Book Review: A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time: Julia Wilbur's Struggle for Purpose


by Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Potomac Books, 2017. Pp. xii, 292+. Illus., append., notes, biblio., index. $32.95. ISBN: 1612348556

A Quaker Suffragist and Abolitionist in Civil War Era America

Whitacre, a journalist and free lance writer, has produced the first biography of Julia Wilbur (1815-1895), a Quaker teacher and women’s rights advocate from western New York who taught ‘Contrabands’ in Alexandria, Virginia, during the Civil War

One of the founders of the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society, Wilbur numbered among her circle of friends and acquaintances some of the most notable people of her times, among them Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, as well as many lesser lights of the anti-slavery and women’s rights movements. When the Civil War began, several kinsman served, and Wilbur went to work with, the “Contrabands” who gathered at Alexandria, Virginia, where she served as a teacher and social worker until after the war. During the post-war years she continued to work for the rights of women and minorities, and supported herself as a clerk in the Patent Office, one of the few government jobs open to women.

Using Wilbur’s detailed diary and numerous other sources, independent scholar Whitacre has written a biography that not only tells us of the life and work of this interesting women, but also much about nineteenth century American life, the women’s rights and abolitionist movements, and, of course, volunteer war workers and African Americans in the Civil War. One of the most interesting passages is Wilbur’s account, unfortunately all too brief, of her encounter in Alexandria, in the last few days of the war, with Maria Lewis, a 17-year old fugitive from slavery who spent some 18 months doing a man’s work in the all-white 8th New York Cavalry, about whom one wishes to know more.

A work with many amusing or insightful anecdotes and observations, A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time is an excellent read for anyone interested in America at mid-century or the Civil War.


Note: a civil life in an uncivil time is also available in several e-editions


Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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