Happy Book Birthday to A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time


Book Birthdays celebrate one year of a book’s life in tweets, reviews, and more. This month we’re saying Happy First Book Birthday to A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose (Potomac Books, 2017).

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 most of the next several years in Alexandria 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 sending the reader back 150 years to understand a woman who was alternately brave, self-pitying, foresighted, petty—and all too human.

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre describes Wilbur’s experiences against the backdrop of Alexandria, Virginia, a southern town held by the Union from 1861 to 1865 and where she worked with Harriet Jacobs; of Washington DC, where Wilbur became active in the women’s suffrage movement and lived until her death in 1895; and of Rochester, New York, a hotbed of social reform and home to Wilbur’s acquaintances Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.

In this second chapter of her life, Wilbur persisted in two things: improving conditions for African Americans who had escaped from slavery and creating a meaningful life for herself. 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 and change.


“In her engrossing book, Whitacre skillfully adds historical context to produce a well-rounded picture of a woman who found her purpose in battling ‘indifference and prejudice’ and making a difference.” —Kirkus Reviews

“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. Wilbur was one of many volunteer advocates who dedicated much of her life to a cause in ways that unsung volunteers do today.” —Washington Independent Review of Books

“In the midst of the traditional military studies about bayonets and bugles, it can be easy to forget the thousands of stories of those behind the lines. A new book about a relief worker in Alexandria, Virginia seeks to re-focus the lens, and remind us of the legions of people who mobilized to help however they could.” —Emerging Civil War

“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.” —Friends Journal


On the blog:

On Twitter:


A word from Paula Tarnapol Whitacre:

Although I had seen an image of the cover and, of course, had selected the photographs and knew the text inside-and-out, I was totally unprepared for the joy of holding a real-live copy of my book for the first time. Not usually media-savvy, I fortunately asked my husband, just before I opened the box from Potomac, to use my phone to video my reaction. (You can see it here.)

Since then, I’ve had ups and downs. The world did not stop because I published a book. No calls from Hollywood (at least, not yet). A few meeting rooms with a lot of empty seats. But I’ve talked with many other interested and interesting people, in bookstores and libraries, historic sites, conferences, or interviews.

I came up with the title A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time back in 2015. Since then, I have found that this message resonates from my book—beyond what I hope is a good story about a compelling time in history. Readers tell me it makes them think how they can find a way to make a difference in the world and to lead a civil life. Julia Wilbur would like that.

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