“Through Their Eyes: Diarists in Virginia” Case

“Through Their Eyes: Diarists in Virginia” Case
Colleges In Virginia
Image by Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library
Shown here is a photograph from the "Unlocking the Diary" exhibit ,on display from December 3, 2010-March 31, 2011 in the third floor rotunda gallery inside Swem Library at the College of William and Mary.

The diaries in our exhibit span the 19th and 20th centuries, and our discussion of the diary brings us into the present day. Our first case, “What Counts?,” introduces you to the range of forms and styles of the diary. “Life in Transition,” our second case, demonstrates how the diary has been used throughout the life cycle by both women and men. “Through Their Eyes: Diarists in Virginia” looks specifically at diaries written by 19th-century Virginia women and our final case, “DiaTribe,” features diaries written by William & Mary students, from the first years of female enrollment at the College to the present day.

This exhibit was curated by students in Prof. Jennifer Putzi’s “Gender and the American Diary” class (WMST 490/ENGL 475) and the Special Collections Research Center staff. All of the diaries and artifacts featured in the exhibit are from the SCRC collections. Student Curators: Kaitlyn Adkins, Greg Benson, Kimberly Clark, Caitlin Finchum, Greg Glazier, Katelin Hill, Shaunna Jardines, Katherine Perkins, Cassie Adair, Ryan Morris, Kali Murphy, Taysha Pye, Sta’sean Ridley, Casey Sears, and Errin Tom; Exhibit design and installation: Chandi Singer, Burger Archives Assistant.

"Through Their Eyes: Diarists in Virginia" Case

The diarists in this case represent a variety of experiences, yet are united by the geographical locality of their female authors. Spanning from Gloucester County to Winchester, these diarists wrote with a diversity of intention. Laura Lee, for instance, used her diary to construct a story of her life during the Civil War, perhaps wishing to preserve what she deemed significant events for future generations. Others, such as Jane Gay Robertson and Sally Lyons Taliferro, were less concerned with narrative, but rather allowed the journal’s daily structure to reflect the routines of their lives—documenting the passage of days and years. Cloe Tyler Whittle Green writes in her diary for more than sixty years, adjusting its shape and content to suit the changing life she lives. It is our hope that after viewing “Through Their Eyes: Diarists in Virginia,” you will have a more meaningful understanding of 19th-century women and their diaries in our state.

Diary of Jane Gay Robertson, 1825-1840.
Jane Gay Robertson was most importantly a wife and a mother. She was also a woman of means who lived and entertained at “Gaymont” in Caroline County, Virginia. Her diary, written sporadically throughout her life, emphasizes daily life as well as the struggle for strength and faith after the death of a child.

Diary of Sally Lyons Taliferro, 1859.
Loving daughter, Devoted wife, Tender mother, True friend. These are the words forever engraved on Sally Lyons Taliaferro’s tombstone. And while these designated titles may be dotingly accurate, it is important to remember that she was also a diarist. The short entries scribbled in pencil paint a portrait of Sally in terms of her daily activities. From domestic responsibilities on the Dunham Massie Plantation in Gloucester County, Virginia, to Sunday morning service at St. James, Sally’s diary is an account of the days through her eyes.

Diary of Laura Lee, March 11, 1862-April 4, 1864.
A staunch Confederate, Laura Lee kept a journal titled “A History of Our Captivity” to record her experiences of the Civil War. Winchester was hotly occupied territory and Lee witnessed firsthand the horrors of battle and demoralizing occupation of her hometown by Union forces. Her journal was often the only space where she could safely express her devotion to her cause, and the fierce optimism in her entries reflects the characteristic tenacity of the Southern Confederate.

Diary of Cloe Tyler Whittle Green, October 1, 1863-March 7, 1865.
The diaries of Cloe Tyler Whittle Green begin in 1861 when she was seventeen years old and continue through 1924, shortly before her death. Her diary is most notable for her description of life in the South during the Civil War and has been used by scholars to study the war as it was experienced by elite Southern white women.

Portraits of:

John Hipkins Bernard, 1792-1854.
Watercolor, undated
John Hipkins Bernard was the son of William Bernard and Fannie Hipkins Bernard. Bernard inherited “Rose Hill”, Caroline County, Virginia from his grandfather and renamed it “Gay Mont” in honor of his wife, Jane Gay Robertson Bernard.
Mss. Artifact collection. 65R54

Jane Gay Robertson Bernard, 1795-1852.
Reproduction of oil painting, undated.
Portrait is held in private collection.

Jane Gay Robertson, 1825-1840.
Jane Gay Robertson was most importantly a wife and a mother. She was also a woman of means who lived and entertained at “Gaymont” in Caroline County, Virginia. Her diary, written sporadically throughout her life, emphasizes daily life as well as the struggle for strength and faith after the death of a child.

Jane Gay Robertson Diary Transcription:

Fauquier Wht Sulphur Aug 1840

Arrived here Wednesday the 12 so far find the place dull and but little attraction reckon I must be losing my relish for such places I soon get very tired of the Ballroom go and sit a while in the Parlour with the old ladies then retire to my room for and take an hour as quiet reading as if at home where I should enjoy myself so much more usually I have pass’d my time at such places very pleasantly, but this season it is a perfect drag- and I hardly know how I shall get through 3 weeks- Sept 10 3 weeks have pass’d since writing the above part of the time we have had delightful society and a good deal of Enjoyment and had Mr. B been with me I should have liked it very much but I am getting very tired of the 2 month trips [illegible] from the home without him and the other children. Yet I will not [murmur] for how much has there been for me to be thankful for all have been well so well both here and at home and dear Gay too happily through her troubles that I ought to feel nothing but gratitude but I feel the want and the absence of near and dearer friends than these by whom I have been surrounded it only the home circle that can supply the heart, the mind, at a place of this sort becomes idle and dissipated, and I feel too clearly that I am no longer as young and as vibrant as I have been. Father turn my heart to thee and make me grateful for thy undeserved blessings.

Cloe Tyler Whittle Green Diary Transcription:

Thursday Night, October 1st, 1863 Norfolk

This morning, after a confinement of ten days I proceeded down to Lizzie Williams, with the assistance of Father’s arm. I felt very faintly when I reached there but after a while recovered from it. I asked Lizzie if she knew how Mr. Henry Talbot and Lizzie Wright carried on she said she learned they were to be married next week. I told her that Lizzie had sent me a message the other day, asking me to come down there that evening as she had something to tell me but that I had been prevented by my sickness from going. We were so curious to know what it was that I intended to try and get there before Father came for me; before I was able to do this however Patience came for me saying that Miss Mary Walker and Miss Bettie Poindexter had come to see me & so I started off home, as soon as Lizzie, who was so kind as to offer to come with me cd get ready. While Lizzie was getting ready Mrs. Williams came in and told me some very interesting facts about her son Carter’s interest in religion and his own words before the battle in which he was wounded that Religion took up more of his time & thoughts than any one was aware of.

Laura Lee Diary Transcription:

Sunday, Mar 23rd.
All was quiet this morning, and we hoped would continue so. I went with Mary to Mr. Graham’s church, and when we came out we heard the firing had commenced about eleven, and it continued till two, then ceased till about four and then continued incessantly until dark. It was more distant than yesterday, supposed to be four miles from town towards Neill’s farm. Netsy and I went up to see Neel, and called at Mrs. Sherrard’s on our way home. There was the greatest confusion on the street, and they told us at Mr. Sherrard’s that Jackson was in the fight, and that one of his aides, Mr. Jenkin, had been captured and brought to town. We would not believe it, as we had heard two days ago, that they were 40 miles from here, and we heard that Ashby had been reinforced y militia. We went to the prayer meeting at Mr. William’s after tea, and on our return heard again the same tale, that our little army had been driven back, and were retreating in confusion, but we had had so much experience of the falsehood and fabrications of the Yankees that we doubt everything they say.

Laura Lee Diary Transcription:

Monday, Mar 24th.
O, this day of horrors! We were roused this morning by Mrs. Barton rushing into our room in a frantic state, telling us to wake up, and nerve ourselves to hear the worst—that Jackson had been defeated, and driven back, with fearful loss, that the town was filled with the wounded and dying, the jail and churches with prisoners, and that she was just sending out for Tom Marshall’s dead body. We were so stunned at first that we could not remember how excitable Mrs. Barton is, and how apt to believe the worst….

Sally Lyons Taliaferro Diary Transcriptions:

March, Sunday, 20, 1859.
Mild & bright, but very windy – Thermometer 54. Ware Church Sunday –

Monday, 21.
Damp & cloudy. Planted Irish potatoes. Part out [gladiolus?] Roots. A visit to Miss E.

Tuesday 22.
Mild & bright Ther. 59. Had my flower garden spaded – Sowed carrots & salsify – Planted onions. Paid a visit to Mrs. Dabney –

March, Wednesday, 23, 1859.
Bright but cool – delightful Ther. 54 – Went to Church – an excellent lecture from Mr. Mann. Mr. T. gone to Middlesex – Sowed Beets & Parsnips

Thursday, 24.
Rain & cloudy – Rain from 12 [o’clock?] Ther. 54. Bedded my Dahlia roots to make them sprout.

Friday, 25.
Damp & rainy Ther. 64. Spent the day at White Marsh – The garden beautiful. A very pleasant day –

March, Saturday, 26, 1859.
Clear & cold – Ther. 47. Planted third crop of peas – First crop 8 inches high. Mrs. R. spent the day & night. Mr. J. [whined?] at night.

Sunday, 27.
Mild & a little cloudy – Ther. 63. Went to Ware Church. Very good sermon from Mr. Mann.

Monday, 28.
Cloudy Ther. 59. Bedded Sweet Potatoes – planted Cucumbers & [illegible]. Small dinner party to Hally Lee. Met sister, Fanny & Mary.

From the Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library at the College of William and Mary. See swem.wm.edu/scrc/ for further information and assistance.