Cover image for Emilie Davis’s Civil War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863–1865 Edited by Judith Giesberg and transcribed and annotated by The Memorable Days Project

Emilie Davis’s Civil War

The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863–1865

Edited by Judith Giesberg, transcribed and annotated by The Memorable Days Project


$64.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06367-6

$18.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06368-3

Available as an e-book

240 pages
5" × 8"
24 b&w illustrations

Emilie Davis’s Civil War

The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863–1865

Edited by Judith Giesberg, transcribed and annotated by The Memorable Days Project

“Emilie Davis's diary surely will find an appreciative audience among scholars and readers interested in African Americans during the Civil War era. Its entries, covering January 1863 through December 1865, yield valuable information on multiple topics, including daily life among Philadelphia's free black community, reactions to news from the war's political and military fronts, and the centrality of religion in Davis's world. Judith Giesberg and her coeditors have framed the diary beautifully and placed students of the conflict much in their debt.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Emilie Davis was a free African American woman who lived in Philadelphia during the Civil War. She worked as a seamstress, attended the Institute for Colored Youth, and was an active member of her community. She lived an average life in her day, but what sets her apart is that she kept a diary. Her daily entries from 1863 to 1865 touch on the momentous and the mundane: she discusses her own and her community’s reactions to events of the war, such as the Battle of Gettysburg, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the assassination of President Lincoln, as well as the minutiae of social life in Philadelphia’s black community. Her diaries allow the reader to experience the Civil War in “real time” and are a counterpoint to more widely known diaries of the period.

Judith Giesberg has written an accessible introduction, situating Davis and her diaries within the historical, cultural, and political context of wartime Philadelphia. In addition to furnishing a new window through which to view the war’s major events, Davis’s diaries give us a rare look at how the war was experienced as a part of everyday life—how its dramatic turns and lulls and its pervasive, agonizing uncertainty affected a northern city with a vibrant black community.

“Emilie Davis's diary surely will find an appreciative audience among scholars and readers interested in African Americans during the Civil War era. Its entries, covering January 1863 through December 1865, yield valuable information on multiple topics, including daily life among Philadelphia's free black community, reactions to news from the war's political and military fronts, and the centrality of religion in Davis's world. Judith Giesberg and her coeditors have framed the diary beautifully and placed students of the conflict much in their debt.”
Emilie Davis’s Civil War offers a rare ‘interior’ view of the daily life and doings of a young black Philadelphian during the Civil War. In brief but regular daily jottings, Emilie Davis recorded the rhythms of life in the city; the associations in clubs, school, and church that formed the marrow of the black community; the feelings she had about loved ones, friends, and public figures; and moments when the war brought home death and dangers. This book commands attention because sustained private views from black women are few, and those few we have are from more educated and affluent writers than Davis. The diaries also benefit from a perceptive introduction by Judith Giesberg and excellent annotation throughout. The result is a book that is at once a rarity and a necessity. It allows us to enter a place and meet a people we hardly know—black Philadelphia during wartime—and by doing so, in critical ways, it turns the narrative of the home front upside down and inside out.”
Emilie Davis’s Civil War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863-1865 is both an important educational tool and a vivid depiction of everyday life in a country at war to end the greatest injustice it has ever committed.”

Judith Giesberg is Professor of History at Villanova University.


List of Illustrations


List of People and Institutions Mentioned in the Diary

A Note on Method


Chapter 1 1863

Chapter 2 1864

Chapter 3 1865

Coda: All’s Well that Ends Well


The Memorable Days Project Editorial Team


Emilie Davis lived through America’s transition from slavery to freedom, but as a young, working-class woman of color, she left only faint traces of herself in the official records. Davis appeared in three consecutive censuses, beginning in 1860. Her 1866 marriage was recorded in a Philadelphia marriage registry; when Emilie died in 1889, at age fifty, a physician and an undertaker affixed their signatures to her death certificate. She was twenty-two years old, free, and living in a free state in 1861. The Civil War did not promise to change her legal status, nor would enlistment offer her the opportunity to prove her mettle. Indeed, it might seem that Emilie Davis had very little at stake in the war. Emilie was married soon after the war ended, had five children, and was buried in a grave that is no longer marked. Davis seems to offer us little that we did not already know about the Civil War, and she did not leave us much to go on. We might have easily gone on without her—except that she kept a diary.

Like so many of the Civil War generation, Emilie recorded these memorable days in her diary. She wrote short daily entries, recounting events both big and small, in three slim pocket-sized volumes. A seamstress by trade, she reported on her sewing work; keeping the diary allowed Emilie to practice her handwriting as she attended school at the Institute for Colored Youth, Philadelphia’s premier African American school. Immersed in the lively social life of the city’s black community, Emilie used her diary to keep track of her social calls and correspondence, and in its pages she repeated gossip and rumors about derailed courtships and marriages gone wrong. Mixed in with the minutiae of Emilie’s everyday life are entries recounting black Philadelphians’ celebration of the Emancipation Proclamation, nervous excitement during the battle of Gettysburg, and their collective mourning of President Lincoln. Indeed, on the first line of the earliest surviving diary, under the heading “Thursday, January 1, 1863,” Emilie writes,

To day has bin a memorable day and i thank god i have bin sperd [spared] to see it the day was religously observed all the churches were open we had quite a Jubiliee in the evenin i went to Joness to a Party had a very pleasant time

Entries like this one make the diary and its author worth a closer look.

If we mine Davis’s 381-page diary for events we deem newsworthy about the Civil War, we might learn a thing or two about what the war looked like through the eyes of a free black woman. In this way, Emilie Davis’s frank and descriptive diary entries serve as bracing counterpoints to the commentary provided by the smug New York diarist George Templeton Strong, for instance, or entries carefully crafted by the self-conscious and indignant Mary Boykin Chesnut of Charleston. Commenting on the initial proclamation, Strong remarked cynically in his diary that it would “do us good abroad, but will have no other effect.” Like Davis, Chesnut celebrated emancipation—but for starkly different reasons. A fierce critic of slavery, Chesnut despised slavery’s effect on white women, declaring in her diary that only “Lincoln’s proclamation freeing the negroes” could reconcile her to a Confederate defeat. Philadelphia diarist and lawyer Sydney George Fisher was uncharacteristically effusive when, in a long and ponderous reflection on the constitutionality of wartime emancipation, he declared, “we should try to enlarge our vision so as to see the real dimensions of things around us, which dwarf all of our past experience.” Only in Emilie’s diary is January 1 a “Jubiliee,” and neither Strong, nor Chesnut, nor Fisher saw God’s work in emancipation. The women of Philadelphia’s Female Antislavery Society rejoiced, welcoming “the Day of Jubilee which has dawned on the American Nation.” Participating in celebrations among freedpeople and colored troops in South Carolina, fellow Philadelphian and freedmen’s teacher Charlotte Forten declared, “a happy, happy New Year to you, too! And to us all a year of such freedom as we have never yet known in this boasted but hitherto wicked land.” Through Davis’s eyes, readers are reminded that free blacks embraced emancipation as the beginning of the end of a painful duality—of being half citizens in a slave nation.

But if we extracted these big events from the diary, we would be no closer to knowing its author. The real significance of the diary is that it allows us to see how the Civil War was lived as part of everyday life, folded between Emilie’s sewing and her attendance at church and school, shopping and socializing, worrying and rejoicing. We generally study the war as a series of big events, of victories and setbacks, turning points and proclamations, but it was lived as a periodic and oftentimes unwelcome visitor, taking at times and giving at others. Emilie Davis’s diary gives us a sense of the war as a periodic and dramatic interruption of life in a northern city.

Reading the diary, one is struck by the uneven pace in which the Civil War was experienced. Entries focused on the weather, Emilie’s work, and her social life feel slow and will likely make some readers impatient for war news. Emilie, too, became impatient, as in June 1863, when she heard that the rebels had entered Pennsylvania and were headed to Harrisburg, where her father lived. On June 23, Emilie writes, “i feel so worried about Father.” Six days later, with refugees from Harrisburg crowded in the streets of Philadelphia, Emilie’s concern is palpable when she writes, “i sent a letter to Father last night.” By June 30, Emilie is “all most sick worrin about father.” Following this entry, Emilie continues to report war news without giving voice to her mounting concerns. Finally, on July 9, Davis writes with relief, “i received a liter from Father.” Although we think of Gettysburg as a three-day battle, full of low- and high-water marks and events occurring in rapid succession, in the pages of Emilie’s diary, it becomes a three-week grind of rumors and worry.

April 1865 entries, on the other hand, remind us that events also happened quickly, and news traveled with dizzying speed. On April 14, Emilie attends a “Parrade” to celebrate the raising of the U.S. flag at Fort Sumter and to honor the 24th Regiment of United States Colored Troops (USCT) from Camp William Penn. Then, on the morning of April 15, while at a meeting of the Ladies’ Union Association—an organization that raised money and supplies for the USCT—Emilie learns the “very sad newes” that the president had been shot. Later that day, Emilie turns to the miscellaneous pages in the back of her diary, where she adds additional information she must have learned since the morning. Lincoln was assassinated, she reports, by “Som Confederate villain at the theathre.” Lincoln died early Saturday morning, and Emilie reports that “the city is in the Deepest sorrow.” Readers can imagine how disorienting it must have been for Emilie to watch her city go from celebration to mourning within twenty-four hours. Like her fellow black Philadelphians, Lincoln’s death left Emilie with a sense of unease, which she expresses rather succinctly: “These are strang times.” One of the extraordinary things about Emilie Davis’s diaries is that they can make the Civil War seem strange to us again; they allow readers to relive these memorable days without knowing the outcome.

Although she was born free, Emilie Davis’s early years were shaped by slavery. Emilie’s father, Isaac Davis, had a son, Elijah, in Maryland in 1820 and then made his way to Pennsylvania some time before the birth of his son Alfred in 1833 and Emilie in 1839. (Anne Friver, with whom Isaac lived, was perhaps Isaac’s oldest child; she was born in Pennsylvania in 1826.) Whether there were other children, we do not know; gone too is information about Isaac’s wife and the mother of his children. Isaac’s status when he first arrived in Pennsylvania is also unclear. Indentured labor was widespread, and as late as 1820, most black Pennsylvanians in rural communities were indentured to whites. Although we might hope that Isaac Davis and his wife made their way to Pennsylvania to ensure that their children were born into freedom, they might have also been “freed” into extended indenture, their own freedom still in limbo.

The last vestiges of slavery faded in Pennsylvania as the fugitive slave crisis heated up. By 1850, armed engagements broke out with some regularity, with free blacks and their sympathetic white neighbors defending themselves and their property from slave catchers and their proxies coming in from Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia. Angry with Pennsylvanians who refused to return suspected fugitives, Virginians and Marylanders demanded vengeance on the citizens of Pennsylvania for their recalcitrance. Well-known cases, such as the Christiana Riot in Lancaster County in 1851, have received a good deal of attention, but small skirmishes broke out all over south-central Pennsylvania. The Davis family lived in Lancaster County some time around 1839, when Emilie was born, but by 1850, Isaac and his son, Alfred, were living in Pottsville, Schuylkill County. If they were aware of the riot in Christiana the next year, Isaac and Alfred likely were relieved to be removed from the fighting along the state’s southern border. Even so, free blacks throughout Pennsylvania felt increasingly vulnerable to abduction and rendition to the South. Isaac’s Maryland birth may have made him feel unsafe, except that his advanced age (Isaac was fifty years old in 1850) made him an unlikely candidate for rendition.

Because of its small but vocal abolitionist community, Philadelphia provided some measure of safety for fugitives like those involved in the Christiana riot. With a black population of 22,000 by midcentury, Philadelphia boasted the largest free black population of any northern city. Martin Delaney once described northern blacks as a “nation within a nation” because of the racism they continued to endure and the institutions they built to shield themselves from it. At the center of Philadelphia’s black community stood a group of prominent black families, including the Purvises, Fortens, and Whites, and the web of black churches, schools, benevolence organizations, and civil rights organizations they built. Linked by marriage and political activism, the families of Robert Purvis, James Forten, and Jacob White formed what historian Emma Lapsansky-Werner has called “a dynasty of social activists.” Robert Purvis, James McCrummel, and William Still led the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee, which served as the nerve center of the region’s Underground Railroad; here, operatives gathered and disseminated intelligence intended to protect fugitive slaves from capture. Still helped hundreds of fugitives escape and did historians the favor of keeping track of their names, the circumstances surrounding their escape, and their destination when they left Philadelphia.

When the Davises relocated to Philadelphia, they joined a vibrant black community eager to bring on a war over slavery and a white community that was openly hostile to them. Black Philadelphians were excluded from concert halls, public transportation, schools, churches, meeting halls, and other public places, and they were harassed and assaulted in their own neighborhoods. Their churches and meeting places were attacked. White Philadelphians were virulently opposed to even the mildest expressions of antislavery positions. In 1859, the mayor of Philadelphia, Alexander Henry, would not allow Mary Brown, John Brown’s wife, to stop in Philadelphia with her husband’s remains for fear that a mob would attack the train. And days before South Carolina’s legislature drew up orders of secession in December 1860, city leaders called on Philadelphians to renew their commitment to returning fugitive slaves in order to reassure slaveholding states of their commitment to protecting slavery. Frederick Douglass believed that there was not a city to be found “in which prejudice against color is more rampant than in Philadelphia.”

Although there was nothing new about the sentiments of white Philadelphians, young black Philadelphians seemed more willing to confront prejudice directly. In March 1860, for example, a group of young activists tried to rescue a fugitive who had been ordered to return to slavery, attacking federal marshals as they led the man to the train station. Although the rescue attempt failed, the bold attack on federal officials signaled a new militancy among activists one generation removed from the likes of William Still and Robert Purvis. Raised in politically active households and trained in elite black schools, men and women like Octavius Catto, Jacob White Jr., and the teacher Caroline LeCount came together in the classrooms of the Institute for Colored Youth. These were Emilie’s teachers and fellow parishioners at her church—and her friends and confidantes.

Our first record of Emilie locates her at the home of her brother, Elijah Davis, in the Seventh Ward, a swath of today’s Center City bound (north and south) by Spruce and South Streets, and (west and east) by the Schuylkill River and Seventh Street. Her diary entries suggest that she remained in the Seventh Ward when she began living on her own. In 1897–98, W. E. B. Du Bois described the Seventh Ward—by then, a dense mix of Jews, Italians, and African Americans—as a “slum” for its “dirt, drunkenness, poverty and crime. Murder sat at our doorsteps, police were our government and philanthropy dropped in with periodic advice.” At midcentury, though, the neighborhood served as the center of black cultural and political life, and black ward residents were conveniently located within easy walking distance to the homes of the elite where many of them worked. Just across Spruce was the Eighth Ward, which extended north four blocks to Chestnut; the Fifth Ward was located immediately east of the Seventh and Eighth Wards, extending from Seventh Street to the Delaware River. Blacks lived in both wards in substantial numbers. Though not yet a numerically significant proportion of the entire city population, Philadelphians of color lived and worked in the middle of the city and enjoyed the institutional support of three contiguous neighborhoods.

Within these neighborhoods, women of color were a strong presence. In 1860, 13,008 “free colored women” and 9,177 “free colored men” lived in Philadelphia County. Du Bois found the same gender imbalance in 1890 and traced it back as far as 1820. He chalked up the “unusual excess of females” to their employment in domestic service and to the limited work opportunities open to black men. To Du Bois, this “disproportion” indicated “an unhealthy condition,” and he blamed it for the high rate of illegitimacy. Du Bois worried, too, that because lower-class men were often included in middle-class “social gatherings” as a way of correcting the gender imbalance, outsiders might get the “impression that the social level of the women is higher than the level of the men.”

Du Bois’s concerns aside, Emilie Davis enjoyed strong bonds of friendship with the women in her life. Diary readers will note Emilie’s frequent references to Nel (Nell, Nellie), Sue, Cristy, Mary, Hannah, Lizzie, Celestine, and Rachel, to name a few. These women provided Emilie with critical support and a sense of community while she was living on her own in the city. As historian Erica Dunbar has shown, even though they were denied leadership roles in the city’s black churches, women played a critical role in enforcing acceptable behavior, sustaining the community’s poorest members, and establishing schools for and teaching black youth. As a domestic, Emilie would never be counted as part of the city’s black elite, but by building strong bonds with women and men in her church, school, and voluntary work, she situated herself comfortably within the larger black community that grew up around the elite. Emilie visited her friends regularly, wrote to them when she could not, exchanged friendship albums, and kept a diary. After she married, Emilie donated money to her church and rented a pew in her own name, indications that she continued to take an interest in the community even as her own domestic responsibilities began to mount.

In the diary, Emilie practiced her penmanship, which was a critical part of her self-representation. Like careful attention to clothing and hair, good penmanship and correct spelling marked the author of a letter or of an entry in an album as a lady. While her diary was intended to be private, Emilie engaged in all sorts of semipublic activities—she sat for photographs, exchanged letters, and began a friendship album—that were intended to cement her friendships and to establish her respectability within her peer group. Writing in her diary helped Emilie keep track of the letters she sent and the visits she owed; in its pages, too, she offered her own judgments about the good and bad behavior of community members. When she occasionally weighed in on the immorality of others—as in 1863, when she writes that Georgiana’s abusive husband “disgraced her shamfuly” when he beat her—we appreciate how much significance Emilie Davis and others in her community placed on respectable behavior. To insulate themselves from white racism, black Philadelphians enforced strict behavioral standards, denied offenders the support of the community, and hid some infractions from white scrutiny.

Perhaps this reflexive privacy explains the frustrating lack of sources that historians of black Philadelphia face in writing their history. Although black Philadelphians participated in a thick network of institutions, few records remain to tell their stories. The meeting minutes and annual reports of organizations like the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and the Ladies’ Union Association offer researchers brief glimpses of the political and humanitarian relief work of women like Emilie Davis, but institutions that stood at the heart of black Philadelphia—Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, for instance, and the Institute for Colored Youth—have few records that date to this period. Mother Bethel’s newspaper, the Christian Recorder, is a notable exception, and the paper is a vital primary source for uncovering the history of black Philadelphia. A surprising evidentiary silence surrounds Philadelphia’s black elite, too, with few or no family papers for the Cattos, Fortens, and Purvises. To write their biography of Octavius Catto, Murray Dubin and Dan Biddle relied heavily on the Christian Recorder, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and other local dailies. Julie Winch overcame similar odds, finding James Forten’s papers scattered in unlikely places and his newspaper articles often written under pen names. In her biography of Robert Purvis, Margaret Hope Bacon compensated for the absence of family papers by relying on the papers of Purvis’s extensive abolitionist connections. They ran successful businesses, sent their children to school and tutored them at home, created and sustained societies, and lobbied for civil rights, but either they left no papers or these papers have not yet been identified. Mystery surrounds the recent discovery of Emilie Davis’s diaries, which were purchased by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1999. Perhaps there are other such sources in personal collections that will allow us to build outward for a more complete picture of the wartime city.

Until then, Emilie Davis’s diaries open a small and very personal window onto this vibrant black community. Emilie comments on the Civil War’s moments of elation and despair and, more than anything, its daily gnawing uncertainty. We hope readers will allow themselves to forget what they think they know about the war and to live its memorable days, with Emilie Davis’s pen as their guide.