“There Has Been a Great Deal of Sickness in My Neighborhood” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Mary Jeffreys Bethell, a Confederate woman, made her life with her family in Rockingham County, North Carolina, where she spent many years keeping a diary. The diary in its entirety spans twenty years, from 1853 until 1873; her record, therefore, includes entries written during the Civil War, from a July 29, 1863, entry through December 1865, eight months after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Bethell used her writing to document many aspects of her life: her sons’ wartime experiences, her charitable and neighborly activities within the community, and, most poignantly throughout, her unwavering devotion to God and her faith. Bethell’s relationship with God played a large role in providing the solace she needed while the war raged around her, and it was a relationship she desired her children to build as well. Though she believed in the Confederacy, she placed her faith and hopes in God and the Bible, not the battlefield.

Summary Overview

Mary Jeffreys Bethell, a Confederate woman, made her life with her family in Rockingham County, North Carolina, where she spent many years keeping a diary. The diary in its entirety spans twenty years, from 1853 until 1873; her record, therefore, includes entries written during the Civil War, from a July 29, 1863, entry through December 1865, eight months after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox. Bethell used her writing to document many aspects of her life: her sons’ wartime experiences, her charitable and neighborly activities within the community, and, most poignantly throughout, her unwavering devotion to God and her faith. Bethell’s relationship with God played a large role in providing the solace she needed while the war raged around her, and it was a relationship she desired her children to build as well. Though she believed in the Confederacy, she placed her faith and hopes in God and the Bible, not the battlefield.

Defining Moment

Slavery has long been the presumed cause of the Civil War, though the exact cause was, in fact, a combination of factors. For the Confederacy, states’ rights were a major factor; the issue of slavery, for the Union, came later. Bethell’s diary makes few references to the institution, and, from them, she does not seem to be too concerned about its probable abolishment following the war; she even expressed approval: “I expect that slavery will be abolished in a few years, I think it will be better for us.” Although not expressly stated in her diary, Bethell’s writing and her religious views indicate that she was against slavery, believing it better for the South to not rely on slaves for its prosperity.

Unlike other Confederate women who documented their experiences of life on the home front, Bethell comes across as matter-of-fact regarding the ongoing events in the South, including the surrender of General Lee, which was devastating to many. Her faith in God sustained Bethell through these “trials,” as she terms them, and she therefore placed the future in God’s hands.

Author Biography

Primary sources such as Bethell’s diary are valuable resources and provide important insight into the past. Though a rich source of historical information on the daily life of a Confederate woman, her writing does not include much biographical information. Bethell was born in 1821 and married her husband at the age of nineteen. The couple raised a family, which included at least three children, sons George and Willie, who both served in the war, and a daughter, Mary Virginia. Bethell’s life, as was the case with most nineteenth-century women, was driven by her family, religion, and community. As a married woman, Bethell’s sphere was within the home, the nursery, and the church, as well as out in the community assisting other women through traditionally female tasks and rituals, often related to either birth or death.

Bethell lived her life according to the standards of her time, and, from reading her words, it is clear she took much joy from it: “I love to visit the sick because God has commanded us to do it.” While some women may have contributed their time and energy out a sense of necessity or a sense of reciprocity, Bethell gave herself up to her religious teachings and embraced her participation in the community. The religious welfare of her children is also a recurring topic within the diary entries. As a mother, she felt it one of her sacred duties to foster in them a strong sense of faith; she no doubt wished to see all of her children give their lives to God’s teachings and carrying out those teachings within their communities. She wrote:

My dear daughter has professed religion, speaks of joining the Episcopal church, I am sorry, it grieves me to think of it. I would be glad for her to be with me and join the Methodists, but I pray that the Lord’s will may be done.

Bethell did no more than what was expected of Southern women, and in this she was a testament to her faith and her upbringing.

Document Analysis

This excerpt of Mary Jeffreys Bethell’s diary opens on July 29, 1863–four weeks after the first volleys were fired during the Battle of Gettysburg. The Bethell household was only one of many to know men killed or wounded at Gettysburg, and the first entry presents names of those she had heard about. After making this list, Mary notes that her George was taken prisoner and that she was taking solace in her faith: “I thank my Saviour that it was no worse, I pray that God may save his life and grant that this trial may be the means of making him a christian.”

Bethell’s diary was kept for her own records and reflections, not necessarily for the sake of history or posterity. She wrote for herself, not for an audience. More than just providing insight into her daily life, the diary entries also provide the rare opportunity to study the emotional state of the writer–to learn how she felt about her life and the world around her. By studying Bethell’s writing, readers can gain an in-depth picture of a middle-class woman and mother from that time. The personal use of such a journal as Bethell’s, especially with her catalog of her faith and religious convictions, establishes it as a genuine primary resource for historians. With it, a better and more candid firsthand experience of Civil War–era Americans like her can be understood.

Southern Women and Religion

Religious faith was tightly interwoven with the era’s ideal of a proper Southern woman, and piety was considered an important trait in a wife. A slip in a woman’s devotion could tarnish her honor and place in her community. To women like Bethell, therefore, it was vital to remain chaste and devout, rather than risk losing their religious purity.

Visiting and tending to the sick were activities not only done for community and friendship’s sake; this outreach was also a part of carrying out God’s work. Bethell took this seriously, and enjoyed doing so: “There has been a great deal of sickness in my neighborhood. I have been visiting the sick, and I carry them something nice to eat… I love to visit the sick because God has commanded us to do it.” The same entry also details the other rounds she has made, which also included the laying out of two neighbors for burial, another ritual often conducted by women. While she was saddened by the losses, Bethell’s description demonstrates that she was a woman accustomed to such responsibilities; from her writing it is apparent that assisting her neighbors with a shroud was a part of life.

Bethell’s dairy indicates that she was a woman who frequently struggled with the safety of her children. She worried about the fate of George in captivity, despite her promise of leaving it to the will of God: “I have faith to believe that God will bless all my children. I want to be kept humble and resigned to my Father’s will.” Typically, historians see Gettysburg as a turning point in the Civil War, especially for the Union as the victors in the fight. The Battle of Gettysburg holds the tragic distinction of having the most casualties of any other battle during the war. Feelings of uncertainty about the Confederacy’s fate must have been growing in Bethell’s community, enough to shake her confidence that Providence would deliver her children home unharmed.

Prisoners of War

Bethell’s entry for September 16, a little over two months since news last reached her of her children, reveals that her son George was imprisoned in the Johnson’s Island military prison on Lake Erie in Ohio. Johnson’s Island was a new prison, built expressly for the Civil War in 1861. As an island prison, Johnson’s Island was relatively safe from Southern forces, yet still accessible to Northern forces for resupply and staffing needs. Confederate prisoners such as Bethell’s son who were held on the island were given adequate food and shelter, even comparable to that of the prison’s guards. Life for captured Southerners at Johnson’s Island stood in stark contrast to conditions at the Confederate’s Andersonville Prison.

For the North, the Confederacy’s Andersonville Prison, located near Andersonville, Georgia, came to symbolize the utmost cruelty. Union soldiers imprisoned at Andersonville were left with inadequate shelter, often made from no more than sticks and blankets or other cloth; there were no barracks at the site. The poor conditions of the prison and the lack of care for the prisoners resulted in many deaths, most often due to exposure, malnutrition, and disease. The ever-rising numbers of the dead–estimated at around thirteen thousand–outraged many Americans.

As a result of the spread of news about such treatment of Union soldiers, the situation at Johnson’s Island was altered. At their own prison for captured Confederates, the Union reduced food rations and cut items like coffee and sugar altogether. Prisoners were not allowed to purchase food or even receive it from their families at home. Even with its low food rations, on hearing that her son George was at Johnson’s Island, Bethell wrote, “I thank the Lord ‘tis no worse.”

Due to what Bethell referred to as a “scarcity of writing paper”–though not specified, this was more than likely due to the blockade along the Confederacy’s coastline and ports–her diary entries jump from October of 1863 to April 1864. Here, she wrote that she had not received any recent news of either her son George or her son-in-law, Mr. Williamson, who was also a prisoner of war. Bethell noted that she hoped and prayed for an “exchange of prisoners.” Sadly, prisoner exchange was no longer practiced by the Union by that time. In the summer of 1863, the same time George was captured, the United States began sending African American troops into battle; the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, led by Bostonian Robert Gould Shaw, was the best known of these. In response to the African American troops, Confederacy announced plans to reenslave or execute any black soldiers, as well as their officers. Union’s War Department then suspended their practice of prisoner exchange; in doing so, they were effectively holding Confederate soldiers hostage in the hopes of protecting regiments such as the Fifty-Fourth.

The War’s End

Bethell’s diary then jumps ahead once again, from July 9, 1864, to May 2, 1865. The war had ended by this time, and Bethell describes how her community came to be filled with soldiers making their journeys homeward. The May 2 entry is one of the few where there is specific mention of war events aside from news associated with the fate of her sons. In her diary Bethell recorded the surrender of Generals Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston–Lee on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox, Virginia, to General Ulysses S. Grant; and Johnston surrendered seventeen days later to General William T. Sherman outside of Durham, North Carolina. The Confederacy was now defunct, but Bethell’s entries continue with an even tone; again, to her, what happened to her sons and the outcome of the Civil War were the will of God. While this could perhaps be interpreted as unpatriotic, Bethell was simply a woman who put her faith and religion above the Confederacy. She trusted that whatever happened was already ordained by Providence and therefore, she submitted to her circumstances.

This same entry, May 2, 1865, also brings the news that her son George arrived home safely after his twenty months of imprisonment at Johnson’s Island; her other son, Willie, and her son-in-law returned safely as well. Indeed, Mary was a very lucky woman. As Confederate soldiers, her sons and son-in-law were more likely to die in the Civil War than their Union counterparts, and to have them return safely from both battle and the prisoner-of-war camps would have been seen by Bethell as a blessed event. On their return, she notes: “My precious Saviour has been with me in all my trials, his arm of love underneath me, he has kept me from sinking, blessed be his holy name.”

The same entry that cataloged her answered prayers also shared Bethell’s belief that slavery would be abolished, and that the act of ending slavery would be a positive one for the country at large. Such a statement largely goes against contemporary assumptions about those who lived in the Confederacy, but, in Bethell’s case, her sentiment regarding slavery’s end may be interpreted as having more to do with her religious leanings. She evidently did not view the holding of human beings, created in God’s image, by others as a Christian act.

As Bethell’s diary entries approach the end of December 1865, the conclusion of the excerpt, she offers repeated expressions of gratitude for both her health and the health of her family, as well as the sadness of losing cherished servants. She made note of the African Americans freed after the war, saying that “14 of ours have left, the most of those left here are doing well” and adding that more continued to leave. Bethell also prays for their spiritual salvation: “I hope the poor negroes will be learned to read the Bible and be enlightened and become christians.” It is telling that Bethell hopes that freed slaves will learn to read; some Confederate states held severe laws against the literacy of slaves, as well as the teaching of them. Such a stance sets Bethell apart from many assumptions about nineteenth-century Southern women. She saw value in all people both within and without the community, and did not exclude any due to race.

Essential Themes

The recurring theme of religion throughout Bethell’s entries speaks of her commitment to Christianity as a major aspect of her life. Of God, she wrote: “My precious Saviour has been with me in all my trials, his arm of love underneath me, he has kept me from sinking.” For her, faith and prayers were not solely a matter of Sunday observance, relegated to the church; rather, her religion was a constant, daily devotion. There is a sharp division between Bethell’s discussion of the war, and its potential outcomes, and that of other Confederate women. Although both her sons survived the war, it can be inferred from Bethell’s writings with little doubt that, had George or Willie been lost, she would have accepted it with the aid of her religion as God’s will. She left these judgments to God.

Bethell did not waver in her beliefs, even when she discussed her own mortality. In her entry for May 9, 1864, she wrote, “I was 43 years old last Sunday, the Lord has spared my life.” Based on the life expectancy of the nineteenth century, Mary had already lived most of her life. Given her assistance to neighbors in times of death and disease, as well as the limited medical knowledge of the time, Bethell was well aware of how quickly life could end. She therefore reminded herself in her diary–God having spared her life another year was also mentioned once she reached the age of forty-four the following year–how thankful she ought to be, as she was still among her family and had her health.

Bibliography
  • Brown, Alexis Giradin. “The Women Left Behind: Transformation of the Southern Belle, 1840–1880.” Historian 6.4 (2000): 759–77. Print.
  • Elder, Robert. “A Twice Sacred Circle: Women, Evangelicalism, and Honor in the Deep South, 1784–1860.” Journal of Southern History 78.3 (2012): 579–614. Print.
  • 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, 1998. Print.
  • McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988. 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
  • Chestnut, Mary Boykin. A Diary from Dixie: A Lady’s Account of the Confederacy During the American Civil War. Driffield, England: Leonaur, 2010. Print.
  • Clinton, Catherine, and Nina Silber, eds. Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War. Oxford: Oxford UP,1992. Print.
  • Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. New York: Vintage, 1997. Print.
  • Jabour, Anya. “‘Grown Girls, Highly Cultivated’: Female Education in an Antebellum Southern Family.” Journal of Southern History 64.1 (1998): 23–64. Print.
  • ---. Scarlett’s Sisters: Young Women in the Old South. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2009. Print.
  • Kerber, Linda. “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Woman’s Place: The Rhetoric of Women’s History.” Journal of American History 75.1 (1988): 9–39. Print.
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