Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary

publisher/date: University Press of Kentucky, 2009
pages:  xviii + 262
hardcover; paperback scheduled for Oct 2021 release
genre: diary

My longest trip to Kentucky was in 2015 for the Annual General Meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA). The meeting was held in Louisville; I gave a paper. But it wasn’t until my recent (Dec 2020) encounter with the diaries of Isadore Albee of Springfield, Vermont, that I sought out more about the (U.S.) Civil War era. Of course I have books – of letters; of diaries (including the ‘famous’ Mary Chesnut); a Howard Coffin book on Vermonters in the Civil War – but when I came upon the excerpt of Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary (edited by Nancy Disher Baird), I knew I had found something out-of-the ordinary.

Was it the “mystery” surrounding Josie Underwood’s diary?


typescript appeared out of the blue, forwarded by the United States Postal Service. Where had it come from? Where was the original diary? Was it (gasp!) a fake?

The latter query was dispatched QUITE quickly. Too much information that could be correctly corroborated – known Civil War facts AND intimate knowledge of Underwood family details.

The other questions never seem to have gained answers, despite an intense search – including among Underwood descendants.

That it survived, in some way, gives an indication of how good this diary is. Somehow, young Josie Underwood speaks – and her words, thoughts, feelings are fresh and exciting.

Bowling Green, Kentucky is the scene in which the Underwoods lived; Pa – Warner Underwood – was a stout Unionist; Ma – Lucy Craig Henry Underwood – celebrated her roots as a “Daughter of the South”, but she so keenly felt her brother’s “betrayal” of their father’s fight for a United States that she wished her own dear brother dead instead of fighting on the Confederate side. Kentucky, at the moment, was doing its damnedest to stay neutral. The family members, though, had picked sides – some “Union,” some “Secesh” – and backed up their beliefs in words and deeds.

One of the most touching instances – Josie’s sister Jupe’s aiding of a young clergyman and his pregnant wife, who were literally run out of town in Mississippi for being “Northerners”. The couple, “compelled to leave, without preparation and little money,” were not finding anyone to aid them in this flight — until Jupe took them under her roof, giving them respite and funds to continue on to Boston. This humanitarian aid, despite rather frightening threats to her from locals!

The book, too, makes me think less of “brother fighting brother” and turned my thoughts to those of Mrs. Underwood: men just a generation (or two) before had fought wars creating and uniting the United States. Now their sons and grandsons were engaging in divisions. It’s an important thought to keep in mind for wars so distant in time to us in the 21st century.

On a personal note, Josie Underwood (1840-1923) is a true delight! Her quick mind, staunch beliefs, familial devotion, and those many marriage proposals (so many that I have lost count!) gave wings to her thoughts, actions, and recorded words.

In looking up information, it is with great pleasure that I see, after more than ten years< the book will be reprinted (in paperback) later this year. Snap up used copies, in hardcover, before they disappear (new copies are available through the University Press of Kentucky). Josie Underwood’s Civil War Diary is a “keeper”, and it is well-served by Baird’s editing, useful appendix of “Who’s Who”, notes, and index.

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