Sarah Morgan Dawson.

A Confederate girl's diary online

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The Riverside Press Cambridge



_Published September 1913_





From a daguerreotype in the possession of the family.


From a daguerreotype in the possession of the family.


From a daguerreotype in the possession of the family.



Sully's portrait of Mrs. Morgan.


Built by General A. G. Carter in 1848, now the home of his
grandson, Howell Morgan. This was a Spanish grant and has
always remained in the family.


On Church Street, Baton Rouge, La., now the property of
St. Joseph Academy, and used as an annex.



It is perhaps due to a chance conversation, held some seventeen years
ago in New York, that this Diary of the Civil War was saved from

A Philadelphian had been talking with my mother of North and South, and
had alluded to the engagement between the Essex and the Arkansas, on
the Mississippi, as a brilliant victory for the Federal navy. My mother
protested, at once; said that she and her sister Miriam, and several
friends, had been witnesses, from the levee, to the fact that the
Confederates had fired and abandoned their own ship when the machinery
broke down, after two shots had been exchanged: the Federals,
cautiously turning the point, had then captured but a smoking hulk. The
Philadelphian gravely corrected her; history, it appeared, had
consecrated, on the strength of an official report, the version more
agreeable to Northern pride.

"But I wrote a description of the whole, just a few hours after it
occurred!" my mother insisted. "Early in the war I began to keep a
diary, and continued until the very end; I had to find some vent for my
feelings, and I would not make an exhibition of myself by talking, as
so many women did. I have written while resting to recover breath in
the midst of a stampede; I have even written with shells bursting over
the house in which I sat, ready to flee but waiting for my mother and
sisters to finish their preparations."

"If that record still existed, it would be invaluable," said the
Philadelphian. "We Northerners are sincerely anxious to know what
Southern women did and thought at that time, but the difficulty is to
find authentic contemporaneous evidence. All that I, for one, have
seen, has been marred by improvement in the light of subsequent

"You may read my evidence as it was written from March 1862 until April
1865," my mother declared impulsively.

At our home in Charleston, on her return, she unstitched with trembling
hands a linen-bound parcel always kept in her tall, cedar-lined
wardrobe of curled walnut. On it was scratched in ink "To be burned
unread after my death"; it contained, she had once told me, a record of
no interest save to her who had written it and lacked the courage to
re-read it; a narrative of days she had lived, of joys she had lost; of
griefs accepted, of vain hopes cherished.

From the linen, as the stitches were cut, fell five blank books of
different sizes. Two, of convenient dimensions, might have been
intended for diaries; the other three, somewhat unwieldy, were partly
used ledgers from Judge P. H. Morgan's office. They were closely
written in a clear, firm hand; the ink, of poor quality, had faded in
many places to a pale brown scarcely darker than the deep yellow to
which time had burned the paper. The effort to read under such
conditions, and the tears shed over the scenes evoked, might well have
cost my mother her sight; but she toiled for many weeks, copying out
the essential portions of the voluminous record for the benefit of the
Northerner who really wished to know.

Her transcription finished, she sent it to Philadelphia. It was in due
course returned, with cold regrets that the temptation to rearrange it
had not been resisted. No Southerner at that time could possibly have
had opinions so just or foresight so clear as those here attributed to
a young girl. Explanation was not asked, nor justification allowed: the
case, tried by one party alone, with evidence seen from one standpoint
alone, had been judged without appeal.

Keenly wounded and profoundly discouraged, my mother returned the
diaries to their linen envelope, and never saw them again. But my
curiosity had been roused by these incidents; in the night, thoughts of
the records would haunt me, bringing ever the ante-bellum scent of the
cedar-lined wardrobe. I pleaded for the preservation of the volumes,
and succeeded at last when, beneath the injunction that they should be
burned, my mother wrote a deed of gift to me with permission to make
such use of them as I might think fitting.

Reading those pages for myself, of late, as I transcribed them in my
turn, I confess to having blamed the Philadelphian but lightly for his

Here was a girl who, by her own admission, had known but ten months'
schooling in her life, and had educated herself at home because of her
yearning for knowledge; and yet she wrote in a style so pure, with a
command of English so thorough, that rare are the pages where she had
to stop for the alteration of so much as one word. The very haste of
noting what had just occurred, before more should come, had disturbed
the pure line of very few among these flowing sentences. There are
certain uses of words to which the twentieth century purist will take
exception; but if he is familiar with Victorian literature he will know
that these points have been solved within the last few decades - and not
all solved to the satisfaction of everyone, even now.

But underlying this remarkable feat of style, are a fairness of
treatment and a balance of judgment incredible at such a period and in
an author so young. On such a day, we may note an entry denouncing the
Federals before their arrival at Baton Rouge; another page, and we see
that the Federal officers are courteous and considerate, we hear
regrets that denunciations should have been dictated by prejudice. Does
Farragut bombard a town occupied by women and children, or does Butler
threaten to arm negroes against them? Be sure, then, that this Southern
girl will not spare adjectives to condemn them! But do Southern women
exaggerate in applying to all Federals the opprobrium deserved by some?
Then those women will be criticized for forgetting the reserve imposed
upon ladies. This girl knew then what history has since established,
and what enlightened men and women on both sides of Mason and Dixon's
line have since acknowledged: that in addition to the gentlemen in the
Federal ranks who always behaved as gentlemen should, there were
others, both officers and privates, who had donned the Federal uniform
because of the opportunity for rapine which offered, and who were as
unworthy of the Stars and Stripes as they would have been of the Stars
and Bars.

I can understand, therefore, that this record should meet with
skepticism at the hands of theorists committed to an opinion, or of
skimmers who read guessing the end of a sentence before they reach the
middle. But the originals exist to-day, and have been seen by others
than myself; and I pledge myself here to the assertion that I have
taken no liberties, have made no alterations, but have strictly adhered
to my task of transcription, merely omitting here and there passages
which deal with matters too personal to merit the interest of the

Those who read seriously, and with unbiased mind, will need no external
guarantees of authenticity, however; for the style is of that
spontaneous quality which no imitation could attain, and which
attempted improvement could only mar. The very construction of the
whole - for it does appear as a whole - is influenced by the
circumstances which made the life of that tragic period.

The author begins with an airy appeal to Madame Idleness - in order to
forget. Then, the war seemed a sacred duty, an heroic endeavor, an
inevitable trial, according as Southerners chose to take it; but the
prevailing opinion was that the solution would come in victory for
Southern arms, whether by their own unaided might or with the support
of English intervention. The seat of war was far removed, and but for
the absence of dear ones at the front and anxiety about them, Southern
women would have been little disturbed in their routine of household
duties. But presently the roar of cannon draws near, actual danger is
experienced in some cases, suffering and privation must be accepted in
all. Thenceforth, the women are part of the war; there may be
interludes of plantation life momentarily secure from bullets and from
oppression, yet the cloud is felt hanging ever lower and blacker.
Gradually, the writer's gay spirit fails; an injury to her spine, for
which adequate medical care cannot be found in the Confederacy, and the
condition of her mother, all but starving at Clinton, drive these
Southern women to the protection of a Union relative in New Orleans.
The hated Eagle Oath must be taken, the beloved Confederacy must be
renounced at least in words. Entries in the Diary become briefer and
briefer, yet are sustained unto the bitter end, when the deaths of two
brothers, and the crash of the Lost Cause, are told with the tragic
reserve of a broken heart.

* * * * *

I have alluded to passages omitted because too personal. That the
clearness of the narrative may not suffer, I hope to be pardoned for
explaining briefly, here, the position of Sarah Morgan's family at the
outbreak of the Civil War.

Her father, Judge Thomas Gibbes Morgan, had been Collector of the Port
of New Orleans, and in 1861 was Judge of the District Court of the
Parish of Baton Rouge. In complete sympathy with Southern rights, he
disapproved of Secession as a movement fomented by hotheads on both
sides, but he declared for it when his State so decided. He died at his
home in Baton Rouge in November, 1861, before the arrival of Farragut's

Judge Thomas Gibbes Morgan's eldest son, Philip Hickey Morgan, was also
a Judge, of the Second District Court of the Parish of Orleans. Judge
P. H. Morgan (alluded to as "Brother" and his wife as "Sister"
throughout the Diary) disapproved of Secession like his father, but did
not stand by his State. He declared himself for the Union, and remained
in New Orleans when the Federals took possession, but refused to bear
arms against his brothers and friends. His position enabled him to
render signal services to many Confederate prisoners suffering under
Butler's rule. And it was a conversation of his with President Hayes,
when he told the full, unprejudiced truth about the Dual Government and
the popular sentiment of Louisiana, which put an end to Reconstruction
there by the Washington Government's recognition of General Francis T.
Nicholls, elected Governor by the people, instead of Packard, declared
Governor by the Republican Returning Board of the State. Judge P. H.
Morgan had proved his disinterestedness in his report to the President;
for the new Democratic régime meant his own resignation from the post
of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of Louisiana which he held
under the Republicans. He applied then to himself a piece of advice
which he later was to give a young relative mentioned in the pages of
this Diary: "Always remember that it is best to be in accord with the
sentiments of the vast majority of the people in your State. They are
more apt to be right, on public questions of the day, than the
individual citizen."

If Judge Thomas Gibbes Morgan's eldest son stayed within the Union
lines because he would not sanction Secession, his eldest
daughter - Lavinia - was on the Federal side also, married to Colonel
Richard Coulter Drum, then stationed in California, and destined to
become, in days of peace, Adjutant-General under President Cleveland's
first administration. Though spared the necessity of fighting against
his wife's brothers, Colonel Drum was largely instrumental in checking
the Secession movement in California which would probably have assured
the success of the South.

In the early days of Secession agitation, another son of Judge T. G.
Morgan, Henry, had died in a duel over a futile quarrel which
busybodies had envenomed. The three remaining sons had gone off to the
war. Thomas Gibbes Morgan, Jr., married to Lydia, daughter of General
A. G. Carter and a cousin of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, was Captain in the
Seventh Louisiana Regiment, serving under Stonewall Jackson; George
Mather Morgan, unmarried, was a Captain in the First Louisiana, also
with Jackson in Virginia. The youngest, James Morris Morgan, had
resigned from Annapolis, where he was a cadet, and hurried back to
enlist in the Confederate navy.

At the family home in Baton Rouge, only women and children remained.
There was Judge Morgan's widow, Sarah Fowler Morgan; a married
daughter, Eliza or "Lilly," with her five children; and two unmarried
daughters, Miriam and Sarah. "Lilly's" husband, J. Charles La Noue,
came and went; unable to abandon his large family without protector or
resources, he had not joined the regular army, but took a part in
battles near whatever place of refuge he had found for those dependent
on him. We note, for instance, that he helped in the Confederate attack
on Baton Rouge, together with General Carter, whose age had prevented
him from taking regular service.

A word more as to the author of this Diary, and I have finished.

The war over, Sarah Morgan knitted together the threads of her torn
life and faced her present, in preparation for whatever the future
might hold. In South Carolina, under Reconstruction, she met a young
Englishman, Captain Francis Warrington Dawson, who had left his home in
London to fight for a cause where his chivalrous nature saw right
threatened by might. In the Confederate navy under Commodore Pegram, in
the Army of Northern Virginia under Longstreet, at the close of the war
he was Chief Ordnance officer to General Fitzhugh Lee. But although the
force of arms, of men, of money, of mechanical resources, of
international support, had decided against the Confederacy, he refused
to acknowledge permanent defeat for Southern ideals, and so cast his
lot with those beside whom he had fought. His ambition was to help his
adopted country in reconquering through journalism and sound politics
that which seemed lost through war. What he accomplished in South
Carolina is a matter of public record to-day. The part played in this
work by Sarah Morgan as his wife is known to all who approached them
during their fifteen years of a married life across which no shadow
ever fell.

Sarah Morgan Dawson was destined to outlive not only her husband, but
all save three of her eight brothers and sisters, and most of the
relatives and friends mentioned in the pages which follow; was destined
to endure deep affliction once more, and to renounce a second home
dearer than that first whose wreck she recorded during the war. Yet
never did her faith, her courage, her steadfastness fail her, never did
the light of an almost childlike trust in God and in mankind fade from
her clear blue eyes. The Sarah Morgan who, as a girl, could stifle her
sobs as she forced herself to laugh or to sing, was the mother I knew
in later years.

I love most to remember her in the broad tree-shaded avenues of
Versailles where, dreaming of a distant tragic past, she found ever new
strength to meet the present. Death claimed her not far from there, in
Paris, at a moment when her daughter in America, her son in Africa,
were powerless to reach her. But souls like unto hers leave their mark
in passing through the world; and, though in a foreign land, separated
from all who had been dear to her, she received from two friends such
devotion as few women deserve in life, and such as few other women are
capable of giving.

She had done more than live and love: - she had endured while endurance
was demanded; and, released from the house of bondage, she had, without
trace of bitterness in her heart, forgiven those who had caused her


July, 1913.



March 9th, 1862.

Here I am, at your service, Madame Idleness, waiting for any suggestion
it may please you to put in my weary brain, as a means to pass this
dull, cloudy Sunday afternoon; for the great Pike clock over the way
has this instant struck only half-past three; and if a rain is added to
the high wind that has been blowing ever since the month commenced, and
prevents my going to Mrs. Brunot's before dark, I fear I shall fall a
victim to "the blues" for the first time in my life. Indeed it is dull.
Miriam went to Linwood with Lydia yesterday, and I miss them beyond all
expression. Miriam is _so_ funny! She says she cannot live without me,
and yet she can go away, and stay for months without missing me in the
slightest degree. Extremely funny! And I - well, it is absurd to fancy
myself alive without Miriam. She would rather not visit with me, and
yet, be it for an hour or a month, I never halfway enjoy myself without
her, away from home. Miriam is my "Rock ahead" in life; I'll founder on
her yet. It's a grand sight for people out of reach, who will not come
in contact with the breakers, but it is quite another thing to me,
perpetually dancing on those sharp points in my little cockleshell that
forms so ludicrous a contrast to the grand scene around. I am sure to

I hold that every family has at heart one genius, in some line, no
matter what - except in our family, where each is a genius, in his own
way. Hem! And Miriam has a genius for the piano. Now I never could bear
to compete with any one, knowing that it is the law of my being to be
inferior to others, consequently to fail, and failure is so humiliating
to me. So it is, that people may force me to abandon any pursuit by
competing with me; for knowing that failure is inevitable, rather than
fight against destiny I give up _de bonne grâce_. Originally, I was
said to have a talent for the piano, as well as Miriam. Sister and Miss
Isabella said I would make a better musician than she, having more
patience and perseverance. However, I took hardly six months' lessons
to her ever so many years; heard how well she played, got disgusted
with myself, and gave up the piano at fourteen, with spasmodic fits of
playing every year or so. At sixteen, Harry gave me a guitar. Here was
a new field where I would have no competitors. I knew no one who played
on it; so I set to work, and taught myself to manage it, mother only
teaching me how to tune it. But Miriam took a fancy to it, and I taught
her all I knew; but as she gained, I lost my relish, and if she had not
soon abandoned it, I would know nothing of it now. She does not know
half that I do about it; they tell me I play much better than she; yet
they let her play on it in company before me, and I cannot pretend to
play after. Why is it? It is _not_ vanity, or I would play, confident
of excelling her. It is not jealousy, for I love to see her show her
talents. It is not selfishness; I love her too much to be selfish to
her. What is it then? "Simply lack of self-esteem" I would say if
there was no phrenologist near to correct me, and point out that
well-developed hump at the extreme southern and heavenward portion of
my Morgan head. Self-esteem or not, Mr. Phrenologist, the result is,
that Miriam is by far the best performer in Baton Rouge, and I would
rank forty-third even in the delectable village of Jackson.

And yet I must have some ear for music. To "know as many songs as
Sarah" is a family proverb; not very difficult songs, or very beautiful
ones, to be sure, besides being very indifferently sung; but the tunes
_will_ run in my head, and it must take _some_ ear to catch them.
People say to me, "Of course you play?" to which I invariably respond,
"Oh, no, but Miriam plays beautifully!" "You sing, I believe?" "Not
at all - except for father" (that is what I used to say) - "and the
children. But _Miriam_ sings." "You are fond of dancing?" "Very; but I
cannot dance as well as Miriam." "Of course, you are fond of society?"
"No, indeed! Miriam is, and she goes to all the parties and returns
all the visits for me." The consequence is, that if the person who
questions is a stranger, he goes off satisfied that "that Miriam must
be a great girl; but that little sister of hers - ! Well! a _prig_, to
say the least!"

So it is Miriam catches all my fish - and so it is, too, that it is not
raining, and I'm off.

April 7th.

Until that dreary 1861, I had no idea of sorrow or grief.... How I love
to think of myself at that time! Not as _myself_, but as some happy,
careless child who danced through life, loving God's whole world too
much to love any particular one, outside of her own family. She was
more childish then - yet I like her for all her folly; I can say it now,
for she is as dead as though she was lying underground.

Now do not imagine that Sarah has become an aged lady in the fifteen
months that have elapsed since, for it is no such thing; her heart does
ache occasionally, but that is a secret between her and this little
rosewood furnished room; and when she gets over it, there is no one
more fond of making wheelbarrows of the children, or of catching
Charlie or mother by the foot and making them play lame chicken.... Now
all this done by a young lady who remembers eighteen months ago with so
much regret that she has lost so much of her high spirits - might argue
that her spirits were before tremendous; and yet they were not. That
other Sarah was ladylike, I am sure, in her wildest moments, but there
is something hurried and boisterous in this one's tricks that reminds
me of some one who is making a merit of being jolly under depressing
circumstances. No! that is not a nice Sarah now, to _my_ taste.

The commencement of '61 promised much pleasure for the rest of the
year, and though Secession was talked about, I do not believe any one
anticipated the war that has been desolating our country ever since,
with no prospect of terminating for some time to come. True the
garrison was taken, but then several pleasant officers of the Louisiana
army were stationed there, and made quite an agreeable addition to our
small parties, and we did not think for a moment that trouble would
grow out of it - at least, we girls did not. Next Louisiana seceded, but
still we did not trouble ourselves with gloomy anticipations, for many
strangers visited the town, and our parties, rides, and walks grew
gayer and more frequent.

One little party - shall I ever forget it? - was on the 9th of March, I
think; such an odd, funny little party! Such queer things happened!
What a fool Mr. McG - - made of himself! Even more so than usual. But
hush! It's not fair to laugh at a lady - under peculiar circumstances.
And he tried so hard to make himself agreeable, poor fellow, that I
ought to like him for being so obedient to my commands. "Say something
new; something funny," I said, tired of a subject on which he had been
expatiating all the evening; for I had taken a long ride with him
before sunset, he had escorted me to Mrs. Brunot's, and here he was
still at my side, and his conversation did not interest me. To hear,
with him, was to obey. "Something funny? Well - " here he commenced

Online LibrarySarah Morgan DawsonA Confederate girl's diary → online text (page 1 of 27)