For McDonald, history is what happens “inside the house.” Her story is, in fact, about the trauma that occurs when the domestic sphere, traditionally a safe place, is disrupted and destroyed by the forces of history – when women and children are put out of their houses and have nowhere to go. At the same time, McDonald’s ingenuity and tenacity in the face of that trauma reflect women’s capacity to recreate for themselves and their children safe places, albeit temporary ones, in the face of danger and despair. Reading McDonald’s writings about her own experience in the Civil War therefore leads us to consider the gendered nature of autobiography and the ways in which women’s life-writings can transform our understanding of history.
Cornelia Peake McDonald, A Woman's Civil War: A Diary, with Reminiscences of the War, from March 1862, ed. Minrose C. Gwin (New York: Gramercy Books, 2003), 3-4.
Because her father, a medical doctor, had cosigned loans for friends who later defaulted on payments, the family moved several times in Cornelia’s early years, first to a plantation in Prince William County, Virginia, and later to Front Royal in the Shenandoah Valley. In 1835, on a long, arduous journey, her father moved the family and their slaves to Palmyra, Missouri, where many of the slaves and some family members died of consumption…. Early in life Cornelia was called upon to nurse her sick mother, who, unaccustomed to a pioneer life, was frequently ill. Young Cornelia began to read extensively during this period. While her mother slept, she would sit behind the bed curtains and read from Bryon’s works and other books from her father’s library.
Cornelia Peake McDonald, A Woman's Civil War: A Diary, with Reminiscences of the War, from March 1862, ed. Minrose C. Gwin (New York: Gramercy Books, 2003), 5.