KATE SPERRY: WARTIME REPORTS FROM WINCHESTER, VIRGINIA
Women in the American South during the Civil War offer a valuable perspective on war that is often overlooked. Southern women, slave and free, have a unique experience in the American historical landscape. They are the only women who experienced the Civil War, not as combatants, but by living in an occupied territory, the Southern States.
Diaries and letter-writing were prevalent habits among American women in the nineteenth century. Although public education was nearly nonexistent before the Civil War, many young women — slaves being the exception by law in some states — were provided basic education so that they could assist their husbands and households in participating in commerce, trade, and farming. They were trained in reading, writing, and arithmetic, usually by their families, pastors, local schools, and private tutors. They often proceeded with self-education efforts as a result of this training. The surviving diaries and letter collections of southern women are invaluable in providing insights into their hearts and minds. From those documents, we learn about the homefront, and obtain a very different story of the war than that provided by soldiers’ letters and diaries.
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Kate Sperry: Reports from Winchester, Virginia, 1861-65
Kate Sperry was eighteen years old, the daughter of a Winchester, Virginia merchant, when the war broke out. Her photograph reveals a pretty, lively countenance, and her writing is spirited and intelligent. In mid-July 1861, when Winchester began to swarm with Confederate soldiers in anticipation of the First Battle of Manassas, she began keeping a detailed diary on one of her father’s empty store account ledgers; she filled four of those ledgers as the war went on. Her father joined the Confederate army’s quartermaster service. That necessitated Kate having to live with her grandfather, Peter Sperry, along with Kate’s stepmother, her two younger sisters, Jennie and Mary Anna, her “Aunt Wardy” and Levi, her grandfather’s only slave. The house was on the main street of Winchester, known as Loudoun Street, and we can see from her entries that, during the war, she served as a clerk in her father’s store.
One notable contribution Kate’s diary makes is her detailed descriptions of the depredations and degradations to which the Union army subjected Winchester’s citizens throughout the war. One express aim of certain Union occupational commanders was to suppress southerners’ enthusiasm for their “cause” not only with battlefield casualties, but also with impoverishment and hard-handed tactics on the noncombatants. Winchester’s strategic location, seventy-five miles northwest of Washington, DC, and the first major town south of the Potomac on the Valley Turnpike — containing even a medical school, which did the autopsy on John Brown’s body —made it a perfect target for subjugation efforts by commanders such as Generals Robert Milroy and Philip Sheridan.
At the outbreak of the war, Kate’s first thought was that the Confederate soldiers passing through town provided a whole new crop of potential spouses, and she openly assesses the merits and drawbacks of each one she meets. She made the rounds to churches of every denomination with prospective suitors and friends, attending, with equal enthusiasm, the Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Lutheran churches without any desire to join a particular one. On July 15, 1861, she met her future spouse, a surgeon with the Second Mississippi Infantry, and was with him for no more than two or three face-to-face meetings before they were married three years later, having conducted the courtship entirely by correspondence.
In the early days of the war, it cannot be missed in the diary that Kate’s tone and outlook were optimistic and cheery. The Mississippians she met were on their way to fight at Manassas, and after that battle, fought on July 21, 1861, she received a report from one of the men. She confided in her diary: “They [the Confederates] covered themselves with glory and dust, and are now collecting ammunition and muskets, etc., that the Yankees left in their flight. Completely routed an army of 55,000 by 20,000 — it shows what Southern men are made of.”
Many southerners took this initial victory as evidence that the war would be short, and that God favored the southern cause. Kate reported: “We routed the enemy and took every scrap of their baggage and all the appurtenances of 55,000 men—quite a speck for Jeff Davis—enough to fit out our whole army with. Our army needed supplies very much and it will save expense to have such presents — the Lord is on our side and has been from the first — praise Him.”
In the lull after the battle, Kate spent the fall of 1861 reading Charles Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers (“ [I] positively dote on Charles Dickens” she wrote), learning duets with her friend Jo Krebs (Kate played the guitar and ukelele), and competing with Jo for attention from various beaux. The girls hunted up “love-sick” poetry to quote in their letters, and made quite a game of it. They carried on correspondence with soldiers and family, and hunted up whatever fun they could. In this they seemed quite like typical teenagers.
She also reflected, however, on how the war was bound to change the job-related stereotypes of men and women. She wrote: “Our colored woman [whom they hired] is going to Strasburg this evening and we will be without “help” for two weeks—unless we can raise someone, and then I’ll have an opportunity to learn housekeeping before I’m married, which I am trying to persuade myself will be after the war is over, but if I don’t learn the art, I’ll have to take one of these soldiers who have been cooking ever since they have been in “camp”— Dr. Hunt, for instance [whom Kate ultimately marries], can make as good biscuits and fry meat like the best of them.” She presciently perceived, “[E]verything’ll be new after the war — the “masculines” will cook, wash, and iron and the ladies attend to business—whew! Won’t we have fine times—voting, attending to patients, electioneering, etc. We’ll have a little heaven below — husbands in blue cotton aprons with dishcloths on their arms.”
In November, 1861, General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson’s Confederate Army of the Shenandoah encamped at Winchester for the winter. Kate and her friends were escorted by their soldier friends on tours of the camp, where the troops displayed relics of the Manassas victory, and impressed the ladies with their parades and demonstrations. The Sunday preaching at the camps was well-attended by all, and provided a place for ladies and soldiers to commingle and discuss the latest news. The effects of the blockade were first noted by Kate when she described in her diary how the family’s Christmas was affected. Her father came home on leave from Richmond, and being part of the quartermaster service, probably had better access than some to gift items.
Jackson’s army marched off to Romney (now West Virginia) at the New Year, and after a rather unsuccessful campaign fell back to Winchester. Wintry conditions on the march contributed to the spreading of scarlet fever among the troops and the people living in the town, and Kate noted the death of an eleven-year old girl from the infection while describing the concoctions of muriatic acid and chlorine she and her family members took to survive.
In February, all the ministers in Winchester, of every denomination, gathered at a Union Prayer Meeting, and, at President Jefferson Davis’s request, conducted of day of fasting and prayer. General Jackson participated, and Kate found that to be a significant act on his part. In early 1862, she finally understood that the war might not end as quickly and as surely as she once had hoped. “We sustained such terrible losses lately, especially in Tennessee, that I think it is a good plan to pray,” she wrote.
With the spring, Jackson’s army was on the move. The townspeople became panicked at the thought of Jackson’s army leaving Winchester unprotected. “All the folks in this neighborhood tore up their flags for fear the Yanks would see them — but I am determined to keep ours at all hazards,” she wrote on March 8.
On Wednesday, March 12, Winchester was occupied by Union troops, with Generals Nathaniel Banks and James Shields and about 1,000 cavalry. Kate related that a Union soldier confronted Levi, the family slave, and asked if he could get something to eat in the Sperry’s house. Levi said no, but the soldier pushed him out of the way, and walked in the front door and opened the parlor door. “Aunt Wardy saw him come in and knew he was under the influence of liquor,” Kate wrote, “so just as he pushed the door open she slammed and locked it—he beat a hasty retreat and swore that if he’d had a pistol with him he would have ‘blown her d——-d brains out’— this is a good beginning for certain — I’m determined to make them stay off and so is Aunt Wardy.”
Kate was disdainful of the Union soldiers she encountered; she called them “impudent” and made fun of how they rode their horses. “The [cavalry] is splendidly equipped and very gay,” Kate wrote, “but such bobbing up and down in the saddles is ridiculous to behold — not one of them can ride fit to be seen — very poor horsemen.” She wrote that once the Union soldiers found out the women were all “secesh,” and not cooperative, they decided to open their own stores and establish a Post Office. They occupied what the Confederates used as a hospital. She reported: “The enemy have swung out a Union flag at the little brick office next to the Kellers. None of the girls in the neighborhood will walk under it, they go out in the mud, round it, and on the pavement again—it makes [the Union soldiers] furious, the horrid cutthroats— I’m sure they will stretch one across the street.”
By March 17, Levi, the single slave owned by the family, disappeared into the Union camps. “Levi has gone off to the camp with these devils and we’ll never get him back…. He went on Friday—these troops trouble everyone — the [slaves] are running off continually and the men steal everything they lay their hands on —even the Union people [in Winchester] share the same fate.” Kate then had to do the housework that Levi did.
By the end of March, after the Battle of Kernstown, Winchester was fully occupied by General Banks’s army; it had become a hospital town. Kate reported that the town is “full of dead and wounded Yanks.” Kate and her friends were compelled to feed and nurse the wounded which were placed in the Court House, the Union Hotel, and other buildings. Now she encountered soldiers who could barely speak English, using German, instead, to communicate.
Suprisingly, Kate and her friends had time in early April to tour the Kernstown battlefield, picking up relics. “I got a bullet that one of the Yanks fired at our men when men were behind the stone wall.” “How I detest these dreadful invaders,” Kate wrote, “they are without exception the meanest set of poor white trash I have ever beheld!” By the middle of April, Kate had enough of her life in Winchester, and she applied for, and received, a pass to live in Mountain Falls, Virginia with her cousins the Russells. She didn’t return until May 27, but the evening of her return, she found that Union soldiers set fire to the town in several places, burning down her friends’, the Coontzes’, house. She reported that they burned down the Winchester Medical College because John Brown was “dissected” there.
In June, Kate related that she had a presentiment that she should hide the Union sword she had (a souvenir of the Southern victory in the May 1862 Battle of Winchester), so she hid it under her dress and took it to her Aunt Harriet’s. Sure enough, on the way home, she saw a squad of Union soldiers searching the Murphy house for hidden arms, and her friend, Ella Murphy, warned her that the Sperry house was next. When she arrived home, there were soldiers there demanding from Aunt Wardy their Confederate flags and the arms the soldiers knew the Sperrys had. Aunt Wardy retorted that she had given the flag to the 27th Virginia, and that she intended to make another. The Union surgeon who was at the Sperry house said the flag they were looking for was not homemade. Kate confided: “We told him, yes, here was the little girl who made it and pointed towards Jennie — we could have told him that we cut up an undergarment to get the white for it — …I only wish I had a pistol—the Yank who stood guard at the parlor door is a villain and a dutchman— wouldn’t let any of us go upstairs whilst the search was proceeding— so I commenced fixing some flowers in a vase — had two large red roses and one white in the middle and a red rose on each side when the villain (dutchman) said: “I perceive what you’re after— you won’t show your flag but you’ll arrange the colors.” I never laughed so much in my life — to see the fool so suspicious.”
The soldiers found some boxes in the attic that had some Cincinnati hams, sugar, coffee, rice, and such locked up. They confiscated all of it. From that moment on, Kate kept a bag packed ready to run in case soldiers came to burn the house down.
On June 6, 1862, Kate reported that it was dangerous to go out in the garden, the bullets are flying around all the time. Kate reported that the Union soldiers “threatened to kill every woman in town if they ever have to retreat, because of a story circulating that women were shooting Yanks out the windows as they retreated[during the battle fought] in May. The Provost Marshal refused to allow Kate to send letters, even though she dressed up to meet with him. “I don’t say there are no gentlemen in the Yankee army, but I haven’t seen any,” Kate wrote with disdain.
The guards at the jail that housed Confederate prisoners were hostile when the ladies tried to bring lemons to prisoners. “[O]ne [of the guards] swore he would run his bayonet through Mrs. Baldwin,” Kate recorded in her diary. On June 12, she reported that the Union soldiers burned down the large store and warehouse belonging to Baker and Brothers in response to a killing of a Yankee soldier who had tried to break into the building. The Provost Marshal had allowed a citizen to guard the store because Union soldiers kept attempting to break in, but when the guard shot and killed one on the spot, they promptly burned the place to the ground. It nearly adjoined the Union Hotel hospital, which was nearly set on fire too.
News was scarce, and Kate didn’t learn about the defeat of the Union army at the Second Battle of Manassas on August 30, 1862 until about a week later. By September 3, the Union troops deserted Winchester again, as General Lee’s army was headed to Maryland. Sadly, after the Battle of Antietam, she said: “I have never seen so many wounded and disabled soldiers in all my life.”
Kate spent many months nursing Union wounded in Winchester. Amazingly, she had access to horses and took daily rides through the countryside in fall of 1862 and winter 1863. For a time, she avoided searches by pickets; by the end of January 1863, though, she was stopped and searched frequently. She wrote, “At the last picket stand, the Yanks made us get out of the buggy — they searched the buggy and took us to an old house which was a perfect shell — they tore out all the wood-work to burn in the cellar in an old fireplace….There they compelled us to take off our bonnets and wrappings —our pockets searched and shoes turned upside down to see if we had any letters….I am thankful we escaped a complete disrobing… I firmly believe that if we hadn’t made such a fuss, and if there hadn’t been one gentleman in the crowd, we’d have been more roughly dealt with.”
Kate refused to take the loyalty oath when asked by the Provost Marshal. By spring, 1863, she reported: “the Yanks have been inquiring three or four times a week after me.”
In April 1863 she gave an example of what happened to a neighboring family, the Logans, when one of their sons struck a slave, reporting that the Yankee cursed him and hit him with stones. She reserved her most bitter tones for the behavior of General Milroy’s wife, who condoned and benefited from the Logans’s house being raided. “The Yanks sent a guard — had the house searched. All Mr. Logan’s and his two sons’ clothing were confiscated, together with the house, furniture and a large supply of provisions— all for the use of Mrs. General Milroy, who sat in an ambulance and viewed their removal with the utmost complacency.” Kate reported that Mrs. Logan, who was sick, didn’t even have a teaspoon left with which to take her medicine. After the war, when General Milroy returned to Winchester on a campaign tour, he was heckled with people yelling, “What did you do with Mrs. Logan’s silver?”
Winchester was one of the Civil War’s most ravaged towns, as it changed hands so often during the course of the war. By August of 1864, with General Sheridan’s men burning every barn from Winchester to Middletown and Front Royal, Kate reported the Union soldiers taking everything from Mr. Barton’s home— “he was in bed and they didn’t leave him a stitch to put on…took his wife’s rings off her fingers and her watch— she was sick in bed and even stole the Jelly off the table by her side.” On August 29, her friends, the Sturmans, were treated even worse: “Yankees behaved shamefully to Mrs. Sturman—took every eatable out of her house, meat, lard, and everything —more rapes committed on the nicest ladies. O God, can such things be?” By letter dated August 24, 1864 to her fiancée, Dr. Hunt, Kate elaborated on the behavior of Sheridan’s “fiends’: “Ladies were dragged out of bed and ‘beaten while they called for help’ —innocence and purity found no protection…Mrs. Sturman said the most distressing thing was to hear the ladies crying murder and for help.” Kate’s grandfather died during those months, and the family home was sold, so she no longer had a home in Winchester, and departed for Harrisonburg, Virginia.
The timing of Kate’s departure coincided with the shelling of the town during the Third Battle of Winchester on June 14, 1863. She was quite fortunate to survive, given her reports. She married Dr. Hunt, and after the war, and moved to Ripley, Mississippi. There, the couple produced seven children. She died of a sudden heart attack, at age 43, in 1886 and is buried in Ripley.
Kate’s diary remains unpublished, with the exception of excerpts printed in Volume 1 of the magazine, Virginia Country’s Civil War (Jan. 1, 1983).
This article was written by Genevieve Brown as part of Witnessing History’s Women of the American South Series.
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Other women’s diaries that readers might enjoy include:
1) O’ Brien, Michael, ed. An Evening When Alone: Four Journals of Single Women in the South, 1827–67 (Publications of the Southern Texts Society).
2) Clinton, Catherine, ed., Mary Chesnut’s Diary.
6) A Refugee at Hanover Tavern: The Civil War Diary of Margaret Wight by Amazon.com Services LLC.
7) A Heritage of Woe: The Civil War Diary of Grace Brown Elmore, 1861-1868 (Southern Voices from the Past: Women’s Letters, Diaries, and Writings Ser.) by Amazon.com.
8) Winchester Divided by Inspiration Media.
10) Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War by Amazon.com.
11) The Diary of Nannie Haskins Williams: A Southern Woman’s Story of Rebellion and Reconstruction, 1863-1890 (Voices of the Civil War) by -New Chapter.
12) Another Year Finds Me in Texas: The Civil War Diary of Lucy Pier Stevens by Amazon.com.
13) A Plantation Mistress on the Eve of the Civil War: The Diary of Keziah Goodwyn Hopkins Brevard, 1860-1861 (Women’s Diaries and Letters of the South) by beyondjoyandthings.
14) The Civil War Diaries of Catherine Fennell: A Young Confederate Woman in North Alabama 1859-1865 (Voices of the Civil War) by Amazon.com.
15) Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary by Amazon.com.
16) The Diary of a Civil War Bride: Lucy Wood Butler of Virginia (Library of Southern Civilization) by sweethomeliquid2.
17) A Woman Doctor’s Civil War: The Diary of Esther Hill Hawks (Women’s Diaries and Letters of the South) by indoobestsellers.
18) Shadows on My Heart: The Civil War Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck of Virginia (Southern Voices from the Past: Women’s Letters, Diaries, and Writings).
19) A Woman’s Civil War: A Diary with Reminiscences of the War, from March 1862 (Wisconsin Studies in Autobiography) by Amazon.com.
20) Keep the Days: Reading the Civil War Diaries of Southern Women (Civil War America) by Amazon.com.
If you have a favorite war diary written by a woman, please let us know!