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.
While most Confederate ladies easily evaded hospital duty, few could avoid having to manage their plantations. In elaborating on her second and most persuasive theme, the complexities of women’s lives on the plantation, Faust shows that Rebel government officials at first were alarmed primarily by the prospect of slave subversion under weak and incompetent women whose men were at war. As early as 1862 an Alabaman publicly warned that the “negro population” was exhibiting a “disposition to misrule” in the absence of “our male population.” Responding to the alarm, the Confederate Congress passed a law exempting overseers—often the wealthy masters’ kinsmen—from military service if they supervised twenty or more slaves. The populist outcry that followed persuaded the legislature to modify the measure, and the concern to protect women fell victim to class antagonisms.
According to Southern legends, Rebel women showed a bravery and sturdiness of purpose unmatched in American history. The novelist Walker Percy once described the “little bitty steel-hearted women” in the Mississippi Delta who guarded the cotton rows and “made everybody do right.” Yet Faust perceives most plantation wives and daughters as less than heroic, and her portrayal is convincing. By and large, Faust notes, they became Confederate conscripts when they served as plantation bosses. The slaves themselves, especially male fieldhands unused to obeying a female, often took advantage of them. Most women, Faust asserts, were illequipped by experience and temperament to run slaveholding enterprises. They seldom knew first-hand even about more domestic chores, such as preparing food, weaving, milking, and other household and barnyard assignments. They had to learn fast. Plantation mistresses did not always have the physical strength and personal sense of command to control the situation when supplies dwindled, Union armies drew near, or news of successful flights of fieldhands spread through the slave quarters. Some matrons adopted draconian measures.
In Texas Lizzie Neblett continued to employ an overseer, despite his unreliable judgment and a brutality that made her wince. “The velvet glove of paternalism,” Faust observes, “required its iron hand.” As the war dragged on, Neblett, like many other matrons ready to be hard on slaves, found that brutality would not work and that she would have to reach an understanding with them. Ever more fearful of slave revolt, Faust recounts, women had to plead for cooperation rather than demand compliance by threatening the lash. Sometimes, Faust writes, they had to recognize that their only protection against roving bands of irregulars was the able-bodied male slaves whom they had formerly feared might murder them in the night.
When war, federal policy, and black disaffection gradually extinguished the slave system in one district after another, Faust contends, many of the plantation matrons grew disenchanted with black labor. They watched helplessly as their expectations of comfort and plenty collapsed. Sarah Hughes of Alabama, for example, observing from a roadside the departure of her slaves, saw Taliaferro, the head coachman, proudly driving the family carriage filled with Union soldiers while a once highly favored house servant jogged along astride her owner’s “beautiful white pony” on a red plush saddle.
Such scenes were bound to demolish former white illusions of slave love and loyalty. Plantation mistresses felt bitterly betrayed, remembering only their own small favors and kindnesses, seldom their omissions and meannesses. Many expressed relief to be rid of troublesome human property, a genuine sentiment once the old rites of white rule and slave docility slipped away. In the words of Matthella Page Harrison of Virginia, she and her friends found it “such a degradation to be so dependent upon the servants as we are.”
But the greatest loss endured by white women was of self-esteem. Faust’s final and most provocative point concerns what happened as Southern women lost their sense of pride: they tried to end the slaughter and destruction. So long as there was hope of victory, Confederate women of the upper ranks, even though under Union occupation, gloried in their arrogant defiance. Their belligerence, however, assumed that the enemy would respect their professions of feminine gentility. In the Shenandoah Valley, Mary Lee boasted, the Union soldiers “are completely overwhelmed by a very stately & grand air; they have the most profound respect for the F.F.V.’s [first families of Virginia], & would do anything to get a civil word from us.” The most notable examples of such sentiments toward the bluecoats occurred in New Orleans. Seized early in the war, the South’s largest city, seething with hatred, was placed under General Benjamin F. Butler. Encouraged by the male civilians, New Orleans women forgot their manners and emptied chamber pots on federal soldiers in the street (including Admiral David G. Farragut), cursed the Union men as scum, and spat on their uniforms. “Beast” Butler’s response was General Order No. 28: Women openly insulting to his forces would be considered harlots and treated accordingly. Faust points out that the situation “drove to the heart of the ambiguities in white southern women’s identities,” the antinomy between patriotism and propriety. Out of fear of losing caste, no woman thereafter violated the directive. Yet the outraged Southern upper-class women believed themselves immune from the rules of war and occupation. Once again, Faust observes, “Confederate women fled from the responsibility of empowerment into the reassuring safety of tradition’s protective shelter.”
Faust reveals that truculence gradually surrendered to bitter despair and an impotent resentment against the invaders. More important, these emotions also aroused a yearning for peace, even at the expense of the Confederacy itself. Of course, as Faust would surely agree, upper-class women were scarcely the only Rebels to succumb to war-weariness. When poorly led soldiers, officers included, lost heart, particularly after Sherman’s famous march and similar, demoralizing Union attacks, civilians of every class eagerly prayed for an end at any cost.
Faust records an aspect of Southern morale long overlooked, even denied: the loss of faith among slaveholding women. Surprisingly, defeatism even found its way into the Dixie Speller (1864), designed by its female author for Rebel youngsters: “This sad war is a bad thing. My pa-pa went, and died in the army.” If their men could return home by no other means, some women began to urge even officers to desert. An official in North Carolina, Faust writes, complained that the “ladies” should be held responsible for increasing numbers of army desertions. Faust sees in this surprising development not only a reversion to feminine traditions of placing domestic over political concerns but also “an articulation of individual right and identity, of self-interest, that was strikingly modern in its implications.” The traditional denial of full citizenship was bearable for women; much harder to endure were the disappearance of necessities, the flight or intractability of slaves, and, above all, the absence of their male protectors, many of them never to come back at all. Under these disheartening circumstances, Faust claims, most Confederate women “discovered both new self-interest and new selves.”
But the evidence Faust gives for detecting both a change of mind about habits of subordination and new assertions of autonomy is not decisive. Many plantation women remembered how fervently in 1861 they had urged soldiers to come home only when wreathed with laurels of victory or solemnly borne on shields of honor. After Appomattox they mainly wanted their shattered, unhappy men to reoccupy their place in parlor and bed, resume patriarchal obligations, and relieve them of the burdens they had taken up. But how many women were willing to have their husbands sacrifice their sense of honor and duty to their country by desertion? It is hard to find many cases in which the women went that far. In any event, Faust under-plays the importance of women’s longings for a return to old habits in order to stress her perception of a new female temperament. Demoralization, as she observes, led some upper-class women to console themselves with drink, wild parties, extravagant spending, and other frantic attempts to deal with their despair. But such behavior scarcely showed that they had accepted a new and modern outlook. So ancient a figure as Nero lent his name to such conduct.
Equally doubtful is Faust’s contention that the Civil War experience of freedom from male control can help to explain the formation of the United Daughters of the Confederacy in the 1880s and the stirrings of a women’s suffrage movement in the 1890s. Traditionally, women have been the mourners over the casket, keepers of the grave, guardians of sacred memory. To set up a region-wide organization like the UDC in order to encourage such activities might have been an innovation, but its purpose was an old one. Like returning soldiers from most wars, the veterans whom the ladies celebrated were heroes to them, however flawed the soldiers’ performance, however questionable the South’s defense of slavery. The inevitable mourning process offered rituals of glorification that helped to free the living, especially the women, from the guilt of surviving and to soften their anger against the dead for leaving them to loneliness and penury. By such means both women and men naturally denied that the war had been futile or meaningless. The Lost Cause movement, which exalted the war as a noble defeat, exhibited little if any feminist realism about the war’s costs and errors. Rather, the movement signified the opposite: the universal need to translate grief into inspiration by cleaving rhetorically to a myth-laden past.
The suffrage crusade in the South, moreover, can hardly be attributed to women’s wartime experiences some thirty years before. The demand for women’s votes was linked to late-nineteenth-century economic, social, and cultural trends across the nation, in which city women were taking jobs and were beginning to assert themselves in political and labor organizations. (The movement was frustrated, Faust notes, by considerations of racial superiority and habit.) To the earlier, mid-century generation of Southern women, the demand for suffrage seemed, in contrast, impious, radical, and disgustingly Yankee. Even so, the drive for the vote could be presented along traditional lines. Custom had long assigned women to be society’s moral arbiters. Drawing on this tradition, suffragists claimed that they would make intemperate politicians and religiously indifferent white voters “do right.”
Faust’s shaky speculations about suffragism do not diminish her more convincing accounts of emotional and physical depletion. The upper-class women she describes may have been “mothers of invention” but, as her account implies, they were also daughters of honor: that is, they subscribed to the dominant Southern ethic. For instance, the well-to-do Sarah Dorsey, a Louisiana novelist and biographer, celebrated the code duello because “the adamantine fetters of opinion, caste, and custom” had elevated a gentleman’s honor and reputation above a “love of life.”4 Similarly, primal notions of masculine honor affected the views of women about how they should react to defeat. Under stress of war, death, and destruction, some women exhibited a corrupting fury recalling the black anger and despair of Euripides’ Hecuba against the Greek invaders. Such passions hardly reflected Southern conventions about how ladies should behave. When called upon to take an oath of loyalty to the Union, Catherine Edmondston of Halifax County, North Carolina, wrote rhetorically, “Yes, Yankee nation…you cannot fathom the depth of hate, contempt & rage” that consume Rebel hearts. “You have,” she wrote, “lowered our standard of morality” by compelling Confederates to lie and by forcing them to make promises that they would never fulfill.
Edmondston and her compatriots had a still higher psychological price to pay than merely offering a cynical pledge of Union fealty. Some, Faust observes, lost their religious faith. Surely God had favored so noble a cause, but calamity suggested otherwise. With Euripides’ Hecuba they could say, “What wretched things to call on—gods” when the gods had proved indifferent or even hostile. For others the ordeal induced prolonged insomnia, listnessness, and other signs of deep depression. These reactions are well described in Faust’s account. Yet such despondency arose partially from the requirement of selflessness and pliability that after the war women were still forced by their regional culture to meet. Feelings of helplessness, resentment, and despair were supposed to be borne in stoic resignation and silence. Different from modern, middle-class custom though it is, the submissiveness of Southern women and their tight-lipped repression of feeling led them to live vicariously through the achievements, reputation, and, in a sense, identity of men. (That psychological pattern was, of course, hardly peculiar to Southern women.)
Such an interpretation helps to explain the sullenness and feelings of ineffectuality that overwhelmed Faust’s strong-minded women. The enemy had not merely blasted Southern concepts of morality, as Edmondston complained, but also had humiliated the defeated survivors—and these were men around whom the women had constructed their lives. Every sign of liberation from male dependence, regardless of the pleasure it gave women, also seemed a betrayal of the “lords and masters” whose frailty the Union adversary had exposed to the world. Women, especially widows, had to learn self-reliance, but without wealth and slaves and with meager livings as boardinghouse keepers, teachers, or store clerks—what was the gain?
Under the pressure of almost stifling imperatives from their families to perform as men of honor, the Southern officers and many soldiers felt compelled to match a standard of stoic courage instilled in them by their mothers no less than their fathers. Sometimes the glorifying ideals that mothers, sisters, and daughters set—along with everyone else—seemed beyond human limits. Senator John Sharp Williams of Mississippi queried some veterans about why they had fought so hard though knowing the cause to be unavailing. The reply: “We were afraid to stop.” Afraid of what? Williams countered. “Afraid of the women at home, John. They would have been ashamed of us.” Many returned full of regret for their lethal blunders and failures of nerve on the battlefield. In peace, the once-proud owners of slaves and acres, shaken by war, could only halfheartedly try to retrieve their lost wealth and moral authority at home. Depression, alcoholism, a laziness not from happy languor but from melancholy and feelings of helplessness were among the consequences. For all of Margaret Mitchell’s sentimentality, one can find traces of men like Ashley Wilkes in the memoirs of the period.
Male weakness, female disappointment, and general lamentation are not the only themes that Faust describes in lavish detail. We also find accounts of resilience, heroism, and growing wisdom, particularly in the experience of women trying to run plantations on their own. Indeed, she has created a remarkable portrait of upper-class Confederate women’s wartime experience, and done so with an economy of words and a spirit of engagement that places her work among the finest of recent histories of American women.
May 9, 1996
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. ↩
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). ↩
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). ↩
Sarah A. Dorsey, Recollections of Henry Watkins Allen (M. Doolady, 1866), pp. 58 and 61. ↩