First Person Account: A Secessionist Housewife

Read excerpts of Judith White Brockenbrough McGuire's diary, which she published in 1889. Southern sympathizers, McGuire and her family fled from Alexandria to Richmond as Union Troops occupied the City.

Page updated on Mar 9, 2020 at 8:50 AM
McGuire cover page
Cover page of Mrs. McGuire's diary. Courtesy Google Books.

First Person Account: A Secessionist Housewife

Judith White Brockenbrough McGuire was the wife of the principal of Episcopal High School, and lived at a house on the school grounds on West Braddock Road, four miles west of City Hall. The family fled their home on May 24, 1861, as the Union Army occupied Alexandria. Like many Alexandrians, the McGuires were fervent secessionists and unable to remain in the occupied town. They moved to Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, and never returned to live in Alexandria. During the war, the McGuire’s large home was used as a hospital and as a residence for several families of army surgeons. Mrs. McGuire’s poignant memoir was first published in 1867.

From Alexandria

  • May 04, 1861: On hearing the drums of war 
  • May 10, 1861: On sewing for the Confederate Soldiers 
  • May 10, 1861: On the confederate flag 
  • May 10, 1861: On packing up 
  • May 15, 1861: On packing up 
  • May 17, 1861: On spying the enemy 
  • May 21, 1861: On viewing the parade-ground 

On hearing the drums of war

May 4, 1861, pp. 9-11 

… Our neighbors have left us. Every thing is broken up. The Theological Seminary is closed; the High School dismissed. Scarcely any one is left of the many families which surrounded us. The homes all look desolate; and yet this beautiful country is looking more peaceful, more lovely than ever, as if to rebuke the tumult of passion and the fanaticism of man. We are left lonely indeed; our children are all gone – the girls to Clarke, where they may be safer, and farther from the exciting scenes which may too soon surround us; and the boys, the dear, dear boys, to the camp, to be drilled and prepared to meet any emergency. Can it be that our country is to be carried on and on to the horrors of civil war?.... Why did we think it necessary to send off all that was so dear to us from our own home? I threw open the shutters, and the answer came at once, so mournfully! I heard distinctly the drums beating in Washington.


On sewing for the Confederate soldiers

May 10, 1861, pp. 11-13  

…We are now hoping that Alexandria will not be a landing-place for the enemy, but that the forts will be attacked. In that case, they would certainly be repulsed, and we could stay quietly at home… For a long time before our society was so completely broken up, the ladies of Alexandria and all the surrounding country were busily employed sewing for the soldiers. Shirts, pants, jackets, and beds, of the heaviest material, have been made by the most delicate fingers. All ages, all conditions, meet now on one common platform. We must all work for our country. Our soldiers must be equipped. Our parlor was the rendezvous for our neighborhood, and our sewing-machine was in requisition for weeks. Scissors and needles were plied by all. The daily scene was most animated.


On the Confederate flag

May 10, 1861, pp. 11-13  

The Confederate flag waves from several points in Alexandria: from the Marshall House, the Market-house, and the several barracks. The peaceful, quiet old town looks quite warlike. I feel sometimes, when walking on King’s street, meeting men in uniform, passing companies of cavalry, hearing martial music, etc., that I must be in a dream.


On packing up

May 10, 1861, pp. 11-13  

We found Mrs. ___ packing up valuables. I have been doing the same, but after they are packed, where are they to be sent? Silver may be buried, but what is to be done with books, pictures, etc.? We have determined, if we are obliged to go from home, to leave every thing in the care of the servants.


On packing up

May 15, p. 14

Busy every moment of time packing up, that our furniture may be safely put away in case of a sudden removal. The parlor furniture has been rolled into the Laboratory, and covered, to keep it from injury; the books are packed up; the pictures put away with care; house linen locked up, and all other things made as secure as possible.


On spying the enemy

May 17, pp. 15-16

Mrs. J., Mrs. B., and myself, sat at the Malvern windows yesterday, spying the enemy as they sailed up and down the river. Those going up were heavily laden, carrying provisions, etc., to their troops. I think if all Virginia could see their preparations as we do, her vote would be unanimous for secession.


On viewing the parade-ground

May 21, p. 16

Yesterday evening we rode to the parade-ground in Alexandria; it was a beautiful but sad sight. How many of those young, brave boys may be cut off, or maimed for life? I shudder to think of what a single battle may bring forth. The Federal vessel Pawnee now lies before the old town, with its guns pointing towards it. It is aggravating enough to see it; but the inhabitants move on as calmly as though it were a messenger of peace…. My ear is constantly pained with the sound of cannon from the Navy-Yard at Washington, and to-day the drum has been beating furiously in our once loved metropolis. Dr. S. says there was a grand dress parade – brothers gleefully preparing to draw their brothers’ blood.

From Fairfax Court House

  • May 25, 1861: On the invasion by the Union Army 
  • May 25, 1861: On leaving home 
  • May 25, 1861: On tragedy at the market-house 
  • May 29, 1861: On not being able to return home one last time 

On the invasion by the Union Army

May 25, from Fairfax Court House, p. 17-19

The day of suspense is at an end. Alexandria and its environs, including, I greatly fear, our home, are in the hands of the enemy. Yesterday morning, at an early hour, as I was in my pantry, putting up refreshments for the barracks preparatory to a ride to Alexandria, the door was suddenly thrown open by a servant, looking wild with excitement, explaining, “Oh, madam, do you know?” “Know what, Henry?” “Alexandria is filled with Yankees.” Are you sure, Henry?” said I, trembling in every limb. “Sure, madam! I saw them myself. Before I got up I heard soldiers rushing by the door; went out, and saw our men going to the cars.” “Did they get off?” I asked, afraid to hear the answer. “Oh, yes, the cars went off full of them, and some marched ont; and then I went to King Street, and saw such crowds of Yankees coming in! They came down the turnpike, and some came down the river; and presently I heard such noise and confusion, and they said they were fighting, so I came home as fast as I could.” I lost no time in seeking Mr. ____, who hurried out to hear the truth of the story. He soon met Dr. ____, who was bearing off one of the editors in his buggy. He more than confirmed Henry’s report, and gave an account of the tragedy at the Marshall House. Poor Jackson (the proprietor) had always said that the Confederate flag which floated from the top of his house should never be taken down but over his dead body.

On leaving

May 25, from Fairfax Court House, p. 17-19

The question with us was, what was next to be done? Mr. ___ had voted for secession, and there were Union people enough around us to communicate every thing of the sort to the Federals; the few neighbours who were left were preparing to be off, and we thought it most prudent to come off, too. Pickets were already thrown out beyond Shuter’s Hill, and they were threatening to arrest all secessionists. With a heavy heart I packed trunks and boxes, as many as our little carriage would hold; had packaging boxes fixed in my room for the purpose of bringing off valuables of various sorts, when I go down on Monday; locked up every thing; gave the keys to the cook, enjoining upon the servants to take care of the cows, “Old Rock,” the garden, the flowers, and last, but not least, J___’s splendid Newfoundland. Poor dog, as we got into the carriage how I did long to take him! …


On tragedy at the market-house

May 25, from Fairfax Court House, p. 17-19

As we drove by “The Seminary,” the few students who remained came out to say “Good-by.” One of them had just returned from Alexandria, where he had seen the bodies of Ellsworth and Jackson, and another, of which we had heard through one of our servants who went to town in the morning. When the Federal troops arrived, a man being ordered to take down the secession flag from above the market-house, and run up the “stars and stripes,” got nearly to the flag, missed his foothold, fell, and broke his neck. This remarkable circumstance was told me by two persons who saw the body.


On not being able to return home one last time

May 29, p. 21

I cannot get over my disappointment – I am not to return home! – the wagon was engaged. E. W. had promised to accompany me; all things seemed ready; but yesterday a gentleman came up from the Seminary, reporting that the public roads are picketed far beyond our house, and that he had to cross fields, etc., to avoid an arrest, as he had no pass. I know that there are private roads which we could take, of which the enemy knows nothing; and even if they saw me, they surely would not forbid ingress and egress to a quiet elderly lady like myself. But Mr. ___ thinks that I ought not to risk it…. I hear that the house has been searched for arms, and that J’s old rifle has been filched from its corner. It was a wonderfully harmless rifle, having been innocent even of the blood of squirrels and hares for some time past…. I believe that they took nothing but the rifle, and injured nothing but the sewing-machine.

From Richmond

  • July 04, 1861:  On a report from home 
  • July 30, 1861:  On her home being used as a hospital 
  • September 30, 1862:  On the use of their home and belongings 

On a report from home

July 4, from Richmond, p. 35

I have seen W. H., who has just returned from Fairfax. Last week he scouted near our house, and gives no very encouraging report for us. Our hills are being fortified, and Alexandria and the neighborhood have become one vast barracks. The large trees are being felled, and even houses are falling by order of the invader! Our prospect of getting home becomes more and more dim…


On her home being used as a hospital

July 30, pp. 47-48

Mr. McD., of the Theological Seminary, an Irish student, who was allowed to remain there in peace, being a subject of Great Britain, has just arrived at this house as a candidate for ordination. He says that our house has been taken for a hospital, except two or three rooms which are used as headquarters by an officer. Bishop Johns’ house is used as headquarters; and the whole neighborhood is one great barracks. The families who remained, Mrs B., the Misses H, and others, have been sent to Alexandria, and their houses taken. Mr. J’s and Mr. C’s sweet residences have been taken down to the ground to give place to fortifications, which have been thrown up in every direction. Vaucluse, too, the seat of such elegant hospitality, the refined and dearly-loved home of the F. family, has been leveled to the earth, fortifications thrown up across the lawn, the fine old trees felled, and the whole grounds, once so embowered and shut out from public gaze, now laid bare and open – Vaucluse no more! There seems no probability of our getting home, and if we cannot go, what then? What will become of our furniture, and all our comforts, books, pictures, etc!


On the use of their home and belongings

September 30, 1862, pp. 159-161

Mrs. D’s house was occupied as barracks, and ours as a hospital. Miss ___ had accompanied our friend Mrs. ___ there one day during the last winter; it was used as a hospital, except the front rooms, which were occupied by General N. (a renegade Virginian) as headquarters… The ladies drove up to our poor old home, the road winding among stumps of trees, which had been our beautiful oak grove, but one tree was left to show where it had been; they inquired for Mrs. N. She was out, and they determined to walk over the house, that they might see the state of our furniture, etc. They went up-stairs, but, on opening the door of our daughter’s room, they found a lady standing at a bed, cutting out work. Mrs. ___ closed the door and turned to my chamber; this she found occupied by a family, children running about the room, etc.; these she afterwards found were the families of the surgeons. With no amiable feelings she closed that door and went to another room, which, to her relief, was unoccupied; the old familiar furniture stood in its place, and hanging over the mantel was my husband’s portrait. We left it put away with other pictures. The wardrobe, which we had left packed with valuables, stood open and empty; just by it was a large travelling-trunk filled with clothing, which, she supposed, was about to be transferred to the wardrobe. She turned away, and on going down-stairs met Mrs. N., who politely invited her into her (!) parlour. The piano, sofas, etc., were arranged precisely as she had been accustomed to see them arranged, she supposed by our servants, some of whom were still there. This furniture we had left carefully rolled together, and covered, in another room. The weather was cold, and the floor was covered with matting, but no carpet. Mrs. N. apologized, saying that she had lately arrived, and did not know that there was a carpet in the house until, the day before, she was “exploring” the third story, and found in a locked room some very nice ones, which the soldiers were now shaking, and “she should make herself comfortable.” She had just before been expressing holy horror at the soldiers in Alexandria having injured and appropriated the property of others. Mrs. ___ looked at her wonderingly! Does she consider these carpets her own? Our parlour curtains were upon the passage-table, ready to be put up. She found them, no doubt, while exploring the third story, for there we left them securely wrapped up to protect them from moths. Ah! There are some species of moths (bipeds) from which bars and bolts could not protect them. This we did not anticipate. We thought that Federal officers were gentlemen!