Women’s History Month: From the Desk of Paula Whitacre


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 is the author of A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose (Potomac Books, 2017).


Julia Wilbur and Harriet Jacobs: Fighting the Civil War in Alexandria, Virginia

Men ruled in Union-occupied Alexandria, Virginia, during the Civil War. Two women figured out how to navigate around them to advocate for human rights.

On May 24, 1861, the Union Army entered the town on the Potomac River across from Washington and stayed until 1865. A series of Provost Marshals tried to establish order among the thousands of soldiers camped in the outskirts. Quartermasters received and dispatched tons of supplies, from ice to cannon balls to horse fodder, to the front. A Military Governor ruled at the top of the heap.

The Army was also responsible for “contraband affairs,” tasked with providing housing, food, and health care to thousands of African Americans who crossed Union lines to escape slavery. (The people were termed “contrabands” based on the justification that during war, contraband property, in this case enslaved people, did not have to be returned to the enemy.)

Most officers had little interest in going beyond the bare minimum in the relief operations, if that, and conditions were substandard. In Alexandria, as elsewhere, private groups began to fill the vacuum, many connected with Northern antislavery groups or churches. Women and men, white and black, some well-equipped for the challenges and others woefully not, came south to help out. Most stayed in a place for a few weeks or months before returning to their lives back home, but two women spent more than two years working in Alexandria.

In October 1862, a white Quaker abolitionist named Julia Wilbur came from Rochester, New York, funded by the Rochester Ladies Anti-Slavery Society. In January 1863, Harriet Jacobs, an African American who had escaped slavery from North Carolina and was living in New York, moved to Alexandria on behalf of the New York Yearly Meeting of Friends.

The women had a surprising amount of autonomy from their sponsors and an open-ended charge: figure out how to help and do it.


Wilbur later described her role as “a sort of missionary-at-large, woman of all work.” They solicited clothing and bedding from Northern contacts to distribute. They advocated for better housing and payment of overdue wages (often from the government) due freedmen and women who worked. Jacobs established a school in 1864. Sometimes their most important task was offering kind words and sympathy.

Things did not always go smoothly for Wilbur and Jacobs. They endured unsanitary and uncomfortable conditions. Rumors of imminent Confederate attacks rattled them. But their biggest frustration was battling the powers-that-be—the men officially charged with contraband affairs—to carry out their responsibilities.

In their first few weeks in Alexandria, at first separately, they tried to orient themselves to this hostile environment. An averted crisis forged a partnership between them, making them realize that they could accomplish more together than each could alone. It also launched a lifelong friendship.

They women learned of a plan to deal with orphans among the refugees (no specific number known, but probably a dozen or more). One of the doctors proposed moving these healthy children to a newly established smallpox hospital, a place rife with a contagious disease. As Wilbur wrote in a letter back to Rochester, “would you think that such an idea would enter the head of a sane Christian man, wh[ich] he proposes to be?”

The women went to the top, appealing to the Military Governor. Wilbur wrote how she and Jacobs had to calm their nerves beforehand. Two women, one black and one white, were in the office of an Army general, a martinet named John Slough known throughout his career (and untimely death at the age of 38) for his ill temper. Once seated, they pointed out the folly of the arrangement and offered to take responsibility for the children. Jacobs related the story of her own life in sharing her concern for the orphans—quite possibly the first time that Slough sat down with an African American woman for a meeting, much less heard directly from anyone about a personal experience with enslavement.

With General Slough’s approval in their pocket, Jacobs and Wilbur went on to visit his underlings. The Provost Marshal, begrudgingly and not happy that they had gone to General Slough, changed the order to prevent the move.

The women celebrated their success. They found numerous times to speak up in the ensuring years, although they were not always successful. The official records at the National Archives contain several documents from General Slough and other officers that complain about the women’s interference in Army business. But after this first experience, Julia Wilbur and Harriet Jacobs figured out when and how to use their voices to make change.

In 2010, I learned about Julia Wilbur and started to transcribe her diaries of her time in Alexandria. This project led to research about her, Harriet Jacobs, and Alexandria, where I have lived since 1984. In 2017, I was fortunate to share a story that is sometimes tragic, sometimes funny but always inspirational in the first biography of Julia Wilbur, A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose.


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