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Home Fires

Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War

by Drew Gilpin Faust
University of North Carolina Press, 326 pp., $29.95

Thirty-five years ago, a serious study of women in the American South would probably have been ignored. In the early 1960s, Anne F. Scott’s classic, The Southern Lady, was practically the sole work on the subject to receive any notice at all. As the centennial of the Civil War approached, no one seemed interested in what had happened to women during that war. In 1960 David Donald, who won the Pulitzer Prize for biography that year, proclaimed that nothing new remained to be said about the great conflict anyhow.1 Even as feminism grew more insistent in the late 1960s, the ways that Southern women, white or black, had affected the history of the region were barely noticed. Most historical accounts were concerned with Northern women who advocated women’s rights as well as the liberation of slaves, causes that enlisted only a handful of Southerners of either sex. (The exception, of course, was Edmund Wilson’s essay on Mary Chesnut in Patriotic Gore.)

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s the number and quality of studies of women have steadily risen, and have included books on the historical experience of women, among the first being C. Vann Woodward’s edition of Mary Chesnut’s diaries. Some, like the book under review, benefit from the continuing interest in Civil War topics that Donald failed to predict thirty-six years ago—and, indeed, they owe something to his own valuable contributions to the interpretation of the era of Lincoln and Lee.

One reason for fresh interest in mid-nineteenth-century Southern women is the skill of some of those engaged in writing about them. Thanks to Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Carol Bleser, Catherine Clinton, and Deborah White, among others, Southern women, free and slave, are receiving a recognition long overdue. Evidence of attention to Southern women’s history consists not only in an outpouring of studies but also in the republication of diaries, memoirs, and novels, most of them chronicling the Civil War experience. For instance, the recent collections The War the Women Lived, edited by Walter Sullivan, and An Evening When Alone, edited by Michael O’Brien, present excerpts from the journals of slaveholding women describing dramatically and sometimes poignantly their experience as they approached the finality of defeat and the task of adjusting to poverty and loss.2 For understanding the political setting of these women’s stories, George C. Rable’s Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (1989) has provided a splendid guide.

In her impassioned new book Mothers of Invention, Drew Gilpin Faust, Annenberg Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania, offers a still more sensitive reading, but strictly confines her study to the well educated and privileged women of the slaveholding class. Mothers of Invention conveys a sense of inevitable devastation that may make the reader think of Euripides’ Hecuba or The Trojan Women. Faust’s work bears favorable comparison with Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, another study that evokes the intimate experience of war.

Not only has the Old South gone with the wind, historiographically speaking, but as Faust sees it, the old myths that Southern women were deeply submissive and carried on bravely and silently have also begun to fade. In her investigation of upper-class women, Faust does not dwell on the more familiar stories of feminine heroism but uncovers fascinating signs of ambiguity, conflict, and deep repression. Under the stress of war and the slow but inexorable loss of their men and their slaves, the South’s women, particularly those who had been relatively privileged, faced a world that out of necessity required them to become what she calls “mothers of invention.”

Faust recreates a society in the depths of social, military, and economic disintegration, and shows its corrosive effect upon the morals and manners of white Southerners who were members of the elite. Just as the reader is about to sympathize with a particular plantation mistress, whose distress Faust vividly describes, she furnishes instances of her cruelty, indifference, or snobbery. Plantation mistresses seldom thought kindly of women considered less fortunate in breeding or wealth than themselves. Their sometimes savage reactions toward women they disliked remind us once again how in human affairs drastically altered conditions can often fail to turn hearts from pride to penitence, from contempt to commiseration. Recognizing this, Faust builds her account on three interlocking themes. First, she shows that many Southern women yearned for the old pattern of life and had an unwelcome sense that they had to depend on themselves. Second, she records the gradual disillusionment with slavery, upon which these ladies, as the term was then used, had so long depended. Finally, and most unexpectedly, she describes a feminine wrath and discouragement that, in her view, hastened the Confederacy toward its doom.

Drew Faust’s first book, A Sacred Circle, explored the gloom and disaffection of the Old South’s intellectuals, who lamented how even their most strident apologies for slavery seldom won them appreciation from the neighboring huntin’-shootin’ gentry. Faust’s second book, which won the Sydnor Award for history, was a biography of James Henry Hammond, the powerful, haughty, and grotesquely ambitious South Carolina governor and senator who strongly supported slavery in the years before the Civil War. Hammond for much of his life was nearly suicidal and was also dangerously oversexed. In his youth he may have buggered his college roommate; he sexually abused his brother-in-law Wade Hampton’s teen-age daughters while he was occupying the gubernatorial chair; and his wife had to endure his affairs with Louisa and Sally Johnson, two slave sisters whom he owned. Although long identified with the secession movement, in his last years as a US senator (1857–1860) he vainly sought a reconciliation of the Southern and Northern upper classes to prevent the disaster for the slaveholding South which he anticipated.3

Mothers of Invention begins dramatically with the war itself in 1861. It might have been more useful to many readers, however, had Faust explained how women in prominent circles watched the gathering threats of disunion. In the 1850s, mistrust of hotheaded secessionists and dread of change dominated the mood of Southern gentlefolk, particularly its women. Among the more prosperous slave masters, Whiggish Unionism was more fashionable than Fire-Eating Democracy. Though well-educated and well-read about current events, Southern women ordinarily let their men pronounce on politics without contributing to the discussion or challenging them. The youthful Sarah Morgan of Baton Rouge, for instance, confessed, “I was never a secessionist, for I quietly adopted father’s view on political subjects.” Moreover, the local gentlemen-preachers and theologians, to whom ladies looked for guidance on matters spiritual and secular, were scarcely interested in breaking the bonds of Union. For instance, Episcopal Bishop Otey, a Tennessee Unionist, in a pastoral letter ordered his clergy when preaching not to mention the national crisis. In the conservative climate of the South, churchgoing women were, with a few exceptions, equally reticent; society demanded it.

Faust begins her account by pointing out that once a consensus for secession had been reached Southern women of the upper classes quickly added their voices to the clamor—particularly in the Deep South. Idle young men could expect to find a petticoat placed in their living quarters with a note attached ordering them to volunteer at once or be stigmatized. The power of public mockery by women drove many young men to the recruiting office. Some women displayed a frightening ferocity for war, as if to repudiate their former doubts in peacetime. Yet, as Lucy Buck, a cultivated young woman from Front Royal, Virginia, observed, they knew that “we shall never any of us be the same as we have been.” The well-read women upon whom Faust relies for her argument foresaw that the war would transform their world, perhaps for the worse.

Some young women felt inspired to encourage their departing heroes. For example, at a ceremony in Marshall, Texas, to honor the Confederate military commander W.P. Lane Rangers one Miss Sallie Smith proclaimed that Lincoln and Garrison should tremble to know that, if all else failed, “some Southern Broadicea [sic]” would arouse a “HUNDRED THOUSAND HEROINES to avenge the wrongs of their brothers, and Country.” According to Faust, ladies more experienced than Sallie Smith were also more circumspect. Anne Lewis Hardeman wrote in her diary that upon hearing the news of Mississippi’s secession, “My heart is like lead.” Dismissing her fears as unpatriotic, she hastily added, “but I will put my trust in the God of battles.” Quoting heavily from the reflections of the unhappily married Gertrude Thomas of Georgia and Lucy Virginia Smith French, a popular novelist from Beersheba Springs, Tennessee, Faust shows that a good many Southern women were surprisingly skeptical during the war years, all the more so when the hopes for sudden Confederate success gave way before the news of military disaster.

Certainly one of the most fearsome problems emphasized by Faust was the disappearance of able-bodied men from civilian life. A few wives followed their mates from camp to camp, but most neither could afford to do so nor were willing to undergo the rigors, especially if they were caring for small children. The advance of the Union armies, and looting by irregulars of both sides, forced some of the Rebel women to adapt themselves to the vulnerable and dependent status of refugees in momentarily safe places, usually the houses of relatives. Sometimes their hosts were hospitable, sometimes not. (Unionist plantation women in parts of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri faced comparable hardships, but their story has yet to be told.)

Fearful of losing station and flouting decorum, Confederate women, Faust explains, undertook some carefully chosen patriotic tasks with considerable ambivalence. Rolling bandages, knitting socks, making cloth or cartridge bags, and packing provisions did not violate old customs. But the author describes how Southern women debated the contradictory demands of propriety and patriotism in taking on other wartime activities. Most agreed that schoolteaching should be exempted from social shame. Male teachers had vanished; widows and solitary women filled vacancies to survive. In comparison with the Northern cadres of women who did war work, relatively few well-born Southern women entered wage-paying occupations. And most of them thought that nursing, the most important military job that they might perform, compromised their claims to gentility. Ada Bacot of South Carolina, widowed and childless (having lost her only child), found life less lonely as nurse, but in 1863 she quit. Apparently she could no longer stand the ordeal, but she probably also disliked her lowered status. A physician excused her from accepting a hospital matronship because, he told her, she had not been “born in the same station of life” as her predecessor.

A few women, like Phoebe Yates Levy Pember, matron at Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, defied convention and selflessly nursed wounded, diseased, and dying patients. But most plantation women asked themselves why they should be subjected to the rough language of country troopers, the horrors of the surgical tables, and the stench of dying men. After all, according to its promoters in the South, the war was fought to protect female delicacy from the leveling of all sorts that the Yankees had in mind.

  1. 1

    See Eric Foner’s challenge to Donald’s remarks in Foner, “The Causes of the American Civil War,” Civil War History (September 1974), p.197.

  2. 2

    Walter Sullivan, editor, The War the Women Lived: Female Voices from the Confederate South (J.S. Sanders, 1995) and Michael O’Brien, editor, An Evening Alone: Four Journals of Single Women in the South, 1827–1867 (University of Virginia Press, 1993).

  3. 3

    Drew Gilpin Faust, A Sacred Circle: The Dilemma of the Intellectual in the Old South, 1840–1860 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977); and James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery (Louisiana State University Press, 1982). See also her more recent work Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace and War (University of Missouri Press, 1992).

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