A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur's Struggle for Purpose

A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur's Struggle for Purpose

by Paula Tarnapol Whitacre


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In the fall of 1862 Julia Wilbur left her family’s farm near Rochester, New York, and boarded a train to Washington DC. As an ardent abolitionist, the forty-seven-year-old Wilbur left a sad but stable life, headed toward the chaos of the Civil War, and spent the next several years in Alexandria, Virginia, devising ways to aid recently escaped slaves and hospitalized Union soldiers. A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time shapes Wilbur’s diaries and other primary sources into a historical narrative of a woman who was alternately brave, self-pitying, foresighted, and myopic.

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre describes Wilbur’s experiences against the backdrop of Alexandria, a southern town held by the Union from 1861 to 1865; of Washington DC, where Wilbur became active in the women’s suffrage movement; and of Rochester, New York, where she began a lifelong association with Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.
Harriet Jacobs, author of Incidents of a Slave Girl, became Wilbur’s friend and ally. Together, the two women, black and white, fought social convention to improve the lives of African Americans escaping slavery by coming across Union lines. In doing so, they faced the challenge to achieve racial and gender equality that continues today.

A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time is the captivating story of a woman who remade herself at midlife during a period of massive social upheaval.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612348551
Publisher: Potomac Books
Publication date: 09/01/2017
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 872,238
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre is a professional writer and editor for organizations including the National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Sciences. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, she is a former Foreign Service officer and staff writer for the Washington Post. Visit her website paulawhitacre.com.

Read an Excerpt


"A Peculiar Period in My Pilgrimage"

May 1, 1844, dawned gloriously bright, the air loaded with the scent of orchards and the promise of spring after a hard New York winter. At eight in the morning Julia Wilbur nervously entered the offices of the Rochester Board of Education in the Reynolds Arcade, one of the city's finest new buildings, and faced three of its members, all men. They quizzed her on reading, on numbers, on geography. They grilled her on the short "e" and the long, the whereabouts of St. Helena, and other topics of academic significance. Satisfied, they issued her a certificate attesting to her ability to teach the city's children. Julia accepted their good wishes while also wondering how comfortably she could live on a teacher's salary.

She was twenty-nine years old when she began her new job at School No. 12, built just two years earlier, and started a diary-writing habit that stretched until the end of her life at age eighty. From her family's farm in the village of Rush, fifteen miles south of Rochester, she moved to a city dubbed the "young lion of the West," founded in the wilderness alongside the Genesee River just a few decades earlier, now a boom town after the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825.1 Seen through the eyes of a British visitor, "every thing in this bustling place appeared to be in motion." The city multiplied in population, from about 1,500 people in 1820 to almost 37,000 by 1850 and 48,000 a decade later.

Free public education had only come to Rochester a few years earlier. From the beginnings as Rochesterville, named after cofounder and Revolutionary War veteran Nathaniel Rochester, until the early 1840s, children attended a motley collection of schools paid for mostly by their families, the "poor fund," or the occasional philanthropic benefactor. Public sentiment favored a new system, reflecting the Common School Movement led by Horace Mann in Massachusetts. Everyone praised its progressive ideas: uniform curricula, supervision of teachers, and more consistent municipal financing. Ten civic-minded men formed the first board of education in 1841, two from each of the city's wards, and hired a superintendent named Isaac Mack, a miller by trade. Shortly after their appointment, the board and Mr. Mack already had to respond to charges about their "extravagance in the erection of large and expensive school-houses" and about their efforts in recruiting suitable teachers.

The leaders grappled with these and other issues that bedevil school systems today, including inequitable funding in wealthier versus poorer neighborhoods, racial integration versus segregation, and discipline. Superintendents came and went. School leaders soon figured out two advantages of female teachers over their male counterparts: a greater supply and lower wages.

Julia, a single woman who had attended a patchwork of schools without a complete high school education, reflected a standard teacher profile of the 1840s. She had her first experience teaching during the summer when she was fourteen years old (and wondered later what she possibly could have imparted to her students). Like most teachers of the time, she had scant preparation for classes that could have included fifty or more pupils, and she initially found School No. 12 a daunting experience. She could rely on a burgeoning industry that supplied new books and methods — how to impart the rules of grammar, how to decipher the mysteries of arithmetic — each hailed as the next best thing. But with attendance spotty, class size enormous, and the school calendar ranging from a few months to most of the year depending on funding, poorly paid teachers worked under tremendous pressure to prepare students for their exams — administered orally and in public. She persevered, but many colleagues, male and female, fled the profession.

Julia managed to get through the first few weeks only to realize on Sunday evenings, with some dismay, that Monday morning and another week came all too quickly. Over time, however, from among a sea of wild pupils and less-than-inspired academic performances, she saw a few promising signs, especially among some of her girls. On her first anniversary as a Rochester public teacher, she realized she enjoyed the camaraderie, although her contentment with the profession waxed and waned over time — and eventually mostly waned as the wage inequity with men ate at her.

Throughout her thirties and into her forties she taught in five public schools, sometimes taking on oversight of the library and the physical premises. She became active in the Teachers Institute, which offered the equivalent of professional development to teachers, and served as "editress" of its publication for a time. She also tried to establish two small privately funded schools, known as select schools, one on Court Street in Rochester and one in the town of Lockport, but could not sustain them.

Julia Ann Wilbur was born August 18, 1815, in the village of Milan, further downstate between Albany and New York City. Ancestors from both sides of her family (father Stephen Wilbur and mother Mary Lapham) came to New York from Rhode Island, banished from Massachusetts in the seventeenth century as Quakers. Stephen's father, Jeptha, operated a gristmill and served as one of three "overseers of poor," in recognition of his stature in the community. In the days before New York State outlawed slavery in 1827, his responsibilities included attesting to whether freed slaves could support themselves. The Laphams, on Julia's maternal side, lived in neighboring Stanford, and she claimed a connection through them to the Great Nine Partners, the earliest settlers in the area. As fellow Quakers sharing a New England background, the two families probably had contact so that Stephen and Mary could meet and marry.

Stephen and Mary had two daughters, Angeline and Elizabeth, older than Julia, when the family moved to the Columbia County village of Chatham, where Julia later described her father as involved in "mercantile and milling." Keeping with the custom of another child at regular intervals, the family grew to include Theodore (1817), Frances (1819), Henry (1821), Sarah (1824), and William Penn (1826). In 1829, at age fourteen, Julia attended Nine Partners Boarding School, a well-established Quaker school previously attended by noted Philadelphia reformer Lucretia Mott.

But as Julia later described her parents' circumstances, "In the prime of their lives, misfortune came upon them" when her father was stricken with an eye disease, probably trachoma. For four years he lived in total blindness, traveling to Hartford, New York, and Philadelphia in search of treatment. Modern-day medicine cures this bacterial disease of the cornea with antibiotics; the attempted surgeries and various solutions of the day never totally restored his sight. For the rest of his life Stephen Wilbur distinguished shapes and rode a horse but could not read or discern faces. He would assume his position at the head of the family dining table but had to ask if everyone else had sat down.

Stephen decided he could no longer operate in business. In July 1828 he purchased 124 acres of land in Rush that adjoined a farm owned by his brother. At some point soon after, the family moved to the town of about two thousand, into an existing house about three-quarters of a mile from the main road. The Wilburs and other farmers in the surrounding countryside supplied wheat to Rochester's flour mills, sent out along the Erie Canal.

In the early 1830s Angeline and Elizabeth married a pair of brothers — Alfred and Morgan Van Wagoner — and moved to farms on the way to Buffalo. Two other sisters were born, Ella (1832) and Mary (1834), bringing the family to ten children over a span of twenty-four years. But in 1834, six weeks after giving birth, Mary Lapham Wilbur died at age forty-three, leaving a forty-seven-year-old widower and ten children "motherless," as Julia lamented for the rest of her life, even through Stephen's two subsequent marriages.

When her mother died, Julia was nineteen and of prime marriageable age. How did her mother's death affect Julia's own life course? Her older sisters lived with their husbands, and her father was nearly sightless. Children ranging in age from six weeks to seventeen years needed care, especially the infant Mary and the toddler, two-year-old Ella. In 1836 Stephen married Sally Rundell Tanner, a widow in her late forties, but she did not seem to connect emotionally with the children, at least not that Julia expressed. Julia spent her twenties helping to run the household. By the time she moved to Rochester in 1844, her father must have concluded he did not need her at home, for it is hard to imagine her leaving otherwise. Her sister Sarah in particular moved into the role of principal caregiver for the younger siblings.

The only known photos of Julia Wilbur show her middle-aged. We see a plain but certainly presentable person, slim and well-groomed, dark-haired with gentle eyes, about five feet tall. Still she labeled herself "unattractive in appearance and repulsive in manner," even as a young woman. She didn't describe most of her family members for us to know if, for example, particularly attractive siblings exacerbated this low self-image. She claimed she lacked confidence but said other people criticized her for acting like a know-it-all — perhaps a reaction to her tendency to voice her opinions, whether welcome or not. Surely the prevailing views of "the cult of true womanhood," which glorified subservient women, led to some raised eyebrows in her direction. And as her siblings and even her father found new life partners — her father outlived all three of his wives — maybe the mark of "spinster" affected how she saw herself.

Yet Julia bemoaned the fate of women who thought marriage would open new worlds. To her, if anything, marriage closed things off. When she visited a former schoolmate excited about setting up "housekeeping" as a new bride, Julia listened but privately mused, "She seemed perfectly happy. Long may she continue so." She clearly thought her friend would face a different reality soon enough. A married friend wrote from the West, trying to reestablish contact out of loneliness and misfortune — another example to Julia that marriage, far from a solution, could create its own problems. She especially expressed sadness for women who entered marriage, usually to older widowers with children, out of economic necessity "for the sake of a home" (a situation that may have applied to her two stepmothers, both childless widows when they married Stephen Wilbur). But she judged from a privileged position — not wealthy but with means to support herself and with her farm and family as a backup.

Julia never mentioned a suitor but did seek connection with others. "I certainly am made with a nature to love others. I love my friends most intensely. I sometimes think if they would return buthalf of it, I might be happy," she wrote in early 1848.10 She stayed close to her siblings, nieces, and nephews, especially her youngest sister Mary, whom she helped raise, and Frances, with whom she lived later in life. She loved spending time with her brother Theodore, an artist and store clerk living in Rochester, and his wife Charlotte, who owned a "hair jewelry" shop, selling ornaments and wigs to Rochester's most fashionable women, her work "not excelled by any in the United States, none better made in the City of New York." lthough Charlotte led a far more flamboyant life than Julia could aspire to or even wanted, the two remained close, even after Theodore died of typhoid in 1858 and Charlotte remarried. Julia took a particular interest in their son Neddy and daughter Mary Julia, known as Sis, whom Julia described as so beautiful that she could get into trouble — as she did, marrying three times and alternating between wealth and poverty in her adult life.

Julia also formed attachments with female friends, many of them fellow teachers. "Miss D" shows up with great affection, and at one point they planned to board in the same place. When her friend contracted consumption and left Rochester, Julia lamented, "All my plans of happiness are frustrated." Was this love of a romantic or sexual nature or was Miss D instead a well-thought-of friend? She gave no indication. Miss D eventually recovered and married.

On her thirtieth birthday on August 18, 1845, Julia felt herself moving into a new phase of life, or as she said, "a peculiar period in my pilgrimage." She saw youth passing her by, as was, most likely, marriage and motherhood. While her family still made demands on her time and attention, she admitted her good fortune, especially when the typical woman lived in a household-circumscribed "sphere." She realized this relative freedom came with an obligation to those around her. Over the next few years that sense of obligation extended beyond her family as she became more involved in abolition and other social causes.

Living in Rochester in a series of boarding houses and occasionally with family members gave Julia far more independence than most women had at the time. She lived in at least fourteen places from 1844 to 1858. In addition to staying with Theodore, a cousin in Rochester, and a sister in Somerset, she rented rooms and ate meals with people beyond her circle. For example, in 1851 Julia stayed with Abigail Bush, a women's rights leader whose husband had gone to California in search of gold; at another point, she stayed with a "Mr. and Mrs. R." For them the extra money from a lady like "Miss Wilbur" might make the difference in eking out an existence. The census records of Rochester, or any city of the time, reveal how many unrelated people lived together in the nineteenth century, whether in hotels, boarding houses, or extra rooms in private homes. Many abandoned or widowed middle-class women took in boarders as one of the few socially acceptable ways to bring in much needed income.

The city offered opportunities to learn about, and get involved in, the social movements of the day: temperance, abolition, and women's rights, as well as more spiritual pursuits that ranged from Protestant revivalism to communication with the "other world." The most famous supporters of these causes made Rochester a regular stop on their circuits. Scientists, musicians, and pontificators also shared their talents at Corinthian Hall, Minerva Hall, and other splendid public places built by the city's business leaders.

When Rochester was barely a decade old, missionaries from New England started to circulate through western New York, and local bible societies and churches formed. But nothing prepared the region for the magnetic preacher Charles Finney in the 1830s. Originally invited to Rochester by a city leader concerned about the godlessness he saw accompanying Rochester's growth, Finney considered the city "a very unpromising field of labor." He dug in. He preached an exhausting schedule of revival meetings throughout the week, three times on Sunday, emphasizing that individual free will could combat sin. He won over large numbers of converts with his mesmerizing speaking style and presence before he moved on.

Many other religious movements and people flourished in the "burned-over district" of upstate New York. In 1833 farmer and lay preacher William Miller proclaimed that his reading of the Bible indicated the Second Coming in 1844, giving himself a good decade of fame. A pamphlet from a Millerite meeting remained among Julia's effects when she died, but the only handwritten comment describes what her sister Sarah wore that day. She noted when the promised doomsday of October 22 came and went, the "world seems going on yet pretty much as usual ... to the great disappointment of many deluded persons." Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians all found fertile ground and established churches in the Rochester area. Quakers, both Hicksite and Orthodox, established meetinghouses. Joseph Smith, the Mormon leader, gleaned his first inspirations in the woods outside his home in Palmyra, about twenty-five miles from Rochester. Then there were the Fox sisters, Maggie and Kate, known for their rappings and séances with the spirits. Thousands of people believed in their extraordinary powers, including, by the late 1840s, some of Rochester's leading abolitionists and other reformers.

Julia sought solace from religion but never found a deep connection with Quakerism or any other single system of belief, not for want of trying. She said in 1847, "I used to wish that I could believe as others do & unite with a church & think it all right. But I see something of good in all of them & all of good in none." In Rochester and throughout her life she attended church services, often several different sects on a given Sunday, including African American churches, where she might find herself the only white person in the congregation. She sought wise words to inspire her; boring, mean-spirited, or otherwise not up-to-snuff sermons disappointed her greatly. She occasionally attended Quaker meetings but was not one to gain much from silent contemplation. And she found the Fox sisters a humbug.


Excerpted from "A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Paula Tarnapol Whitacre.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Prologue: “The Saddest Sound I Ever Heard”
Part 1. Before the War
1. “A Peculiar Period in My Pilgrimage”
2. “Slavery Is an Evil That Ought Not to Exist”
3. “My Plans Overthrown. Life All Changed.”
4. “At Alexandria . . . the Potomac Rolls Its Majestic Stream”
Part 2. During the War
5. “Civil War Is Upon Us”
6. “My Way Seems Clear to Go”
7. “What a Place I Have Found”
8. “Mrs. J and I May Carry Out Our Plans”
9. “An Interfering and Troublesome Person”
10. “I Wish to . . . Fight It Through”
11. “Will It Pay?”
12. “As Good a Spot as Could Be Obtained”
13. “Things as Usual, Quite Unsettled”
14. “Flung My Flag to the Breeze”
Part 3. After the War
15. “The Paraphernalia of War Is Fast Disappearing”
16. “That I Might Be There to See”
Epilogue: “The Burial Was at Avon”
Appendix: Abbreviated Wilbur Family History

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