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Reading two brief passages from a nineteenth-century diary will illustrate how a diary’s account of events and relationships opens up a similar but not identical window on the past. Ella Clanton was 14 years old when she began keeping a journal in 1848, something which she would continue to do with a few breaks until 1889. Ella, from a well-to-do, slave-owning Georgia family, was educated in a women’s academy and in other ways brought up to be a feminine "ornament" to her class and its power, as well as an educated, practical partner to a man from a similar background. With her marriage to Jefferson Thomas in 1852, and with the birth of her first child which quickly followed, Ella launched herself into the comfortable, domestic life as a wife and mother that she had been prepared to expect.

But the Civil War, the end of slavery, and the economic and social upheaval which followed, utterly transformed Ella Thomas’s world. Her diary thus maps the South’s social upheavals during these years, as well as giving an account of a woman writing her way to a steady, self-possessed identity as an actor in a wider social world than that of home and farm. Thomas ultimately worked for women’s suffrage and became active in civic affairs, especially temperance reform. Her diary, which she seems to have kept only semi-secret, was addressed both as a personal companion and as a record for her children. Over the years, Thomas re-visited the volumes at various times, annotating them with marginal notes but not changing the original text. Her entries show her becoming ever-more reflective and self-critical as she learns to see racial, political, and gendered aspects of her culture which her sunny, privileged girlhood had obscured.*

First, the teen-aged Thomas, entries for September 28 and 29, 1848:

"Yesterday after breakfast [sister] Mary and I went over to Mrs. Berry’s to spend the day. We took Amanda [her slave] with us as a protectress. I gathered some Horse and whortle berrys on the road (sparkleberries I meant). I wore my eternal tissue silk and black silk cape. We had a lunch of cordial and cake ham and biscuit – and apples besides cheese. Mrs. Berry and I were weighing cotton (By the by I never done it before). While I was adding upp the weights Mrs. Griffin rode upp and took dinner.... [September 29] I have been busy writing and indulging in my usual day dreams. As I have no books to read I expect my time now will be spent rather lonely and dull but I hope Cousin Emily’s and Eliza’s presence and company will enliven us a little – this evening after dinner I dressed again and fixed my hair. I then walked in the garden a while and gathered some flowers to dress the pots. I see that I have passed this day occupied in writing this journal over. When I came home last Monday night I wrote on the leaf [i.e., page] that I had used at Grandma’s. The next night I wrote in an old copy book which I use for scribbling. The next night the same and so on. As I wished it all connected I coppied the writing off [in this volume]."*
Here teenaged Ella records daily events in a way that suggests both youthful self-absorption and the sense of security she felt in her world. Although she fears "lonely and dull" days, her voice is not unhappy. Like other girls her age, she is concerned with clothes and day dreams. She engages in the feminine art of arranging flowers, but also notes (with a touch of pride) her first time assisting in the weighing of cotton – one of the many tasks undertaken by adult women who oversaw much of plantation management. In all, Ella’s frank, descriptive account of her day’s events suggests that her identity as a young, elite woman was something that her diary-keeping did not probe very far. Most of her early entries, like this one, simply accept the racial and social order as something natural and obviously benign. The rural countryside seems safe and easily traversed, populated by kin, familiar neighbors, and a "protectress" female slave whose guardianship seems unquestioned.

But if merely noting events, and not pausing to question or characterize relationships, seems wholly satisfying for Ella, diary-keeping itself is not so transparent. To some degree, this young woman realizes that she has the leisure ("I have passed this day") to write at length about her doings, and then to re-write. Reading this page of her manuscript diary, we realize that there were other, earlier versions – "the leaf that I had used at Grandma’s" to jot down notes, and pages in "an old copy book" which she then re-copies. We hear about these layers of words because, even as a youth, Ella Thomas was concerned not only with recording events but with the act of writing itself. Still, we will never know if she altered her words in re-copying them, or if she added or left something out. In this sense, her diary, like her relations to others, simply is. It gave shape to her day and timing to her activities. It did not lead her to look inward very often. The cotton, the black silk cape, the slave Amanda, and the day dreams all existed on the same plane.

Seventeen years later, Ella Thomas, now 31 years old, inscribed her life in a notably different way amidst the wreck of the still-crumbling Confederacy. Still accomplished at writing about her daily routine with sharp immediacy, Thomas adds to this a much firmer grasp on the diary as a tool for her self-awareness, and for her sense of a wider social world. Less than a month after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Thomas wrote:
[May 8, 1865] "Hereafter I shall put my Journal in a safe place for I intend to express myself fearlessly and candidly upon all points. Last week was the turning point, the crisis with me. 'The flood which taken at the tide' would have led to feelings of union brotherhood and kindly feeling – Today I am more intensely opposed to the North than at any period of the war – We have been imposed upon – led to believe that terms of Treaty had been agreed upon which would secure to us a lasting and honourable peace....Mr. T. [her husband] appeared cast down, utterly spirit broken yesterday when the news [of emancipation] first reaching him and when I would hint at a brighter sky would mock at such anticipations...and was astonished at the buoyancy of temperament which would permit me to indulge in anticipations founded upon such a plan, but I cannot say 'Why art thou cast down oh my soul?' for indeed I am not cast down. On the contrary I am not the person to permit pecuniary loss to afflict me as long as I have health and energy. As to the emancipation of the Negroes, while there is of course a natural dislike to the loss of so much property in my inmost soul I cannot regret it – I always felt that there was a great responsibility – It is in some degree a great relief to have this feeling removed. For the Negroes I know that I have the kindest possible feeling – For the Yankees who deprive us of them I have no use whatever. I only hope I shall see very little of them – Yesterday Mr. Thomas unfastened Turner’s [their son] battle flag from the staff and I will put it away as a memento of the time when he was a marker in the Wheeler Dragoons. Who knows, perhaps someday it may be used again."*
Much has changed since all that Thomas had to worry about was a boring day, and signaling the change is her changing sense of her diary. Here the diary is no longer just a pastime, but an intellectual and emotional instrument touching "upon all points" of her views and her identity. It entitles her "fearlessly and candidly" to express herself in a way she apparently does not elsewhere. And yet these strengths of the diary are undercut by the volume’s physical vulnerability to the world. Its sheer materiality gives it a kind of life apart from her will, and she resolves to keep it safe from others. A near-paradox thus appears which suggests the curious nature of diary-keeping: she aims through her diary to be exceptionally open and honest, and yet wants no one else to know about it. Her resolve to be candid before the world must be kept secret.

Important events and relationships in Ella Thomas’s world have grown to include husband, property, and home, as we might expect of a mature woman. But the war has pushed her world’s boundaries even farther. The events that matter now include national politics and a war-ending treaty which she feels the United States has rebuffed. Her opening expression of intense opposition to Yankees is not merely reflexive hatred, but relies on her wide-angled vision of the nation missing a "tide" of opportunity which would have carried the warring sections of the country to reconciliation. Even more strikingly, not only slaves but slavery now appears in Thomas’s story of her days. Once there were only individual slaves in her pages, her "proctectress" Amanda, for one, and a few others who appear regularly throughout the pre-war diary. Now, however, there is an institution whose demise needs to be grasped. Thomas acknowledges the monetary loss that emancipation will bring her and her husband. And yet she feels relief – though it is a relief hidden in her "inmost soul" – at the end of white women’s particular, day-to-day "responsibility" for keeping the huge structure of human bondage serving slave owners’ needs.

Thomas fits all of these observations into a passage whose main theme is the temperamental difference between herself and her husband upon the defeat of the Confederacy. Hers is the voice of an individual in possession of herself and, despite the war, in command of a moral energy locked up in the powerful inscriptions of her culture – she quotes Shakespeare and the Bible – which mend and inspire. The sharply contrasting image of her "spirit broken" husband underscores her sense of herself as full of determination. Indeed, there is evidence of tension in her marriage at the end of this great war. Her husband mocks her for her "buoyancy," and strikes their son’s battle flag which flew in their yard. Ella saves the banner and "put[s] it away." The flag is a memento, but not only that; it "may be used again."

Taking both the youthful and mature passages of Ella Thomas’s diary together, the Civil War emerges as the over-story of her life, shaping her accounts of home, family, society, self. Diaries such as Thomas’s permit us to see huge events like war on the "ground level," as consisting not of battle strategy and capitol politics, but of local, homefront experiences that cut into the fabric of people’s daily lives. Too, as we see Thomas struggle to come to terms with her depressed husband and her financial losses, we can understand how many women of her social class and generation resolved to keep their view of the war alive – to "use again" their memories of the conflict.

So we might ask, moving from this diary to a wider historical context, what aspects of the war’s great change seem most specific to Thomas’s class, race, and region? That is, how differently do we suppose the "same" large-scale events of warfare affected a woman Thomas’s age living in the North? How might we expect the same war’s end to have shaped the life of someone like Amanda, once a slave, now free? One change that occurred in the lives of many women like Thomas was a greater involvement in political affairs after the war, along with changes in gender relations which gave women a greater social voice and, for many, greater independence from men’s paternalism. What aspects of these marital and gender relations might we expect to see in legal sources, newspapers, or novels? Finally, just as a diary leads us to ask these social questions, it also leads us back to its personal realm – as a place where a writer fashions a self through her writing. Certain themes reappear in Thomas’s nearly life-long diary: being female, a mother, a wife; being socially prominent, a Christian, a southerner. We can use the diary as a stepping-off point to ask about what Thomas and other women like her were reading and what they talked about in their letters, and how these texts might give us different angles of vision on her as a person. What elements of voice and language persist in their inscribed selves, and which ones fall away over time? And we can ask about silences: what events and relationships do not come to light in these texts, and what might be the reasons no one found a way to say them?