A debut biography recounts the travails of a relief agent during the Civil War.
As a relief agent for the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Sewing Society, Julia Wilbur had a unique vantage point from which to view the Civil War. Fortunately for posterity, she kept a diary of her experiences providing services to freed slaves (or “contrabands”) in Alexandria, Virginia. And former Washington Post staff writer Whitacre puts that and other primary sources to great effect in her striking account of Wilbur’s life as a singular American woman during the turmoil of the second half of the 19th century. “By fighting for what she saw was just, often against those in positions of authority, she transformed herself into, in her own words, ‘a sort of missionary-at-large, a woman-of-all work,’ ” Whitacre writes. Wilbur was a schoolteacher in Rochester, New York, when she was first exposed to abolitionism by attending lectures given by Frederick Douglass. The slave-turned–orator and activist became part of Wilbur’s social circle, and his daughter was briefly a student at her school. By the fall of 1862, Wilbur needed a new purpose in life and used her abolitionist connections to secure the relief agent position behind the Union lines. Whitacre deftly depicts in telling detail not only the deplorable conditions to which freed slaves were subjected in Alexandria—at a hospital, “a mother sat holding her dead child, wrapped in a piece of ticking”—but also the racism and sexism of Union officials. Wilbur clashed repeatedly with the superintendent of contrabands, a Baptist minister named Albert Gladwin, who told her that she was “out of my sphere, & he does not like to see a woman wearing men’s clothes.” He was only removed from office after an outcry over his racist policy of burying black Union soldiers in the cemetery for civilian freedmen rather than with their military comrades. “Colored people are still treated like slaves in Alexandria, and the slave laws of the State are still enforced,” Wilbur lamented. In her engrossing book, Whitacre skillfully adds historical context to produce a well-rounded picture of a woman who found her purpose in battling “indifference and prejudice” and making a difference.
An illuminating portrait of a remarkable abolitionist working behind Union lines.