Willa Cather’s Civil War Heritage

Posted on December 8, 2010 by

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I’m a huge fan of Writer’s Almanac, partly because it’s a great audio morsel that brings back hints of a time long gone, and partly because I’ve enjoyed listening to Garrison Keillor on Prairie Home Companion for years.  Additionally, I enjoy the closing remark, and find it encouraging at the beginning of the work day… “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.” Anyway…

Since December 7 is her birthday, yesterday’s edition (that link is to the audio version… for the text version, click here) mentioned Willa Cather’s family (from the Winchester, Virginia area) being “known supporters of the Union” during the Civil War.  I have no problem admitting it… I did not know that

So, obviously intrigued, the first opportunity that came available to me last night, I did a quick check on this, and was pleasantly surprised to find that not only is it true, but even more complex than it sounds.  I found the following passage on The Willa Cather Archive:

[Frederick County] is the northernmost Virginia county; adjacent Berkeley County—home of Cather’s maternal Grandfather Boak and many other relatives—refused to join the Confederacy and became a part of West Virginia. To evade the Confederate draft, Willa Cather’s Union-sympathizing father and his older brother had only to travel a few miles into neighboring West Virginia. And within the family circles, Confederate/ Union lines were hard to draw. Grandmother Rachel Seibert Boak was reportedly opposed to slavery, but she sent her three sons to the Confederate army. Aunt Sidney Cather Gore—like her brother, Grandfather Cather—was a Union supporter, but she sheltered Confederate soldiers in her house. In the frequent family discussions of the war, Willa’s father always took the Union, “Northern” side. Yet his daughter saw him as quintessentially Southern; when he died, she mourned his “Southern” sweetness and boyishness (wc to dcf).[full text of this passage came can be found here]

Additionally, because of William Cather’s (Willa’s grandfather) Unionists sympathies during the war, after the war, he was appointed sheriff of Frederick County by Federal authorities. His sons, George and Charles, were made deputies.

This is great stuff, because it is yet another example of just how complex (emphasis, emphasis, emphasis!) things were regarding sentiment in the Shenandoah Valley during the Civil War. Once again, to be Southern does not necessarily equate to being Confederate… maybe some Confederate, maybe some not so Confederate… and that complexity within Southern families is a beauty of Southern culture that has been tucked away for far too long.

Incidentally, (and Harry, I include this because I thought you may find it of interest…) The Cambridge Companion to Willa Cather mentions (see here) a maternal uncle, William Seibert/Sibert Boak, who was wounded at First Manassas/Bull Run, and later died of his wounds (age 19). It is said that Willa fancied the idea that she was named for this uncle, and later adopted the middle name “Sibert” in her professional life.

It seems there is some minor mystery in this. William S. Boak is listed in the regimental history of the 33rd Virginia Infantry, but there appears to be no more than a “stub” record at best in the official rosters of the 33rd. Was there a name mix-up? As I mentioned above, William S. Boak was said to have died at 19, but… there is a James W. Boak… also of Co. D, who was mortally wounded at… not First Manassas, but Second Manassas… and died at the age of… 19. Sgt. Boak was buried in the Stonewall Cemetery, Winchester, Virginia.

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