Civil War Diaries and Memoirs

When Mississippi seceded from the Union on 9 January 1861, politicians, soldiers, women, and children began to document what would become their own personal histories of the American Civil War. In the four bloody years that followed, many Mississippians emerged as prolific writers, busily chronicling their tragic and tumultuous lives.

Most Civil War diaries were written by white southerners of middle-class status and above. Some were kept as community records to be published after the war; others were secret places that allowed individuals to explore their most intimate thoughts and feelings. Diarists had different motivations for writing their stories, and the purpose and audience profoundly shaped the construction, inclusion, and exclusion of people, places, and events.

Mississippi infantrymen frequently recorded their experiences in diaries. They documented camp life, including leisure activities such as reading, sports, and music, as well as their social activities in nearby towns or on plantations. They wrote about food, provisions, shelter, the weather, and morale. They penned poignant accounts of their experiences in battle, the death of comrades, sickness and injury, promotions, and their commanders and the enemy. William Pitt Chambers of Covington County left his post as a schoolteacher and joined the Covington Rebels, participating in the Siege of Vicksburg before being captured by Union troops. His diary, like many others, ended in May 1865 with the statement, “I am a soldier no longer.”

Female diarists provided a vivid picture of the home front in wartime Mississippi. They documented secession celebrations, preparations for war, shortages of household goods, the changing nature of master-slave relations, Union occupation, and the death of loved ones and friends. Amanda Worthington, a young woman from Wayside Plantation near Lake Washington, used her diary to record her rigorous domestic regime after her family’s slaves fled to Union lines. Natchez resident Elizabeth Christie Brown wrote about the difficulty of supervising “impudent” servants and of her doubts about the ultimate success of the war effort. Emma Balfour and Emilie Riley McKinley of Vicksburg recorded their experiences as occupants of a city under siege. Other accounts, such as that by schoolteacher Caroline Seabury, provide the perspective of a northerner in Mississippi during the war.

Memoirs provide yet another interpretation of the war, reflecting on the past through the powerful lens of hindsight. Many of these accounts were written in the late nineteenth century, at the height of the southern memorial movement, and were heavily influenced by the rhetoric of the Lost Cause. As a literary genre, memoirs are also influenced by mood and memory and are prone to inaccuracy. Women’s memoirs, in particular, were constrained by organizations such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which provided writers with guidelines to promote the development of a “collective memory” of the war. In other cases, senior military men and politicians published memoirs to defend their conduct during the war. Jefferson Davis, for example, wrote The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881) largely to explain and justify his role as Confederate president. These documents constituted a collective attempt to vindicate and reclaim the past and to record what the Daughters described as the “true history of the South.”

Further Reading

  • Emma Balfour, Vicksburg: A City under Siege: Diary of Emma Balfour, May 16, 1863–June 2, 1863, ed. Phillip C. Weinberger (1983)
  • Elizabeth Christie Brown Diary, Department of Archives and Special Collections, J. D. Williams Library, University of Mississippi
  • William Pitt Chambers Diary, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi
  • Columbus Chapter UDC, ed., War Reminiscences of Columbus, Mississippi, and Elsewhere, 1861–1865 (1961)
  • Emilie Riley McKinley, From the Pen of a She-Rebel: The Civil War Diary of Emilie Riley McKinley, ed. Gordon A. Cotton (2001)
  • Caroline Seabury, The Diary of Caroline Seabury, 1854–1863, ed. Suzanne L. Bunkers (1991)
  • Amanda Worthington Diary, Amanda Dougherty Worthington Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Civil War Diaries and Memoirs
  • Author
  • Keywords civil war, diaries, memoirs
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date April 7, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 13, 2018