In 2008, one hundred forty-three years after Appomattox, ninety-three-year-old Maudie Hopkins of Arkansas passed away, most likely the final
But for students of the Civil War curious about the various fates of southern women whose husbands were among the many thousands who lost their lives at places like Shiloh and Chancellorsville, or in some random hospital tent, there is little to learn from the second-hand tales of either the fictional Lucy Marsden nor the real-life Maudie Hopkins—and even less from the pseudohistorical fantasies peddled by the UDC. For that, fortunately, there is the outstanding recent work by historian Angela Esco Elder, Love & Duty: Confederate Widows and the Emotional Politics of Loss (2022), a well-written and surprisingly gripping narrative that brings a fresh perspective to a mostly overlooked corner of Civil War studies.
Something like 620,000 soldiers died during four years of Civil War, far more of disease than bullets or bayonets, but for most of the estimated 200,000 left widowed on both sides, the specific cause was less significant than the shock, pain, and lingering tragedy of loss. This they shared, north and south alike. But for a variety of reasons, the aftermath for the southern widow was substantially more complicated, often more desperate, and for many bred a suffering not only persistent but perhaps chronic. Southern women not only lost a husband; they also lost a war and a way of life.
Building upon Drew Gilpin Faust’s magnificent and groundbreaking study, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, Elder yet carves her own unique corridor to a critical realm of the past too often treated superficially or not at all. In the process, she engages the reader on a journey peopled with long-dead characters that spring to life at the stroke of her pen, enriched with anecdote while anchored to solid scholarship. I have read deeply in Civil War literature. While this topic interested me, I approached the book with some trepidation: after all, this is a theme that in the wrong hands could be a dull slog. Instead, it turned out to be a page-turner! Thus the author has managed to attain a rare achievement in our field: she has written a book equally attractive to both a scholarly and a popular audience.
In war, the southern woman endured a reality far more difficult than her northern counterpart. For one thing, the war was either on—or potentially on—her doorstep. Other than brief, failed rebel incursions on the north, the American Civil War was fought almost entirely on the territory of the seceded states that formed the Confederacy. A certain menace ever loomed over that landscape. With imports choked off, there were critical shortages of goods, not simply luxuries but everyday items all households counted on. This was exacerbated by inflation that dramatically increased the cost of living.
And then there was the enslaved. Today’s “Lost Cause” proponents would insist that the war had nothing to do with what the south once styled as its “peculiar institution,” but the scholarly consensus has long established that slavery was the central cause of the war. For those on the home front, that translated into a variety of complex realities. While most southerners did not themselves own human property, communities lived in fear of violent uprisings, even if these were imagined ones. For that segment whose households included the enslaved, there was the matter of managing that population held in bondage, large or small, with their men away at war. And most of the men were indeed away. In such a slave-based society, labor to support the infrastructure was performed by the enslaved, freeing up a much larger proportion of military age males to go off to war.
For women, all this was further complicated by a culture that disdained manual labor for white men or women, and placed women on a romantic pedestal where they also functioned primarily as property of sorts: of their husbands or fathers. As if all of that was not challenging enough, when the war was over, the south lay in ruins: their economy shattered, their chattel slaves freed, their outlook utterly bleak. Even bleaker was the reality of the Confederate widow.
Elder succeeds in Love & Duty where others might have failed in that she launches the story with a magnetic snapshot of what life was like for southern women in the antebellum era in a culture of hyperbolic chivalry and courtship rituals and idealistic images of how a proper young lady should look and behave. Like James Cameron in the first part of the film Titanic, she vividly demonstrates what life was like prior to the metaphorical shipwreck, showcasing the experiences of a cast of characters far more fascinating than any contrived in fiction.
Among these, perhaps the most unforgettable is Octavia “Tivie” Bryant, a southern belle in the grand style of the literature whom we encounter when she is only fourteen, courted by the twenty-six-year-old plantation owner Winston Stephens. Tivie’s father objects and they are parted, but the romance never cools, and a few years later there is a kind of fairy-tale wedding. But life intervenes. In 1864, a sniper’s bullet takes Winston and abruptly turns twenty-two-year-old Tivie into a widow. She is inconsolable. She lives on with a grief she can never reconcile until she finally passes on in 1908, more than forty years later.
But those who have read Catherine Clinton’s brilliant Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend are well aware that most southern women could not boast lives like Scarlett O’Hara—or Tivie, for that matter. Clinton underscored that while there were indeed women like Scarlett from families of extreme wealth who lived on large plantations with many slaves and busied themselves with social dalliances, her demographic comprised the tiniest minority of antebellum southern women. In fact, plantation life typically meant hard work and much responsibility even for affluent women. And for others, it could be brutally demanding, before the war and even more so during the course of it, for wives and daughters with no slaves who had very modest means, deprived of husbands and fathers away at war while they struggled to survive. Many of the widows that Elder profiles represent this cohort, providing the reader with a colorful panoramic of what life was really like for those far from the front as the Confederate cause was gradually but eventually crushed on battlefields west and east.
Elder’s account is especially effective because she exposes the reader to the full range of the Confederate widow and how they coped with their grief (or lack thereof), which of course ran the full gamut of the human experience. In this deeply patriarchal society, a man who lost his spouse was expected to wear a black armband and mourn for a matter of months. A woman, on the other hand, was to dress only in black and be in mourning a full two and a half years. Not all complied. We might have empathy for poor Tivie, who wallowed in her agony for decades, but on the other hand, her station in life permitted her an extended period of grieving, for better or worse. Others lacked that option. Many struggled just to survive. Some lost or had to give up their children. Some turned to prostitution. Some turned to remarriage.
In war or peace, not every woman is devastated by the death of their spouse, especially if he was lecherous, adulterous, or abusive. Nineteenth century women, north and south, were essentially the property of first their fathers and then their husbands. In reality, this was even more true for southern women, subject to the sometimes-twisted romantic idealism of their culture. Some deaths were welcomed, albeit quietly. Elder relates that:
In 1849, one wife petitioned the North Carolina courts for a divorce after her husband continuously drank heavily, beat her, locked her out of the house overnight, slept with an enslaved woman, and in one instance, forced his wife to watch them have sex. The chief justice did not grant the absolute dissolution of the marriage, believing there was reasonable hope for the couple’s reconciliation. Another wife, in Virginia, would flee to the swamps when her husband drank. If he caught her in the kitchen seeking protection from the weather, he attacked “with his fists and with sticks” … And within the patriarchy, men maintained the right to correct their wives … Alvin Preslar beat his wife so brutally that she fled with two of her children toward her father’s house, dying before she reached it. Three hundred people petitioned against Preslar’s sentence to hang, arguing his actions were not intentional but rather “the result of a drunken frolic.” [p29]
A woman who managed to survive a marriage to men like these likely would not mourn like Tivie if a bullet—or measles—took him from her far from home.
Some of the best portions of this book focus upon specific individuals. One of my favorites is the spotlight on Emilie Todd Helm, a younger sister of Mary Todd Lincoln, whose husband General Benjamin Hardin Helm was killed at Chickamauga. Emilie sought to return home from Georgia to the border state of Kentucky, but was denied entry because she refused to take a loyalty oath to the Union. Her brother-in-law President Lincoln himself intervened and an exception was made. Elder reports that:
When Emilie approached the White House in 1863, she was “a pathetic little figure in her trailing black crepe.” Her trials had transformed the beautiful woman into a “sad-faced girl with pallid cheeks, tragic eyes, and tight, unsmiling lips.” Reunited with Abe and Mary, Emilie wrote, “we were all too grief-stricken at first for speech…. We could only embrace each other in silence and tears.” Certainly, the war had not been easy on the Lincolns either. The Todd sisters had lost two brothers, Mary had lost a son, and Emilie’s loss of Benjamin gave them much to grieve over together. “I never saw Lincoln more moved,” recalled Senator David Davis, “than when he heard of the death of his young brother-in-law, Helm, only thirty-two-years-old, at Chickamauga.”… ‘Davis,’ said he, ‘I feel as David of old did when he was told of the death of Absalom. Would to God that I had died for thee, oh, Absalom, my son, my son?’” … Emilie and Mary found comfort in each other’s company, but their political differences divided them. [p91]
When Emilie, still loyal to the Confederacy, later petitioned to sell her cotton crop despite wartime strictures to the contrary, Lincoln refused her.
No review can appropriately assess the extent of Elder’s achievements in Love & Duty, but there is much worthy of praise. Are there shortcomings? In the end, I was left wanting more. I would have liked Elder to better connect the experiences of actual widows with the myths of the UDC that later subsumed these. I also wanted more on the experiences of the enslaved who lived in the shadows of these white widows. Finally, I thought there were too many direct references to Drew Gilpin Faust in the narrative. Yes, the author admires Faust and yes, Faust’s scholarship is extraordinary, but Elder’s work is a significant contribution to the historiography on its own: let’s let Faust live on in the endnotes, as is appropriate. But … these are quibbles. This is a fine work, and if you are invested in Civil War studies it belongs on your bookshelf—and in your lap, turning each page!
I reviewed the Drew Gilpin Faust book here: Review of: This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust
I reviewed the Catherine Clinton book here: Review of: Tara Revisited: Women, War & The Plantation Legend, by Catherine Clinton