Most of my biography about Julia Wilbur focuses on her work in Alexandria during the Civil War (hence the title, A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time). But all public acts stem from private turning points. In her case, life took a decidedly different turn on December 31, 1859.
Julia Wilbur was the third oldest in a large family, the only one unmarried of 7 girls (women, by the time of these events) and 3 boys/men. She was teaching in Rochester, NY, leading as independent a life as a woman could in the mid-1800s.
In April 1858, one of her sisters became critically ill during childbirth. Sarah died a few days later, leaving her infant and a 2-year-old named Freda. It was decided that Julia would leave her Rochester life and move to her father's farm in the town of Rush, about 15 miles south of the city. She would have primary responsibility for Freda. Another sister and brother-in-law, Frances and Abner, did not have children of their own and would raise the infant, who was eventually named Sarah after her deceased mother.
About six months later, the infant died. The reasons are not clear in Julia's writing. Maybe she had what we now identify as SIDS, maybe something else entirely in a time of high infant mortality. Julia had not bonded with the baby as much as Freda. She was sad but not grief-stricken.
Instead, her emotions were tied up with Freda. Freda became Julia's surrogate child. She totally threw herself into the new role as caregiver, imagining how she would help Freda grow to adulthood. Freda called her "Aunty," but Julia seemed to consider Freda like her own daughter.
Unfortunately for Julia, Freda's father, Revilo Bigelow, changed his mind about a year into the arrangement. Nowadays, we would assume that a widowed father would care for his children, as difficult as it would be. But Julia saw Revilo as wrenching Freda from the family and home she always knew. In vain, she tried to fight the decision. It was sealed when Revilo remarried.
Julia's diaries tell of her attempts to change Revilo's mind and her impending sense of despair that Freda would leave her life.
On December 31, 1859, Revilo came to the Wilbur farmhouse to fetch Freda:
They have taken her away....When they carried out Sarah's trunk that contained her clothes, it seemed like carrying out a coffin...When the time came, I put on her things deliberately & I carried her out to the sleigh, kissed her & watched her out of sight.
Revilo and Freda took off. But then:
In a few moments they came back & R came in for a satchel they had left.
Then they were off for good.
In 2015, I connected with the current owner of the Wilbur farm. As I read these diary passages and wrote about them, I pictured this place on a winter afternoon once Freda had left. Julia, her father, and Frances and Abner sat around the house, now empty of a child's voice. No TV, radio, or music, or even traffic, to break up the quiet.
For years, Julia would mark periodically in her diary how many weeks had transpired since she had her last contact with Freda. New Year's Eve Days, which are already a time for contemplation, were particularly difficult.
Julia suffered greatly. She bickered with the rest of her family, sought any possible way to get a glimpse of Freda, and did not return to her life in Rochester. She had lived in the city on her own for 15 years--a few months after Freda left, Julia wrote that she could not stand the bustle of the city.
In 1862, she began to put out feelers to somehow join the war effort. Later that year, the Rochester Ladies' Anti-Slavery Society asked her to go to Washington on their behalf and work as a teacher. (The idea transformed to work in Alexandria as a relief agent.)
As sad as it was, Freda's return to her father's household freed Julia up for a very different path in life.