A Virginia Girl in the Civil War
by Myrta Lockett Avary (1903)
paperback; 384 pages
Myrta Lockett Avary's 1903 work, A Virginia Girl In The Civil War, is an adventure story filled with anecdotes of fear, humor, daring, and deprivation as a young Confederate wife is plunged into maturity during the War of Northern Aggression. "Nellie Duncan" (her name changed to protect privacy) was a young Catholic girl who grew up loved and pampered in an upper class Virginia family. She told her war stories years later to Mrs. Avary at fireside and over needlework. Avary notes she found the brunette "an unconscious heroine.... Wishing to share with others the reminiscences she gave me, I seek to present them here in her own words... unique, possessing at once the charm of romance and the veracity of history" (page v).
"Nell" married the dashing "Dan Grey" when she was 17 and, on the heels of their nuptuals, the Confederacy was birthed:
There were mutterings that each day grew louder, signs and portents that we refused to believe. Local militia were organizing and drilling getting ready to answer the call should it come. Not that the people seriously thought that it would come. They believed, as they hoped, that something would be done to prevent war; that statesmen, North and South, would combine to save the Union; that, at any rate, we should be saved from bloodshed.... But for the most of us the Virginians whom I knew we did not, we would not believe that brothers could war with brothers (page 23).
But war there was: "
[T]hose four long years of bloody agony; North and South were each sure of victory. In Virginia, where the courage and endurance of starving men were to stand the test of weary months and years, we scoffed at the idea that there would be any real fighting" (page 24).
Nell followed Dan's cavalry unit as much as possible, which put her in harm's way more than once:
I found our tired army in Culpeper trying to rest and fatten a little before meeting McClellan's legions. Then I am not historian enough to know just how it happened McClellan's head fell and Burnside reigned in his stead. Better and worse for our army, and no worse for our women and children, for Burnside was a gentleman even as McClellan was and as Pope was not, and made no war upon women and children until the shelling of Fredericksburg (page 50).
Her further adventures included running the Yankee blockade to get into Federal-held Maryland for supplies, being involved with a Confederate spy, spending a brief time as a Yankee prisoner, dodging battles, being shelled, nursing the wounded, and witnessing death and destruction all around her. She met several famous Confederates, including Belle Boyd, and Generals J.E.B. Stuart, Wade Hampton, and Rooney Lee. A few of the stories Avary recounts were told by Nellie's older sister, Millicent, who was widowed by a Yankee bullet.
Some of Nellie's stories are humorous, as is the one where Dan has to convince an army mule to pull their ambulance on a frozen night, a mode of travel considered relatively safe for women: "I won't get kicked. I know how to talk to a mule. Just shut your ears, Nell, if you don't want to hear me. I've got to convince this mule.... As soon as I get through giving her my opinion in language she can understand, she'll travel all night" (page 77).
Dan's conversation was quickly followed by the Greys meeting up with another ambulance, conveying an army friend and his wife,
and she [the friend's wife] proved the straw that broke the back of my endurance. She played the martyr. She had rugs, and shawls, and blankets. I cross-examined her and made her show that she hadn't been left on a car by herself without a ticket or a cent of money, and with no knowledge of where she was going, that the driver of her ambulance hadn't been kicked in the stomach and tumbled himself backward into her lap and nearly broken her bones, and that my case was far worse than hers. But in spite of it, she complained of everything, and had Dan and her husband sympathizing so with her that they had no time to sympathize with me. I sat, almost frozen, huddled up in the one shawl that answered for shawl, blanket, and rug, and tried to keep my teeth from chattering and myself from hating that whining Mrs. Gummidge of a woman (page 79).
Always portraying the politeness that was an important facet of Southern life, Nell thought well of the Yankees she met in Maryland as her life teetered on the edge of discovery as a Confederate. Avary wrote, "Meanwhile, her grateful affection for the Union soldiers, officers and men, who served and shielded her, should lift this story to a place beyond the pale of sectional prejudice" (page vii).
Nell's journal-like tales include harrowing accounts of battles like Gettysburg and the Yankee's brand of total war waged against civilians. She reported herself hungry and shabby, sharing quarters but glad to have any roof over her head in an area that "bristled with bayonets, and the air we breathed shook with the thunder of guns" (page 356). "There were hunger and nakedness and death and pestilence and fire and sword everywhere, and we, fugitives from shot and shell, knew it well...." (page 357) Yankee occupation rounds out the anecdotal history, as Federals took possession, burning what suited them and terrorizing the citizenry. "A niece of my husband's, a beautiful girl of eighteen, who had been ill with typhoid fever, had to be carried out of a burning house that night and laid on a cot in the street. She died in the street and I heard of other sick persons who died from the terror and exposure of that time" (page 368).
Nell's life showed how Southerners held on to the end, and how they were even surprised by defeat:
Then came the blow. We heard that Lee had surrendered. Lee surrendered! that couldn't be true! But even while we were refusing to believe it General Lee, accompanied, as I remember, by one or two members of his staff, rode up to his door. He bared his weary gray head to the people who gathered around him with greetings and passed into his house. Hope was dead at last. But other things, precious and imperishable, remained to us and to our children the things that make for loyalty and courage and endurance and invincible faith the enduring record of heroic example (page 373).
A Virginia Girl In The Civil War is appropriate for junior high-through-adult readers. Parents may want to gently edit for very rare instances of mild profanity, and for a couple of usages of a derogatory slang word for Negro. Dialect, Negro as well as that of lesser-educated Whites, adds to the "you are there" flavor of the book.
reviewed by Deborah Deggs Cariker