St. Louis poet edits Confederate relative’s diary

September 20, 2012
Post-Dispatch Book Editor

Sarah Lois Wadley knew war was deteriorating when vultures weren’t even hanging around to pick at soldiers’ bodies. "A carcass may lie for days untouched," she wrote in June 1863. "Those creatures have gone eastward in search of nobler game; how terrible is war!"

A teenager who spent the Civil War in Georgia and Louisiana, Sarah was the great great aunt of a St. Louis poet, Suzanne Rhodenbaugh, who has edited her relative’s diary and published it as "Sarah’s Civil War."

Rhodenbaugh will talk about the book at 7 tonight at Subterranean Books, 6275 Delmar Boulevard.

The Wadley family owned slaves, and Sarah was a staunch Confederate who hated Yankees and President Lincoln. Her diary entries are fascinating, even for Yankee readers, because of her articulate and observant records:

In April 1864, she noted:

"I have allowed two days to pass without writing the news: the Yankees are gone, and I have been so busy that I have not been able before to chronicle this great event. We heard the news Tuesday evening and on Wednesday morning Father and Mother went to town. The Yankees had indeed gone, taking all the cotton they could get, and from five-hundred to a thousand Negroes. Almost everyone in Monroe lost their house servants, and some lost all on their plantations. … Five of the railroad Negroes left, three of whom we thought the most faithful: Nate, Little Cuffy and Ike, who all, especially Nate, behaved so well on our way to Georgia. I believed he was promised a captaincy; perhaps that allured him. We lost but one Negro, Little Emmaline, who was hired in Monroe with her husband, a railroad boy, and left with him. Before leaving town the Yankees burned the courthouse, the railroad bridge over the Ouachita and one other small public office. They did not trouble private property at all except to take all the cotton they could find. I was surprised to hear of so many Negroes going. It is said that one woman killed her little baby, who was very sick, and she knew would keep her from going. Many left their little babies on the plantation to go…."

Sarah’s complete diary is kept in the Southern Historical Collection at Wilson Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Rhodenbaugh says she spent up to a year editing the diary and that it’s unusual because Sarah "was exposed to a broader perspective on the war issues than a young girl of that time typically would have been.  And she had traveled: in the South, New England, and some of the Midwest (including St. Louis).  She is also an interesting character: both prim and spirited, and very well-educated for her time."

Rhodenbaugh was disappointed, though, that Sarah never questioned slavery. Also, like many modern politicians, the "Wadleys were all for war as long as other people did the suffering and the dying. — Sarah’s brother Willie was kept out of the actual fighting until early 1865.  He is listed as having been a prisoner of war of the Union at Vicksburg, and being in the Trans-Mississippi regiment — one of last to surrender, but by influence and money he was kept out of danger until very late in the war, though family stories have since finessed this."

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