MOTHERS OF INVENTION: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War.

MOTHERS OF INVENTION: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War.

Martha Bayles

By Drew Gilpin Faust. Univ. of North Carolina Press. 344 pp. $29.95

Read Time:
2m 50sec

"The surface of society, like a great ocean, is upheaved, and all relations of life are disturbed and out of joint." So announced the Montgomery Daily Advertiser in July 1864. For Faust, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, the key word in this passage would be "all." Obviously, the Civil War disturbed the relations between blacks and whites. But it also disturbed those between men and women. Faust admits that "historians’ use of the analytic categories of race, class, and gender has moved from being regarded, first, as innovative, then as fashionable, to, recently, verging on the banal." But she does not

apologize for using these categories herself, and for good reason. As her book makes clear, "these were the categories by which women of the South’s slaveholding classes consciously identified themselves."

Drawing on the letters, diaries, memoirs, poetry, and fiction of 500 women belonging to "the privileged and educated slaveowning class," Mothers of Invention tracks the myriad ways these women were forced by war to redefine their social role—even as they struggled to preserve it. When their menfolk departed for the front, delicate ladies were thrust into positions as heads of households accustomed to male authority backed up by physical force. For example, many women were terrified to punish their increasingly restive slaves—and terrified not to. As one Texas wife, Lizzie Neblett, wrote to her husband, "I am so sick of trying to do a man’s business."

Overcoming squeamish stomachs, these wives, sisters, and mothers also tended to the sick and wounded and buried the dead. Over time, their efforts to fill men’s shoes led them into the public sphere. Breaking with a tradition that had excluded them from public life, they joined together to lead prayer meetings, organize relief drives, teach school, and occasionally engage in espionage. But despite their commitment to slave society, Faust finds, the women’s enthusiasm for the Confederate cause waned as the war—and the casualty lists— lengthened. Some openly resisted the conscription of their remaining men. As one mother wrote to Jefferson Davis, "I need not tell you of my devotion to my country, of the sacrifices I have made, and of the many more I am willing to make.... But I want my oldest boy at home." Other women went further, expressing pacifist sentiments and encouraging their men to desert. Still others indulged in a "season of reckless frivolity," throwing lavish parties that, according to the Richmond Examiner, turned the winter of 1864 into "a carnival of unhallowed pleasure" and made "a mockery of the misery and desolation that covers the land."

Faust makes a convincing case that the Civil War forced a particular class of women to rethink the social and domestic order that had long undergirded their world. But, unlike their former slaves, who rejoiced at the changes wrought by war, these women derived a "new sense of self" from "desperation" and "the fundamental need simply to survive." As Faust concludes, " ‘Necessity’ . . . was in this sense truly ‘the mother of invention’; only ‘necessity,’ as Julia Davidson wrote her husband, John, ‘could make a different woman of me.’ "

—Martha Bayles


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