boy | stillness of heart
  63. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Credulous mortals | stillness of heart
  64. Kate Stone’s Civil War: A fear of bad news | stillness of heart
  65. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Pride must have a fall | stillness of heart
  66. Kate Stone’s Civil War: So little to eat | stillness of heart
  67. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Nobly and fearlessly | stillness of heart
  68. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Alone in a strange land | stillness of heart
  69. Kate Stone’s Civil War: A charming little woman | stillness of heart
  70. Kate Stone’s Civil War: A sad 1863 ends | stillness of heart
  71. Kate Stone’s Civil War: A noted flirt | stillness of heart
  72. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Trouble and distress | stillness of heart
  73. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The story so far … | stillness of heart
  74. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The first desideratum | stillness of heart
  75. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The mournful whistle | stillness of heart
  76. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The petted darling | stillness of heart
  77. Kate Stone’s Civil War: A besom of destruction | stillness of heart
  78. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The easy conquest of Texas | stillness of heart
  79. Kate Stone’s Civil War: To every young lady | stillness of heart
  80. Kate Stone’s Civil War: To kill and destroy | stillness of heart
  81. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Our best fancy yellow organdies | stillness of heart
  82. Kate Stone’s Civil War: That land of desolation | stillness of heart
  83. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The breath of flowers | stillness of heart
  84. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Strangers in a strange land | stillness of heart
  85. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Those terrible battles | stillness of heart
  86. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Callous to suffering and death | stillness of heart
  87. Kate Stone’s Civil War: We enjoy our ease | stillness of heart
  88. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Lazy and languid | stillness of heart
  89. Kate Stone’s Civil War: One grand holocaust | stillness of heart
  90. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Too disgraceful if true | stillness of heart
  91. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The flower-wreathed scepter | stillness of heart
  92. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Fairy castles in the air | stillness of heart
  93. Kate Stone’s Civil War: I suffered intensely | stillness of heart
  94. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Living so delightfully | stillness of heart
  95. Kate Stone’s Civil War: The bloodiest battles | stillness of heart
  96. Kate Stone’s Civil War: Season of general disaster | stillness of heart
  97. My grand strategy | stillness of heart

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