published Sunday, May 20th, 2012

Abraham Lincoln's death, Cleveland teen's thoughts share pages in 1860s-era diaries

Letters and notes to and from Myra Inman during the Civil War years, along with some photos from the postwar years, are kept at the Cleveland/Bradley Public Library's History Branch.
Letters and notes to and from Myra Inman during the Civil War years, along with some photos from the postwar years, are kept at the Cleveland/Bradley Public Library's History Branch.
Photo by Randall Higgins.

WORK INSPIRED BY MYRA'S DIARIES

Myra Inman's original diaries are stored at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They continue to inspire other works:

• The book: "Myra Inman, A Diary of the Civil War in East Tennessee," was published by Mercer University Press in 2000 and is available at the gift shop at the Museum Center at Five Points. The museum is on Inman Street, which is named for the whole family.

• "Daughters" project: George and Harriet Caldwell are working on their own Myra project for the United Daughters of the Confederacy chapter here. Its first presentation will be in September. It will include photos of Myra, her family and the war years in Cleveland as well as readings from the diary.

• The play: "Pages of War, Myra Inman and Madison," is being written by playwright Dan Buck. It will be ready for presentation at schools when the next school year begins.

CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- A 13-year-old Cleveland girl opened a ledger and made her first diary entry on New Year's Day, 1859.

The grownup talk around her already may have been about how the nation could descend into civil war. But petite Myra Inman had other things on her mind.

"Cousin John Lea was here this morning. Mother, Sister, Jimmie and Annie spent the day at Dr. Brown's. ... A beautiful day but very muddy. I did not get any New Year's presents."

Every day through the war years, through her growing up, until another New Year's Day, 1866, Myra would write. She reported the comings and goings of friends and relatives and her widowed mother, the social events in a town of 250 people, the slaves owned by her family, her own chores and occasionally news from the war.

An April 1865 entry reads: "Sunday 15. Pretty day. Easter Sunday. Mr. Guthrie came over from town this morn, informed us that Lincoln was shot Friday night at the theater. ... Cannons were fired every half hour at Chattanooga all day."

Before she had finished, Myra had filled seven ledgers, each 73/4 inches by 121/2 inches, "written in ink in small feminine script" according to the late Dr. William Snell, who published the diary in 2000.

"That time period in American history, and in local history, too, remains a time of great public interest," said Barbara Fagan, librarian for the History Branch of the Cleveland/Bradley Public Library. "And there is a lot of curiosity about Myra."

Now Myra's story is getting fresh attention. Playwright Dan Buck, from Lee University, has been commissioned by the Museum Center to create a 35-minute play for area schools.

Buck said Myra may have been more like today's teenagers than anyone might suspect.

As he read the diary entries, he said, "they began to sound like Twitter feeds."

Confederate girl

"A fortune teller was here today. Did not tell any fortunes," Myra wrote in March, the first diary year.

"Old Brown was hung today," she recorded on Dec. 2, 1859. That would be John Brown, who incited slave revolts and led a raid on the U.S. arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Va.

Myra, the daughter of one of Cleveland's founding families, began her diary while her widowed mother operated The Inman House near the railroad depot. At the end of the war, the family's concern for Mrs. Inman's health brought a move to a house a few blocks away.

In a county where the eligible male voters in a June 8, 1861, referendum cast 1,382 votes to stay in the Union and 507 for secession, the Inmans' Confederate loyalties were well known.

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Control of the area changed hands several times during the war.

On Oct. 29, 1863, Myra wrote: "The Yanks came into town this evening about 3 o'clock. General Sherman's company camped all around us tonight, robbing us of our corn, potatoes and taking all our chickens. ... We sit in the house with bowed-down heads while the victorious army passes along with waving banners, and offer up a silent prayer for our country."

As she grew older, she got more attention from young men passing through. A Lieutenant Simmons, a Union soldier, called on her whenever he could and wrote letters, too. But Myra was a Confederate girl.

While she was "more pleased with him than other Yankees," she turned down his marriage proposal.

The diary passed through generations of Inman descendants.

In 1984, Snell, then Bradley County historian and a Lee University professor, studied the diaries and got permission from Myra's grandchildren to publish them. Brief excerpts had appeared in print before, including in The Chattanooga Times in 1938.

The book "Myra Inman, A Diary of the Civil War in East Tennessee," was published by Mercer University Press in 2000.

"We ... owe this young Clevelander a debt of gratitude," Snell wrote on the book's cover. "Her dedication to her writing allowed us to get to know her family, her friends and her Cleveland."

The play

Jennifer White, education curator of the Museum Center, won a Tennessee Arts Commission grant to commission the play based on Myra's diaries.

"We think we need to do more around Myra's character," White said.

Buck sought inspiration from local historians, including Bryan Reed, assistant history professor at Cleveland State Community College and a former student of Snell's who helped edit the diaries for the book.

The challenge for Buck was to turn years of writings by a teenage girl from the 1860s into a short play that would hold the attention of today's Internet-connected teens.

  • photo
    Jennifer White, Curator of Education at the Museum Center at Five Points in Cleveland, Tenn., stands near period furniture in the museum on Thursday. White is working on a production about a teenager during the Civil War named Myra Inman which is based on her diary.
    Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Then it hit him: Twitter feeds.

"She has the desire to document her life, like kids do today," Buck said.

So what if a modern teenage girl, named Madison, walks into her room, settles on the floor on a modern-looking rug, opens her iPad and begins to write about her day? And a 19th-century teenage girl walks into her room, settles onto the floor in her room on a Victorian-era rug and begins to write about her day?

Somehow, Myra's diary begins showing Madison's words. Madison, mysteriously, begins seeing Myra's words. After it dawns on them that they are carrying on a conversation across a century and a half of time, they begin to speak directly to each other.

Madison's parents are divorcing. She must choose a side and feels she is betraying the other. Myra is part of a Confederate family with many acquaintances who are Unionists. They talk about race. Madison tells Myra that black people can seek out any job these days, including president of the United States.

Myra's life

Myra's last entry was Wednesday, Jan. 24, 1866. "Rainy day. Sister has given out going with Mr. Carter to Cincinnati. Will go in April."

Myra's oldest sister, Darthula, married John Carter, a salesman with business as far away as Charleston, S.C., in 1853. They moved to his Charleston, Tenn., farm at the end of the war. Darthula died in 1874, according to family records added to the diary.

John married Myra two years later. There is a photo of Myra and John and others sitting in front of their farmhouse in Charleston at the library's History Branch. John and Myra moved to Chattanooga late in life.

  • photo
    Dan Buck, a professor at Lee University, stands in a conference room of the Museum Center at Five Points in Cleveland, Tenn. on Thursday. Buck is working on a production about a teenager during the Civil War named Myra Inman which is based on her diary.
    Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Myra died Dec. 7, 1914, at age 68. Her husband died Feb. 14, 1915. John, Myra and Darthula, their children and their slaves Uncle Ned and Phoebe are buried at Fort Hill Cemetery in Cleveland.

No direct descendants of Myra Inman and John Carter still live here, said Cleveland's official historian, Bob George.

"When Bill [Snell] did the diary, he made a presentation to the Atlanta Historical Society, a prestigious group. Myra's descendants heard that and liked what he was doing," George said.

So in 1997 they donated her personal papers, except the diary itself, to the Cleveland library.

George said the diary is not only relevant today, but fascinating.

"I'm not into teenage girls' diaries," George said. "But Bill asked me to read it, and I couldn't put it down."

about Randall Higgins...

Randall Higgins covers news in Cleveland, Tenn., for the Times Free Press. He started work with the Chattanooga Times in 1977 and joined the staff of the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Free Press and Times merged in 1999. Randall has covered Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Alabama. He now covers Cleveland and Bradley County and the neighboring region. Randall is a Cleveland native. He has bachelor’s degree from Tennessee Technological University. His awards ...

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