Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2018-030
5 Apr. 2018
Review by David B. Parker, Kennesaw State University
Stepdaughters of History: Southern Women and the American Civil War
By Catherine Clinton
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press, 2016. Pp. xviii, 144. ISBN 978–0–8071–6457–0.
Descriptors: Volume 2018, 19th Century, US Civil War Print Version

Through the score or so of books she has published since her Plantation Mistress,[1] historian Catherine Clinton (Univ. of Texas–San Antonio) has sought to correct the omission of women from Southern history. The present volume is based on the Walter Lynwood Fleming Lectures she presented in 2012.[2] She writes that "I may have begun my career as an integrationist, but I have evolved into an interventionist" (xvii). She goes on to discuss how much the historiography of the South has changed in the half century since Mary Elizabeth Massey's pioneering Bonnet Brigades,[3] but also outlines possibilities for further work, using examples from her own scholarship as jumping-off points.


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The first essay, "Band of Sisters," concerns the lives and works of women writers who, during and after the Civil War, helped establish the traditions of the Lost Cause. Many belonged to the elite class. Clinton has written about them previously and her discussion here draws much from the analytical framework set out in her earlier books.[4] We read of novelist Augusta Jane Evans, memoirist Mary Anne Loughborough, and diarists Sarah Morgan and Kate Stone, among others. The common thread in their work is devotion and sacrifice giving way to disillusionment and despair, and then "the most heroic aspects of memorialization, mirroring Lost Cause ideology" (17).[5]

The essay's major character, Mary Boykin Chesnut, perfectly fits Clinton's thesis. She heavily edited and expanded her war-time journal to produce a volume eventually published in three twentieth-century editions. To illustrate the page-turner quality of the diary, Clinton offers this quotation: "We try our soldiers to see if they are hot enough before we enlist them. If, when water is thrown on them they do not sizz, they won't do; their patriotism is too cool" (28). As she surely knows, Chesnut is quoting Georgia humorist Bill Arp's first letter to "Abe Linkhorn," one of her many later additions to the original diary. It well conveys the initial enthusiasm for the Confederacy, before the disappointments and discouragements set in.

This band of sisters "erected a barricade, a façade incorporating remembrances of things imagined…. [They] managed to manipulate and fascinate for well over a century, providing whitewashed pageantry for audiences hungry for tantalizing tales substituting glory for truth" (2). Clinton evinces a certain prescience here, as events since she gave her Fleming lectures have spurred intense interest in the historic construction and pervasiveness of the Lost Cause myth; we now see even more clearly that "the blood of the lash could not be whitewashed away by even the most eloquent of memoirists" (39).

The women Clinton describes lived within the confines of mid-nineteenth-century gender roles, especially as shaped by the experience of the war. But some women rebelled against those roles in the larger context of the Southern rebellion. Essay 2, "Impermissible Patriots," examines women who violated gender norms by entering Confederate military service in one way or another. Some simply wished to accompany their husbands rather than be left alone. Others wanted more. Loreta Janeta Velázquez, "the most extraordinary and exceptional of soldiers" (41), was a Hispanic woman who had struggled from childhood against the constraints of female gender roles. During the war, she was Lt. Harry T. Buford,[6] who fought at Fort Donelson, Shiloh, and elsewhere. Even after her disguise was discovered, she continued to serve the Confederacy as a spy.

Velázquez wrote memoirs,[7] but many have doubted their veracity, including Confederate general Jubal Early. More recently, historian William C. Davis has called her "a lifelong fraud" (49). Clinton, pointing out that Early and Davis both identified her (without evidence) as a camp follower and a prostitute, observes that "White southern men were charged with keeping ladies on the pedestal, and that pedestal came equipped with a lock and key" (50). Women who resisted such categorization were considered perverse. The same misogynist attitude is evident in Union general Benjamin Butler's order that women in New Orleans who disrespected the Union presence there should be treated as "public women" (64), not real ladies. Belle Boyd, Rose O'Neal Greenhow, and others who "changed" their gender to serve the Confederacy were discussed in similar terms. (The author sees a parallel in the criticism of Sen. Hillary Clinton for wearing pantsuits.)

The book's final essay, "Mammy by Any Other Name," concerns a pernicious stereotype of blacks that figured prominently in the Lost Cause narrative. The Mammy figure was often obese (because slaveowners fed their slaves so well), nurturing (cooking for whites and sometimes breastfeeding their children), and beloved (part of the family[8]). The gap between image and reality was great, but pervasive—a proposal was made in the 1923 to place a monument to "The Black Mammy of the South" on Washington's National Mall.[9] During the recent move to put Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill, a member of the advisory committee said that "the American people might not be prepared to accept a 'Mammy' image on the money" (77). Tubman was, of course, no Mammy, as Clinton easily shows.[10] Neither was Susie King Taylor, a Georgia slave who escaped and served with the Union army; Ana Julia Cooper, who published an early work on black feminism; Fannie Barrier Williams, a reformer in Chicago who pushed for greater participation of African Americans in the Columbian Exposition of 1893; nor a dozen others Clinton describes.

Unlike the "band of sisters," Mammy was "a white name for a black figure, a racial designation perpetuated by an oppressor" (76). As Clinton shows, the power to name is the power to control. The recent "#SayHerName" initiative, which started in the aftermath of the violent arrest and death in jail of Sandra Bland, pointedly bears this out.

It makes reclamation a means of empowerment for those unnamed and for those demanding the naming…. Historians and sister scholars will create new waves, currents, and storms—sending Mammy adrift…. Tell her story, say her name, and in the retelling, be reborn, with both a future and a past. (112)

In wonderful detail and felicitous prose, Catherine Clinton has described several varieties of history's stepdaughters, demonstrating their continuing relevance to our own times. Her book is both a call to action and a salutary reminder that, as William Faulkner famously put it, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

[1] Subtitle: Woman's World in the Old South (NY: Pantheon, 1982).

[2] At Louisiana State University. Clinton is only the fourth female honoree to deliver the lectures in their nearly eighty-year history.

[3] New York: Knopf, 1966.

[4] E.g., The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South (NY: Pantheon, 1982) and Tara Revisited: Women, War, and the Plantation Legend (NY: Abbeville Pr, 1995).

[5] Though she indicates that "All Chesnut quotes are taken from Catherine Clinton, ed., Mary Chesnut's Diary (New York: Penguin, 2011)" (120n97), Clinton's page citations seem always to be from A Diary from Dixie …, ed. Isabella D. Martin and Myrta Lockett Avary (NY: Appleton, 1905).

[6] Not Henry Buford, as on page 42.

[7] The Woman in Battle (1876; rpt. Madison: U Wisconsin Pr, 2003).

[8] So, too, in ancient Rome: the first definition s.v. "familia" in the Oxford Latin Dictionary is "all persons subject to the control of one man, whether relations, freedmen, or slaves."

[9] See, further, Tony Horwitz, "The Mammy Washington Almost Had," Atlantic (31 May 2013).

[10] She is the author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (NY: Little, Brown, 2004).

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