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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. 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. 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 …

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Letters

Making It New June 6, 1996