Post-Civil War Elite White Women
In the post-bellum South, many elite white women attempted to paint the antebellum South in a more positive light. The Union served the Confederacy with a humiliating defeat in the Civil War, and by romanticizing plantation life as a simpler time of a bygone era, southerners reclaimed their identity and demonized the North for ruining their way of life. In a defense of their actions, Confederate veterans, widows, and southerners in general developed the myth of the Lost Cause in an attempt to preserve the pride and honor that was such an enormous part of southern antebellum culture. Elite white women in the South tried to recreate the memory of the Old South in a positive way after the Civil War by contributing to the myth of the Lost Cause.
The South as a whole suffered an identity crisis after the emancipation of slaves and the subsequent economic and social upheaval, and white southern women were no exception. The emancipation of slaves devastated what remained of the plantation system in the South after the war. The plantation owners that paid their former slaves wages to continue working for them could usually only afford to maintain a few workers, which were typically women that helped the plantation mistress with domestic tasks that many white women had never learned to perform. Former slave owners, like their poorer white counterparts, had to do without domestic assistance. Previously elite white women had to complete tasks that were usually done by their slaves, like laundry and cooking, which was another affront to the southern concept of pride and honor.
In the antebellum period, slavery provided plantation owners and their families with not only material wealth, but also social status in their community. Abolition stripped many slaveholders of their economic and social standing which was a harsh blow to their wives and daughters, whose perception of self largely hinged on the status of their husbands and fathers. Clement Evans, a Confederate veteran from Georgia, said, “If we cannot justify the South in the act of Secession, we will go down in History solely as a brave, impulsive but rash people who attempted in an illegal manner to overthrow the Union of our Country.” This statement summarizes the intent of the Lost Cause, which was to alter the perception of the South’s actions before and during the Civil War. The concept of the Lost Cause gave elite women a way to reclaim the status they lost in the aftermath of the Civil War.
One way in which white women rewrote antebellum history was through fictional slave narratives. In these narratives white women painted a picture of happily enslaved African Americans who were content with the stability that plantation life provided them. Under the pseudonym Grace Lintner, Ellen Ingraham wrote Bond and Free: A Tale of the South, which was intended to pass as an account of life on a plantation during the 1800s. When the plantation mistress tells the slaves that the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation means they are free to leave, Ingraham describes a scene that does not resemble the retellings from other slave narratives: “ ‘De Lord help us!’ echoed Uncle Si, as the tears coursed down his furrowed cheeks, and his head shook disapprovingly. ‘Please, Miss ‘Titia, we don’t want no free papers, we don’t.’” The mistress informs her slaves that they can stay and work on the plantation, but she will only be able to pay them in food and shelter, leaving them essentially in the same conditions as before. In response, one slave says to another, “Didn’t I tell you Miss ‘Titia’s a true-born lady? She’s an angel, like ‘er ma ‘fore her!” Another falsified narrative tells the story of a slave named Paul who also feels dread upon the news of emancipation, because he is in love with his mistress. In the opening paragraphs of the book, “Paul” writes that he is currently free, but the book covers the years he was “a human chattel, but one degree above a horse”. He insists that his enslavement was a “happy, happy epoch… worth more to [him] than all the years [he] has lived since.” Paul stresses that he did not approve of the Civil War and tells the reader, “It may be a matter of surprise to know that my sympathies, as were the sympathies of most of my race, were all with our people, and by our people I mean the people of the South.” His devotion to his mistress keeps him close to her plantation, and in the last pages of the book he writes: “Ah, how glad was I that I could help her in this the dark night of her trouble? How happy that I had not accepted my master’s offer of freedom, but had remained to share the family misfortune?” These narratives were written in an effort to project the idea that the Old South consisted of “true-born” ladies and their slaves who considered themselves part of the family and lived to serve their white families. Falsified slave narratives about slaves refusing to accept their freedom and criticizing the motives of the Union during the Civil War were a feeble attempt to change the violent legacy of slavery.
For some southern white women, the Lost Cause was not just a way to convince the rest of the country the Civil War had been a mistake. Many women believed it had truly been detrimental to African Americans. Julia Ellen LeGrand, an elite white woman from New Orleans, wrote in her diary that, “the black people in the city have met with the most dreadful blow at the hands of their Yankee friends. These poor people have been misled by every wile and persuaded to leave their owners and even in many instances to be insolent.” LeGrand saw the Yankees as insincere, and she assumed that they would not uphold their promises of “freedom, riches, free markets,… [and] places in the Legislative Halls” for freed slaves. The belief that slaves benefitted more under paternalism than freedom was common among women of the planter elite.
The staggering number of Confederate casualties also became a cause around which white women organized. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Rutherford, a white woman from Columbus, Georgia, advocated for the creation of a Confederate Memorial Day, on which the actions of Confederate veterans would be commemorated and the graves of Confederate soldiers would be cleaned or decorated with flowers. In 1874, the Georgia General Assembly officially made April 26th of each year Confederate Memorial Day, and several other Southern states followed suit in the next few years. As seen in the image above, some women’s societies had memorials placed in Confederate cemeteries as a way to continue the Lost Cause myth indefinitely.
White women played a major role in developing and publicizing the Lost Cause version of southern history. The romanticized version of events is still very visible today. It is not uncommon to hear a southerner refer to Martin Luther King Day as Robert E. Lee Day. Cars with bumper stickers bearing the image of the Confederate flag accompanied by the slogan “Heritage not Hate” infiltrate southern interstates. At many universities, including Auburn, the Kappa Alpha Order fraternity hosts a party each year called “Old South,” where the members dress as Confederate soldiers, their dates dress in hoop skirts reminiscent of the antebellum era, and the décor is essentially Confederate flags as far as the eye can see. The Kappa Alpha Order even cites Robert E. Lee as “the spiritual founder” of the fraternity. A select group of southern women set out to modify the memory of the slaveholding South, and, to an extent, they did. The idea of the antebellum South as a sort of long-lost dream world continues to be a pervasive theme in the culture of many white southerners, both male and female.