New London native Paula Tarnapol Whitacre links Civil War era to the present in her book 'A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time'

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre
Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

In her first book, “A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time,” New London native and writer Paula Tarnapol Whitacre presents the real-life story of Julia Wilbur, a woman who, when she was 47 years old, left her home and family in Rochester, N.Y., to help escaped slaves and hospitalized Union soldiers in Alexandria, Va., throughout the Civil War.

By using years worth of diaries left behind by Wilbur and other primary sources, Whitacre has crafted an informative and intriguing historical narrative of a very ordinary woman fighting the widespread injustice against blacks, women and soldiers throughout the Civil War.

Whitacre, a 1973 alum of New London High School, earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in international studies from Johns Hopkins University and moved to Alexandria, Va., in the 1980s. While now working as a freelance writer and editor, she once reported for The Washington Post and was employed as a foreign service officer within the U.S. Embassy in San Jose, Costa Rica. Whitacre stumbled upon Julia Wilbur’s diaries in 2011, after volunteering with Alexandria Archaeology to research the 30-plus Union hospitals that were built in Alexandria throughout the Civil War.

Whitacre’s retelling of Wilbur’s story gives a detailed snapshot of a specific place in time — both of Rochester, N.Y., then a burgeoning center for abolitionists, and Alexandria, Va., considered to be focal point of the Civil War. But Whitacre also tells a story, despite taking place 150 years ago, that is inherently relatable today. Tackling themes of racism, sexism, classism, equality and acceptance, Whitacre proves that, with a bit of determination, anyone can make a difference in their community, and ultimately asks readers how one can lead a civil life throughout uncivil times.

We recently talked to Whitacre about this, her book and her connections to New London. Her answers have been edited for space.

You can meet Whitacre at 11:30 a.m. Friday at the New London Public Library for a Q&A and discussion about her book and its relevance to modern times.

On how Julia Wilbur’s story is relatable to today:

I came out with the title of “A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time" in 2015 because I wanted it to be more of a question of how all of us will define what a civil life is and what kind of actions will we take to see that happen. Here is how one person did it a 150 years ago, and the question, I hope, that people will ask is, "What could I be doing today?"

Some of the debates and issues of those times are still with us today — issues about race and issues about how much to “help” people and whether they will become too dependent. That became an issue back then, too, when helping the freedmen and "contradbands" (a term used for escaped slaves at the time) … Also, the whole idea of women’s pay equality. Julia realized that while working as a teacher in Rochester, men were making more than women. When she later went to work for the Patent Office, that same issue came up. She spoke out against it, though it didn’t go very far. She was also trying to encourage people to register to vote. She would always say that it’s our right. We are still experiencing those same problems today.

She wasn’t a huge leader, she wasn’t famous then, or now. But unfamous people can do really great things now, too.

On how Whitacre stumbled upon Julia Wilbur and the idea for the book:

I started transcribing her diaries in 2011. My original goal, however, was to transcribe the Civil War years that this woman had left and that was about it, but as I got more involved with this, I started reading more about where she came from, what she did after these Civil War years. That’s when it sort of started growing into the idea of a book.

There really wasn’t a book out just about her, and I thought it was so interesting, and I realized that if I didn’t write it, somebody else would.

On how growing up in New London helped Whitacre to appreciate the local history of Alexandria:

I loved researching local history in New London. I remember doing projects in high school about Eugene O’Neill and New London roots. I also remember being up in the second floor of the New London Public Library and going through some of the archives, just learning how to understand the local history of a place helped out later when I ended up down in Alexandria.

On why Julia Wilbur is an intriguing character:

It’s definitely the idea of a woman, not a wealthy woman or an influential or powerful person, who really decided to act on her principles and take a brave step. Julia was 47 when she left her home, but aside from some letters of introductions, she really had no idea about what she was going to do when she got down to Alexandria. When I first started working on this story, there was a lot going on with Afghanistan, and I had thought to myself that what she did then would be the same as one of us being concerned about the conditions in Afghanistan and getting on a plane and going to see what we could do there. But Julia did, and even though it took a little while to get her sea legs, she eventually was able to figure out ways in which she could make a difference.

She was an abolitionist, and she believed in the cause early on. She was going to meetings and lectures early on, and this was her trying to put action behind good words and thoughts, and it was hard. She came from upstate New York, from a somewhat protected existence, and at the time, she was living with her family in 1862. So to all of a sudden come to war-time Washington and Alexandria, which were chaotic and messy and disorganized, it was not an easy transition.

On how Julia Wilbur advocated for escaped and freed slaves:

She was advocating collectively for better housing and better health care for (escaped slaves and freedmen) during the Civil War. She was able to get clothing from people in the North and set up what they called the Clothing Room to either give away or sell clothes to those who had run away. Basically, those escaped slaves had escaped with only the clothes on their back and that was it.

A lot of freedmen were due wages from the government, as African Americans would take work from the government to build the railways and what not, and they weren’t getting paid. Julia would go around to wrest those wages that were due to them. She herself realized that no one was really advocating for these people’s best interest. There were people who were officially assigned to help freedmen and “contrabands” but weren’t actually doing that. Julia was.

On the two characters Julia Wilbur encountered from southeastern Connecticut:

The first was Edwin Bentley who was a surgeon. He was born in New London and practiced in Norwich, and then he enlisted with a Connecticut regiment fairly early on. Once he got to Alexandria, he was placed in charge of a number of hospitals, including one that was built for African-American soldiers.

The second was Albert Gladwin, who is kind of the villain of the book. He lived in Middlesex county, close to Essex, and he was a Baptist minister. He was sent down to Alexandria to be the Superintendent of Contraband, which was like a civilian hired by the Army to be in charge of the freedmen's affairs. He came down a bit earlier than Julia had, and she had assumed, at first, that he must be doing good things, but once she started getting to know him, she realized that he would basically bully freedmen.

On Julia Wilbur’s efforts to help, even without recognition:

She was definitely not in the newspaper at all. I think in the black community people knew her and valued her. The military people, on the other hand, they sort of saw her as an “interfering and troublesome person” and would ask, “Why are these women going around being busybodies and acting like they know what’s best?” There are some letters in the archives of the military governor and the other powers that be in Alexandria from that time that complain about “Miss Julia Wilbur” and hoping that she would get her nose out of things.

The need for help, in general, was so great. I can’t say that the freedmen were 100 percent better because of Julia’s help, but I think they would have been a lot worse off if she hadn’t tried to help. It was basically a few women including Julia without any resources, and they used their foot-power and mindpower and heart-power to try to make things better.

m.biekert@theday.com

If you go

WHAT: Book discussion with Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. Friday

WHERE: New London Public Library

PRICE: Free

CALL: (860) 447-1411

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