“The Shadows Are Darkening… Jackson Is Certainly Dead” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

War has always left family behind to worry and agonize over the fate of loved ones. The American Civil War saw thousands upon thousands of women left at home while their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers fought for liberty, and such was the case of Cornelia Peake McDonald. Confederate women, including McDonald, faced a far different experience than their Northern counterparts did, especially in consideration of the blockade imposed along the Southern coastline in the early days of the war. This affected the supply of not just foodstuffs, but also medicines, cloth, and munitions. The diary entries below, composed in the middle years of the war, are emotional and vivid and present the modern reader with a grim view of life amid such a pivotal moment in America’s past; while the early days of the war are glossed with romance, McDonald’s words emphasize just how quickly that glamour vanished.

Summary Overview

War has always left family behind to worry and agonize over the fate of loved ones. The American Civil War saw thousands upon thousands of women left at home while their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers fought for liberty, and such was the case of Cornelia Peake McDonald. Confederate women, including McDonald, faced a far different experience than their Northern counterparts did, especially in consideration of the blockade imposed along the Southern coastline in the early days of the war. This affected the supply of not just foodstuffs, but also medicines, cloth, and munitions. The diary entries below, composed in the middle years of the war, are emotional and vivid and present the modern reader with a grim view of life amid such a pivotal moment in America’s past; while the early days of the war are glossed with romance, McDonald’s words emphasize just how quickly that glamour vanished.

Defining Moment

By the time of McDonald’s diary entries, the war had already raged on for approximately a year and a half and showed no signs of ending. Already the privations of the blockade were felt, and cemeteries throughout the Confederacy held countless soldiers who had fallen while fighting for the Southern cause. Bower’s Hill in McDonald’s hometown of Winchester, Virginia, had been the site of battle (the First Battle of Winchester) only months before these entries; given her proximity to the hostilities, it is highly probable that she herself witnessed the more gruesome details of war.

In the entry dated October 13, 1862, McDonald describes meeting “a little soldier from the Maryland camp came this evening–a mere boy, but with his eyes full of fire, eagerness to join the flag.” The boy, never specifically named, had just come from France and declared that “his father wished him to come; did not think it honourable to remain in a foreign land while Maryland struggled for her freedom. His mother was not so anxious.” It is evident that the boy, not just his father, felt himself honor-bound to return to fight, a sentiment McDonald appears reluctant to dampen by relating her wartime experiences to him. For McDonald, a mother of a large family (composed of both her children and stepchildren) as well as a wife with a husband off at the front, there is pity and sadness at the boy’s joviality at the prospect of entering the fray himself: “He spoke gaily and enthusiastically of the life in the camp, and the battles he expected to take part in; and I did not like to be a prophet of evil, and tell him about the dark side of war that I had seen.” The boy was not alone, and many youths like him marched off to war, both to fight and to serve as drummers, age being no protection from the dangers of war.

Author Biography

Cornelia Peake McDonald began life on June 14, 1822, in Alexandria, Virginia. She was born to Dr. Humphrey and Anne Lane Peake, parents of a large retinue of children. The Peake family moved several times during Cornelia’s childhood and youth, finally settling in Hannibal, Missouri, in the late 1830s. By a twist of fate, her destiny followed that of her sister Susan, who met and married Edward C. McDonald. On May 27, 1847, the twenty-four-year-old Cornelia married Edward’s brother, Angus McDonald III, a widower in his late forties with nine children from his previous marriage.

By April 1861, when the firing upon Fort Sumter along the South Carolinian coast signaled the start of the Civil War, the McDonalds had nine children together and had returned to Virginia. With the outbreak of war, Angus McDonald left his law practice and, as a Confederate colonel serving in the Seventh Regiment of the Virginia Cavalry, participated in General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign during the spring of 1862. Wounded and captured in June 1864, he spent several months as a prisoner of war in Wheeling, Virginia (now West Virginia).

Not long after Angus’s release, Cornelia McDonald became a widow in December of 1864, little more than two years after the loss of her three-year-old daughter, Bess; it is this young child’s death that McDonald describes in the first entry below. McDonald did not merely send her husband and the father of her children off to war only to sit idly and await his return. Rather, she faced severe challenges herself throughout the war years, endeavoring to save the family home from confiscation by the Union forces and her children from danger. In these respects, she was only partially successful, eventually being forced to evacuate Winchester and to see her sixteen-year-old son Harry off to war as well. All told, McDonald lost her husband, her brother-in-law, and her stepson C. W. McDonald as a result of the war, and two McDonald children were wounded and became prisoners of war.

Despite the travails of this tumultuous time, McDonald and her surviving children endured. She lived an exceptionally long life, dying months before her eighty-seventh birthday and nearly fifty years after the start of the Civil War, on March 11, 1909, in Louisville, Kentucky.

Document Analysis

Primary source documents, contemporary evidence of a person and/or a historical event, are always highly prized when conducting research. They provide vital details and contextual information, as well as a first person account of what transpired. As with any document, including a letter, newspaper, or speech, the historian must, when analyzing what lies therein, take into account the writer and intended audience. At face value, a diary’s writer and audience may be the same person. Diary entries, such as those written by Cornelia Peake McDonald, are personal communications and may not have a specific readership in mind. However, this is not always the case. McDonald’s entries are highly descriptive and very emotive and read as though retelling a narrative meant to be saved. While she may indeed have simply written for herself, one historian credits her writing with other motives.

In her article “Women at War: The Civil War Diaries of Floride Clemson and Cornelia Peake McDonald,” Clara Juncker contends that these diaries were, in fact, kept so as to keep her husband apprised of the goings-on at home, and furthermore, McDonald later had them printed and bound to hand out to each of her surviving children (98). However, Juncker does not provide further substantiation of McDonald’s intentions, whether by way of scholarly citation or indication of original, firsthand research. Although McDonald led an extraordinary life in extraordinary times, just like so many of her Confederate counterparts, few historians have taken an in-depth look into her life, so there are but few sources to cross reference such particulars.

Women on the Front Lines

With her husband off at the war, McDonald was left to be father and mother, husband and wife, homemaker and home defender. Historian Jennifer Lynn Gross, in her essay “‘Good Angels’: Confederate Widowhood in Virginia,” writes, “During the war, the absence of fathers and husbands from the home front allowed or forced many women to experience expanded opportunities for autonomy. For the war’s duration, wives regularly assumed the role of household head” (135).

Just as World War II would later radically alter what could be termed “women’s work,” after so many women performed well in the factories and various other previously male-dominated roles, the Civil War also had the same effect. As Jennifer Lynn Gross states, “the postbellum period was a period in which everything, including gender roles, was up for debate” (145). This is especially so as it cut across societal lines. Southern women of the middle and upper classes were raised quite differently from those further down the social scale and therefore faced a steeper learning curve. Minrose Gwin, in her introduction to McDonald’s published diary, provides some clues as to Cornelia Peake McDonald’s own socioeconomic position. According to Gwin’s description, it appears the Peake family was relatively well to do: Cornelia’s father was a medical doctor; despite being indebted, the family owned slaves; and young Cornelia read a great deal from her father’s library. Clara Juncker notes that the adult Cornelia not only married a lawyer who owned and hired slaves, but also became acquainted with the Confederate elites. Such a background presumably made the wartime experience all the more harrowing for her. Not only did women deal with the everyday ordeals of childcare and household management, but they were also required to safeguard the homestead when necessary. In this, McDonald proved to be as stalwart a soldier as her husband was, as the time for such action arose frequently.

One such incident was recorded in the entry for September 26, 1862, recounting the events of the previous month, shortly following the burial of her young daughter, Bess. McDonald recalls:

Suddenly the house was shaken to its foundations, the glass was shivered from the windows and fell like rain all over me as I lay in bed; a noise, terrific as of crashing worlds, followed, prolonged for some fearful moments…. Then a cry, and my room door was burst open…. I got up and running across the hall to where the windows look towards the town, and then saw the whole eastern sky lighted by the blaze of burning buildings… We learned the next day that the enemy had evacuated during the night, and had fired the depot, and the building where were government stores and army supplies, many other buildings having taken fire, a large hotel among them. Their great magazine had been blown up, which had caused the fearful noise.

It is left to individual imagination the terror McDonald felt on this occasion. It is more palpable when her home was invaded by Union soldiers demanding breakfast and attempting to turn her and her children out so the family home could be used as a Union hospital. It sat in a prime area and the Union soldiers, wanting “the best places for their men who were sick… would not allow them to occupy places that had before been used as hospitals while rebel women and children slept under comfortable roofs, and in clean beds.” While McDonald successfully fought against those incursions, it could not have been the outcome of every similar incident.

As the war continued, it began to ravage the patriotic fervor that had originally fueled McDonald. In another diary entry, the McDonald family has been transplanted from their family home in Winchester to Lexington, Virginia. There is a marked difference in her tone from the earlier entries (such as those above):

How often I wished then that of all the land their father had owned, I had only a few acres on which I could live with my children and try to make a living. That would have been independence, and none of us would have shrunk from labour… It almost broke my heart. Others worked, the first young men of Virginia went cheerfully to the plough; but the land was their own, the farms they had been born and bred on, and that was so different. (qtd. in Gross 140)

Whatever her fears, show, privately or publicly, she soldiered on and saw the war through with her eight surviving children.

New York City Draft Riots

Given Juncker’s contention that the diary entries were written to keep McDonald’s husband informed of everything at the family home, it is thought-provoking that McDonald chose to include her opinions on issues facing the North during the months leading to the pivotal summer of 1863, which would see the Battle of Gettysburg, the turning point in the war, that July. There are many questions regarding how she got her news, as well as which newspaper carried the information and how partisan that particular paper was. While she did not put those answers in her writing, her topic of choice is worth closer inspection and raises the question of how this event was spun in the South. Surely, reports of unrest and anarchy within the Union would have provided a badly needed morale boost to the Confederacy, implying an inward social collapse–and possible upheaval–in the North.

The diary entry dated January 20, 1863, describes the discussion of a draft in the North that had already begun to stir up trouble. She writes, “A few Northern papers seem to be violent against the Lincoln Administration, and it is said go so far as to demand Lincoln and his cabinet shall be hung. The draft has aroused their ire, it has just begun to hurt them, this war, and they want it stopped.”

This draft would have devastating consequences for the city of New York in the summer, leading to the deaths of approximately 105 people (Bernstein 5). While war posed the threat of conscription, such a prospect did not see fruition until the late winter and early spring of 1863. The battlefield losses from injury and disease forced the move as “the federal government became desperate for more soldiers” (Peterson 223–24). Although discontent about the federal draft was evident early on, as noted by McDonald in her diary, authorities could not anticipate that the implementation of the National Conscription Act, which decreed that “all male citizens… between the ages of twenty and thirty-five were to be enrolled in the military” (224), would lead to massive violent riots in New York City. The morning of July 13, 1863, saw the start of hostilities, initially aimed at government officials charged with selecting draftees and at law enforcement personnel. Over the course of the day, however, the mood within the largely white, working-class mob shifted, and the city’s wealthy elites, Republicans, and African Americans–all of whom the rioters associated with the unpopular war–became the primary targets of violence.

As evidenced by the riots, the Union, contrary to modern assumptions, was not populated exclusively with abolitionists, and not all Northern men were quick to join the fight, seeing the war as placing an unfair financial and physical burden on them for the benefit of others. Likewise, not all Southerners approved of the institution of slavery; many fought for their homeland, though not necessarily to keep African Americans enslaved. Cornelia McDonald could perhaps have been counted among this latter group. In her retrospective “Recollections of the year 1861,” not reproduced here, McDonald expresses similar sentiments, stating, “I never in my heart thought slavery was right…. I could not think how the men I most honored and admired, my husband among the rest, could constantly justify it” (247).

“Jackson Is Certainly Dead”

McDonald’s diary is especially poignant with her description of General Jackson, showing just how idealized and respected he was by contemporaries. His death by friendly fire was truly tragic, and no doubt lends itself then, as even now, to the plethora of “what-ifs” in Civil War history. There is unmistakable bitterness in her realization that Jackson, no matter how admired in the North as a skilled general, was nonetheless killed, his talent as a leader lost to the Confederacy: “One, the New York Tribune, the greatest enemy the South has, speaks of him as ‘A great General, a brave soldier, a pure man, and a true Christian,’ but adds that they are glad to be rid in any way of so terrible a foe.”

McDonald’s strong pride, evident in the passage, may have resulted from a combination of factors: her soldier husband, her association with the state of her birth, or simply a community feeling. Whatever the particular reason, Jackson’s death was a blow to her and her brethren, and reading the reports of his death, from a Union newspaper, must have been all the more hurtful. Again, how McDonald came to possess a Northern newspaper remains a mystery. However she came by it, the writer sparked the heated pride of this Southern wife, who felt it necessary to reaffirm her allegiance to the Confederacy.

Essential Themes

Cornelia Peake McDonald, blood mother to nine children and stepmother to an additional nine, literally stood along the lines of war, whilst trying to balance the lives of her children with a semblance of normality. Although there was another motive to keep her diaries during the Civil War, she devoted her time in recording it, and it now belongs to historians and the modern history students.

Bibliography
  • Bernstein, Iver. The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance for American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.
  • Gross, Jennifer Lynn. “‘Good Angels’: Confederate Widowhood in Virginia.” Southern Families at War: Loyalty and Conflict in the Civil War South. Ed. Catherine Clinton. Cary: Oxford UP, 2000. 133–54. Print.
  • Gwin, Minrose. Introduction. A Woman’s Civil War: Reminiscences of the War, from March 1862. By Cornelia Peake McDonald. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1992. 3–18. Print.
  • Juncker, Clara. “Women at War: The Civil War Diaries of Floride Clemson and Cornelia Peake McDonald.” Southern Quarterly 42.4 (2004): 90–106. Print.
  • McDonald, Cornelia Peake. A Woman’s Civil War: Reminiscences of the War, from March 1862. Ed. Minrose C. Gwin. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1992. Print.
  • McDonald, William N. A History of the Laurel Brigade. Ed. Bushrod C. Washington. Baltimore: Sun Job, 1907. Print.
  • Peterson, Carla L. Black Gotham: A Family History of African Americans in Nineteenth-Century New York City. New Haven: Yale UP, 2011. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Clinton, Catherine, and Nina Silber, eds. Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.
  • Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2004. Print.
  • Floyd, Claudia. Maryland Women in the Civil War: Unionists, Rebels, Slaves and Spies. Charleston: History P, 2013. Print.
  • Ott, Victoria E. Confederate Daughters: Coming of Age during the Civil War. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2008. Print.
  • Schultz, Jane E. “The Inhospitable Hospital: Gender and Professionalism in Civil War Medicine.” Signs 17.2 (1992): 363–92. Print.
  • Silber, Nina. Gender and the Sectional Conflict. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2009. Print.
  • State Committee Daughters of the Confederacy, ed. South Carolina Women in the Confederacy. Columbia: State, 1903. Print.
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