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Southern Women in the Civil War

Essay by   •  February 11, 2011  •  Research Paper  •  1,621 Words (7 Pages)  •  1,543 Views

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Women during the Civil War were forced into life-style changes which they had never dreamed they would have to endure. No one was spared from the devastations of the war, and many lives were changed forever. Women in the south were forced to take on the responsibilities of their husbands, carrying on the daily responsibilities of the farm or plantation. They maintained their homes and families while husbands and sons fought and died for their beliefs. Many women took the advantage of their opinions being heard, and for the first time

supported their cause in anyway they could.

Whether a woman was the mistress of a plantation, the wife of a yeoman farmer, her life was defined by work. Only a small number of women, those related or married to the South's premier planters escaped the demands of society. Plantation women passed quickly from carefree belles to matrons in charge of children, often overseeing the work of household slaves. Many mistresses, especially those on smaller plantations, did work, taking on tasks seen as too insubstantial for slaves, including making candles, sewing clothes, and preparing certain foods. All of these duties were to be done while preserving the mannerisms their husbands expected (Grander, 3).

"After the soldiers left, silence and anxiety fell upon the town like a pall, what should we do next? To be idle was torture" (Confederate, 24) Sara Pryor wrote in her diary. Since women were not allowed to fight in the war they provided clothing, tents, and other supplies for the soldiers who would. Judith McGuire wrote, "Ladies assemble daily, by hundreds, at the various churches, for the purpose of sewing for the soldiers" (Confederate, 25). Many women were excited by the idea of being able to support their cause. The women of society made clothing and bandages for the soldiers. The women who were brave enough to work in the munitions factories usually poor women made cartridges for the soldiers' rifles. Many women were beginning to notice changes in themselves and the other women around them. Sallie Putnam wrote, "Those who had formerly devoted themselves to gaiety and fashionable amusements, found their only real pleasure in obedience to the demands made upon their time and talents, in providing proper habiliments for the soldier... the devotee of ease, luxury and idle enjoyment, found herself transformed into the busy seamstress" (Confederate, 26).

Before the war women who lived in or near cities could, if status and funding permitted, lead slightly easier lives than rural women. General stores lined the streets, selling all types of merchandise, from sewing machines to washboards. Newspapers advertised both ready-made clothing and the services of expert seamstresses and milliners. Produce grown in backyard gardens was available for purchase, and local farmers carted their surplus into town. Churches, schools, and theaters offered social and cultural outlets. The sociable elite enjoyed dinner and card parties (Grander, 5).

Once the war began many women were forced to give up the simple luxuries they were once accustomed to. The daily things that women used became scarce, and many women were forced to sell, or barter their personal property. Before the war many women of high society often wore elaborate dresses made of silk and lace, but as basic goods became more and more scarce dresses were often styled more simply and were made of wool, gingham, or any material that could be found (Confederate, 50). Many women who were used to the life of luxury found the limitations of supplies to be a horrible awaking.

In a diary entry written by Sara Pryor, she writes about her unhappiness of being without new things. "I could starve with perfect serenity. I could live without the latest novel, the latest magazines, eggshell china, rich attire, jewels, but I had not had a new bonnet for three years" (Confederate, 50). Many women found it irritating to live without the things they were once accustomed to. Some women however found new ways of producing the things they wanted. Mrs. Mark Valentine wrote about her experience of making a new dress, "She gathered wool and spun it into cloth and gave my sister and myself each a dress, which we made and wore with great pride over big hoop skirts... I made a hat of the sleeve of an old broadcloth coat and put a feather in it" (Confederate, 51).

Wealthy women were able to sell personal items or buy smuggled goods; it was not possible however for the poor. As the war progressed hunger became a serious issue. Many women found themselves doing things they had never dreamed of doing in order to put food on their tables. Judith McGuire wrote of one incident in Charleston, "A mob, principally of women appeared in the streets, attacking stores. Their object seemed to be to get anything they could. Dry goods, shoes, brooms, meat, glassware, jewelry, were all caught up by them. Thankfully the military was called out" (Confederate, 52).

As the war neared its ending the horrors the women in the south would have to endure were far from over. In a letter to her grandchildren Mary Norcott Bryan tells of her experience with the slaves on her plantation.

"One night, we had quite an experience in our country home. My Mother came from her room above and said there were strange noises in the yard, the Negroes were singing "Hurrah! Hurrah! We are free! We are free!" We sprang out of bed very much frightened, dressed ourselves, made a fire in the huge chimney place and anxiously waited for what was to come. We peeped out of the narrow window, and there, sure enough, were many Negroes singing and dancing around the fire, with every demonstration of joy, and every little while we heard the fife and drum. Our feelings cannot be described. I looked at my daughter sleeping so peacefully in her crib and thought that before morning the last of my race would be swept away; at my patient invalid Mother, what a death for her to die! and perhaps that very night, none of us would be left to tell the tale. But the night of horror wore on - and the morning dawned peaceful and bright with no evidence the mortal agony we had endured. We found that the Negroes had been having an unusual

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