Sarah Margaret Dawson was a young woman from Louisiana who spent her early years of adulthood during the Civil War. Born in 1842, she lived in New Orleans until 1850 when her family moved to Baton Rouge, the state capital. Despite receiving perhaps one year of formal education, Sarah embarked on a course of self study, learning French and reading a wide range of English literature.
The war years between 1861 to 1863 were difficult ones for the Morgans. They suffered the loss of four family members during those years. Henry Morgan, Sarah’s favorite brother, was killed in a duel in the spring of 1861, and her father, Thomas, died several months later. Three other brothers joined the Confederacy: of these, Gibbes and George were killed in 1863, while the youngest, James, climbed the ranks in the Confederate Navy.
Sarah, her mother and her sisters moved back and forth between Baton Rouge and their country home. In August 1862 Union troops looted their Baton Rouge home and they were forced to abandon it. For a while they depended on the help of friends but eventually to moved to New Orleans. All the while Sarah made entries into A Confederate Girl’s Diary.
Sarah Dawson was a keen observer of the war and how it affected her family, friends and city. Here are some excerpts from the fall of Baton Rouge in August 1862:
Wagons, drays — everything that can be driven or rolled — were loaded with the bales and taken a few squares back to burn on the commons. Negroes were running around, cutting them open, piling them up, and setting them afire. All were as busy as though their salvation depended on disappointing the Yankees. Later Charlie sent for us to come to the river and see him fire a flatboat loaded with the precious material for which the Yankees are risking their bodies and souls.
All devices, signs, and flags of the Confederacy shall be suppressed.” So says Picayune Butler. Good. I devote all my red, white, and blue silk to the manufacture of Confederate flags. As soon as one is confiscated, I make another, until my ribbon is exhausted, when I will sport a duster emblazoned in high colors, “Hurra! for the Bonny blue flag!
I notice none of them dare set their feet on terra firma, except the officer who has now called three times on the Mayor, and who is said to tremble visibly as he walks the streets. Last evening came the demand: the town must be surrendered immediately; the Federal flag Must be raised; they would grant us the same terms they granted New Orleans. Jolly terms those were! The answer was worthy of a Southerner. It was, “The town was defenseless; if we had cannon, there were not men enough to resist;…
O! if I was only a man! Then I could don the breeches, and slay them with a will! If some few Southern women were in the ranks, they could set the men an example they would not blush to follow. Pshaw! there are no women here! We are all men!
After bitterly taking an oath of allegiance to the United States, the Morgans remained until the end of the war with Sarah’s oldest brother, Judge Philip Hickey Morgan (referred to as “Brother” in her diary) who was a supporter of the Union.
From March 1862 until April 1865, Dawson faithfully recorded her thoughts and experiences of the war. Her early entries, which deal primarily with Baton Rouge society, give way to detailed accounts of her family’s daily fears about living in Baton Rouge as the fighting encroaches upon the city.
Several times Dawson describes her family chaotically fleeing their home on foot, bringing only what they could carry with them. She also includes accounts of slaves faithfully rescuing their masters’ children and household goods without the opportunity to salvage anything of their own.
Although a strong supporter of the Confederacy, Dawson does not hesitate to record the kindness among members of the Federal guard, her disapproval of women’s secessionist banter, and her despair over the South’s future.
The Diary ‘s final pages are filled with tragedy as Dawson recounts the anguish of losing her two brothers, the fall of the Confederacy, and the shooting of Abraham Lincoln.
In 1872 the Morgans moved to Columbia, South Carolina, where Sarah began writing editorials for the Charleston News & Courier under the pen name “Mr. Fowler.” A staunch supporter of women’s equality, she often expressed her feminist views in both her editorials and her diary.
In 1874 Sarah married the newspaper’s editor, an Englishman and former Confederate officer, Francis Warrington Dawson. The couple had three children together. Francis Dawson died in 1889, prompting Sarah to join their son, Warrington Dawson, in Paris, where she lived until her death in 1909.
Sarah’s son published the first four volumes of A Confederate Girl’s Diary in 1913. It has remained in publication since then.
Here’s the link to the diary.