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Diaries of Black women in the Civil War

Alicia Colombo

By Constance Garcia-Barrio

Films and books abound about the U.S. Civil War, yet, few sources present the lives of Black women during those years, except for mentioning Harriet Tubman’s work as a Union spy. However, Philadelphia holds a treasured place in Emilie Davis’ book “Civil War, the Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865.” The diaries spotlight the life of a local Black woman in those turbulent days.

Davis was a lively young woman when the Civil War began, who wrote short entries in three pocket-sized diaries, each no bigger than a cellphone. Judith Giesberg, 54, a professor of history at Villanova University, edited, transcribed and annotated the diaries.

“Emilie Davis’ … diary entries allow readers to experience the … painful uncertainties of the Civil War as events unfolded, such as the Union’s emancipation policy (and) 1863 Confederate invasion of south-central Pennsylvania,” Giesberg said.

Giesberg’s edition preserves Davis’ original spelling and lack of punctuation. “To day has bin a memorable day and i thank God i have been sperd to see it,” written on January 1, 1863. Davis, who missed few big events, joined other African Americans in crowded Black churches to cheer on the stroke of midnight, when the Emancipation Proclamation became official.

A seamstress skilled enough to make wedding gowns, Davis noted the war’s effects on cloth prices. “… I went out shopping … muslins (a kind of cotton) are frightfully Dear …,” she wrote February 19, 1863. Due to the South’s disrupted cotton production and the cloth’s use in uniforms, prices soared.

The conflict sometimes changed life’s daily rhythms. “… Today is set apart as a national fast day,” Davis wrote April 30, 1863. “Both Presidents Lincoln and (Jefferson) Davis proclaimed several ‘National Fast Days’ during the war to pray for clemency and forgiveness from God for the sins of war,” Giesberg said.

A battle seemed to loom on Philadelphia’s doorstep in June 1863, when General Lee, desperate to take the fight out of war-weary Virginia, invaded Pennsylvania. “… Refugees are comin from all the towns this side of Harrisburg the greates excitement Prevails. I am all most sick worrin about father (who lived in Harrisburg),” Davis wrote on June 29-30, just before the Battle of Gettysburg. “Emilie was right to worry about her father because rebel soldiers kidnapped hundreds of free Blacks and sold them into slavery,” Giesberg said.

In 1863, Pennsylvania began recruiting Black soldiers, known as United States Colored Troops. Many of them trained at Camp William Penn, 13 miles north of the city in Chelten Hills, now Cheltenham. “… This morning Jenie and I went up Chestnut St. to see the colored soldiers they went away to day,” Davis reported on February 10, 1864.

Philadelphians rejoiced when Richmond fell on April 2, 1865. “… The city is wild with excitement,” Emilie wrote April 4, 1865. “… Flags are flying everywhere.”

Just 11 days later, news of Lincoln’s assassination crushed many Philadelphians. “The city is in deep mourning,” Davis wrote.

People mobbed Broad Street and stood on rooftops April 23, 1865, to watch Lincoln’s funeral cortege inch down Broad Street, then turn east to Independence Hall, where the body would lie in state. Davis tried to glimpse Lincoln that day, but was crowded out. She succeeded the next day. “… I got to see him after waiting tow (two) hours and a half it was certainly a sight worth seeing …”

Davis wasn’t the only young Black woman to keep a journal of her experiences during the war. The memoir of Susie King Taylor, “Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd Colored Troops, Late 1st South Carolina Volunteers,” complements Emilie Davis’ because King Taylor, freed when she escaped to Union lines, writes about the activities of Black women in the South.

“Many people do not know what some … colored women did during the war,” King Taylor wrote. “Hundreds of them assisted … Union soldiers by hiding them and helping them escape. Many (Black women) were punished for taking food to the prison stockades for … (Union) prisoners … These things should be kept in history before the people.”
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For more information about Emilie Davis’ diaries, please see The diaries can be purchased at

Native Philadelphian Constance Garcia-Barrio writes about many topics, including Black history.


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