MOOC | Confederate Women | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1865 | 2.5.6
Articles,  Blog

MOOC | Confederate Women | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1865 | 2.5.6


>>And then we come to another issue, which is what McCurry talks about in a very innovative and, you know, an important book, which is the role of women in the Confederacy. White women. And here, let us go back to, here is, wait, let’s find this. Here’s a very famous painting, called “The Burial of Latane.” It’s from right after the war. It’s a scene on a Southern plantation. Well, actually, burial. It’s a funeral. Can you see this? What’s going on here? What do we see in “The Burial of Latane” that’s interesting? Who is the only man present?>>Black.>>Right. A black man. The plantation, it’s all under the control of women. This is the Southern domestic scene. It’s all women. The black man, you can’t really see it here, he’s leaning on his shovel, having done the work of the burial. Presumably the husband has been killed in the war. He’s got a very far away look in his eyes, actually, like he’s listening for the sound of the cannons and the approaching Union army, and figuring out what he’s going to do next. But the “Burial of Latane,” women now dominate the homefront in the Confederacy, right? The Confederate experience pushes women into new roles. New roles in the society. New roles at work. Now, some years ago Drew Faust, currently the president of Harvard, wrote a book called “Mothers of Invention” about upper-class Confederate white women, challenging the very, very deeply rooted image of the patriotic, self-sacrificing upper-class woman. I mean the “Gone With the Wind” image of the, you know, of Scarlett O’Hara. The woman who pulls herself together and is the backbone of the homefront. Faust says, no, that is not what happened, folks. That is not what happened. At the beginning of the war, yes. But the war… Her argument is a very interesting, complicated one. The war disrupts the separate spheres. It disrupts the role of women, the role of men, the traditional division. And women do not want this. She’s not claiming they’re all nascent feminists who want to go out there. No. They want their traditional roles, and the war is disrupting them. They can’t feed their families, because of food shortages. Death is stalking every family. The collapse of slavery. Southern upper-class women, she says, were just as committed to slavery as men were. But the collapse of the slave system places burdens on them they don’t want. And eventually, they withdraw their support for the war effort. So the heroic, sacrificing Southern woman decides at some point she doesn’t want to sacrifice anymore. Now, McCurry is dealing with a different group of women: lower-class women, or the wives of soldiers. Right? Most soldiers in the Confederate army, obviously, were non- slave-holding white men. That’s the majority of the male population in the South. McCurry’s title, or subtitle, subtitle really, is interesting, if you think about it for a minute. You know, “Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South.” I don’t know if this is true. She’s got a pretty good sense of humor. I think this is a bit of an ironic joke. If you read that title, “Power and Politics in the Civil War South,” what do you expect? Oh, you know, congressional debates, elections, cabinet meetings. Power and politics. There’s a million books with that kind of subtitle. Boring. That’s not what she’s writing about. She’s saying what women are doing on the grassroots level is also politics. Right? We’ve got to expand our definition of politics from just the electoral sphere. It’s also about power. Power within the society. Who’s going to exercise it and how? So she challenges us to expand our definition of politics to encompass all sorts of different kind of events in what we call the public sphere. The struggle for Southern independence opens the door for the political mobilization of groups that had had little influence in the pre-war South. One, we saw before, was slaves. It opens the door for slaves, as we’ve seen, to run away, to join the Union army, to become a political factor in the South. Secondly, women who had, you know, the notion of… the law of coverture which is enforced in the North and the South, the common law of coverture, says a woman is an appendage of her husband. She has no legal identity (a married woman) other than that of her husband. She can’t sign a contract. She can’t own property. She can’t vote, obviously. She’s not an individual actor, so to speak, on the political stage. But she becomes that, forgetting about the law. They forge, and what McCurry shows, as you see, is poorer women forge a political identity. It’s not the same as these upper-class women. Upper-class women address the Confederate government as upper-class people. They are part of the elite. They demand recognition as part of the elite. The identity that these poorer women construct for themselves, she says, is as the wives of soldiers. They’re not exactly claiming autonomy for themselves. They are soldiers’ wives, but the government has an obligation to them as soldiers’ wives. The government cannot let them starve. The government cannot let them fail to feed their families. And on a small farm, when the man is taken away in the draft, or volunteers, it’s very hard for a woman and maybe some children to actually manage the farm and to harvest the crops and to feed the family over the next couple of years. The economic situation deteriorates as the war goes on. These poorer women flood the Confederate government, Confederate Congress, state authorities, with demands for assistance. Demands. Not charity, but a right. They have a right to support from the government, because they are soldiers’ wives. And sometimes they take to the streets, as we saw in that image of the Mobile Riot. And eventually, some of them actually go along with their husbands. Here’s a picture of women in camp. There it is. This soldier, his family is with him. She’s doing the laundry, you see, in the Confederate camp. She couldn’t support herself at home. So she just comes to the army camp with her children, because that’s where they can get fed. But most women are not in a position to do that. And so the point is, now McCurry, and I guess Faust, are not saying: this is the cause of Confederate defeat, the disaffection of more and more women. But it certainly is a problem, and politicians understand it is a problem. And they have to address these demands of soldiers’ wives. And they start, Congress begins, as the war goes on, exempting poor families from taxation. They begin what she calls, maybe in a slight exaggeration, an inchoate welfare system. The South (here’s an irony) the South, the Confederacy, is the first government in the United States to create a welfare system. That is, actual direct aid to poor people by the government because they’re poor. So these women are not anti-Confederate, exactly. They resent the way the war is being conducted. But the disaffection of women on the homefront reverberates in to the army. And if men in the army know their families are discontent or not able to eat, that makes morale in the army begin to deteriorate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *