Reviews for A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time

Kirkus Reviews:

"A debut biography recounts the travails of a relief agent during the Civil War.

As a relief agent for the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Sewing Society, Julia Wilbur had a unique vantage point from which to view the Civil War. Fortunately for posterity, she kept a diary of her experiences providing services to freed slaves (or “contrabands”) in Alexandria, Virginia. And former Washington Post staff writer Whitacre puts that and other primary sources to great effect in her striking account of Wilbur’s life as a singular American woman during the turmoil of the second half of the 19th century. “By fighting for what she saw was just, often against those in positions of authority, she transformed herself into, in her own words, ‘a sort of missionary-at-large, a woman-of-all work,’ ” Whitacre writes.

Wilbur was a schoolteacher in Rochester, New York, when she was first exposed to abolitionism by attending lectures given by Frederick Douglass. The slave-turned-orator-and-activist became part of Wilbur’s social circle and his daughter was briefly a student at her school. By the fall of 1862, Wilbur needed a new purpose in life and used her abolitionist connections to secure the relief agent position behind the Union lines.

Whitacre deftly depicts in telling detail not only the deplorable conditions to which freed slaves were subjected in Alexandria—at a hospital, “a mother sat holding her dead child, wrapped in a piece of ticking”—but also the racism and sexism of Union officials. Wilbur clashed repeatedly with the superintendent of contrabands, a Baptist minister named Albert Gladwin, who told her that she was “out of my sphere, & he does not like to see a woman wearing men’s clothes.” He was only removed from office after an outcry over his racist policy of burying black Union soldiers in the cemetery for civilian freedmen rather than with their military comrades. “Colored people are still treated like slaves in Alexandria, and the slave laws of the State are still enforced,” Wilbur lamented. In her engrossing book, Whitacre skillfully adds historical context to produce a well-rounded picture of a woman who found her purpose in battling “indifference and prejudice” and making a difference.

An illuminating portrait of a remarkable abolitionist working behind Union lines."

Civil War Times 


"Abolitionist Grit"

Julia Wilbur's life could easily have slipped into historical anonymity, unnoticed and unappreciated by modernity. Fortunately her highly descriptive diaries and letters fell into the hands of Paula Whitacre, who recognized a remarkable woman when she found one....Whitacre has brought into crystalline clarity the life of a woman both of her time and ours....

Gordon Berg, Civil War Times, June 2018

[Review available in hard copy only]

Friends Journal


"...Julia Wilbur’s life and struggle took place more than 150 years ago, but remain relevant. This book presents tensions that continue to challenge individuals who seek their life purpose while negotiating societal expectations in a landscape rife with racism and social injustices."

Gwen Gosney Erickson, August 2018

[Read the full review]

Civil War News:

"Finding a purpose during an uncivil time"

...Through Whitacre's careful analysis and engaging narrative style, Wilbur's story provides an opportunity to gaze into the life of a woman who coped with myriad personal struggles during the conflict, but managed them to assist African Americans during the era, aid the Union war effort, and pursue advancements in women's rights...

...Beyond its scholarly value, Wilbur's story, so elegantly crafted, provides a life lesson on how individuals can continue to move forward when tragedy is everywhere. Anyone who reads Wilbur's story will surely be able to connect with her in some way."

Shelby Shrader, Civil War News

Washington Independent Review of Books:

"An extraordinarily ordinary woman and the causes she fought for"


"Books by Michelle Alexander, Bryan Stephenson, and Ta-Nehisi Coates are important in making linkages from past to present. So too, are titles that look back to the 1800s to help us understand how we got here — how much has changed, and how little.

Julia Wilbur is not a well-known abolitionist. That lack of familiarity is one thing that makes Paula Tarnapol Whitacre’s A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time so interesting. Wilbur was one of many volunteer advocates who dedicated much of her life to a cause in ways that unsung volunteers do today...

Readers who will appreciate this book include those interested in the Civil War, abolitionism, and early feminism. Residents of both Rochester, New York, and the DC area will appreciate the detailed descriptions and historical photographs of their communities. Finally, we can all be inspired by the significant contributions made by a woman who was brave, relentless, and — comfortingly — ordinary."

Robin Tolbert, Washington Independent Review of Books

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Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

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"...Whitacre paints an intimate portrait of her subject."

...In an account that records the intertwining of the personal and political aspects of Julia Wilbur's life, Whitacre plains an intimate portrait of her subject. In doing so, she reveals the challenges and struggles of an ordinary single woman doing extraordinary work during a tumultuous period of political and social change in American history..."

Mary Lynn Bayliss, Spring 2018

[Review available in hard copy only]


Emerging Civil War:

"...a great book that deserves to be read"

In the midst of the traditional military studies about bayonets and bugles, it can be easy to forget the thousands stories of those behind the lines. A new book about a relief worker in Alexandria, Virginia seeks to re-focus the lens, and remind us of the legions of people who mobilized to help however they could....

Paula Whitacre has created a great book that deserves to be read by anyone seeking to get an understanding of the experiences of civilian relief agents.  As an addendum, an important part of the research of the book was a team of historians scanning and transcribing Wilbur’s diaries.?

Ryan Quint, Emerging Civil War

[Read the full review]



“A historical account that could fit in the political dialogue today, Paula Whitacre tells the story of abolitionist and suffragist Julia Wilbur, who in 1862 left her family home in Rochester, New York, and traveled to Alexandria, where she looked into the face of misogyny and racism to fight for escaped slaves and help Union soldiers. Whitacre weaves Wilbur’s tale through diaries and other primary historical sources."

Lynn Norusis, Northern Virginia magazine

And Advance Reviews:

Whitacre shines a light on a remarkable character, abolitionist Julia Wilbur, who, much like her fictional counterparts on “Mercy Street,” heroically confronted misogyny, racism and fear in an effort to aid enslaved African Americans make the transition to freedom. This important and timely story is empathetically brought to life by the author. I urge everyone to pick up a copy and delve deeper into a chapter of Civil War history that has been overlooked for far too long.”

Lisa Wolfinger, Co-creator and Executive Producer, Mercy Street

“From heated abolitionists’ debates in Rochester, NY, to the postwar detritus in Alexandria, Virginia, Julia Wilber was a principal actor in the Civil War and Reconstruction era.  Like many women reformers of that period, her story remained untold. In Paula Whitacre’s talented hands, Wilbur’s life bursts from the page. She appears as an adoring aunt, an ardent activist, Harriet Jacobs' ally, a committed teacher, and, most of all, an eyewitness to the ending of slavery and the beginning of freedom.”

Jim Downs, Author, Sick from Freedom

“By illuminating Julia Wilbur’s struggles to end slavery, join the emancipated in the fight against bigotry, and live a life of purpose within constraints place on women, Paula Whitacre offers a rich biography, but also important, beautifully written history.”

Chandra Manning, Author, Troubled Refuge

“Whitacre’s biography captures the extraordinary life and times of this seemingly ordinary American woman. Julia Wilbur resisted nineteenth-century expectations that women be dependent daughters, wives, and mothers, instead throwing herself into the battle over slavery, emancipation, and the reconstruction of the nation.”

Carol Faulkner, Author, Lucretia Mott’s Heresy

“Whitacre focuses on Alexandria, and the work of Julia Wilbur and Harriet Jacobs, examining the gender politics at play when white and black women entered the war effort. In addition, Whitacre’s scholarship expands our knowledge of the African American experience before, during, and after the Civil War. A fascinating look at Wilbur and Civil War Alexandria, Virginia.”

Audrey Davis, Director, Alexandria Black History Museum

“Whitacre has created a compelling portrait of a nineteenth-century abolitionist working on the front line of change. Julia Wilbur joins the ranks of tough-minded women who stood firm at the point where idealism meets reality.

Pamela Toler, Author, Heroines of Mercy Street

“Activist and teacher Julia Wilbur captured nineteenth-century battles for racial and gender justice in her extensive diaries. In resurrecting Wilbur’s life, Whitacre vividly conveys the struggles, both mundane and momentous, that reshaped families and nations in the Civil War era.”

Nancy Hewitt, Author, Radical Friends: The Activist Worlds of Amy Kirby Post, 1802-1889