Kate Stone’s Civil War: A blow on my heart

Stone reveals a deep well of insecurity about herself as her mother confesses her own feelings about her intelligent daughter.


From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

Stone reveals a deep well of insecurity about herself as her mother confesses her own feelings about her intelligent daughter.

April 7, 1865

Tyler, Texas

Mamma distressed me much yesterday by telling me I was the most reserved person she ever knew, that she did not feel that she knew me at all.

It was like a blow on my heart for her to speak so. I never knew I was reserved. I never try to be. All that I can do is to endeavor to overcome this fault and to let her see that she knows all there is of me to know. The silly, light love affairs seemed too foolish to talk about, but I will try to be frank with my darling Mother. I wish I could be more like her, more like she would have me, but I fear we cannot change our nature.

Another impressive thing is she says that I am generally considered a very handsome, stylish-looking girl, but I know she is mistaken there. Motherly partiality has blinded her. I always considered myself rather remarkably ugly.

All the girls attended a party a few days ago and their escorts drank so much several were unable to accompany the girls home. All the men present but two were said to be drunk. I am thankful I did not go to such a disgraceful affair. The girls are much chagrined and offended.

Kate Stone’s Civil War: They thought me so ugly

She never thought she was attractive. She never thought she’d be loved. But on one rainy day, a conversation with her mother changed everything.

From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, the daughter of Louisiana cotton plantation owners who chronicled her turbulent life throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

July 1861 at Brokenburn began amidst sickness, and Stone was restless. She had always known she was smart, witty, well-read, and insightful. Like many people today, she never believed she was attractive, and that insecurity was a black cloud that darkened every aspect of her emotional life. But on one rainy day, a conversation with her mother inspired her to completely reshape her self-image.

July 1

Mamma is sick again today from the medicine. I hope she will be relieved by tomorrow. It upsets everything for her to be sick. I cannot settle to any work or even read with any comprehension. … A wet disagreeable day, Mamma sleeping through most of it, but she waked up this evening and was telling me tales of my babyhood and early childhood.

It seems My Brother and I were quite noted little people in our circle of acquaintances. At eighteen months I learned my letters with My Brother, who was fifteen months older, and by the time I was two and a half could read very well. I knew “Mother Goose” by heart, could repeat pages of poetry and a number of little tales, and chatter of any and everything by the hour.

And yet I was a good little child and the delight of my Father, who thought me a wonderful little creature and would never let me be crossed. I was his only daughter for so long. I remember his pleasure when Sister was born after six sons had been ushered into the world. …

I do not remember the time when I could not read. My first recollection of books was trying to teach my little Aunt Serena, three years the older, her letters, sitting side by side on the steps. How strange it seemed to me that she could not read. I thought everybody read as everybody talked naturally.

Mamma’s talk was a great surprise to me as I had always thought I was the ugly duckling of the whole family. … I had always, since I could think, had the idea that my Father and all the family petted and encouraged me because they thought me so ugly and were sorry all the time that I was suffering from this idea, for it has been the shadow on my life. I was my Father’s favorite; he thought me perfect. I had the admiration of the rest of the family for what they were pleased to think my quick, bright mind.

The knowledge of this will, I think, change my life from this night. Finding that I have been much beloved all my life, I will try to put away the morbid thoughts that have so often harassed me 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. Mamma by one long, sweet talk … exorcised this gloomy spirit; from this time forth I will try to make the best of the girl that Father loved so.

Mamma says I was the quaintest-looking little figure when three years old, being small with long yellow hair plaited down my back my Father would never allow it to be touched with the scissors. I had a short, stumpy, little body and the very tiniest feet and hands, like bird claws, so small and thin, and a grave dignified manner. But I was an incessant chatterbox with the funniest lisp when perched in a high chair in the chimney corner reciting poetry and telling tales to amuse the laughing grown folks.

The lisp I have kept to this day, try as I will to get rid of it. But not another feature is like the Kate of today. I am tall, not quite five feet six, and thin, have an irregular face, a quantity of brown hair, a shy, quiet manner, and talk but little.

What an egotistical page, but it has made me happy. No more morose dreamings, but a new outlook on life.

Nixon lurking in the shadows

Some people fear death. Others fear failure. My fear is not as dire as those two, but it’s related to both.

Richard Nixon was in my dream last night. The post-presidency Nixon. The bitter, self-pitying, damned Nixon, coiled in the shadows of La Casa Pacifica in San Clemente, dark eyes glaring at the world as it spun on without him. In my dream, I was informed that he had selected me to help him with a new book on foreign policy, his biggest work yet, looking a century ahead, in which he would make 20 predictions of what awaited the United States in terms of economics, foreign policy, war, health and technology.

He also quietly admitted to me that he was going to run for president again, “to save America from itself.” Evidently, my dream was set at some point before his death in April 1994 and in a nation governed by a constitution without the Twenty-Second Amendment. I told him that my political and social beliefs mostly leaned toward the Democrats. “That’s fine, fine,” he said. “All the better.” He gruffly insisted that he wanted to be challenged at every point. “That’s the best kind of White House chief of staff,” he growled with a smile. “Gonna need a bastard like that.” At that point, thankfully, I woke up.

Throughout much of my life, Nixon has fascinated me. Nixon the scarred politician. Nixon the global strategist. Nixon the cold-blooded survivor. Nixon the abused vice president. Nixon the elder statesman. Nixon the social reject. I was born during the last months of the Nixon presidency. My mother recalled cradling her new wrinkly, sleepy baby as she watched the Watergate investigations burn down the Nixon presidency. She thinks that’s why I love political history and political scandal so much.

My bookshelves are filled with books on Nixon. On my office wall I’ve hung framed historic newspapers, including the Friday, Aug. 9, 1974, edition of the New York Times, blaring the fully capitalized words, “Nixon Resigns.” Nixon’s angry, bleary eyes are like scarred volcanic coals staring at me from the yellowed newsprint, as if they’re demanding something from me, something unspoken and unknowable. In Nixon’s case, I think it’s better that it remains unspoken and unknowable.

In recent weeks, Nixon has been on my mind more than usual. Nixon-related news seemed to be everywhere.

Writer Ann Beattie recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times about her new book on Pat Nixon, which was later reviewed in the Book Review.

The New York Times recently ran a fascinating story on the release of the transcript of Nixon’s combative and acidly sarcastic grand jury testimony to Watergate prosecutors. The story contained a great quote from historian Stanley Kutler: “If you know the voice of Richard Nixon, it’s a virtuoso performance, from the awkward attempts at humor to the moments of self-pity.”

Timothy Naftali, the historian and Nixon Library director, recently announced that he was leaving the presidential center. Two weeks later, the library unveiled audio recordings of Nixon recalling his bizarre meeting with anti-war protestors at the Lincoln Memorial.

Journalist Tom Wicker, who wrote a beautiful essay about Nixon for the Character Above All series, died several days ago. China recently agreed to stage — on its own terms — the play “Top Secret: The Battle for the Pentagon Papers,” an exploration of the clash between government power and a free press.

And, finally, the website for the PBS series “American Experience” recently redesigned the page devoted to its powerful presidential documentaries, including a brilliant, bitter one devoted to Nixon.

That 20-year-old PBS documentary, which is sorely in need of an update, ended its introductory segment with a quote that has stayed with me since I first saw it 15 years ago. It was from then-Attorney General Eliot Richardson, who said: “It struck me from time to time that Nixon, as a character, would have been so easy to fix, in the sense of removing these rather petty flaws. And yet, I think it’s also true that if you did this, you would probably have removed that very inner core of insecurity that led to his drive. A secure Nixon, almost surely, in my view, would never have been President of the United States at all.”

For years, as I systematically built a life as an editor, writer and historian, Richardson’s grim observation of Nixon somehow intensified the raging fires fueling my own ambitions. It also challenged me as a presidential historian to understand the intricate mechanisms of a genuinely great and terrible president, along with the diplomatic triumphs and political wastelands he left in his wake.

When I considered Richardson’s observation from the perspective of a novelist, his characterization of Nixon stood as a supreme example of how to design and engineer complex, unforgettable, and tragically-doomed characters for my own fictional illustrations of an equally doomed America. With Nixon in mind, I assembled various aspects of brilliant and frightened men and women, each character crippled by contradictions and insecurities, their virtuous ambitions eventually mutating into bitterness and anger, like the coils of an anaconda strangling their moral centers. Each character is stunning in their own unique way, each one an absolute genius at one thing, magnificently talented, each one contributing to the greater story and the greater society. Some are geniuses yet they don’t know it. Some realize their talents all too late as they look back at a wasted existence, lost love and betrayed principles. For others, their genius is too heavy a burden, or too sharp of a weapon, and they use it to destroy the lives all around them. They are the perfect liars, manipulators, and killers, naturally evil or self-centered people whose true darkness is fully appreciated only when they are thrust into terrible tragedies or failures. A few of my characters — too few — are lucky. They are discovered and guided by the right mentors, and they live rich lives of fulfillment and success, not entirely sure why so many others lead aimless lives destitute of happiness and self-worth.

Lurking not too far behind my musings on Nixon as a president and as a man are my own fears and uncertainties. Some people fear death. Others fear failure. My fear is not as dire as those two, but it’s related to both. I’m haunted every moment of every day by a fear of mediocrity. To me, death is fine as long as I’ve accomplished something notable, as long as I’m celebrated after I’m gone, as long as I’m remembered and appreciated and emulated. Failure is fine as long as I have faith that there are substantive triumphs to eclipse them. I don’t need my face carved onto a mountain or an aircraft carrier named after me, of course. It’s not about ego. Perhaps it’s more about how much I’ve demanded of myself and about how I’ve met those demands, regardless of how ridiculously unrealistic they may have been.

Isn’t this everyone’s personal struggle? Wasn’t it Nixon’s struggle? Shouldn’t I be comforted by the sense that I’m intelligent and perceptive enough to perceive how inconsequential I still am? Shouldn’t that give me some kind of hope, some kind of fresh drive to push harder, write better, think deeper and dream bigger?

Do I have “rather petty flaws” that are driving me to some kind of Pyrrhic doom? Will my hard work in academics and writing build a body of work that I can look back upon with pride? Or am I simply a serene, comfortable, middle class, 21st century American, slowly and sensibly living out his days, not overly flawed and not admirably ambitious, doomed to accomplish nothing? Am I just someone cruising along the suburbs of American existence, blind to the opportunities all around him, a serene man adrift, watched over by his “patron saint,” a forgettable face lost in a forgettable life?

I can’t believe that. I’m a good man who will someday be a great man. That’s all there is to it. This life will improve every life it touches, and it will leave behind a better world. Those are the ambitions I’m achieving and will continue to achieve. That is the greatness I will be remembered for. Hardly mediocre. Hardly petty.

I’ll mention that to Nixon the next time he offers me a job.

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