“Luxuries Have Been Given Up Long Ago” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

During the Civil War, Judith White Brockenbrough McGuire, a Southern white woman and loyal Confederate, kept a diary of the events in her own life as well as those that affected her family, community, and nation, though she initially intended the diary to be read only by her “children’s children.” This excerpt from her book Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War (1867) details her experiences and thoughts between November 29, 1862, and April 24, 1865, shortly following the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Her words allow the reader a keen insight into the thoughts and feelings of a white Confederate woman thrown into uncertainty as the war progressed and the Confederacy went into decline.

Summary Overview

During the Civil War, Judith White Brockenbrough McGuire, a Southern white woman and loyal Confederate, kept a diary of the events in her own life as well as those that affected her family, community, and nation, though she initially intended the diary to be read only by her “children’s children.” This excerpt from her book Diary of a Southern Refugee during the War (1867) details her experiences and thoughts between November 29, 1862, and April 24, 1865, shortly following the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Her words allow the reader a keen insight into the thoughts and feelings of a white Confederate woman thrown into uncertainty as the war progressed and the Confederacy went into decline.

Defining Moment

At the time of McGuire’s birth, the United States was just recovering from the War of 1812 against Great Britain, a conflict that allowed the young nation to display its perseverance and fortitude. But as McGuire aged, arguments over slavery and its effect on the economy began to grow, until the country spiraled toward rupture. This culminated in the secession of South Carolina on December 20, 1860, a little more than a month after Abraham Lincoln had been elected president. Ten other states seceded following South Carolina, leading to the creation of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis, a native of Kentucky, was elected president of the Confederacy, with Georgia’s Alexander H. Stephens serving as his vice president.

Between April 1861 and April 1865, the Civil War raged throughout the United States, drawing battle lines through families and friendships. Those within the Confederacy and in the border states faced a situation unlike that of their Union counterparts: the war was brought into their backyards. It may be argued that the South provoked the war, so battles were brought to them. However, the people of the Confederacy would have argued quite differently. As they saw it, they were fighting for their homeland, to protect their values and way of life, their homes and families.

Author Biography

Judith White Brockenbrough McGuire was born on March 5, 1813, to William and Judith White Brockenbrough in Virginia, where her father served in the state house of delegates and as a judge in the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. In 1846, McGuire married the Reverend John Peyton McGuire, a rector who later became the principal of a high school in Alexandria, Virginia.

McGuire and her family lived in Alexandria until 1861. Her diary begins on May 4, 1861, not long before the McGuires fled their home, fearing that federal troops might occupy the city. They stayed in Winchester, Virginia, for the duration of 1861, then moved to Richmond, the very heart and capital of the Confederacy, in February 1862. It was here that McGuire kept the larger portion of her wartime diary. Written in a frank and passionate manner, McGuire’s diary catalogues the sorrows and tribulations that she and her white neighbors faced during the war, as well as their desperate feelings of uncertainty and disbelief as the Confederacy crumpled. Her excerpted entries mention pivotal events in the war, such as General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. McGuire’s initial purpose for keeping the diary was to keep a record of events for “members of the family who are too young to remember these days,” as she writes in the preface, rather than for the public at large. Her diary thus reveals much of the vulnerability she felt at the time of the surrender–a vulnerability she may not have been at liberty to share openly. In light of the tragedy she saw as a result of the war, McGuire’s diary may be used to glean insight into experiences common to many Southern white women during this time. Not only did many of their men not come home, but for many, the war destroyed the very home that sheltered them.

McGuire did not merely stay at home during the war and write; she also worked as a clerk in the Confederate Commissary Department. An army’s commissary department is responsible for the appropriation and distribution of food to soldiers. On the Confederate side, given the Union blockade of Southern ports and the coast enforced by President Lincoln on April 19, 1861, this was an unenviable office in which to work, especially during the later parts of the conflict. In performing this post, McGuire differed from most women who wanted to take an active part in the war effort. The majority of women who did participate in the war effort were consigned to roles in such areas as nursing, sewing, and fundraising.

Following the war, McGuire and her husband operated a school in Essex County, Virginia, which McGuire continued to run after her husband died in 1869. McGuire’s diaries were published in 1867, with additional printings later on. In 1873, she published a second book, General Robert E. Lee, the Christian Soldier. McGuire passed away on March 21, 1897. Her writing has played a vital part in preserving the history of those left behind when Confederate soldiers left for the front. For those who clashed with Union forces, the women and children at home symbolized all they fought to save.

Document Analysis

This excerpt from Judith McGuire’s diary opens on November 29, 1862, roughly nineteen months after the hostilities began. While many historians agree that the Confederate Army held the upper hand in this part of the war, the South already found itself dealing with increasingly difficult hardships, particularly rising food prices. Four days after President Lincoln’s call for volunteers on April 15, 1861, a blockade of the Southern coast was enacted, closing vital Confederate ports to supplies from abroad. The prices of various goods, from foodstuffs to shoes, steadily rose, and as a result, Confederate money lost value. Because of McGuire’s location in the Confederate capital, supplies in her area were more plentiful than for those living further south, but she and her neighbors could not escape from rising prices. She writes, “Luxuries have been given up long ago, by many persons. Coffee is $4 per pound, and good tea from $18 to $20; butter ranges from $1.50 to $2 per pound; lard 50 cents; corn $15 per barrel; and wheat $4.50 per bushel.” It is telling that she considered these food staples to be luxuries; the simple act of making a pot of coffee was then left to the very wealthy, if they could even procure the coffee at all. In the later years of the war, South Carolina resident Emma Le Conte and her family dined on “rancid salt pork and stringy beef,” compared to the “beef,… cornbread, potatoes, and hominy” they ate earlier in the conflict (Mintz 129). The same year as this entry, “meat and grain had begun to disappear from many plates, and by 1864 one Confederate official informed Jefferson Davis that in Alabama, at least, civilian ‘deaths from starvation have absolutely occurred’” (Faust 1212).

Material for clothes was also among the scarce items that McGuire lists. With such prohibitive prices, Southerners were reduced to repeated mending, and after mending no longer sufficed, many produced their own homespun material. Soon the wearing of homespun symbolized the wearer’s commitment to the Confederacy, much like their Revolutionary War predecessors who wore their own homespun rather than buying British imported materials.

While coffee, tea, sugar, and lace may indeed have been luxuries Southerners could have gone without, the blockade also impeded their access to necessary items such as plows. The blockade, especially as it tightened during the war, held the Southern states in a siege. Confederate troops fighting on the front lines could not give their all while knowing their families back home were starving. In short, not only did the blockade threaten starvation, it also made a major impact on morale.

Confederate Women on the Home Front

Confederate women on the home front did what they could to aid the war effort. Some wrote poetry to hearten those who supported and fought for the Confederacy. Others held relief parties to collect money for their troops. Most typically, however, Southern women’s war efforts included nursing and sewing. Sewing and knitting circles served multiple purposes. First, they provided soldiers with clothing and gear, such as underclothes, scarves, and even pillowcases. This type of work gave women the chance to create items that would directly assist the soldiers fighting for their protection. It also gave them a sense of purpose, while allowing them to remain “within the code of feminine virtue and support” (Brown 769).

The second vital purpose of Confederate women’s sewing circles and similar organizations was community. The women of the Confederacy turned to their female communities for support to help them endure wartime deprivations and losses that only increased as the conflict persisted. Though Southern white women of the nineteenth century typically lived in gender-segregated spheres, the war brought different facets of white society together. In his modern evaluation of the Confederacy legacy, Tony Horwitz estimates that “one in four Southern men of military age died in the War” (26). Such numbers would have made it difficult to find a household not connected with the conflict. It is highly understandable, therefore, that Confederate women bonded together and gave each other moral support; they knew too well the sacrifices and hardships others had endured.

As the war raged on, long past the few months many in the South expected it would take to beat the Northern army, white Confederate women were often left in charge of their households. In many instances, this was at odds with the societal norms in which they were raised. Southern white women who had previously performed small duties in the household–or, if they were of the upper classes, had performed more leisurely activities while supervising the work of enslaved women within the house–were now compelled to perform those chores executed by men, both free and enslaved, as well. This transformation of Southern white women’s lives, as described by Alexis Girardin Brown, included managing slaves, deciding which crops to plant, and producing clothing and food (766).

As demonstrated by the scene documented by McGuire in her October 28, 1864, entry, there was one sacrifice some Confederate women were unwilling to make: forgoing proper burials for their dead. It is not known exactly how McGuire came to learn about the woman who arrived too late to see her dying husband before his hasty burial; however, the scene is illustrative of how Confederate women were committed to honoring their fallen family members and friends. McGuire records the widow’s words, writing, “‘I must take him home; he must go home with me. The last thing I said to his children was, that they must be good children, and I would bring their father home, and they are waiting for him now! He must go; I can’t go without him; I can’t meet his children without him!’ and so, with her woman’s heart, she could not be turned aside–nothing could alter her purpose.” Women like this widow felt they could not fail their husbands or other family members in this final act. According to the widow, her husband had honored her throughout their married life, taken care of her and their children, and provided everything they required. She had to be allowed to bring him back home and give him a proper burial; it was all she could do in return, to honor him as he had her. This is a sentiment examined by Drew Gilpin Faust: “While men at the front hurried their slain comrades into shallow graves, women at home endeavored to claim bodies of dead relatives and to accord them proper ceremonies of burial. Woman’s role was not simply to make sacrifices herself but also to celebrate and sanctify the martyrdom of others” (1214). Sadly, there were a great number of women who were not able to similarly honor their loved ones, as numerous soldiers from both sides of the conflict were buried in mass and unmarked graves.

McGuire wrote her entry for April 13, 1865, between two historically vital moments. Her entry captures the first of these events, rumor of the Confederate surrender: “Fearful rumours are reaching us from sources which it is hard to doubt, that it is all too true, and that General Lee surrendered on Sunday last, the 9th of April.” To McGuire, the rumor was inconceivable, one that defied belief. She wanted to ignore it, but her words reveal her fear, which turned out to be justified, for the rumor was true: General Robert E. Lee had surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox on April 9, 1865. Lee had long been struggling with depleting troops and vanishing supplies, while the North remained strong, with new immigrants joining the ranks. Lee had done well, but there was not much more he could have accomplished.

Though McGuire did not hear of it for another couple of days, the nation was shaken on April 14, 1865, by the shooting of President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre while he watched Our American Cousin with his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln. Mortally wounded by Confederate actor John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln died the following day, a little more than a month after his second presidential inauguration. On April 16, McGuire wrote, and with some foreboding: “It is… believed… that Lincoln is dead…. I trust that… it may not be by the hand of an assassin, though it would seem to fulfil the warnings of Scripture…. It now seems… his blood been shed. But what effect will it have on the South? We may have much to fear. Future events will show.” Though there were those in the South who felt a degree of satisfaction at the loss of Lincoln, McGuire herself was very much aware of the repercussions of such an action, and she was right to worry.

The end of the war was followed by Reconstruction, whereby the former Confederacy was rigidly structured by martial law. It also made Southerners confront the changed status of African Americans; the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery, while the Fifteenth Amendment enfranchised black men. The legacy of the fallen Confederacy lives on today in the South, in some places to a high degree.

Essential Themes

There is a distinctly resounding theme of pure disbelief in McGuire’s last two excerpted entries. In this, she was not unusual among Confederate civilians. This particular line is imbued with her passion: “How all this happened–how Grant’s hundreds of thousands overcame our little band, history, not I, must tell my children’s children. It is enough for me to tell them that all that bravery and self-denial could do has been done. We do not yet give up all hope.”

Though Lee had already surrendered by this point, it is clear that neither McGuire nor her compatriots were ready to do so. Everything about the end of the war–the end of everything they knew and sought to protect–sent fear and sadness into her heart, particularly at the loss of the servants of a house that she used to visit and to which she had returned: “We miss the respectful and respectable servants, born in the family and brought up with an affection for the household which seemed a part of their nature, and which so largely contributed to the happiness both of master and servant.” In McGuire’s view, the estate’s servants–it is not clear whether or not they were enslaved–were part of the family. McGuire seems to think that the esteem that she had for the estate’s servants was mutual; hence her disbelief over their departure. The nursemaid who left was, in McGuire’s opinion, “deceived and misled by the minions who followed Grant’s army”; a maidservant took a “likeness,” or picture, of a child from the house and, according to another servant, “looks at it every day.” Although McGuire may have considered these signs of the servants’ affection for the family who lived on the estate, it is important to remember that the diary is her record, not the servants’. She might describe their words and actions, but probably not their true feelings or thoughts.

The departure of estate’s servants was especially hard for the children who, having always known a nursemaid, now found that cherished person had left them, such as the child mentioned in the final entry. McGuire’s words reveal a significant degree of incredulity that servants would leave the family. McGuire was clearly saddened by the servants’ departure; for her, as for so many Southern white women, it brought home the reality of the Confederacy’s demise.

  • Brown, Alexis Girardin. “The Women Left Behind: Transformation of the Southern Belle, 1840–1880.” Historian 62.4 (2000): 759–79. Print.
  • David, Shannon Clark. “Confronting the Reality of Changed Lives: Love and Loss for Women in Civil War America.” Voces Novae: Chapman University Historical Review 1.2 (2010): 3–10. Web. 8 Apr. 2013.
  • Faust, Drew Gilpin. “Altars of Sacrifice: Confederate Women and the Narratives of War.” Journal of American History 76.4 (1990): 1200–1228. Print.
  • Horwitz, Tony. Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War. New York: Vintage Departures, 1999. Print.
  • Kerber, Linda K. “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History.” Journal of American History 75.1 (1988): 9–39. Print.
  • McGuire, Judith White Brockenbrough. Diary of a Southern Refugee, during the War. 3rd ed. Richmond: Randolph, Print. 1889.
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988. Print.
  • Mintz, Steven. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004. Print.
  • Norton, Mary Beth. Liberty’s Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800. Boston: Little, 1980. Print.
  • Ott, Victoria E. Confederate Daughters: Coming of Age during the Civil War. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2008. Print.
  • Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America.” Signs 1.1 (1975): 1–29. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Clinton, Catherine. The Other Civil War: American Women in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Hill, 1984. Print.
  • Farnham, Christie Anne. The Education of the Southern Belle: Higher Education and Student Socialization in the Antebellum South. New York: New York UP, 1994. Print.
  • Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1996. Print.
  • Jabour, Anya. Scarlett’s Sisters: Young Women in the Old South. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2007. Print.
  • Stowe, Steven M. Intimacy and Power in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1987. Print.
Categories: History