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Emma Holmes was a resident of South Carolina during the American Civil War. During the war she kept a diary which was published as The Diary of Miss Emma Holmes in 1861-1866 by the Louisiana University Press. This is a historically significant document due to her in-depth accounting of events occurring during the American Civil War.
Miss Holmes was born in Charleston, South Carolina to a plantation and slave owner. She was living in Charleston during the 1861 attack on Fort Sumter, but later fled to the countryside and lived as a refugee of a conquered land.
As a true Confederate, Miss Holmes reflects the early confidence of the Southern United States as war breaks out, but later shows the despair that gripped the region upon the realization of their fate. From February 13, 1861 until April 7, 1866, Emma kept a detailed diary of life in Charlestown, the affairs of her family and the swirl of history around her. Through that diary a day-to-day narrative is produced of the life of the Holmes family and of Charlestown in general during the period immediately before, during and after the Civil War. This diary needs to be read by anyone interested in the history of Charleston during this period. In the diary’s introduction, by John F. Marszalek, he states in regard to Emma Holmes:
- "A believer in aristocracy, Miss Holmes felt that people could be classed as betters or inferiors, and she often spoke of the mobocracy...she accepted slavery without question...she was a woman of considerable intellect and curiosity...she read widely…her intellectual bent drew her to the teaching profession…she remained a teacher most of her life."
The diary gives portraits of various members of the Holmes family and their actions during the war period. For instance, on March 18, 1861 Emma reports that "Uncle Edward (Holmes), who is now in Washington, had written to General (Winfield) Scott asking if Fort Sumter really was to be given up, and was answered in the affirmative." Isaac Edward Holmes, who is referred to in this passage, was an 1815 graduate of Yale University and a Congressman from South Carolina from 1838 to 1850. When secession came, he went to Washington and conferred with Secretary of State William Seward, among others, in an effort to maintain peace. After the war, he was a member of a South Carolina delegation that went to Washington to negotiate with the administration of President Andrew Johnson. A subsequent diary entry, on March 20, 1861, reports that, "A letter has been received from Uncle Edward, saying he has seen (Gen. Winfield) Scott, who assured him there would be no collision between the two forces but never even mentioned Fort Sumter." Many subsequent diary entries make reference to visits from and meals with Uncle Edward after his return from Washington, with his analysis of troop movements around Washington.
The first part of the diary, while outlining war preparation and the early part of the war, also presents a fascinating picture of life in the antebellum South, at least the life of the Holmes family. On March 31, 1862, Emma reports that "We were surprised by the arrival before breakfast of cousin Wilmot (DeSaussure) and Governor (Francis) Pickens," who came by to take the family to view fortifications around the city. The next day, on April 1, 1862, she reports,
- "We walked to visit the fortifications..., the gentlemen had provided us with fruit cake and champagne for lunch. The dinner was laid in a tent and was very nice, but camp life was shown by the deficiency of china…its place being supplied by tin ware."
On the following day, the entry advises that,
- "We went to dinner about two o'clock in a large tent in the garden. The dinner was in regular city style, boned turkey, ham, lobster, salad, etc, but it was also laid in camp fashion - all the dessert being on at the same time...fresh preserved peaches, jelly and pound cake and afterwards ice cream and of course champagne and wines."
The story of life for the Holmes family, as told in Emma Holmes’s diary, in the last days of the Old South is a story of a world of lobster, champagne and wines for lunch, with Cotillions, walks along the Battery and speeches at the Literary Guild at night. But it is also the story of a society built on the institution of slavery, the "peculiar institution" of human property of the Old South. A diary entry from March 12, 1863 presents a chilling view of this perversity:
- "Margaret (a slave) had become so excessively negligent and indifferent to her duties…that Carrie (Caroline Holmes White, Emma's sister) asked Isaac to punish her...He...after dark took her to an extreme end of the garden, intending to reprimand her and with a light strap gave her two or three cuts across her shoulders... She tore away...and sprang into the creek…she plunged head foremost...Mr. Bull had the creek dragged unsuccessfully...and the current must have swept the body out... She had (said) a few days ago that if she was ever touched again she would drown or kill herself…But none dreamed of such a demoniac temper...It put poor Isaac nearly crazy, for he blamed himself as...undue severity... Poor fellow, to have his peace of mind destroyed by the blind rage of such a creature is too dreadful."
Another entry, on July 16, 1861, describes a house slave who evidently killed a neighbor’s infant child. Emma wonders, "what was the cause of this act, we cannot imagine." Indeed, it seems that neither Emma nor her family could imagine why these human slaves would retaliate against their masters in such a way, or why a slave in the midst of a beating with a strap would have the audacity to commit suicide, thus upsetting the master. Emma often conveys news of her brother Henry ( Dr. Henry M. Holmes, Jr.) in her diary. On March 21, 1863, her diary entry is as follows:
- "Brother Henry has written me an account of a 12 days trip in the Cumberland Mountains hunting bushwackers, as the Tories there are called, in which they underwent frightful cold exposure and fatigue, through pouring rains...almost without food, the wagons having to be left behind ; they went from Tennessee to Western North Carolina."
Earlier, on November 9, 1862, Miss Holmes reports,
- "Mother received a letter ...from Henry, dated Tennessee...his company was in the battle of Richmond, Kentucky and received the credit from Maj. Brown, chief of Gen. Kirby Smith’s staff, of winning that battle by enabling our forces to outflank the enemy...he is still only sergeant, through acting surgeon also. The medical department refused to commission him as a surgeon to the company, as it is too small."