Winchester, Virginia in the Shenandoah Valley was arguably the most contested town of the Civil War. Depending on how you count, the community changed hands over seventy times during four years. Several women kept diaries, wrote remarkable letters or crafted post-war reminiscences. One of the best hybrid collections (part-diary/ part-recollection) comes from Cornelia Peake McDonald who wrote with great talent and behaved with outrageous defiance. After Union soldiers “threatened to come in and break up the furniture if breakfast was not immediately given them,” McDonald and her children prepared to defend their home – McDonald described how they “fastened down the windows and tried… to keep them from coming in at the door.” Raising children in a town like Winchester with lots of soldiers stationed in the vicinity also presented other challenges. After her son was arrested on the suspicion of throwing a snowball at a Union officer, McDonald observed that –
“I have to be constantly on the watch for fear of my boys doing something to provoke the persecution of the Yankees. Not long since I heard an explosion in the yard loud enough to create some alarm, and on hurrying out saw a squad of soldiers approaching the scene of action, thinking it was an alarm. The noise proceeded from a battery the boys had erected on the top of the cistern and had supplied it with guns they had manufactured out of musket barrels cut into lengths of eight or nine inches, and bored for a touch hole, then mounted on carriages of their own make. I had noticed them very busily engaged about the yard for some time but never dreamed what they were after.”
You can read other excerpts from McDonald’s diary on Google Books.