Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman

Sarah Morgan: The Civil War by Charles East

Sarah Fowler Morgan
Sarah’s diary is available online courtesy of the documenting American South project of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Sarah Morgan was born on February 28, 1842 in New Orleans where her father worked with the Customs House. Later, they moved to Baton Rouge (with a population of 6,000) where he became a prominent judge. Their grand home was on Church Street (4th Street) between Florida and Laurel streets in the heart of the old downtown. From their gallery they could see the old State House that overlooked the Mississippi River. They were well connected with the plantation society. She began the diary at the beginning of the War in Louisiana in early 1862. Her father died and she turned twenty as the year began.

Word reached Baton Rouge that Capt. Farragut of the Union navy has just passed Fort Jackson below New Orleans on his way to take that city. New Orleans surrendered. Baton Rouge was next in line, becoming occupied by Union forces in short order. The Morgan’s were living there. Sarah described the Union occupation, the officers and soldiers with contempt for them but civility. General Butler, who became notorious among Southerners for enforcing the Union’s Confiscation Act, earning himself the nickname “Spoons” Butler for raiding the personal possessions of Confederate officers. He came to Baton Rouge with hostility toward the way Southern women insulted his officers, instituting his order that women who do so would be treated as women of the street. One of the officers who came to know the Morgan’s offered them a sack of flour, a scarce item. They refused, lest their neighbors think them complicit with the Union occupation! Later, he insisted and sent the sack. They condescendingly accepted the gift.

The Confederate army came to retake the Baton Rouge, urging citizens to evacuate. Sarah went with a trunk of clothes, family and neighbors on wagons and carriages to Greenwell, 15 miles NE of Baton Rouge. On return the home was still there. Later word came of an impending Union cannonade, forcing them again to scramble about a mile south to the Asylum for Deaf and Blind, called the “deaf and dumb” school. It was an elegant old building built in the mid-1850’s. From the gallery they watched the battle. Their home survived. Another evacuation took them to a plantation where LSU is located today. Still another sent them across the river to a plantation above the city. From the levee there they watched the Confederate ironclad ram, Arkansas, blown up by its crew when its engines failed.

The struggle over Baton Rouge became so intense that the family decided they would go to their friends at Linwood Plantation in East Feliciana about 20 miles north of Baton Rouge. There they were but a few miles from Port Hudson, another Union target for control of the Mississippi. Through the Linwood Plantation property the Clinton and Port Hudson Railroad passed, giving easy access to Clinton as another respite from the war. It appears they rented rooms or houses there. Sarah loved being a Linwood, but loathed and detested Clinton. She did not expand on that, but at Linwood, her diary reveals, she and her sisters were in the constant attention of Confederate officers from Port Hudson, including dances, parties, visits and rides in the country. In Clinton there was not as much fun. There she was surrounded by older, married men!

She referred to the train as the “cars.” From Linwood they would go out by the overseers house and wait for the cars. It jerked, it whistled, it squeaked and on occasions it fell off the track. On one trip it was crowded with noisy, ”fast” young girls. Another time it was packed with Confederate soldiers some even riding on the top of the cars. She belittles its slow pace, even stopping to let passengers pick blackberries. One trip it stopped to pull broken limbs from the telegraph line. On another, it backed up a mile to pick up a passenger. Sarah noted that it was said of the train’s schedule that it was a tri-weekly, it left Port Hudson on Monday to go to Clinton and tried weakly to get back!

One time after arriving in Clinton they loaded a wagon with their trunks and people, traversing on a wooden bridge over a stream, the bridge collapsed and they ended up in the water! It appears that the well-known Mr. Henry Marston of Clinton was at times a host to the family. Another time she said they turned south out of Clinton for two miles to a plantation. Presumably, they were renting places to live, adding displeasure to their stay in Clinton.

One evening a short distance from Linwood, Sarah and a friend drove a carriage toward Port Hudson. They passed a Confederate camp. As they passed a gun fired, the horse reared up and bolted with the two women holding on while pulling on the reins. One rein broke, the horse leaped to one side and the carriage flipped. Sarah tumbled to the ground landing on her back paralyzed. The woman with her, weighing 240 pounds was bruised but unhurt. Sarah had to be picked up and carried. The injury to her spine began six months of recovery, unable to walk, she had to lie on her stomach and be carried up and down the stairs of Linwood.. Doctors administered advanced treatments… lancing, cupping, bleeding, blistering and several patent medicines. Finally, she wised up and stopped the “treatments.”

Linwood was the place they enjoyed most in their evacuations from BR. But the war came so close to Linwood as Union troops marched on Port Hudson. Sarah could hear the cannon fire and see the mussel flashes. Serious consideration came for the family leaving Linwood to go to Augusta, Georgia. Union occupied New Orleans became another option, Finally, New Orleans was chosen. It had been captured by the Union a year earlier. They departed to Clinton on the railroad. Then by carriage traveled some 30 miles to Camp Moore. From there they took a train to Hammond. From there they rode a carriage through Ponchatoula to Madisonville. At Bayou Bonfouca they boarded a schooner to sail across Lake Ponchartrain to New Orleans. A terrible storm broke out on the lake at night, making for a risky and stressful trip. They entered a canal, probably Bayou St. John and the Carondelet Canal, were they were met by Union guards, and asked to pledge allegiance to the United States. Everybody in the party reluctantly concurred except Sarah’s mother who pled that she had three sons fighting for the Confederates and would not pledge allegiance to the US. That made an impasse for approval, but was finally overcome with help from friends.

Time in New Orleans was painful. Sarah loathed living among the Yankee occupiers. The pages of the diary described her self-interests and those of her sisters. She longed for good news from the Confederate fronts, though news tended to be rumors, gossip, speculation and hopes. Then confirmed reports came that Vicksburg had fallen in the summer of 1863, followed by news that Port Hudson had fallen also. Shortly after came the report that Lee had been defeated at Gettysburg. Sarah’s world was collapsing while around her Union sympathizers celebrated.

In 1865 she learned of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. With pain and horror she realized the outcome of the Civil War. She had lost three brothers during the war: one in a duel, one in a Union prison and one in Confederate service. Sarah Morgan married Frank Dawson in 1874, an editor and widower. He insisted she write for his publications. She moved to Charleston, South Carolina. Frank was murdered in a personal conflict with a doctor in 1889. She lived out her life in Paris where she died in 1909.

East, Charles, Editor, Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman. Touchstone:New York, 1991. 626 pps.

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