Lucy Pier Stevens’ ‘Transcendent Ties’

Little did Lucy Pier Stevens, visiting family in Texas, know how drastically her life would change on April 4, 1861.

By Denise Gee and Nancy George
SMU News

DALLAS (SMU) — Little did Lucy Pier Stevens, visiting family in Texas, know how drastically her life would change on April 4, 1861. How would the young woman, stuck in enemy territory at the start of the Civil War, safely get back home? And how would her Northern views blend with the Southern sentiments surrounding her?

A fascinating look into what transpired is reflected inside two diaries that 21-year-old Lucy kept, along with a scrapbook and photo album, all now housed in the special collections at SMU’s DeGolyer Library.

“Lucy’s diary offers researchers a firsthand account of daily life during the Civil War in Texas,” says DeGolyer Library Director Russell Martin. “She’s an articulate and intelligent witness who takes note of everything: the weather, illnesses, food shortages, parties, church attendance, chores, and political and military news.”

Lucy chronicled her years in Texas in two accounting ledger books used as journals, her photo album and keepsake book, all of which were found in a California attic at an estate sale a dozen years ago and purchased by SMU.

Lucy’s captivating story begins on Christmas Day 1859, when she stepped out into the mild weather of south-central Texas, having just traveled for days from her home in snowy Ohio. It was there near Brenham, in the hamlet of Travis, that she met her aunt and uncle, former Ohions Lu and James Bradford Pier, with whom she would unwittingly spend the next five years.

This diary is considered valuable to researchers because Lucy was well educated and a keen observer. SMU English lecturer Vicki Tongate published “Transcendent Ties: A Northern Girl’s Sojourn in Confederate Texas” in April 2000 as part of her history master’s thesis.  Calling it “a labor of love,” she felt an obligation to accurately and respectfully represent Lucy.

“She is very much a real person to me,” she says. “I owed it to her to be faithful to her story.” Tongate is working on a book project related to the subject, which she not only knows inside and out. It is near and dear to her heart.

Tongate’s research went beyond the diaries and the resources of DeGolyer Library. She traveled to a tiny cemetery—the only remaining evidence of Travis—and met with Pier family descendants. She learned that the diaries of Lucy’s Aunt Lu and cousin Sarah are in the Texas Collection at Baylor University in Waco where she went to study their diaries. Many of the entries represented the three women’s accounts of the same event. Because Lucy’s diary ends abruptly, it was her cousin Sarah’s diary that recorded Lucy’s safe arrival in Ohio.

Lucy, in careful and thrifty penmanship, discusses farming, winemaking, health, weddings, schools, childbirth, death, slavery and church revivals.

For example, on June 7, 1863, Lucy records her birthday dinner—roast pig, green corn, potatoes, succotash, pickles, egg bread, biscuits, honey, fruit and pound cake, cheese, sure-enough coffee and a bottle of nice wine. (“Sure-enough” coffee was Lucy’s term for a good cup of coffee: During the war, coffee was scarce, and its substitutes—dried okra and potato peelings—never satisfied her. Her diary mentions other shortages, such as cloth, shoes and paper—the latter of which caused her to write in miniscule type in the ledgers.)

As Lucy’s stay in Texas lengthened, she became more politically aligned with her Southern family. One June 7, 1864, Lucy wrote, “These Yankees are up to all sorts of tricks.” She kept a list of local men who enlisted in the Confederate Army in her diary, including her cousin, Sammy. She also mentioned that she helped care for the family’s 14 slaves during a measles outbreak.

Early in 1865, Lucy received her first correspondence from Ohio since arriving in Texas. She learned her youngest sister had died two years earlier. As the Civil War came to an end, her careful script became hurried, a reflection of her desperate attempts to return home.

After attempting to get back to Ohio in a conventional manner, Lucy, over the objections of friends and despite the danger, chose to travel aboard a blockade runner to Havana, Cuba. The ship took shots as it sped past Union boats guarding Galveston, but Lucy arrived safely in Havana to see the flags of Union ships at half-mast, mourning the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. After traveling aboard another ship to New York, and a train to Cleveland, Lucy arrived home May 6, 1865.

“The Lucy diary would interest anyone studying Texas during the Civil War, women in the mid-19th century, and the problem of American identity,” says Tongate’s faculty advisor at the time, professor Edward Countryman of the Clements Department of History in SMU’s Dedman College.

 “With her own words, Lucy teaches that even during the sharpest division in U.S. history, there is room for inclusion,” she says. “The Pier household, a home maintaining a balance between peace of war, of necessity accommodates both North and South. In the process, it achieves a semblance of stability in the midst of turmoil. While “Southern-ness” obviously dominates, this family, like many others, refused to forget their Northern ties.”

Lucy’s diary eventually will be posted to the Web. “We expect it to be in print at some point in the next few years, certainly during the 150th anniversary period of the Civil War, 2011-2015,” Martin says. “Those who can’t wait to read Ms. Tongate’s book can request to see the diary in person.” (See information box for details.)

Sample page from Lucy's Diary:

Lucy Pier Stevens diary page
(click image to see larger version)

The DeGolyer Library is the principal repository at SMU for special collections in the humanities, the history of business, and the history of science and technology. Its rare books, manuscripts, photographs, maps and other materials are available to all SMU students, faculty, visiting scholars and other researchers. DeGolyer Library’s holdings of primary sources are supported by exhibitions, lectures, publications and seminars. Dedicated to enhancing scholarship and teaching at SMU, the DeGolyer Library is charged with maintaining and building its various collections "for study, research and pleasure."                                                         

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