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03.04.09 LeConte, Emma, When the World Ended: The Diary of Emma LeConte (1864-1865), published in 1957.

Our Review:

Emma Florence LeConte (1847-1932) was born in Georgia and lived there until 1856, at which time her father, geologist Joseph LeConte, accepted a position at South Carolina College in Columbia.  A noted scientist and educator, Joseph LeConte (1823-1901) was a native of Georgia, and after teaching chemistry and geology at South Carolina College he eventually accepted a professorship at the University of California at Berkeley.  During the Civil War, Emma stayed in Columbia with her mother, while her father was involved in projects to make gunpowder for the Confederate army.  Her diary from 1864-1865 was published as The Day the World Ended: The Diary of Emma LeConte in 1957.  Emma was 17 to 18 years old at the time she was observing events and recording them in her diary. After the Civil War, Emma married Farish Furman, a Georgia farmer.

Concerning her youth, we advise, do not under-estimate 17-year-old girls of 1864 who were stronger and wiser than most adults today.  Besides, her father and uncle were world-famous scientists who made gunpowder and other things for the Confederacy and, after the war, became founders of science departments at the University of California.  They are among Southern scientists listed in our web-site.

Beginning with an entry dated December 31, 1864, LeConte records her daily thoughts and emotions during the final months of the Civil War and the beginning of the postwar period.  She describes the condition of her family home and includes summaries of letters she received from family members.  Her entries often note civilian efforts to help the war effort.  In one entry, she describes a bazaar for aiding the Confederate wounded.  She also gives an account of General Sherman’s destruction of Columbia in February 1865, when his troops burned government buildings and much of the city.  The diary ends as the Federal Government’s appointed Provisional Governor arrives to oversee the Republican Party’s “Political Reconstruction” of South Carolina government and society.

Emma and her family lived on the campus of South Carolina College, an area of the city that was spared the torch, but her vivid, passionate reports of all that was going on around her paint an unforgettable picture of destruction, horror and tragedy. In her diary she wrote of how the soldiers exulted in the destruction of the city, and that though at first they tried to make excuses for the fires, one of them frankly admitted “that Sherman had ordered them to burn it, that they expected to burn it, and that they did burn the hole of secession.”  

    Fervently patriotic, when Emma heard of General Lee’s surrender in April 1865, she wrote that “there seemed no ground under my feet.” Recording her despair and grief that all the suffering and sacrifice of the Confederates had ended in defeat, she wrote, “The South lies prostrate—their foot is on us—there is no help. During this time we breathe, but oh! who could have believed who has watched this four years’ struggle that it could have ended like this!…Is all this blood spilled in vain—will it not cry from the ground on the day we yield to these Yankees?…Why does not the President call out the women if there are not enough men? We would go and fight too—we would better all die together…”

   The diary covers a period from December 1864 to August 1865, and though brief (less than 120 pages of text), it is powerful and moving, and is highly recommended for anyone interested in one of the darkest hours in the history of the war and the state of South Carolina. Readers should be aware that the author of the introduction to this book makes some highly questionable assertions about General William T. Sherman (characterizing him as a friend of the South!) and Southerners attitudes toward Sherman and the destruction he wrought in Dixie.

   The book is out of print. A paperback edition published in 1987 by the University of Nebraska Press,though also out of print, is more easily available as a used book from online vendors.