Woman recorded war’s fury in her diary

By Charles Culbertson/contributor

Local historians seeking first-hand accounts of what it was like to live here during the Civil War — and particularly, what it was like to suffer invasion and occupation by Union troops — most often go to the diary of Staunton publisher Joseph Waddell.

But a lesser known, yet no less important, diary issued from the pen of a woman living on a farm just south of Staunton. While Nancy Emerson’s writing style wasn’t quite as eloquent as Waddell’s, her descriptions provide a crisp, clear examination of war and military occupation in the Shenandoah Valley.

Emerson wasn’t a native Southerner. She was born in Massachusetts in 1807, but settled in Augusta County with her Presbyterian minister brother, Luther, and his family before the war. J. Lewis Peyton, in his landmark work "History of Augusta County," notes that Luther Emerson was, sometime after 1832, minister for Shemariah Presbyterian Church in Middlebrook.

The Emersons were prosperous, with real estate valued at $800 and personal estates valued at $12,265. Luther and his wife, Catharine, had three children — Ellen, Catharine and Joseph, all born in Virginia.

Despite her northern roots, Nancy Emerson was staunchly pro-Confederate in her sympathies and held that the war was God’s punishment to Yankee abolitionists.

In March of 1863, having heard of Northern depredations in the South, Emerson confided to her diary:

"For months we were under frequent apprehensions that the Yankees would come in & get posession (sic) of the Valley, but the Lord mercifully preserved us from the danger, & has delivered us from the fear. In our circumstances it would probably have been death to some of us.

"How many pleasant homes have these barbarians desolated, strewing the gardens with fragments of glass & china, filling the air with feathers from the beds, hewing up for wood, or boxing them up to send home? How have they soaked our soil with the blood of our noblest & best & then to cap the climax of injury & insult, talk of reconstructing the union."

Emerson then called upon God to "plead our cause against an ungodly nation."

"A just God," she predicted, "will visit sooner or later, & there will be no escape but by deep repentance."

But a little more than a year later, in June of 1864, Staunton and Augusta County fell to invading Union forces, and Emerson’s diary began to reflect encounters with the enemy. In July 1864, she recounted a June 9 and 10 foray by Yankee raiders.

The 40 to 50 raiders swept onto the Emerson place from the west, dismounted and rushed into the house. According to Emerson, they demanded — "with plenty of oaths" — whiskey, flour and bacon.

"Come on, boys," said one of the raiders, "we’ll find it all."

Emerson wrote that they then pushed rudely past a "terribly alarmed" Catharine Emerson, and "spread themselves nearly all over the house."

She wrote, "Finding their way to a fine barrel of flour which a neighbor had given us, they proceeded to fill their sacks & pillow cases, scattering a large percent on the floor, till it was nearly exhausted. The last one told us, on our remonstrating, to hide the rest."

Other members of the raiding party went upstairs, opened every trunk and dresser drawer and tossed the family’s belongings onto the floor. Emerson said the soldiers threw "even my nice bonnets" onto the floor, "pretending to be looking for arms."

Finding no weapons, the Yankees stole her cousin Samuel’s gold sleeve buttons and a pin, his best shirt, a good coat and a pair of shoes. She noted in her diary that Cousin Samuel later persuaded the marauder to sell him back the shoes for an Ohio $10 note.

"We did not say anything to provoke them, but did not disguise our sentiments," Emerson noted. "They went peeping under the beds, looking for rebels … Baxter told them there were no rebels here (meaning rebel soldiers).

"Cate then said, ‘I am a rebel & I glory in it.’"

Emerson wrote that when Catharine remonstrated with them about taking the shoes, asking them why they injured non-combatants, one of the Yankees replied:

"You need not tell me that, I know all the people along here have sons in the army."

Catharine Emerson then pointed to her son, Baxter, and said, "That is my only son."

Ellen Emerson spoke up and said, "I have no brothers in the army, I wish from my heart I had."

The Yankee soldier replied, "Now, Sis, I don’t wish you had brothers in the army. I wouldn’t like to kill one of your brothers."

When the raiders had gone, the family received a visit from a lone Union officer and learned, firsthand, that all Yankees weren’t alike. The officer, said Emerson, appeared a gentleman and asked civilly if he could obtain some flour. Catharine Emerson related how the raiding party had taken everything, but told him he could "go & see what they had left & help himself."

The officer said no — that he had never searched a house and never would.

That night the raiders camped on the road a mile or two from the Emerson house, and procured "a fine supper" from the farms around them. Catharine Emerson, she wrote, was afraid to undress, but managed to lie down "quite exhausted" for two or three hours that night while the children kept watch.

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