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January 1, 1899
My dear niece, Polly Bowser,
When I was your age, I thought I was something special. And why wouldn't I, with everybody always telling me so? You know, too much attention can go right to a child's head.
Anyway, in those days every decent young lady had a scrapbook where she could store treasures and write secret thoughts. Being that I was so special, I figured Miss Bet should give me one, too, and of course I got my way. All sorts of things landed in the album. Letters, flowers, cards, sketches, diary entries...for a while, this messy book held my whole self between its covers.
That was over forty years ago.
I wish I had a feathered hat for every time I've opened it since then, hoping to find my long-ago times. But when I read about the dark days of the Civil War (I call them the hanging days), my fingers start to shake.
I guess memories can't make us young again, and this is how it should be. So you keep the book now, Polly. Maybe it'll be a friend to you the way it was to me...Sometimes it felt like the only friend I had.
Inside are the thoughts of a scared young girl. You'll also see letters from Bet Van Lew (I saved even the dangerous ones) and my answers to her. I slipped these into the book when Miss Bet returned them years ago.
Along with the letters she gave me some sheets torn from her own album. Her words and mementos were too private, she said, for anyone's eyes but mine. Miss Bet wrote her deepest feelings in her scrapbook, and as you read her pages, Polly, you'll see she was no ordinary woman. It took courage to do what she did in Richmond during the Civil War.
Richmond, Virginia, was real contented with itself before the war began. People were making money from flour mills, tobacco factories, iron works, and slave trading. These folks lived on the city's highest hills, where it was easy to look down on workers below...German and Irish immigrants, poor whites, free Negroes, and hired-out slaves.
But Miss Bet wasn't contented at all about slavery. If only she'd stayed on her hill like the other rich white women! Things might have been different if she'd minded her own business. She lost everything, yet it never occurred to her to give up the fight.
You'll see, Polly, that my album pages are topped with a leaf and Miss Bet's with a vine. And I've put all the papers in order by date, so you'll have a story. Not just an ordinary tale about the Civil War, which freed our people from slavery. Most folks think rifles and cannons put down the Southern rebellion.
No, this scrapbook tells of Ellen Bee, two spies who won the war with softer weapons...a bowl of custard, a faded bonnet, a loaf of bread, and an old leather shoe.
Copyright © 2000 by Mary E. Lyons and Muriel M. Branch