Introducing Sarah Morgan Dawson

Two readers of my blog have asked, at different times, if I might provide additional information about some the persons whose correspondence and diaries I quote from on a regular basis. Motivated by the fascinating lives of these rich personalities from this experience which in so many ways defined the United States, I am beginning today an occasional series on this amazing cast of real characters from this great drama of the nineteenth century, the American Civil War. (Indeed, in my opinion, the 19th century was, in many ways, the greatest of centuries!)

Sarah Morgan Dawson

Sarah Morgan Dawson

I start today with Sarah Morgan Dawson (1842 to 1909) of Louisiana. Along with her distant relative Mary Chesnut, Ms Dawson is remembered as a Southern diarist whose writing provides key insights in the events of the war. Sarah Ida Fowler Morgan was the born in New Orleans on February 28, 1842, the seventh child of Judge Thomas Gibbes Morgan and his second wife, Sarah Hunt Fowler. Ms Dawson loved her father very much and respected his opinions. In 1850, the family relocated to Baton Rouge, where Thomas worked as a district attorney and later a district judge. In the manner of many women of the period, Ms Dawson received less than a year of formal education. Most of her learning came from the tutelage of her mother in the family home. She read widely as one can tell from her diary. Her family owned slaves, was well-to-do and Sarah lacked for nothing. For Ms Dawson, as for many, her life changed radically with the coming of war in 1861.

In April 1861, Ms Dawson’s brother, Henry, died in a duel. Later the same year, her father, “who opposed secession but supported his state once it seceded,” died. Sarah began her keeping her diary early in 1862, even as she mourned the death of her brother and father and the departure of her three remaining brothers– Thomas Jr., George, and James– to the Confederate army and navy.

According to Ms Dawson’s son, Warrington, who published his mother’s diary in 1913 and wrote the introduction, “In the early days of Secession agitation, another son of Judge T. G.Morgan, Henry, had died in a duel over a futile quarrel which busybodies had envenomed. The three remaining sons had gone off to the war. Thomas Gibbes Morgan, Jr., married to Lydia, daughter of General A. G. Carter and a cousin of Mrs. Jefferson Davis, was Captain in the Seventh Louisiana Regiment, serving under Stonewall Jackson; George Mather Morgan, unmarried, was a Captain in the First Louisiana, also with Jackson in Virginia. The youngest, James Morris Morgan, had resigned from Annapolis, where he was a cadet, and hurried back to enlist in the Confederate navy.”

“At the family home in Baton Rouge, only women and children remained. There was Judge Morgan’s widow, Sarah Fowler Morgan; a married daughter, Eliza or ‘Lilly,’ with her five children; and two unmarried daughters, Miriam and Sarah. ‘Lilly’s’ husband, J. Charles La Noue, came and went; unable to abandon his large family without protector or resources, he had not joined the regular army, but took a part in battles near whatever place of refuge he had found for those dependent on him.”

In Baton Rouge with her mother and sisters, Ms Dawson recorded the scarcity of food, clothing and household goods as a result of the Union blockade, remarking that the word “Confederate” amounted to anything that was “rough, unfinished, unfashionable or poor.” She refrained from the use of the word “slave” but called the African Americans in her household “servants” and “our people” while asserting their undying loyalty to the family.

After the Union army and navy captured New Orleans in April, 1862, Federal military operations reached into other parts of Louisiana. Ms Dawson recorded how the family kept clothes packed if it became necessary to flee. She kept about her person a small pistol and a large, sharp knife to keep away any unwelcome Yankee advances.

Ms Dawson and her family fled from Baton Rouge to Clinton and later to Linwood where she a fall from a horse which left her bed-ridden for months. Eventually they returned to New Orleans, which was still occupied by Union troops, and stayed in the house of her half-brother, Judge Philip Hicky Morgan, a Unionist who had sworn allegiance to the United States. While there until the end of the war, Ms Dawson leaned of the death of her two brothers who served in the army. The next to last entry, dated May 2, 1865, in the six carefully hand-written volumes of her diary, reads: “While praying for the return of those who have fought so nobly for us, how I have dreaded their first days at home! Since the boys died, I have constantly thought of what pain it would bring to see their comrades return without them–to see families reunited, and know that ours never could be again, save in heaven. Last Saturday, the 29th of April, seven hundred and fifty paroled Louisianians from Lee’s army were brought here– the sole survivors of ten regiments who left four years ago so full of hope and determination. On the 29th of April, 1861, George left New Orleans with his regiment. On the fourth anniversary of that day, they came back; but George and Gibbes have long been lying in their graves.”…

In May 1872, Dawson and her mother moved to South Carolina to make their home with Sarah’s younger brother, James. In an effort to support herself, Ms Dawson accepted an editorial position at the Charleston News and Courier, and throughout 1873, she wrote a series of editorials on the plight of young, single women in the postwar South. Out of her own necessity, she wrote in support of women’s employment outside of the home. However, she did not believe in women’s rights, frequently deriding and mocking woman suffragists and stressing her personal dedication to women’s
traditional place in society as wives and mothers. In 1874, Ms Dawson married the newspaper editor, Francis Warrington Dawson, an Englishman who loved the South and was a friend of her brother. The couple had three children: Ethel in 1874, Warrington in 1878, and Philip in 1881. Philip died at six months of age. After her husband’s murder in 1889, Ms Dawson again turned to writing for survival, publishing a series of short stories and translations of French works. In 1899, she relocated to Paris with her son Warrington, where she published Les Aventures de Jeannot Lapin, a French version of the Brer Rabbit stories, in 1903. She died in Paris on May 5, 1909.

Though Ms Dawson originally asked that her six-volume diary be destroyed upon her death, she left it to her son Warrington in her will. In 1913, he arranged to have the first four volumes published as A Confederate Girl’s Diary. The diary was later edited by Charles East and published in its entirety in 1991. The edition I use and quote from is available on the wonderful Project Gutenberg website.

Her son finished his introduction to the printed edition of his mother’s diary with these words of tribute: “Sarah Morgan Dawson was destined to outlive not only her husband, but all save three of her eight brothers and sisters, and most of the relatives and friends mentioned in the pages which follow; was destined to endure deep affliction once more, and to renounce a second home dearer than that first whose wreck she recorded during the war. Yet never did her faith, her courage, her steadfastness fail her, never didthe light of an almost childlike trust in God and in mankind fade from
her clear blue eyes. The Sarah Morgan who, as a girl, could stifle hersobs as she forced herself to laugh or to sing, was the mother I knew in later years.

“I love most to remember her in the broad tree-shaded avenues of Versailles where, dreaming of a distant tragic past, she found ever new strength to meet the present. Death claimed her not far from there, in Paris, at a moment when her daughter in America, her son in Africa, were powerless to reach her. But souls like unto hers leave their mark in passing through the world; and, though in a foreign land, separated from all who had been dear to her, she received from two friends such devotion as few women deserve in life, and such as few other women are capable of giving.”

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