Emily Dickinson, often known as the “Belle of Amherst” is famous as an important poet. She composed her many poems while living here, near the center of Amherst, and was especially productive during the years of the Civil War. Editors estimate that her famous poem “Because I could not stop for death” was written in the middle of the conflict, sometime in 1863. Several of her works were also published in the Springfield Republican at this time. She was greatly affected by news of the death of local soldiers, but also sent letters of sympathy on several occasions in response to local deaths that seem to have touched her just as deeply.
Dickinson tried to avoid any involvement in the war effort, refusing to participate in activities to benefit the troops or to show support for one side or the other. Despite her efforts to avoid the conflict, Dickinson’s letters contain references to casualties, updates on Amherst men away at war, and mentions of visits between enlisted men and their families. The death of Frazar Stearns son of Amherst College’s President Stearns affected her deeply. Stearns and Austin, Emily's brother, had been childhood friends. She reflected on “this young crusader-‐ too brave that he could fear to die” in a letter written immediately after she learned of his death. Even years later, Stearns’s death still affected her. She noted that church bells were dedicated to him in 1871 and still fondly remembered him in a letter at this time, six years after the war’s end.
Dickinson’s life in Amherst during the Civil War illustrates the tensions experienced by many families and communities throughout the war years. Like many other families, the Dickinsons had relatives fighting on both sides of the conflict. Most of the family lived in the north, but Emily had an uncle her father’s brother who had settled in the south and fought for the Confederacy. Because the Dickinsons were a fairly wealthy family, Emily’s brother Austin was able to pay a fee and hire a substitute to avoid fighting. The hiring of substitutes tended to further divide wealthy and poor groups and often led to tense relationships within communities. Situations such as these affected many towns and families during the Civil War, and were not absent from Amherst.
Although life went on for Emily and other Amherst residents, she mentions a “general feeling of sorrow” pervading the atmosphere, probably sometime in or around 1864. After the war the tone of her letters seems to lighten. The famous legend of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s supposed capture in women’s clothing disproven since the end of the Civil War made its way to Amherst and received a mention in one of Dickinson’s letters. Even as she worked on her poetry and lived her daily life, Dickinson was an integral part of the Amherst community. She stayed in contact with friends and family and wrote many poems, but also shared in Amherst’s sorrow at losing