Local Author Brings Historic Diary, Letters to Life

Local Author Brings Historic Diary, Letters to Life

Paula Whitacre publishes book steeped in Alexandria’s Civil War past.


Paula Whitacre speaking at her book launch event on Aug. 31 at Lloyd House. The event was co-hosted with Office of Historic Alexandria.

In “A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time,” freelance writer Paula Whitacre provides readers with a bird’s eye view of Civil War Alexandria through the perspective of abolitionist and women’s rights advocate Julia Wilbur.

Through the biography’s three sections, Whitacre uses Wilbur’s diary entries and letters to paint a picture of the people and events affecting the Alexandria community not only during the Civil War but also in the antebellum era. She also discusses Wilbur’s life before the war as a teacher in Rochester, N.Y., and afterwards in Washington, D.C.

“I hope the book shows readers how the country changed and how Julia changed over time,” she said.

Last week, “A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time” debuted at a book launch at the Lloyd House, co-hosted by the Office of Historic Alexandria.

On Sept. 16, the Alexandria Archaeology Museum will host a book talk for “A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time” at 10 a.m. on the third floor of the Torpedo Factory. Several other book talks and events are planned, which are accessible through the author’s website at www.paulawhitacre.com.

Whitacre first learned of Wilbur when she was conducting research in 2011 for the Office of Historic Alexandria’s Alexandria Archaeology's project on Union hospitals in Alexandria. A 47-year-old teacher, Wilbur came to Alexandria in 1862 and worked to improve the lives of thousands of African Americans escaping slavery by traveling into Union-held areas.

Whitacre volunteered to transcribe the writings pertaining to the Civil War, which were on microfilm. As she began to transcribe the diary entries, she realized the significance of the information containing voices rarely heard from in many Civil War narratives. So, she decided to write a book capturing them for a wider audience.

“When I was doing research on the Union hospitals in Alexandria, I came across comments that Julia Wilbur wrote in her diary. As I became more involved in her diary, I wanted to learn more about her life,” she said.

She transcribed a first set of shorter dairies in 2011-2012. In the process, she learned that Wilbur kept a parallel set of diaries with lengthier entries. A group of more than 35 volunteers from the Friends of Alexandria Archaeology helped transcribe them in 2013-2014. She also worked with then city archaeologist Fran Bromberg during this time.

“Alexandria Archaeology knew the significant amount of information gleaned from this project would result in helping us understand the large African American community that emerged because of the Civil War,” Bromberg said.

In addition, Whitacre also conducted outside research at the National Archives and through reading accounts of other historic figures who worked alongside Wilbur. These people included Harriet Jacobs, who had escaped slavery in North Carolina and published a book in 1861 based on her experiences.

Whitacre hopes readers will learn about “limitations of women during the period and the lengths that people went for freedom.”

“One theme I hope that readers will take away is that everyone can find a way to make a difference in the world,” she said.

“A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time” is available for purchase on Amazon, at local bookstores, and at museums throughout the city.

Originally from New London, Conn., Whitacre moved to Alexandria in the mid-1980s. She has a Bachelors and Masters in international studies from John Hopkins University. Currently, she works as a freelance writer/editor with government agencies and nonprofits in the D.C. metropolitan region.