When her husband reluctantly joined the state militia in late 1862, Emily maintained his journal in his absence. Her entries tell much about the struggles endured by Southern farm women in the midst of war.
Diarist, farmer. Born on June 6, 1827, in Spartanburg, Harris was the daughter of Amos Liles and Sarah Daniels. When she was thirteen her parents moved to the Fair Forest area where they settled on a farm with their slaves. Amos Liles sent Emily to the Spartanburg Female Seminary, where she came under the tutelage of Phoebe Paine, a schoolteacher from Windham, Maine. Through Paine’s instruction, Emily developed the skill of writing with both elegance and emotion. On April 3, 1846, Emily Liles married David Golightly Harris, the only son of a prominent Spartanburg District surveyor, farmer, and real estate investor. The marriage produced seven children.
By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, David and Emily Harris lived near Fair Forest, partially on land inherited from their families. From 1855 to 1870 David kept a journal in which he conscientiously described the life of a small upcountry farmer and slaveholder. When David reluctantly joined the state militia in late 1862, Emily maintained the journal in her husband’s absence. Her entries tell much about the struggles endured by Southern farm women in the midst of war. Harris faced numerous challenges, not always with the best of humor. She wrote in 1863: “I shall never get used to being left as the head of affairs at home. The burden is very heavy . . . I am not an independent woman or ever shall be.” Despite her modesty and lack of self-confidence, Harris supervised her slaves, butchered hogs, planted her garden, cooked molasses, sheared sheep, and oversaw the planting and harvesting of hay, corn, cotton, and sugarcane. She paid taxes, spun wool, and made sure that winter ice was preserved. She worried constantly about bad weather, the illnesses of her children, and the safety and comfort of her husband. At times isolated and at other times in need of privacy, Emily suffered from frequent bouts of depression, which worsened as the fortunes of the Confederacy waned and living conditions became harsher. “I expect no more rest this side [of] the grave,” she wrote. “The wants of the family are never satisfied and their wants weigh heavily on me.”
Well-educated, sensitive, and industrious, Harris was representative of the countless farm wives who kept the Confederacy fed while their husbands and sons fought far from home. Gifted with her pen, she gave voice to the arduous lives of her countrywomen and the challenges posed by slaveholding as the institution of slavery neared its end. Far from the idealized “plantation mistress,” Harris was a perceptive witness to the impact of war on the home front.
Relieved in 1865 by her husband’s return from the war, Emily Harris faced further challenges during Reconstruction. Much of the family wealth disappeared with the emancipation of their slaves, and some land was leased or sold to pay heavy taxes. David Harris died in 1875. Emily survived him and lived with her children until her death in Spartanburg on March 26, 1899. She was buried in the family cemetery in Spartanburg County.
Racine, Philip N. “Emily Liles Harris: A Piedmont Farmer during the Civil War.” South Atlantic Quarterly 79 (autumn 1980): 386–97.
–––, ed. Piedmont Farmer: The Journals of David Golightly Harris, 1855–1870. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1990.