A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time
by Paula Tarnapol Whitacre

Publication Date: September 1, 2017
Potomac Books
Hardcover & eBook; 320 Pages

Genre: Non-Fiction/Biography



In the fall of 1862 Julia Wilbur left her family’s farm near Rochester, New York, and boarded a train to Washington DC. As an ardent abolitionist, the forty-seven-year-old Wilbur left a sad but stable life, headed toward the chaos of the Civil War, and spent most of the next several years in Alexandria devising ways to aid recently escaped slaves and hospitalized Union soldiers. A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time shapes Wilbur’s diaries and other primary sources into a historical narrative sending the reader back 150 years to understand a woman who was alternately brave, self-pitying, foresighted, petty—and all too human.

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre describes Wilbur’s experiences against the backdrop of Alexandria, Virginia, a southern town held by the Union from 1861 to 1865; of Washington DC, where Wilbur became active in the women’s suffrage movement and lived until her death in 1895; and of Rochester, New York, a hotbed of social reform and home to Wilbur’s acquaintances Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.

In this second chapter of her life, Wilbur persisted in two things: improving conditions for African Americans who had escaped from slavery and creating a meaningful life for herself. A Civil Life in an Uncivil Time is the captivating story of a woman who remade herself at midlife during a period of massive social upheaval and change.

Available for purchase at Amazon and Barnes & Noble


“Paula Whitacre shines a light on a remarkable character, abolitionist Julia Wilbur, who . . . heroically confronted misogyny, racism, and fear in an effort to aid enslaved African Americans making the transition to freedom. Here this important and timely story is empathetically brought to life. 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 of the PBS series Mercy Street

“By illuminating Julia Wilbur’s struggles to end slavery, join the emancipated in the fight against bigotry, and live a life of purpose, Paula Whitacre offers a rich biography and beautifully written history.”—Chandra Manning, author of Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War

“Paula Whitacre’s biography captures the extraordinary life and times of this seemingly ordinary American woman.”—Carol Faulkner, author of Lucretia Mott’s Heresy

“Paula 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 P. Davis, director of the Alexandria Black History Museum and historical advisor to the PBS series Mercy Street

“Paula 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 D. Toler, author of Heroines of Mercy Street

“In resurrecting Julia Wilbur’s life, Paula Whitacre vividly conveys the struggles, both mundane and momentous, that reshaped families and nations in the Civil War era.”—Nancy Hewitt, author of Radical Friends: The Activist Worlds of Amy Kirby Post, 1802–1889

“In Paula Whitacre’s talented hands, Julia Wilbur’s life bursts from the page. She appears as an adoring aunt, an ardent activist, Harriet Jacobs’s ally, a committed teacher, and, most of all, an eyewitness to the ending of slavery and the beginning of freedom.”—Jim Downs, author of Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction

About the Author

Paula Tarnapol Whitacre is a professional writer and editor for organizations including the National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Sciences. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, she is a former Foreign Service officer and staff writer for the Washington Post. She participates in excavations, conducts archival research, and gives presentations on topics related to Alexandria, Virginia, where she lives with her family.

For more information, please visit her website. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads. Sign up for Paula’s newsletter for news and updates.

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