American Civil War, Confederate Belle Ideal, Confederate History, Courtship Rituals, End of Slavery, Heteronormativity, Lost Cause Mythos, Race Relations, Racism, Southern Nationalism, Southern Womanhood, White Supremacy, Women
Confederate Daughters: Coming of Age during the Civil War. By Victoria E. Ott, Ph.D. (2008) Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Pp. ix + 215. ISBN 978-0809328284. Hardback, $29.95.
The Civil War and the subsequent social upheaval created a dream deferred for the lost generation of Scarlett O’Hara and her sisters. Born to wealth and privilege, the young women who came of age during the Civil War had a reasonable expectation to assume their place among southern slaveholding society. After all, that was what was taught to them by their parents, teachers, and clergymen. They displayed remarkable courage and tenacity in their efforts to hold on to their social inheritance and were the principle architects of the Lost Cause mythos in defeat.
In Confederate Daughters: Coming of Age during the Civil War, Victoria Ott profiled 85 young women from across the Confederacy who left written records. The main focus of this book is to examine the impact that the Civil War had on young southern girls between the ages of 13-18 when the war started. Ott surmised that the Civil War became a “coming of age” experience that left a unique mark on this age group, not unlike the Depression and World War II did on later generations. Because of their youth, these young women experienced the war and its aftermath differently than their mothers and older female kin. She sought answers to the questions: how did young women view and contribute to southern nationalism, what did they gain from their support of the Confederacy, how did their roles in the family and society change during the conflict, what did they lose in defeat and how did they reconcile that loss?
Victoria Ott examines in Chapter 1, “Our Bright Youth,” the social, filial and religious obligations that antebellum daughters were taught in preparation for their roles as wives and mothers. Their education, though mostly ornamental and not as extensive as their brothers’, sought to instill good personal character, intellectual capabilities useful in their later roles, and to reinforce paternalism and deference toward male authority. Young women were taught to revere the ideals of southern womanhood, which espoused “domesticity, piety, purity and submissiveness” and held them above women of lower classes and slaves. This was a set of ideals many believed they could not attain without the institution of slavery remaining intact.
In “The Politicized Belle” and “Self-Sufficient Daughter,” Ott maintains that the young women contributed to southern nationalism in a conservative effort to preserve their status in the slaveholding community and how coming of age during the Civil War changed their understanding of themselves, their place in society and the South as a whole. “This effort to ensure the traditional path to womanhood encouraged civic involvement and outspoken support for the Confederacy.” Whereas, “their youth permitted a degree of freedom in their patriotic expressions much greater than that permitted their mothers and older female kin.”
Daughters were thoroughly indoctrinated into the Confederate cause and the tenets of States’ Rights which manifested in the young women, along with their mothers, organizing soldiers’ aid; widow’s and orphan relief societies; sewing and prayer groups and hosting community performances with patriotic tableaux to raise money for Confederate aid societies. They also transformed their fashion into political statements and defiant southern symbols by adopting homespun fabrics, wearing certain colors and flowers and discarding hoopskirts. Economic necessity and the absence of male family members often forced the young women to adopt a more self-sufficient role in the family structure. The young women took a more active responsibility in managing the household economy, defending against the confiscation of food and supplies, and enduring rampant inflation and shortages. Some daughters also, albeit reluctantly in some cases, submitted to paid employment as a means to provide for their families, with the full expectation of returning to more traditional female roles once the war was over.
The collapse of slavery brought another dimension to the shifting sands of racial relations. Thoroughly entrenched in their parent’s paternalistic teachings, the young women struggled to understand why their trusted and loyal servants would choose freedom over remaining on the plantations with the “family.” As more slaves ran away, the young women and other white southerners found explanation in increasingly racist attitudes. They offered explanations in letters and diaries of disloyalty, racial character flaws, and blamed the Union soldiers for misleading the slaves with promises of “false idea of freedom”  rather than blaming the institution of slavery. The breakdown of the paternalistic view of slaves created a dichotomy in the minds of white southerners between the good and faithful servant and the indolent, treacherous fugitive.
In “The Perfect Woman” and “The Confederate Belle Ideal,” Victoria Ott delves into traditional and changing romantic courtship rituals, and the creation of the Lost Cause mythos. During Antebellum and wartime, bellehood was looked upon as a time of increased freedom for the young ladies. “The Civil War…called into question the traditional courtship practices and attitudes toward marriage for this generation of southern women.” The young women had to face the loss of potential suitors to war, death, disease, and reconcile themselves to the possibility of life without romance, marriage, and children. Because of their relative youth, the young women Victoria Ott sampled were able to adjust courtship practices and expectations of marriage to suit wartime conditions and, in most cases, were able to delay marriage until after the war. Confederate army movements increased the chances for young ladies to meet potential suitor especially in major cities and regions otherwise devoid of “beaux”. Many young women took advantage of this potential by organizing social events for soldiers passing through their towns. The main way that courtship changed is that instead of supervised face-to-face meetings, the couple courted via correspondence which was once only permissible between married or engaged couples. Couples used the freedom and anonymity of letters for emotion outlets and mutual support. They also explored the expectations of marital duties, adherence to masculine and feminine behavioral norm and encouraged moral fortitude. The young ladies also had to adjust their ideas of suitor’s eligibility. This adjustment manifested in a willingness to socialize with younger men, men with war scars and disfigurements, and men facing depression and alcoholism. “They [young ladies] accepted their emotional problems as part of the female burdens of war.”
Ott states, that the “young women of the war generation worked to create an image of themselves in wartime that fit within the growing cultural battle to venerate the Confederacy.” They offered a youthful counterpoint to the “maternal role of women” during the war which became known later as the Confederate Belle ideal. While maintaining traditional gender ideals and racial hierarchy, they expanded upon the Confederate belle ideal in diaries and letters some of which were for private use as instruction for their daughters and granddaughters, while others were produced for publication. The ideal created an image of the women as self-sacrificing daughters who put aside their youth and youthful frivolities to embrace the hardships of war, material poverty, and charity work, and who sacrificed their potential suitors to The Cause rather than their husbands and sons. One of the major consequences of this attempt meant that the women, who had reached adulthood, believed that it was their duty to aid in the recovery of white supremacy. In their writings, “issues of race and the consequences of emancipation emerged in the recollections of young women and contributed significantly to the transition from a paternalistic outlook toward slaves to harsher, more racist views of African-Americans in freedom.” With the abolition of slavery, white female ex-slaveholders had nothing to distinguish themselves from their former servants. They sought to re-establish power over their domestic sphere and reinstate some semblance of the previous mistress-slave relationship.
Confederate Daughters: Coming of Age during the Civil War is a well-written and thought-provoking book with clear, straightforward language. While this book is a scholarly micro-history of a subset of historical figures, it is easily accessible to the public and would make a fine addition to anyone’s library who is interested in women in history or the Civil War.
Victoria Ott’s arguments are plausible but her sample size is much too small to generate such sweeping generalizations of this age group’s thoughts, action, and behaviors. From the material she provided, she was able to support her thesis well and anchored her scholarship on the foundation of Drew Gilpin Faust, David Potter, Jane Turner Censer, Cynthia Kierner, and Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, amongst others. Ott leaves her readers with the understanding that although the young ladies of the war generation entered into uncharted waters to preserve their traditional way of life, their efforts led to fundamental “changes in the definition of southern womanhood that would come in the twentieth century.”
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