The Domestic Ideal
The Domestic Ideal
THE DOMESTIC IDEAL: AN OVERVIEW
NORTHERN DOMESTIC LIFE
SOUTHERN DOMESTIC LIFE
Jennifer Ann Newman
The Domestic Ideal: An Overview
The mid-nineteenth-century domestic ideal as espoused in the popular women's press saw the home as a sacred refuge from military and political upheavals. A well-kept home was also the source of the nation's strength. For, as an editorial in the New York Evangelist noted, "the more they [housewives] can build up at the domestic hearth a reverence for family and social amenities, the more solid will be the foundation upon which the Republic is built" ("The Home," June 27, 1861, p. 7). A "cheerless home" is "no home at all in the true sense of the word," the Evangelist admonished, "whilst a Home that is imbued with the sentiment of domesticity will be quitted with regret, and returned to with rejoicing" (p. 7). "[I]n the midst of the troubles that environ us," the article concludes, "cultivate the Home, adorn it neatly within, adorn it tastefully without… then draw the family around the substantial board, treat every member kindly, accept your lot in life with a reverential spirit, and thank God for a happy Home" (p. 7).
The American domestic ideal was patterned after the British one—in both countries, the culture of domesticity arose from Utilitarian and Evangelical philosophies that idealized the home. Historians cite the industrial revolution as a root cause of this new focus: The more work and home became separate spheres, the more home life was idealized. Also significant was the growth of a well-off middle class that could afford to make the home a comfortable retreat.
The nineteenth century also saw a new focus on the separateness of male and female realms. Women were seen as dominating the private sphere of home and the parts of society that touched on the domestic sphere, whereas men were thought to properly dominate the public sphere of work and politics. The public sphere could be bruising, and in the nineteenth century women were fashioned into domestic angels, whose duty it was to soothe, regenerate, and morally improve their husbands—and by extension the nation. Women dominated the private sphere by maintaining discipline, enforcing frugality, and upholding cleanliness.
Throughout the war, publications such as Godey's Lady's Book and various newspapers and magazines—Flag of Our Union, Ohio Cultivator, Southern Cultivator, and Ballou's Dollar Magazine, to name but a few—ran articles about the proper management of the domestic sphere. Godey's, in particular, had an enormous circulation and was enjoyed by women all over America.
Many articles in the women's press concentrated on newlyweds. For example, a two-part article that ran in the December 1860 and January 1861 issues of Godey's offered advice first to new husbands, then to new wives. It declared that a well-bred and well-trained woman was a prudent creature who would use "cleverness…[to] economize, and endeavor to abridge her expenses; sitting down with such cheerfulness to her scanty meal…concealing poverty from the world and endeavoring to gild it over with genteel and respectable appearance" ("A Whisper to a Newly-Married Pair. A Whisper to the Husband on Expenditure," p. 503).
It was imperative for a new wife to be a good housekeeper; otherwise, problems in the home might develop. "A Young Wife's Sorrow," a humorous article by T. S. Arthur published in July 1861 in the American Phrenolog-ical Journal, focused on one newlywed with poor housekeeping skills. This woman, named Martha, had been experiencing difficulties in her marriage of several months. When Martha's mother came to visit, hoping to grasp the source of her daughter's marital troubles, she realized immediately that "the basis of the difficulty lay in the total unfitness of Martha for the position she had assumed—that of housekeeper….[I]n consequence [of her failings] her young husband, in whose ideal of home perfect order had been included, found everything so different from his anticipation, that his grateful acquiescence was impossible" (p. 6). With her mother's help, Martha came to realize "that in holding herself above domestic duties and manipulations, she was governed more by pride and indolence, than a just regard for wifely or womanly dignity." She now understood that "to hold fast to her husband's love, she must do something more for him than offer loving words; for, life being real and earnest, demands earnest work from all" (p. 6). In the end, Martha becomes the picture of the domestic ideal, and made her house into a Home.
The lack of preparation for domestic duty exhibited by some newly married women was not solely their own fault. It was also the fault, Arthur declared, of mothers who "bring up their daughters to listless, lounging, ladyhood, attending themselves to all the cares and drudgery of domestic affairs, and when their daughters marry, though they may be versed in music, light literature, ornamental artistic idle-work, they know literally nothing of those realities of the home" (p. 6). Daughters should instead be given the opportunity to play house and occasionally take charge in their childhood homes, Arthur asserted, so that they may learn the necessary skills before they become wives.
Many other cautionary tales of wives who disappointed and embarrassed themselves in front of family and friends were recounted in newspapers and magazines that targeted a female readership. Whether it was a wife's inability to organize and govern her home, her negligence in managing her servants, or her squandering of money and resources, such failings were always painted in a harsh light: No woman should act as such women did.
Economy was the cornerstone of the nineteenth century domestic ideal. As the May 7, 1864, edition of the Friends' Intelligencer averred, "as a rule, the financial success of any family depends more upon the economy of the wife than upon the earnings or business income of the husband" (p. 141). Columns advised readers on such matters as how to make cheap coffee, stew prunes, cure scurvy, and even make a "Cheap and Excellent Ink" by mixing bi-chromate of potash with logwood extract (Southern Cultivator, May 1861, p. 167). An article entitled "Yankee Economics—Pork and Beans," published in the August 1, 1861, edition of the Ohio Cultivator, made it clear how much thought was required for true economy. A Mr. Blood of Waltham, Massachusetts, the article informed readers, "will call at the houses of all those who will send word to him, on Saturday afternoons, and take their beans, bake them nicely, and return them early on Sunday morning, for the small sum of six cents" (p. 251). Why was it that the wives of Waltham did not cook their own beans, the Cultivator asked rhetorically? Economy was the answer:
[T]o cook beans well, as well as they are always cooked for Sunday dinners in New England, requires many hours of steady heat; and in families where only a small cooking stove is used, this would be expensive; too much wood and too much time in attending to them would be consumed…. [I]t would be poor economy for them to be troubled about the beans, when sixpence will bring them nicely baked up on the table, smoking hot, browned to a t. (p. 251)
The June 1864 edition of Dollar Monthly Magazine tried to convince the reader that soup can provide a healthful and pleasantly filling meal, as well as an economical one: "[A] Frenchman can make a soup out of materials which some of our housewives would scorn, and commit to the offal barrel, and in fact is sufficient to show us that we have much to learn if we would live well and economically at the same time" ("Soup as an Article of Food," p. 500).
Some female authors attempted to counter popular conceptions of domesticity. In the March 2, 1861, edition of the Flag of Our Union, for example, Sarah Soewell commented that men who wrote housekeeping guides "seem to think that one word covers the whole ground and that is—work" (p. 4). Soewell, however, was not rebelling against the life of the housewife; she merely sought to rationalize it: Anyone could "do the hard, rough work, but not every one [sic] can plan it rightly; and this planning, management, or whatever you please to call it, is the grand secret of perfect housekeeping" (p. 4).
Besides making a home, a wife was also supposed to cultivate her mental faculties. As J. Atwood wrote in "Advice to Young Women," published in the February 26, 1863, edition of the Christian Advocate and Journal, a young wife should not merely look after her household's economy, manage the servants, and work industriously in the home—she should also further her education. After all, women "hold the destinies of the world in a measure in their hands; for the training and fireside education we all receive is principally from mothers….[If a woman's] mind and heart are not properly trained, how can she train her child!" (p. 67). In order to accomplish their betterment, women were to exercise "the mind and heart…by reading, meditation, and prayer," so that their minds become "stored with valuable ideas and useful information" (p. 67). Furthermore, this improvement of the mental faculties would also make a wife a better helpmeet for her husband, for "a sensible young man desires for a wife a lady of some intelligence; one whom he can converse on various subjects" (p. 67).
In order not to jeopardize the work she performed throughout the day to make the home a tranquil and orderly retreat, the housewife was charged with keeping her temper, even if her husband did not show her the same kindness. The good wife and homemaker was always to be amiable and pleasing to her husband, despite any flaws she might perceive in him. J. Atwood, in the Christian Advocate and Journal article mentioned above, counseled women to "attend, also, to your spirit and manner in your daily intercourse with those around you, and with whom you mingle in life[;]…be pleasant and cheerful, kind and sweet-tempered…never suffer yourself to be angry" (February 26, 1863, p. 67). An article in the April 1861 edition of Godey's called on young wives to "strain every nerve, use constant prayer for strength and power to become really a helpmeet, really a companion, really a helper-on, really a guardian angel in human guise to husband and children" ("Domestic Management," April 1861, p. 313). Especially in the beginning of a marriage, after the blinders of courtship have been removed, counseled the author of "Ladies on the Point of Marriage" in the May 1862 edition of Godey's, a wife should recall that
your tact, your best good humor, must be exerted…. [T]he admiring man on whom you have bestowed your hand will be too much gratified in observing this conduct not to meet it more than halfway, own perhaps his hasty remark, kiss off a soft, indignant tear, and mutual forgiveness of each early petty offence may prevent the growth of many a future grievance. (p. 456)
Women were encouraged to look at their own behavior if they were unhappily married. According to the March 1864 edition of Godey's, the fault could be the woman's own:
When I see a woman, with that beautiful countenance which has won the heart of her husband, darkened by a frown, constantly fretting and making all about her uncomfortable…I am tempted to exclaim 'Hush, dear woman, these useless, sinfful repinings! Examine yourself, perchance the blame lies at your own door after all…. [T]here is a talisman possessing a magic charm that will scatter all these evils…it is cheerfulness. ("Don't Fret," p. 252).
This, then, was the burden the domestic ideal placed on women. Not only were they charged with creating a sacred and orderly refuge from the outside world, they were also held responsible should any disharmony intrude. In the real world, of course, women did the best they could to run their households, feeling alternately inspired and oppressed by the images of ideal womanhood their society held up for them to emulate.
Arthur, T. S. "A Young Wife's Sorrow." American Phrenological Journal 34, no. 1 (1861): 6-8.
Atwood, J. "Advice to Young Women." Christian Advocate and Journal 38, no. 9 (1863): 43.
Blunt, Alison. "Imperial Geographies of Home: British Domesticity in India, 1886-1925." Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, n.s., 24, no. 4 (1999): 421-440.
"Cheap and Excellent Ink." Southern Cultivator 19, no.5 (1861): 69.
"Domestic Management." Godey's Lady's Book 62 (April 1861): 313.
"Don't Fret." Godey's Lady's Book 68 (March 1864): 252.
Gage, Frances D. "Home Department: Ways of a Good Housekeeper." Ohio Cultivator 17, no. 2 (1861): 60.
Gage, Frances D. "Yankee Economics—Pork and Beans." Ohio Cultivator 17, no. 8 (1861): 251.
"The Home." New York Evangelist 32, no. 26 (1861): 7.
"Ladies on the Point of Marriage." Godey's Lady's Book 64 (May 1862): 456.
Nobel, Thomas, et al. Western Civilization: The Continuing Experiment. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
"Small Leaks in the Household Ship." Friends' Intelligencer 21, no. 9 (1864): 141.
"Soup as an Article of Food." Dollar Monthly Magazine 9, no. 6 (1864): 500.
Sowell, Mrs. Sarah S. "Good Housekeeping." Flag of Our Union 16, no. 9 (1861): 4.
"A Whisper to a Newly-Married Pair. A Whisper to the Husband on Expenditure." Godey's Lady's Book 61(December 1860): 503.
"A Whisper to a Newly-Married Pair. A Whisper to the Wife." Godey's Lady's Book 62 (January 1861): 27.
Zlotnick, Susan. "Domesticating Imperialism: Curry and Cookbooks in Victorian England." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 16, nos. 2-3 (1996):51-68.
Northern Domestic Life
The upheaval of the Civil War was not confined to politics, the military sphere, and the economy; the home front—domestic life—was just as affected as the other aspects of national life. In the North, this meant that some women stepped into the shoes of male relatives who were away fighting, while others found alternative methods to support the war effort.
Women in Agriculture
Women on Northern farms were forced by circumstances to go beyond their traditional domestic duties—providing their families with a comfortable home, provisioning and preserving food for the winter, caring for animals and attending small kitchen gardens—and became full-scale farmers. With many able-bodied men away at war, farmers' wives and daughters plowed fields and planted and harvested crops. Luckily, they were not alone in their efforts, as they were able to turn to other women in the area for support. For example, the Lowell (MA) Daily Citizen for October 16, 1862, relates that "Mrs. H. Beard and Mrs. C. Beard of Waterville, Lamoille county, Vt., whose husbands have both gone to the war, having harvested the corn raised on their farms, made a 'husking bee,' and invited some eight or ten of the women of the neighborhood, and husked out some thirty of forty bushels of ears" (n.p.).
Many did not like the idea of female farmers, however, even during the Civil War; they saw these women as an affront to defined gender roles. One Mr. J. Talcott, for example, lamented the entrance of women into farm work as detrimental to their mental, physical, and social health. His opinion prompted various rebuttals from female farmers, such as a letter from Della Roberts published in the July 1863 issue of the New England Farmer, claiming that in three years of farming she had "never known it to have the slightest effect upon the minds of any whose friendship was worth having" (Roberts 1863, p. 229). According to Roberts's references to Talcott's letter, he was not completely adverse to women working outdoors; in fact, he advised country women to garden and ride on horseback in their free time. Taking a team of horses out to plow the fields, however, was too degrading and out of character for a woman—the crux of Talcott's argument.
In response to Talcott, Roberts remarks that according to detractors "women may do anything they please in the world that amounts to nothing" (p. 229). Men had monopolized almost all of the work that would enable women to earn a good living—but farming was one occupation that was not completely closed to them. However, when women started farming, people like Talcott "raised the frightful bear-in-the-corner of masculine women, vulgarity, ignorance, and all of the other bug-a-boos that are commonly used to frighten children" (p. 229). Roberts implies that she and her kind are not likely to be farmers for life, and insists that the lessons learned from farming will allow them to be "just as loveable, just as good, and watchful, and kind" as any other woman. Indeed, as the farmwoman "grows stronger and more healthy (as she cannot avoid doing), she will be more patient and far more competent to fulfill the office of wife and mother with credit to herself, and bring honor to her husband and children" (p. 229). While the Civil War does not enter into Roberts's argument, the war's effect on gender roles and expectations is implicit. Despite the Talcotts of the world, society at large during the war tacitly acknowledged the need for some women to step into traditionally masculine roles in order to survive. However, the gender status quo had to be maintained if only in thought; hence Roberts's assertion that farming would make women better wives and mothers.
Not all men were opposed to women working on farms. In the July 19, 1862, Saturday Evening Post article "Women Farmers," for example, an anonymous author marveled at the industry of the Roberts family women: Four daughters, one niece, and the mother, Paulina Roberts, all labored on the farm. It is not definitely known whether this family is the same as Della Roberts's family. In any case, the Roberts women "ploughed 75 acres, dragged 100 acres 3 times, sowed, broadcast 100, and rolled 100" (p. 8). The article notes that "housework is considered by them the hardest and most difficult to perform [;]… they all prefer out-door farm-work" (p. 8). The example set by the Roberts women, the author asserts, will cause some women to become "practical farmers; and ploughing, dragging, sowing, rolling, planting, hoeing and harvesting will become the pleasant, healthful and remunerative occupation of women as well as men" (p. 8).
Mechanization of agriculture helped many of the women farmers to perform their tasks, as Della Roberts points out in her letter to the New England Farmer: "Machinery has very much facilitated farming of late—so we are able to do a great deal of work without injury to ourselves" (Roberts 1863, p. 229). Machines like the reaper and the thresher not only made harvesting less labor-intensive, they allowed women to do twice as much in a day as their fathers had been able to do.
Urban Women: New Jobs and the War Effort
Upheaval of the status quo was not confined to the countryside; the cities too saw women stepping into the public workplace during the Civil War—left on their own to feed a family on soldiers' wages, many women had to find new ways to make ends meet. For women, work outside the home was mostly limited to teaching, sewing, office work, or work as a domestic. Women who worked out of necessity were not well paid for their toil. For example, one sewing woman described in an "appeal" from an anonymous female clerk published in the April 22, 1864, issue of the Boston Liberator "toiled from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. [but] earned but nine and a half cents" (n.p.). The wages of the other seamstresses were also grievously inadequate: "[T]welve and a half cents was found to be more than the average, and eighteen cents a princely sum" (n.p.). Women who worked in offices were similarly underpaid. Nonetheless, the little bit of money such women managed to amass helped them survive. In addition, many women felt that their work was an expression of patriotism and contributed to the war effort.
At the beginning of the war, middle- and upper-class women—those who did not need to work—were expected to remain in the home. Northern women sewed, wrapped bandages, and helped raise money for the war effort. "Young creatures whose fingers have been too dainty all their lives long to do a useful thing," asserted an anonymous letter writer in the January 1863 issue of Godey's Lady's Book, "heartily…[entered] into making of coarse shirts and drawers, and knitting coarse yarn for stockings…patiently and industriously working away, week after week, at common clothes and the making of comfortable garments for the sick and the wounded" ("Letter from a Lady of New England," p. 93). As the war raged on, however, middle-and upper-class women began to leave their homes to work directly or indirectly for the war effort.
Another letter published in Godey's in December 1862, argues that while society is "much averse to masculine women and to those who unsex themselves by assuming the privileges of men and pushing forward into man's work," there are nonetheless "occupations and professions in which women would be fully competent and which they can fulfil [sic] with propriety and efficiency" ("Letter from a Lady of Pennsylvania," p. 605). Women could be employed by the postal service, for example. This type of work alone would allow "thousands of mourning widows, bereaved mothers, daughters, and sister's left destitute of their natural protectors, by this wasting war… to sustain themselves and those dependant on them, [and] be useful to the community in which they reside" (p. 605).
Many women who were adamant about working directly for the war effort chose to become nurses. Some did so in response to Abraham Lincoln's 1861 communiqué "To the Loyal Women of America," which asked women to help the war effort by signing up to do volunteer work for the United States Sanitary Commission (USSC)—a department within the War Department. Although female nurses initially served on a volunteer basis with the USSC, the commission did begin to pay them salaries later in the war. Female nurses were largely welcomed into field hospitals, as before their arrival convalescing soldiers often had to help nurse those whose wounds were worse than their own. In his memoir Leaves from the Diary of an Army Surgeon (1863), Thomas Ellis commented that the arrival of women nurses "did much to alleviate the sufferings of the brave fellows….[When] their parched lips received the cup of tea, gruel or lemonade, or as in many cases, a stimulating drink, they were truly grateful and expressed their thanks to the lady nurses in a very flattering manner" (p. 71). All manner of women volunteered in wartime hospitals and after the war had ended they led the movement to open nursing schools for women
"An Appeal." The Liberator (Boston), April 22, 1864. Ellis, Thomas T. Leaves from the Diary of an Army Surgeon; or, Incidents of Field, Camp, and Hospital
Life. New York: J. Bradburn, 1863. "Letter from a Lady of New England." Godey's Lady's Book, January 1863, p. 93.
"Letter from a Lady of Pennsylvania." Godey's Lady's Book, December 1862, p. 605.
Lowell (Mass.) Daily Citizen and News, October 16, 1862.
Roberts, Della A. "Woman Farming." New England Farmer, July 1863, p. 229.
United States Sanitary Commission. To the Loyal Women of America. Washington, DC: Author, 1861.
"Women Farmers." Saturday Evening Post, July 19, 1862, p. 8.
Southern Domestic Life
The magnitude of the destruction and devastation wrought by the Civil War infiltrated every aspect of American society and left few untouched by its horrors. The outbreak of war dramatically altered domestic relations in such a way that home life itself played a role in the outcome of the conflict. It was probably one of the many factors that contributed to Confederate desertion, which was in turn one of the many reasons for the Confederate defeat.
In the Confederacy, the home front was often touched directly by the realities of the battlefield; Southerners experienced the war in a way that most Northerners could not. As white Southern men left their families to fight, the structure of the family itself, which was central to the social order of the antebellum South, was altered for the duration of the war. Women and children were left to perform tasks previously done by men. The absence of the male coercive power that enforced the institution of slavery meant that the institution was under strain. Southern families also faced external pressures as a result of the war. Survival became a daily challenge for some families in the later stages of the war. The Northern blockade, which President Abraham Lincoln called for on April 19, 1861, forced families to come up with innovative substitutes for luxury goods, military supplies, and some of the familiar necessities of life. For example, elite white women who were used to purchasing fabric for their dresses, were now forced to rely on innovative substitutes, such as homespun cloth, which became a popular fashion statement of one's patriotism and devotion to the Confederacy. As the Confederate government implemented harsh policies deemed necessary to winning the war, many people worn down by hardship became bitter. They complained that their government favored the wealthy. While women helped sustain the war effort, the horrors and deprivations of the war disillusioned many of them. All of these internal problems ultimately contributed to the defeat of the Confederacy.
Historians' Views on Domestic Life in the South
While historians traditionally focused on major battles and leaders of the Civil War, in recent decades some have turned their attention to events on the home front as part of an attempt to explain at least part of the reason for the Confederacy's defeat. This emphasis on domestic life began in the 1970s with the work of such social historians as Drew Gilpin Faust, George Rable, Laura Edwards, and David Williams. Some scholars eventually argued that for the Confederacy, the war was lost on the home front long before the South's military defeat on the battlefield. Although this view is certainly not shared by all historians of the Civil War, an examination of Southern domestic life is essential to understanding the American Civil War.
The patriarchal society of the antebellum South depended on a carefully defined system of gender norms in which everyone had their place. The Southern social construct of manhood was based on the enslavement of blacks as well as on the simultaneous protection and subordination of women. White men controlled not only their families but also society as a whole. White women in turn defined themselves in relation to men—as as wives, mothers, daughters, and, most importantly, as dependents. Although barred from leadership positions, most elite Southern white women were content with their social position and valued the security that the paternalistic hierarchy of the antebellum world provided; they were not closet feminists who opposed slavery or the paternalistic social structure. Feminism by and large was a Northern concept that had not taken hold in the South. Initially, white men and women alike ardently supported the Confederacy because they believed that the North threatened the security of their respective social positions. Men enlisted to protect their position as freemen, whereas women encouraged men to fight to protect their own privileged positions in society. The irony of this situation is that the decision to go to war ended up causing Southern gender ideals to be weakened during the duration of the war as women were temporarily forced to take on new leadership roles in the absence of men.
The Outbreak of War
The Civil War officially began with the shelling of Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and Lincoln's call for 75,000 troops the following day. Excitement and enthusiasm for the Confederacy spread like wildfire throughout the South. White men throughout the South flocked to join the Confederate army, eager to defend their homes, their families, and their honor against the North, abolitionists, and the threat of Lincoln's presidency. While many white women were no less enthusiastic than the men, some also predicted bloodshed and heartache. Months before the outbreak of war, Elizabeth Rhodes of Eufaula, Alabama, for example, expressed deep anxieties in her diary entry for December 31, 1860:
There are dark clouds overspreading our National Horizon and we cannot yet know whether the fringes of prosperity will dispel them and the bright rays of peace and happiness once more beam upon us…[or] grow darker and denser until proved out in wars and bloodshed on our once prosperous and happy nation. Time alone can unfold these things. We can only wait and pray God to overrule all things for His glory and the good of mankind. (Unpublished diary)
Nevertheless, white women actively rallied to support the volunteers. They immediately formed sewing circles to provide their soldiers with uniforms and flags. Local communities turned out en masse to watch the ladies present their soldiers with a banner or flag. Parties were thrown for the soldiers in the days before they left their towns, and when it finally came time for them to depart, they were sent off amid cheering crowds and prayerful, teary goodbyes. Once the initial exhilaration of the war passed and reports of battles began reaching home, however, the realities of daily life during the war set in.
Women and War
Traditional Southern gender norms dictated female subordination to men within the family. Women traditionally worked in the home and were not involved in managing farms or plantations. Because the majority of men were absent during the war and thus no longer able to provide daily management of farms or plantations, women were forced to take up the task—a significant change to gender norms. As one Southern woman aptly observed, "everything is entirely reversed" (Whites 1995, p. 131). Women indeed were forced to take on many of the roles and responsibilities previously relegated to men. Many letters from husbands to wives contained detailed advice on when to plant certain crops and how to manage slaves. Yet these letters did not substitute for men's former active daily management of the farm or plantation.
Many women also were thrust into the labor market and worked for pay for the first time in their lives. Those white women who worked outside their homes did so to support their families and their work did not lead to a radical social change in their postwar social positions. Women assumed public roles as they organized volunteer relief associations to provide for the poor. They turned to other female friends and kinship networks for support while becoming more self-reliant and autonomous individuals. Yet as everything else in their lives changed, white women clung desperately to the social order they knew from the prewar world. Indeed, the Civil War both profoundly changed women's lives and, ironically, further entrenched the ideals of the preexisting Southern social order. Thus for white Southern women, the war altered society in a variety of ways as the conflict progressed, but did not result in a radical overthrow of the traditional values that produced Southern society and women's roles within it. Southern women clung to their traditional beliefs long after the end of the war.
One of the traditional sets of belief that many Southern women steadfastly held to was their religion, which provided support and constancy in the troubled and uncertain world around them. Many Southerners went to war firmly believing that God was on their side. Southern religious leaders drew upon Biblical principles and metaphors, claiming that the South was God's chosen nation. Women sent their loved ones off with God's blessings and prayed daily for their protection. Religion and daily life cannot be separated. Indeed, religion and the belief in a life after death provided a sense of comfort and reassurance in a society surrounded by death. Women in particular turned to the hope of again meeting departed loved ones in Heaven in order to cope with the increasing number of deaths surrounding them as the war progressed.
While women had traditionally been expected to care for children, the absence of husbands meant that they now carried the entire burden of managing their families. Women longed for the support of their husbands as they faced the daily challenges of raising children. Such difficulties as illnesses common to childhood became topics of constant discussion in letters from wives to their husbands.
Children themselves experienced the tribulations of life during wartime no less than adults. They faced daily hardships and the absence of their fathers, brothers, and other male relatives. The Civil War politicized children by making them more aware of the events that were taking place around them. Young boys sometimes formed home guard units and carried wooden guns while practicing drilling maneuvers copied from older male relatives. The Civil War also displaced hundreds of children and left thousands more orphaned.
Southern children who came of age during the political and social upheaval that marked wartime and postwar reconstruction were profoundly shaped by their experiences. After the war they felt a need to legitimize the South's role in the conflict, an urge that influenced their political and racial attitudes. Indeed, as James Marten aptly pointed out in his book The Children's Civil War (1998), many of the worst Southern racial policies of the 1890s were enacted by white men who had been children during the Civil War.
Slavery was another aspect of Southern domestic life that the Civil War forever altered. Slavery as an institution had begun to weaken long before its abolition. The master-slave relationship, which depended heavily on force and the threat of punishment, changed as masters left to fight and were no longer physically present. Many slaves did not respect their mistresses in the same way that they respected their masters. They also knew that a Northern victory meant their freedom, and therefore did all they could to undermine the chances of a Confederate victory. Furthermore, the fear of slave insurrections forced desperately needed men to stay home to help protect against revolts. In their diaries as well as in letters to their husbands, white women daily recorded their fears of slave insurrections. Women were left with the day-to-day management of slaves, which cast them in a role that defied traditional concepts of the weak, subordinate woman. Many women petitioned the Confederate government to provide assistance to them. The government responded with the Twenty Negro Law, which stated that any slave owner with more than twenty slaves was exempted from military service. While this measure alleviated some of the problems elite planter women faced, it also led many poorer women to feel discriminated against.
Disillusionment and Desertion
As families struggled to survive and attempted to maintain established gender norms, external pressures caused by the war itself and the policies of the Confederate government added to their hardships. The Union blockade, which Lincoln called for in 1861, made it difficult for Southerners to get imported goods. For many, problems caused by rampant inflation and the lack of food, medicine, clothes, and shoes were only compounded by the policies of the government, which the poor perceived as favoring the elites. These policies led to a belief that Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, cared little for the common person. Indeed, many Confederate policies, such as creating a stronger central government, conscription, government intervention in the economy, and direct taxation, led to general disillusionment with the government.
By the end of 1864, the helplessness that many Southerners felt in the face of poverty, speculation, and governmental mistreatment led to general despondency throughout the Confederacy, which in turn led to widespread desertion from the army. Over two-thirds of the army had deserted by the end of 1864. Many women who had initially encouraged men to fight now became disheartened with the war and begged their husbands to return home. Yet desertion cannot be viewed simply as the result of disillusionment or as a cowardly act of treason, because many men believed that their first duty was to protect their families. Many soldiers away from home worried about being unable to provide this protection. This concern was especially strong in Union-occupied areas of the South. Once Union armies occupied an area, many of the Confederate soldiers who had been conscripted into the Confederate army from that area felt the need to return to protect their homes and families, which led to desertion from the Confederate army.
In various ways, then, the pull of domestic bonds and the strains caused by temporary reversals in gender norms can be said to have played a role in the South's defeat.
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Newman Ann Jennifer