Search Blog Posts

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Civil War and the Southern Belle

August 18, 2014 7:01 pmAugust 18, 2014 7:01 pm

Disunion follows the Civil War as it unfolded.

In the beginning of the war, Southern women wanted their men to leave — in droves, and as quickly as possible. They were the Confederate Army's most persuasive and effective recruitment officers, shaming anyone who shirked his duty to fight. A young English immigrant in Arkansas enlisted after being accosted at a recruitment meeting. "If every man did not hasten to battle, they vowed they would themselves rush out and meet the Yankee vandals," he wrote of Southern women. "In a land where women are worshipped by men, such language made them war-mad."

Newspapers printed gender-bending cartoons that drove the point home. In one, a musket-wielding woman dressed in trousers and a kepi looms over her cowering beau, insisting, "Either you or I, sir." One Alabama schoolgirl spoke for many of her peers when she declared, "I would not marry a coward." At balls and parties girls linked arms and sang, "I am Bound to be a Soldier's Wife or Die an Old Maid." One belle, upon hearing that her fiancé refused to enlist, sent her slave to deliver a package enclosing a note. The package contained a skirt and crinoline, and the note these terse words: "Wear these, or volunteer." He volunteered.

A Winslow Homer drawing from 1865 showing a captain, who lost an arm, with his newly independent wife.Credit Brooklyn Museum

In the sudden absence of husbands, fathers, brothers and beaus, white Southern women discovered a newfound freedom — one that simultaneously granted them more power in relationships and increased their likelihood of heartbreak. Gone were the traditions of antebellum courtships, where family connections and wealth were paramount and a closed circle of friends and neighbors scrutinized potential mates, a process that could last for years. The war's disruptions forced elite Southern parents to loosen rules regarding chaperoning and coquetry, which one prominent lecturer called "an artful mixture of hypocrisy, fraud, treachery and falsehood" that risked tarnishing a girl's reputation. 

The girls themselves relinquished the anticipation, instilled since birth, that they would one day assume their positions as wives, mothers and slave mistresses, that their lives would be steeped in every privilege and comfort. The war ultimately challenged not only long-held traditions of courtship and marriage, but the expectation that one might wed at all.
At least in cities where the Confederate Army established a base of operations, young women were overwhelmed by the number of prospective suitors. Thousands of men flocked to the Confederate capital of Richmond, prepared to work in one of the government departments or to train for duty in the Army. The Central Fair Grounds just west of the city were transformed into "Camp Lee," where the new recruits set up tents and conducted military drills. "Between eight and ten thousand men went down Main St. this afternoon," wrote a 16-year-old Richmond diarist. "It was very tantalizing to me to hear the drum and the cheering and to be able to see nothing but their bayonets and the tops of their heads. It is wicked in me to wish that I had gone out so that I might see them, and not to wish that I had gone to church, but I love the soldiers so much, that I forget almost everything else when I get to thinking about them."

Troops marching through the capital blew kisses to the Richmond belles, who returned the attention with unprecedented abandon, waving handkerchiefs and tossing pocket Bibles and pincushions. In the antebellum years, new acquaintances required a formal letter of introduction, but the war allowed for association with complete strangers, men whose names they didn't even know. The women took unchaperoned trips to Confederate campgrounds, going on horseback rides and picnics, allowing uniformed men to serenade them and plant lingering kisses on their hands — all activities once restricted to engaged couples. Even their style of banter changed, turning aggressive and overtly political, a rebellion against their old identities as genteel Southern ladies. "I confess myself a rebel, body and soul," declared a Louisiana girl, adding, "Confess? I glory in it!" Union soldiers occupying Southern towns complained of "she-rebels" who spat at them and emptied the contents of chamber pots on their heads.

The relaxed wartime atmosphere led to increased physical intimacy, although in letters and diaries Southern women admitted only to flirting. Casual relationships, and even casual engagements — "slight, silly love affairs," as one woman called them — flourished. Both women and men kept engagements secret, sometimes specifying that each was still free to see others. "Neither of us is to consider this engagement binding," wrote a Georgia belle to her betrothed, a Confederate lieutenant. "If another is loved, no sense of honor will prevent our immediately letting the other know of it — so you are still at liberty to fall in love with whom you please, without considering me at all in the way." One Georgia cavalryman predicted, "If we Stay heare much longer in about 9 months from now thare will be more little Gorgians [sic] a Squalling through this contry then you can Shake a Stick at." Such liaisons could endanger elite women's reputations and, in some cases, their lives. One Richmond woman, who became pregnant after an affair with a married Confederate officer, died as a result of complications from a self-induced abortion.

Southern women in rural areas grappled with entirely different concerns: the dearth of suitable men — or any men at all. By the summer of 1863, in New Bern, N. C., only 20 of the 250 white people remaining in town were men. The war was on its way to claiming one in five white Southern men of military age (leaving behind more than 70,000 widows), a situation that prompted frantic letters to the editor. "Having made up my mind not to be an old maid," an 18-year-old Virginian wrote to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger, "and having only a moderate fortune and less beauty, I fear I shall find it rather difficult to accomplish my wishes" (nevertheless she hopefully listed her skills, which included making brandy peaches and "throw[ing] socks in a corner").

Widowed women in their 30s faced stiff competition for available men in their age group, and suffered constant reminders of their grim odds. The editor of the Petersburg (Va.) Daily Register took pity on older eligible women during the social season of 1864, helpfully warning them against using rouge. "Bachelors are a shy game," he pointed out, "and when convinced of one deception imagine many more." As if strategizing over how to thwart younger rivals wasn't taxing enough, the widows were also national laughingstocks — punch lines to the endless "old maid" jokes that became a staple of American humor. If you were alive during the Civil War, chances are you heard the one about the schoolboy who threw a stone at a dog; he missed the pooch, but hit seven old maids.

As time passed and casualties mounted, some women grew resigned to the idea of life without a husband, while others compromised on acceptable partners. "One looks at a man so differently when you think he may be killed tomorrow," one South Carolina woman mused. "Men whom up to this time I had thought dull and commonplace … seemed charming." One in 13 soldiers returned home missing limbs, and the press, pulpit and politicians reminded Southern women that it was their patriotic duty to marry disabled veterans. The "limping soldier," argued the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, should be treated as aristocracy after the war: "To the young ladies I would say when choosing between an empty sleeve and the man who had remained at home and grown rich, always take the empty sleeve." 

There was, of course, a third option that some women took: the unspeakable faux pas of marrying a Yankee. A Nashville girl wrote her brother in the Confederate Army that the local belles were "dropping off into the arms of the ruthless invader." One, a girl who carried a stiletto and threatened to emulate Charlotte Corday should the enemy invade her city, had "gone the way of all flesh and married an officer with that detestable eagle on his shoulder."

Toward the end of the war, many Southern women who were widowed or had never married sustained themselves with female friendships (or "Boston marriages," as they came to be called in the North). They proudly proclaimed their independence, asserting that they preferred the freedom of single life to the entanglements of marriage — a risky "lottery," in the words of a Louisiana diarist, that subjected women to the "despotism of one man." While they certainly mourned the deaths of male suitors — as they did the deaths of male relatives — they no longer considered spinsterhood a tragedy. "Clara … thinks we'll all be old maids yet," wrote a South Carolinian, recording a friend's predictions. She added, "I don't doubt it, neither do I care very much."

By 1865, all Southern women — the happily and regrettably single, the perpetually engaged, the wives and widows — had tired of the war. The Confederacy was shrinking, and the morale of its remaining men shrinking with it. The Northern press ran a widely reprinted cartoon called "sowing" and "reaping," chiding Southern women for "hounding their men on to Rebellion" and then complaining about its effects. The Union blockade had sent the cost of goods and food skyrocketing. They were starving; they feared the terrors of Yankee occupation; they had exhausted both their patriotism and their patience. "Oh my dear husband how shall I live without you?" wrote one Mississippi woman. "When will this cruel war end?" It was time, at last, for the surviving husbands, fathers, brothers and beaus to lay down their arms and come home.

Karen Abbott's forthcoming book, "Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War," will be published in September. Her website is

SOURCES: Catherine Clinton, "Southern Families at War: Loyalty and Conflict in the Civil War South"; Lisa Tendrich Frank, "Women in the American Civil War"; Giselle Roberts, "The Confederate Belle"; Anya Jabour, "Scarlett's Sisters: Young Women in the Old South"; David Andrew Silkenat, "Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War era North Carolina" (dissertation); Lacy K. Ford, "A Companion to the Civil War and Reconstruction"; Mary Elizabeth Massey, "Women in the Civil War"; Richard F. Selcer, "Civil War America, 1850-1875"; A. Wilson Greene, "Civil War Petersburg: Confederate City in the Crucible of War"; William C. David and Russ A. Pritchard, "Fighting Men of the Civil War"; Stephen W. Berry, "All That Makes a Man: Love and Ambition in the Civil War South" and "Weirding the War: Stories from the Civil War's Ragged Edges"; Amy Murrell Taylor, "The Divided Family in Civil War America"; J. David Hacker, Libra Hilde, and James Holland Jones, "The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns."