Pryor, Sara (Agnes) Rice

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PRYOR, Sara (Agnes) Rice

Born 19 February 1830, Halifax County, Virginia; died 15 February 1912, New York, New York

Daughter of Samuel B. and Lucinda Walton Rice; married Roger A. Pryor, 1848

Sara Rice Pryor, the daughter of a Baptist minister, was educated primarily by tutors from the University of Virginia. At the age of eighteen, Pryor married a law student there. The early years of Pryor's marriage were uneventful. While her husband practiced law and entered politics, Pryor occupied herself with her growing family and the duties of home. By the 1850s Roger Pryor had been elected to Congress as a Southern-rights man; he resigned in March 1861 to work for the secession of Virginia. During the Civil War, he served as a brigadier general in the army of northern Virginia. In her autobiography, Pryor recalled this period of her life as one of unremitting anxiety. Food and shelter were difficult to find at any price, and the enemy was never far away. Roger was captured in November 1864 and held prisoner for several months.

After the war, Roger joined a law firm in New York City. He gained a reputation as counsel in some of the most famous civil and criminal cases of the late 19th century, while Sara Pryor became active in patriotic and philanthropic organizations. In the 1880s Pryor began to contribute occasional pieces to Cosmopolitan and the Delineator and in 1897 she wrote a chapter for a collective genealogy of the Robert E. Lee family compiled by Robert A. Brock. However, when her husband retired from the New York Supreme Court in 1899, Pryor began to write more regularly. Her first book, The Mother of Washington and Her Times (1903), was a popular history of colonial Virginia. She returned to this theme in The Birth of the Nation, Jamestown, 1607 (1907).

These popular histories are highly romanticized versions of the facts and catered to reader nostalgia for the antebellum South. The Mother of Washington is both a biography of Mary Ball Washington and a social history of Virginia's "Golden Age," the latter half of the 18th century. Mary Washington appears as the ideal of 19th-century womanhood—modest, pious, and self-sacrificing—rather than a representative of the 18th century, which did not place such restrictions on women. Having had such a noble mother, George Washington could only be a great man, and Pryor spares no pains to embellish his accomplishments.

Both The Mother of Washington and Jamestown contain serious factual inaccuracies; even by the standards of amateur history at the time, these works are inadequate. Pryor tends to superimpose her image of the antebellum South on earlier periods so her descriptions of life in Colonial and Revolutionary Virginia do not convey the rough-hewn frontier qualities of those times. Instead, we see them as earlier versions of the slave South.

Pryor is best known for her two autobiographical works: Reminiscences of Peace and War (1905) and My Day: Reminiscences of a Long Life (1909). The first begins with the Pryors' life in Washington in the 1850s. She takes the reader to the fancy dress balls and suppers. These halcyon days were ended, however, with secession and war, and Pryor turns to her precarious life in Petersburg, Virginia, where she lived during the Union siege of that city.

My Day is more fully autobiographical, containing Pryor's recollections of her childhood and encompassing her life in New York after the war. In many ways, it is less interesting than Reminiscences, as Pryor focuses more on her husband's career than on her own life and works. Pryor's observations of New York society during the Gilded Age and the position of Southerners in it are valid. Like her other works, these two autobiographies belong to the "moonlight and magnolias" school of history.

Other Works:

The Colonel's Story (1911).


Reference works:

LSL. NAW (1971).