WASHINGTON – Sue Chancellor,a teenager in the 1860s,lived with her family on a plantation near Fredericksburg,Va. Her house turned into a military hospital occupied by Union soldiers during the Civil War,while the family sheltered up to 16 slave refugees in a small back room.
Chancellor wrote in her diary of “missiles of death” that exploded outside the house as the family hid in the cellar. She and the others emerged the next day to find amputated limbs and dead bodies covering the floor and landscape. Many years later,she continued to write of “those days” she would always remember.
Speaking in an artificial 19th century Southern accent,author Anya Jabour shared detailed accounts of Chancellor and other young white southerners and black slaves during the Civil War. They are featured in her new book,”Topsy-Turvey: How the Civil War Turned the World Upside Down for Southern Children,” which she discussed Aug. 4 at the National Archives.
“Ordinary people,including children,are really important historical actors. Children in particular,this book indicates,were remarkably resilient,” said Jabour,a history professor at the University of Montana. “They underwent some really horrific experiences,and it's clear that those experiences shaped the rest of their lives.”
Jabour gathered diaries kept by Southern children and their families from the Civil War period. She researched recorded interviews with the same
individuals conducted as part of the 1930s Federal Writers' Project of the Works Progress Administration and housed in the Library of Congress. Jabour found that many individuals maintained the same perceptions of the war over many years.
Jabour spoke of divided loyalties,military occupations,escape attempts and the lasting impact of children's horrific war experiences. She mentioned acts of cruelty by soldiers,which caused victims to lose all sense of security after home invasions,destruction of symbolic materials and physical assaults on family members.
When Jabour recognized the similarity between personal experiences from the Civil War and current global conflicts,she said it affected her writing.
“With so much warfare around the world right now that I know is affecting ordinary people and children,and to be reading these very personal accounts of how horrific the experience of war is,” Jabour said,trailing off. “It was difficult for me personally. It made it harder to write the book.”
After the discussion,Jabour signed books outside the Archive's gift shop. Her relatives couldn't resist jumping in line to have multiple copies signed.
“Well,I love it,of course. I love her work,” said Jane Chress Edgar,Jabour's mother.
Edgar said her daughter comes from a family of avid readers and that she began writing short stories at an early age. Edgar was accompanied by her husband,Ralph,her brother,John Chress,and sister-in-law,Patty Chress.
Jabour said her parents' involvement in the “back-to-the-land movement” gave her an early interest in American history.
“We went all over the country looking for a place where you could live off the land,and I sat in the back seat and read books,” she said. “As a girl,I really loved books that I now understand were history but I didn't think of them that way then.”
The family traveled from Atlanta to Oregon,Colorado,West Virginia and Ohio,where Jabour attended Oberlin College. She completed graduate studies at Rice University in Texas.
Jabour spent most of the summer in Chicago researching for her next book,a biography about a girl – Sophonisba Breckinridge – born a year after the Civil War ended. She said she is always excited for her next project but is eager to receive feedback from “Topsy-Turvey,” which was released two weeks ago. She said she hopes readers recognize multiple messages in her book about attitudes during the war and its lasting impact.
“Race was and remains a very significant dividing line in American society and had a very important role in determining how people felt about their experiences during the war,” Jabour said. “One of the lessons here is that war is terrible,and it is especially terrible for children.”