Antebellum Richmond, Fall 1995, College of William and Mary

Catherine Elizabeth Townsend

Antebellum Richmond

Angels of the Confederacy

In a telling observation of everyday Richmond life, Mary Boykin Chestnut noted, "One [an observer] saw a man too weak to hold his musket. She took it from him and helped the poor wounded fellow along." This single image embodies the disruption of Southern gender relations within the context of the Civil War, in Richmond upper class circles in particular. In their traditional gender roles, Southern women occupied only the domestic sphere. In some sense they were protected from the harsher realities of the public world. The war was a transitional time, a crisis that allowed for the change in the perception of a woman's place in society. By exploiting Confederate nationalism, elite Southern white women broke into the public sphere. Through such essential war work as nursing and the displays of patriotism in their writing, these elite women were able to bridge the gap into the harsher realities of life. In so doing, the Richmond ladies moved out of their traditional place in the home and into the harsh glow of the public limelight.

By the time of the Civil War, the gender roles dictated by a system of patriarchal relations were ingrained deep in Southern culture. Men and women's lives ran in two distinct circles. A lady's place in society was within the domestic sphere, where the genteel arts of home management and child-rearing flourished. Despite their undisputed position as head of the household, the masculine sphere was largely outside of it, involved in the public world: politics, business, and war. Because men's domination bridged both public and private spheres, they were in some sense superior. Men were delegated both social and political power with the obligation to maintain social order. In return for the support and protection they extended to their wives, daughters, and sisters, men required submission to their will. In gratitude for the removal of the more pressing societal burdens, women were expected to be "penitent, subdued, submissive, humble" wives. At its basis, the patriarchal society was a way of dealing with a series of relationships between male and female, the powerful and the powerless, active and passive roles. In his public sphere, the Southern white male embodied power, over his family and his slaves. Wrote one historian, "the patriarch was absolute ruler over all consenting inferior sex or the allegedly inferior child or the supposedly inferior race." He was the active defender of his homeland, involving himself in the events surrounding him.

The idealized Southern lady was in complete contrast to this image of manhood. Her devotion was to her family and her God, only concerned with the outside world by its relationship to these two focal points of her life. " was the prevailing view that women existed for the benefit of her family and that her life should be conducted in complete submissiveness to the will of her husband." As a member of the elite, the lady occupied a variety of roles: daughter, belle, wife, and mother. Yet all of these roles were interrelated by their subordination to the primary male authority in her life. In these roles, she was placed in a protected position. Her husband or father shielded her from the difficulties and harshness of the public world. The implications of this protection was an inherent attitude of passivity on the part of the lady. Her role was to unquestioningly follow her husband's or father's decisions. She moved through life smoothly and silently, passively letting events happen around her. The Confederate cause provided women with socially acceptable ways of stepping out of their traditional spheres into the world outside their front gates. Two wartime activities popular among the Richmond ladies, nursing and writing, symbolize this movement into the public sphere. In helping the war wounded, women became active members of society. Through their writing, women gained public recognition. Through both occupations women were able to assert themselves under the banner of the Confederate States of America. By dedicating themselves to the Southern cause, ladies were able to overstep the traditional boundaries of the antebellum period.

Nursing in the antebellum period was not considered respectable for refined ladies because it required a relatively high level of physical intimacy, deemed indelicate. A swift change in attitude quickly ensued. By 1862, such concerns with delicacy were of secondary importance. The large number of casualties close to the capitol created a shortage of nurses. Therefore, society's views of "respectable" were overturned by open recruiting and paying of women to act in the capacity of nurses. The rapidity of this turnover is evident. George Cary Eggleston reports that following the Battle of Seven Pines outside Richmond, almost all married ladies of Richmond were dressing wounds. Many of Richmond's foremost women, like Mrs. Roger Pryor, began to volunteer at hospitals.

The Confederate war hospitals required a strong stomach. Scenes of pain and suffering defined these hospitals. As upper class women began to volunteer as nurses, they were forced to face a violent, masculine atmosphere. As the casualties of the Civil War poured into Richmond, the traditional gender roles of paternalism were reversed. Women, acting as nurses, assumed the responsibility for the literally helpless men, providing them with the care they required. This challenged the idea of a helpless woman, by placing her in control of a situation while shielding her from public scorn. Even so, fainting was a common reaction to the horror of the victims. Yet, many women forced themselves to overcome their distaste and rise to the demands required of them. "I resolved I would conquer my culpable weakness," said Sara Rice Pryor of her first bad experience with nursing. An observer of Richmond life during the war wrote:

" It is a matter of intense astonishment,
when we reflect that those who had ever
felt an exhibited nervous dread and sensibility
at the sight of a bleeding wound, when duty
made it apparent to them that they should tutor
themselves in alleviating misery, grew strong
under the painful tuition of those dreadful scenes,
and became able to look upon and dress even the
most ghastly wounds."

Even men noticed the change, remarking on women's ingenuity and coolness under pressure as "surprising."

Hospital work also became the foremost cause of the Ladies' Aid Society. Under Mrs. Randolph, the foremost hostess in Richmond, the Ladies' Aid Society took upon themselves the supervision and organization of volunteer hospital workers. This work gave women a vocation outside of their home, allowing them to function in much the same ways as men's club. In fact, the description of the meetings echo the political realm of men. Mary Boykin Chestnut recalls a meeting in which each woman had her own opinion and would listen to no other. The president, Mrs. Randolph presided over such debates, with "dignity and grace," sort of combination of a politician and a hostess. The Ladies' Aid Society parallels the political activities of the Confederate officials.

Nursing, then, allowed women to come out of their allocated roles in several different ways. Women's hospital work transformed them into powerful, active members of society. In reversal of roles, it was the men who were being acted upon, and the women who were acting. In the organization of volunteer nurses, women were able to become active in what resembles politics. Here, the elite white women of Richmond were able to make decisions regarding the volunteers, imitating the political world of men. Nursing allowed women to identify themselves in a way independent of their male counterparts.

As it allowed for the escape of women from their traditional roles, nursing also shielded them from scorn. It was essential to the Confederate cause, and through this quality earned its air of respectability. Nurses were effectively above criticism because they were working for the Cause. By playing on the patriotic sentiments of the times, women were able to become active members of society and be commended for it. George Cary Eggleston quotes a general officer saying in regards to the women's nursing, "God bless these Virginia women!" Another Richmond observer said, "No Roman matron, no Spartan mother, ever thrilled more to the task of supporting her warriors, than did we women of the South land!" These public statements of gratitude serve to reinforce the new role that women achieved through nursing. In a sense they had become the guardian angels of the Confederacy. This new image allowed room for women to move subtly into the public sphere, without raising criticism, because they did so in the name of the Confederate cause.

In other mediums, Southern ladies were not so subtle as they moved into the public eye. As one journalist wrote, "Woman has now taken to her pen...and is flourishing it with a vengeance." Writing was a form of propaganda and therefore a acceptable pastime of women. Given the handicaps of the South during the Civil War, one historian noted, " is surprising how many Southern women managed to get their views before the public despite the relatively small number of printing establishments." Evidence of the extensiveness of the women's writing is in the sheer number of poems, memoirs, and published diaries found in the South. The women of Richmond society rushed to share their experiences from the war years. These ladies included the very top of the social ladder like Constance Cary (Mrs. Burton Harrison), Mary Boykin Chestnut, Virginia Clay-Cloptin, Sallie A. Putnam, Geogiana Gholson Walker, Phoebe Yates Pember, Sara Agnes Rice (Mrs. Roger A. Pryor), and Varina Howell Davis. Through their literary works, women were able to establish themselves as public figures.

Poetry was particularly popular style of writing among women. Themes centered on the bravery of the South's soldiers and the hardship of the Southern women in sending their men off to die. These ballads urged men to fight harder, for the sake of their women at home. Many went so far as to reassure the men in the field of women's subordination at home:

"...that the lowly serf
And the high-borne lady, still
May bide in their proud dependency
Free subjects of your will..."

On the surface, this would appear to have a negative effect on the progression of women into the public sphere, by advocating male domination. However, the poem is signed "Annie Chambers Ketchum." Though she advances the patriarchal system, Ketchum purposefully puts herself in the limelight, by claiming her own work. In a more telling poem, Elizabeth Lumpkin comments on the power of women:

"That woman was an inspiration
Played the strings of human souls;
Wrought her name in deep hear music
That through centuries will roll.
Was content behind the curtain
Feeling knowing, she was queen;
Better that than helpless, powerless,
Though with scepter she were seen..."

Lumpkin recognizes the power of women within the Old South stems from the influence she held over men. She presents the image of the controlling woman behind a curtain. This was the only sort of political power a woman could hold, as the right to vote had not yet been granted. Thus, Lumpkin not only advances the idea of an empowered woman, but by signing her poem, she claims authorship and directly puts herself into the public sphere.

The use of initials, pseudonymous, and anonymous writing still persisted in the South during the Civil War. Despite this fact, the relatively frequent occurrence of women claiming authorship hints at the importance of these writings. In one anthology of Southern poetry, roughly forty-four percent of the identified authors were women. These women purposefully put themselves at the mercy of their reader and critics by claiming their own works. This ran counter to the idea of the sheltered woman. The pedestal that women were placed on was typically meant to shelter them from the public eye. By publishing their writing women were placing themselves in the public criticism, something they were traditionally shielded from. Despite this blatant entry into the public sphere, women did not draw criticism upon themselves. Their subject of Confederate nationalism shielded them from rebuke and identified them as good patriotic Southern girls. Their efforts were even sought out by such magazines as the Southern Literary Messenger, in an attempt to compensate for the loss of the male writers to the war. The songs composed and written by women became one of "the central medium of public wartime expression." Marie Ravenel de la Coste's song, "Somebody's Darling" won renown across the Confederacy. The reason for this surge of encouragement for women in the public sphere lay in the subject matter. By glorifying the South, women were able to move into the public eye, because they were upholding Confederate nationalism.

Perhaps the best example of the Richmond ladies and their movement into the public sphere, is seen in the Cary family. Constance Cary and her first cousins, Hetty and Jenny, were all popular members Richmond high society. Together they form a well-rounded view of the ways women moved into the public sphere. Hetty, the reigning belle of Richmond throughout the war, had been banished from Baltimore for ostentatious displays of Confederate patriotism. Jenny, using her musical skills, set the poem "Maryland, My Maryland" to song, and thereby writing one of the favorite Confederate battle songs. This particular song was often performed by her sister, Hetty, on numerous social occasions. Constance Cary was noted for helping to organize one of the most successful parties of 1862. The three young ladies were anything but quiet and demure.

They were thrust again and again into the public eye. In one instance, Hetty and Constance were honored members at a dress parade under Col. George Stewart. At the last minute, the colonel handed his sword to Hetty and, "thus the regiment, amid much enthusiasm was put through its manual by the prettiest woman in Virginia." The three Carys formed the troop of the "Cary Invincibles", where many leading dignitaries were placed in inferior positions under Hetty, Constance, and Jennie. This group bridged the gap between the male and female spheres, as the girls formed a "troop" based in a masculine prototype. Another occasion, the Carys "had the honor of being asked by the committee of Congress to make the first battle-flags of the Confederacy after the design finally decided on by them." Clearly, their role in Richmond was anything but that of the retiring Southern lady. Repeatedly, the Carys found themselves active players in the public spotlight.

In their parties, their lack of passivity is evident. In the winter of 1862, with the help of Mrs. George Wythe Randolph, Constance Cary organized a charade party. This became the basis of many like it throughout the long winter. One of the most noticeable elements in the charade is the precociousness of the young ladies involved. In one scene, Constance was to be perched on a stile, supported by Gen. J.E.B. Stuart. The stile gave way and she slid to the floor. "Instantly, the heroine was transformed into an irate stage manager darting behind the scenes to scold an offending super (J.E.B. Stuart)...Accused of gross neglect while on duty, he was sentenced to lose his position and sit among the audience for the remainder of the show..." Yet, again the gender roles are reversed as Constance reprimands Stuart.

Hetty's banishment from Northern society occurred because of her defiance of the established order, Constance's charades included such unladylike poses as a belle coming out of a flour barrel. Clearly neither of these acts was submissive or passive in accordance with the accepted attitude of women, but it was allowed to pass because it held up the Confederacy. Hetty's contribution was to uphold the Confederacy even in Northern lands, while Constance actively sought "defiant gaiety". By committing acts of patriotism, the Cary girls were able to test the boundaries of acceptable female behavior. Their actions often carried them over the boundary of the female sphere and into the masculine one. Yet, they rarely met with any criticism, because their Confederate loyalty was unquestioned and most of their actions were furthering the Confederate cause. By exploiting Confederate Nationalism, the Carys serve as an example of how women could escape the confinement of the domestic sphere.

Confederate men were not all blind to this new position of activity that their wives occupied. There was a growing feeling of independence among women that Southern men wanted to reject. These men sought to soften the radical changes by interpreting women's contributions in a new way. Women's role within the Southern home front was idealized, she was portrayed as an angel of mercy, selflessly serving the brave soldiers. George Cary Eggleston's views on women within the context of the Civil War are characteristic of his class. "They [women] carried their efforts to cheer and help the troops into every act of their lives." He places emphasis on the women's great devotion to the cause through their husbands, and all of their work for the Confederate cause. The women's break into the public sphere is thereby trnsformed into an extension of their primary devoition to their husbands, thus maintaining social order. Women were portrayed as gentle, caring souls, who life's work was to ease the life of her husband. This image places women's war work as subordinate to the soldiers/men. Despite this perception, the reality of the transformation of women remained. The emphasis on the Confederate cause gave them the liberty to loosen the conventional limitations attached to their gender. By virtue of their contributions to the war effort, women began to "define themselves as independent Southern women." Women became caught up on the pomp surrounding the Confederacy, and threw themselves into patriotic work. They were able to extend their traditional roles as the primary influence on domestic culture to include public culture as well. Through song, writing, flag-making, and other expressions of patriotism, the Richmond society women pushed themselves into the public realm outside their private homes.

Nursing and writing represented a way to move directly into the public sphere. Women no longer defined themselves as passive members of society. As a hospital nurses, Richmond's elite ladies became active, powerful individuals. In their writing, they were able to lay claim to public recognition. This was an act of escape from the sheltering attitudes of men in the antebellum period. Women made themselves vulnerable to public criticism in order to step into the world outside their front gates. The Carys are perfect examples of this movement into the public eye via the exploitation of Confederate nationalism. The daring girls engaged in many activities that challenged their role in society under the banner of the Confederacy.


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