Kathryn Allamong Jacob, the Johanna-Maria Fraenkel Curator of Manuscripts at the Schlesinger, asked Beverly Wilson Palmer, a researcher who has used the library for many years, to transcribe one of the library’s Civil War diaries for the exhibition What They Wrote, What They Saved: The Personal Civil War. The diary’s author was unknown. Palmer, a skilled documentary editor, agreed to decipher the tiny scrawl so that visitors to the exhibition could read the diary. As she worked, she became increasingly curious about the diarist and began trying to learn who she was. In accordance with the conventions of documentary editing, Palmer retained the writer’s spelling and punctuation.
“The Yankees Aunt Annie what shall we do?”
From this excited question that Annie quotes in her diary, we learn only the first name of a woman who kept a journal from 1861 to 1863, which the Schlesinger Library acquired in 2012. Written in a cultivated though at times unclear hand, it contains all information then known about the writer. The diary begins as Annie departed her childhood home in New Castle, Delaware, with her children. Despite painful separation from other family and friends, she was determined to leave the North for the Confederacy, exclaiming, “Oh this battle of Right against Outrage and Wrong.”
Delayed in Baltimore, Annie refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the United States—or, as she put it, “the Lincoln government.” Finally, sailing on Chesapeake Bay, she wrote, “Soon a Dixie gun boomed through the air . . . and we were Dixies children.”
From Norfolk Annie’s party traveled by train through Virginia, reaching Memphis on December 19, 1861. En route she wrote, “We meet crowds of our soldiers going on to Virginia all in high spirits looking travel worn but glorious in their strength.” Traveling by boat from Memphis down the Mississippi River, the family arrived at the Rossmere plantation in Lake Chicot, Arkansas, on December 22, 1861. Annie described life at the plantation, contrasting its luxury with deprivation and depicting festivities at neighboring plantations that were interrupted by raids from the despised Yankees.
Annie made clear her commitment to the Confederate cause when she addressed her sister Caroline back in New Castle in March 1863: “If you could be here I mean in the South and see the people as we see them, know them as we know them learn of the true magnanimity of soul, look upon their deeds—displaying daily their heroism, I feel that their cause would be pronounced by you to be the true cause born of Heaven.” Her journal breaks off mid-story on September 9, 1863, as Annie described a young neighbor girl threatened by Union troops: “[S]he gave one bound down the steps rushed across. . . . ”
As I transcribed, I composed a portrait of Annie. Her mother and father were dead, for she had recorded, “to day many years back my own dear mother left us orphans.” She never mentioned a husband or brothers. With two daughters of marriageable age, she was most likely in her middle 40s. Despite her erratic spelling, Annie came from an educated background, quoting Tristram Shandy and Hamlet, referring to the Greek historian Xenophon, and adding the occasional French phrase (ma chere). Don Simons’s study In Their Words: A Chronology of the Civil War in Chicot County contains family names Annie mentioned. But no last name for Annie.
At the annual conference of the Association for Documentary Editing in 2013, I expressed my frustration over the lack of information about Annie to an old friend, William M. Ferraro, an associate editor of the Papers of George Washington at the University of Virginia. “Let me see what I can do for you,” he said. Back at UVA, he and Michael Dickens, a retired pediatrician and volunteer researcher for the Washington papers, worked from the details I had sent them. Soon I received an e-mail beginning, “Good news!”
Ferraro and Dickens had probed census data, genealogical records, and other historical sources and identified Annie. All the details fit: Ann Dorsey Read Reeves (1818–1900) was a member of the prominent Delaware Read family and a granddaughter of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Her husband, Captain Isaac Reeves, from Charleston, South Carolina, graduated from West Point, taught there in the 1840s, and died in 1851, at age 32. He left Ann with three daughters and a son. The plantation to which she and her children—Marion, 20, Anna, 19, Caroline, 12, and Isaac, 11—traveled was owned by her brother George Read IV, who died at Rossmere in 1859. These family ties to the South may well explain her strong Confederate sympathies. By 1870, according to census records, Ann had returned to Delaware. An obituary in the Wilmington, Delaware, Star informs us that she died in nearby Baltimore at the home of her daughter Caroline Reeves Potter on January 18, 1900, and is buried in New Castle.
The discovery of Ann’s identity prompted much elation at the Schlesinger Library. Nevertheless, we seek the next installment of her diary, perhaps to learn how this proud Confederate partisan reacted to the South’s defeat.
—Beverly Wilson Palmer
A research associate in the history department at Pomona College, Beverly Wilson Palmer earned degrees from the College of William and Mary and the University of California, Berkeley. Her published documentary editions include The Selected Letters of Lucretia Coffin Mott (University of Illinois Press, 2002) and The Selected Letters of Charles Sumner (Northeastern University Press, 1997).