A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time


A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time

Julia Wilbur's Struggle for Purpose

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

320 pages
18 photographs, 2 illustrations, 1 appendix, index


September 2017


$32.95 Add to Cart

March 2020


$22.95 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)

(Requires Adobe Digital Editions)

September 2017


$22.95 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)

(Requires Adobe Digital Editions)

September 2017


$22.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

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.

Author Bio

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. She participates in excavations, conducts archival research, and gives presentations on topics related to Alexandria, Virginia, where she lives with her family. Visit her website paulawhitacre.com.


"Julia Wilbur's life could easily have slipped into historical anonymity, unnoticed and unappreciated by modernity. Fortunately her highly descriptive diaries and letters fell into the hands of Paula Whitacre, who recognized a remarkable woman when she found one. . . . By skillfully incorporating Wilbur's own words into a scrupulously organized, elegantly written narrative, Whitacre brings to life Wilbur and the scores of historical figures she encountered during the war."—Civil War Times

"Julia Wilbur is not a well-known abolitionist. That lack of familiarity is one thing that makes Paula Tarnapol Whitacre's A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time so interesting. . . . Readers who will appreciate this book include those interested in the Civil War, abolitionism, and early feminism. Residents of both Rochester, New York, and the DC area will appreciate the detailed descriptions and historical photographs of their communities. Finally, we can all be inspired by the significant contributions made by a woman who was brave, relentless, and—comfortingly—ordinary."—Robin Talbert, Washington Independent Review of Books

"In her biography of Julia Wilbur, Paula Whitacre focuses on a woman who actively supported two political movements that shook the foundations of American life in the nineteenth century, abolition and women's suffrage. . . . Whitacre paints an intimate portrait of her subject. In doing so, she reveals the challenges and struggles of an ordinary single woman doing extraordinary work during a tumultuous period of political and social change in American history."—Mary Lynn Bayliss, Virginia Magazine

"Julia Wilbur's life and struggle took place more than 150 years ago, but remain relevant. This book presents tensions that continue to challenge individuals who seek their life purpose while negotiating societal expectations in a landscape rife with racism and social injustices."—Gwen Gosney Erickson, Friends Journal

"Whitacre has crafted a strong narrative history that should be of interest not only to scholars of the Civil War era, wartime emancipation, and women's reform and benevolence efforts but also to students and casual readers."—Anne Y. Brinton, Journal of Southern History

"A work with many amusing or insightful anecdotes and observations, this is an excellent read for anyone interested in America at mid-century or the Civil War."—Jerry Trombella, NYMAS Review

"Using Wilbur's detailed diary and numerous other sources, independent scholar Whitacre has written a biography that not only tells us of the life and work of this interesting women, but also much about nineteenth century American life, the women's rights and abolitionist movements, and, of course, volunteer war workers and African Americans in the Civil War. . . . A work with many amusing or insightful anecdotes and observations, A Civil Life in anUncivil Time is an excellent read for anyone interested in America at mid-century or the Civil War."—A. A. Nofi, Strategy Page

“Paula Whitacre shines a light on a remarkable character, abolitionist Julia Wilbur, who . . . heroically confronted misogyny, racism, and fear in an effort to aid enslaved African Americans making the transition to freedom. Here this important and timely story is empathetically brought to life. I urge everyone to pick up a copy and delve deeper into a chapter of Civil War history that has been overlooked for far too long.”—Lisa Wolfinger, co-creator and executive producer of the PBS series Mercy Street

“By illuminating Julia Wilbur’s struggles to end slavery, join the emancipated in the fight against bigotry, and live a life of purpose, Paula Whitacre offers a rich biography and beautifully written history.”—Chandra Manning, author of Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War

“Paula Whitacre’s biography captures the extraordinary life and times of this seemingly ordinary American woman.”—Carol Faulkner, author of Lucretia Mott’s Heresy

“Paula Whitacre’s scholarship expands our knowledge of the African American experience before, during, and after the Civil War. A fascinating look at Wilbur and Civil War Alexandria, Virginia.”—Audrey P. Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum and historical advisor to the PBS series Mercy Street

“Paula Whitacre has created a compelling portrait of a nineteenth-century abolitionist working on the front line of change. Julia Wilbur joins the ranks of tough-minded women who stood firm at the point where idealism meets reality.”—Pamela D. Toler, author of Heroines of Mercy Street

“In resurrecting Julia Wilbur’s life, Paula Whitacre vividly conveys the struggles, both mundane and momentous, that reshaped families and nations in the Civil War era.”—Nancy Hewitt, author of Radical Friends: The Activist Worlds of Amy Kirby Post, 1802–1889

“In Paula Whitacre’s talented hands, Julia Wilbur’s life bursts from the page. She appears as an adoring aunt, an ardent activist, Harriet Jacobs’s ally, a committed teacher, and, most of all, an eyewitness to the ending of slavery and the beginning of freedom.”—Jim Downs, author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction

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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