A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: An Interview with Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

It was inevitable that Paula Whitacre and I would meet, virtually if not in real life.* We’ve spent the last few years wading in the same pool: historical non-fiction about women anchored in Alexandria, Virginia during the American Civil War. A small place, a narrow time frame, a world in transition, a million stories.

Paula’s book, A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur’s Struggle for Purpose is a compelling portrait of a nineteenth century abolitionist and social reformer working on the front line of change. It is also the story of a woman who reinvents herself in midlife at the same time that she works for social change. Julia Wilbur was 47 when the war broke out. Like many of my Civil War nurses, she left her home in the north and headed south to the chaos of wartime Alexandria, where she worked to help recently escaped slaves–often in conflict with other abolitionists and reformers. The result is a unfamiliar look at what I thought was a familiar story. One of my favorite things!

And now, welcome Paula Tarnapol Whitacre:

Even well known women in the nineteenth century are often neglected by biographers and historians. What led you to a relatively unknown reformer like Julia Wilbur?

Back in 2010, I offered to research the 32 Union hospitals that operated in Alexandria, Virginia, during the Civil War for the city’s archaeology program. Among the sources, I consulted letters and diaries written by Julia Wilbur, who worked in Alexandria from 1862 to 1865 and visited many of the hospitals as a relief agent. She piqued my interest. I began to transcribe the “Civil War years” of her extensive diaries, then started to read what she recorded in the years before the war, then afterwards, etc. One thing led to another, and I decided to follow the story of her life, with a focus on the Civil War.

You and I crossed paths because we both worked on women who worked in Alexandria during the Civil War. What, in your opinion, made Alexandria a central focus for reformers and change in the war?

Location, location, location. Alexandria was relatively accessible for thousands of African American freedpeople escaping slavery from elsewhere in Virginia. It was also a short boat ride or bridge-crossing from Washington. A visitor from the North could cross the Potomac River and be in the “Confederacy,” albeit in a city occupied by the Union Army. A few reformers—notably for our purposes, Julia Wilbur and Harriet Jacobs—dug in to live and work there. Many others came over from Washington for a day or two to inspect conditions of the freedpeople, most of whom lived in poverty. In fact, Julia and Harriet became adept at hosting influential visitors whom they knew could elicit political and material support back home.

One of the things modern readers, and writers, find difficult to deal with is the complexity of abolitionists’ attitudes on race. Could you talk a little about Wilber’s position and how it changed through the course of her life?

In Rochester, Julia Wilbur supported abolitionism but, with the exception of Frederick Douglass and his family, had little direct contact with African Americans. When she first came south, she embodied an “I’m here to help” attitude, embracing the cause but not seeing freedpeople as individuals. I can’t say she totally shed those patronizing feelings, but they seemed more class-based than race-based. Her social circle grew to include a number of middle-class African American women, in itself rare for the times.

A few other examples as I thought about her attitudes on race, among many. When she and Harriet Jacobs, who was African American, first met with Alexandria’s military governor, both women spoke to him directly—rather than Wilbur as the white woman taking the lead. Second, when Wilbur visited upstate New York after 6 months in Alexandria, she commented on the few black people she encountered, something she probably never would have noticed before.

Writing about a historical figure like Wilbur requires living with her over a period of months or years. What was it like to have her as a constant companion?

Besides the fact that some people started inadvertently calling me “Julia” instead of my name? I entered her life, especially during the periods in my research when I was very immersed in her diaries. It helped that I often walk the streets that she walked in Alexandria and Washington. That said, as a biographer, I had to maintain my distance and there were times when I needed to take a break from her own words and consult other sources.

Is there anything else you wish I had asked you about?

Why read about Julia Wilbur now? While I recognize the risk in over-applying the past to the present, I’d like readers to think about what she might do today, and how she might inspire us to act. She was not a leader, she was not wealthy, she often doubted or felt a little sorry for herself. Yet, she did what she could for causes she believed in. What can we learn from her, and what choices can you and I make to improve the world at least a little?

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre is a longtime freelance writer and editor. She works on projects about science, education, and policy, but her favorite assignments always relate to history in some way. Originally from New London, Connecticut, she has lived in Alexandria, Virginia, since the mid-1980s. She is on the boards of Friends of Alexandria Archaeology and the Civil War Roundtable of Washington, DC.

You can find out more about Paula and A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time at her website: http://www.paulawhitacre.com


  1. Iris Seefeldt on August 1, 2017 at 5:17 pm

    Paula Tranapol lives in a part of the world that certainly gives her the historical sense of place that is required for this amount of telling. It is almost like those living there have no choice but to be entwined.
    Reading over your interview, I have gone back to my source to add the book to my reading list.Thank you Pamela.

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