The Developing Role of the Plantation Mistress: 1861-1865

By: Jenna Cholowinski

The American Civil War brought extensive change to the societal landscape of the American nation, yet a topic that may not be as obvious, however, would be the societal changes for plantation women in the South.  For women in the South, their role in society went from that of very limited power to a whole new opportunity of authority at the outbreak of the Civil War.  This major societal change occurred in the role of the plantation mistress, the socially inferior counterpart to the husband, the planter, as it took on an incredible twist due to war and the departure of most Confederate white men to fight. This previously elite, privileged, and select member of society was thought to rarely ever meet adversity, due to the gender roles that existed in the antebellum South. As the Civil War broke out, these women, albeit a minority, were faced with newfound challenges that other groups had been experiencing for generations, no matter the situations they may have found themselves. The white women of southern plantations experienced sharp transitions in gender roles, from the antebellum period to a post-Civil War setting, stemming from the war. In the new southern atmosphere, southern slaveholding women were subject to a loss of privilege in society, having experienced challenges other women had been going through for generations. These life changes for the elite women of southern society reinforced sympathetic narratives of the South following the Civil War, and set the framework for their roles in society in the post-war years. 

Historians have disagreed about the role of the plantation mistress in the antebellum and Civil War Eras.  In this discussion, Catherine Clinton’s extensive work in The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South establishes the role of the plantation mistress most notably during the antebellum period. Clinton creates the image of the antebellum plantation mistress by exploring their perceived struggles including the gender dynamic in the household, their limited sense of freedom in the southern slave system along with their tasks and day-to-day responsibilities. Clinton focuses on the plantation mistress before the American Civil War, most notably in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Only briefly, however, does Clinton take the time to mention their role during the war, which, through her telling, revolves mainly around supporting “their men in war,” as well as the accumulation of more responsibilities on their own estates due to the male population going off to fight.[1] Although it is important to look into the pre-war south in order to understand the development in the role of the plantation mistress, Clinton’s work lacks a discussion of the full development of this unique southern character. The current historical discussion would benefit from the extension of dialogue in order to finish the evolution of the limited upper-class southern women through the discussion of the struggles they experienced throughout the Civil War.   

Similar to Clinton’s timeframe, Stephanie Jones-Rogers’s They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South concerns itself with upper-class slaveholding women and the responsibilities that came with obtaining property. Although it was common for the women in southern elite society to have overseers for the enslaved, Jones-Rogers points out that there are many examples where these enslaved people were owned by women, sometimes given to them at an early age, as gifts for things such as birthdays, baptisms and holidays.[2] Jones-Rogers uses the first six of her eight chapters in a pre-war context, but also discusses the transition of the southern household during the war.  Jones-Rogers highlights the role white southern women maintained before and during the war, in order to challenge the notions of other scholars’ works, showing plantation mistresses having their own personally enslaved individuals under many circumstances, whether they be married, single or widowed.

Historians often utilize domestic accounts from both the Union and Confederate sides in their discussion of the Civil War, as James Marten does in his Civil War America: Voices from the Home Front, in order to develop a more complete picture of the war’s impacts. Marten’s collection discusses the multiple struggles and events that took place away from the battlefield. In Confederate-focused chapters, Marten captures the main theme of a particular struggle by using correspondences and diaries of the time from a handful of women, such as Lizzie Neblett and Katherine Stone.[3] Marten was able to examine two slaveholding members of southern society and look into their respective struggles throughout the war; one being the authoritative head of the plantation and the other a refugee. Despite the two being from different geographies of the American South, the two main accounts from these women are accompanied by other sources to demonstrate that these problems were not exclusive to a particular place. Marten presents upper-class women across the South as having encountered similar problems. In his work, he effectively highlights two common situations for southern upper-class slaveholding women; more however, can be learned in order to uncover different situations and scenarios various women in this demographic had to face.

Like Jones-Rogers, Thavolia Glymph also examines the female perspective of slaveholders and the enslaved, as well as the relationships between the two as the Civil War raged on.  In Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household, Glymph focuses on enslaved women and women enslavers, as well as the dynamic between them in the southern slave system. In her chapters regarding the Civil War, she provides insight into the domestic front and the growing conflict inside a plantation household, especially as the war started to look favorable to the Union. Glymph addresses the growing resistance of the enslaved through including accounts that range from the most subtle examples of resistance, to the most severe, such as murdering the plantation mistress.[4]

In her more recent publication, Glymph continues her work studying enslaved populations inside plantation households, but also sheds light on the topic of “refugeeing.” In the context of the Civil War, the usage of the word “refugee” differs from today’s understanding of the word.[5] In her book, The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom and Nation, Glymph looks into different types of women, separating them by race or economic status. In her chapters concerning Confederate women, her discussion regarding refugees raises strong points, including the idea that the abandoning of plantations by elite white women indicated that “a pillar of the South’s domestic sanctuary had been shaken.”[6] Glmyph’s work adds to the discussion that many previously left undisturbed, in that the lives of upper-class slaveholding mistresses changed throughout the course of the war, including now increasing resistance among enslaved populations.

Drew Gilpin Faust’s Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War does perhaps the best job encompassing the majority of the struggles that slaveholding women in the south faced in the form of isolation in a new, developing, domestic setting. By calling the southern plantation household the “central economic institution of the Old South” or the “locus of productive activity,” Faust highlights early on the importance of these establishments as well as an indicator as to why they would be so heavily fought for.[7] Faust discusses in great detail a variety of problems these upper-class women had met during the war, such as the changing dynamics inside of the household, as well as topics such as refugees and slave resistance. Unlike other authors, Faust explores the different routes these women took when faced with adversity, such as following their husbands that went to fight, or having family members stay at their plantation in efforts to not be alone. Faust is able to bring to light the different ways in which southern slaveholding women adapted to the Civil War.

Faust offers another perspective on the gender makeup of southern women in the Civil War, titled “Altars of Sacrifice: Confederate Women and the Narratives of War,”.[8] Faust argues that understanding that sacrifice was one of the main things that southern women became familiar with throughout the war. It is possible that the Civil War could very well have lasted longer; however, it was because of southern women not wanting to tolerate their sufferings any longer that the Confederacy eventually fell to the Union.[9] In contrast to Glymph, Faust focuses on the other side of the relationship between the enslaved and slaveholder, that being the southern woman. Faust effectively demonstrates that a majority of these women found themselves in a foreign situation that was typically worse off than their prior aristocratic lifestyles in the antebellum South.

Plantation mistresses were a relatively small population in the antebellum and Civil-War era South, but one that lived in much more diverse settings than the average southern woman. There is a common misconception regarding the antebellum South and the number of enslaved people. As per the 1860 census, a minority of white southerners actually claimed ownership of enslaved individuals, coming out to a percentage around 25%.[10] This percentage continues to thin when considering that a quarter of southern whites differ greatly when comparing their individual wealth, property size and number of enslaved. The term “master” was used when describing a man that enslaved between four to six enslaved. The term “planter” however, as used by the Federal Census Bureau, was saved for the group of people that enslaved at least twenty people. This small minority represented one out of every eight masters, equating to around forty-six thousand planters living in the American South in 1860.[11] Even more so, the dispersion of wealth continues, since one out of every fifteen planter families claimed ownership of at least one-hundred enslaved people, which now adequately begins to transition to the image typically associated with a traditional “southern plantation.” This increasingly small percentage of the American South was made up of around only three-thousand families. It is in this minority that lie the subject of discussion, being upper-class slaveholding southern women.

The breakdown of the 1860 census not only provides a better understanding of the American South leading into the Civil War, but also illustrates that the problems faced by these women are hardly a depiction of the overall struggles southern women as a whole met. It is not to say that these upper-class women experienced similar situations, but instead, had the ability to experience many different types of struggle depending on where they lie on the provenly small, yet highly dispersed scale of the slaveholding aristocratic South.  This relatively small population of wealthy white female enslavers maintained a place in the social hierarchy of the South that afforded them greater influence, especially with the outbreak of the war. Because of this, the impacts the war had on them mentally and physically generated influences on how elite southern women presented post-war narratives in the post-war years.

The situations white southern plantation women found themselves in throughout the war were unique, new experiences, and directly contributed to the sharp transitions in their gender roles following the war, and the sympathetic way they presented their narratives. The current historical discussion would benefit from the extension of dialogue into further decades in order to finish the evolution of the limited upper-class southern women through the discussion of the struggles they experienced throughout the Civil War. The current historiography has outlined the roles white southern women occupied in the antebellum era, while offering insight into the developing situations these women faced as the Civil War continued. More can be done to uncover the different situations these women experienced, from emotional stress or growing resistance in enslaved populations, as far as fear of being murdered by those they enslaved. Southern women adapted to the situations presented to them while their male counterparts were away fighting in a war though, altering their previously aristocratic lifestyles. Investigating the differing ways in which white southern women adapted to these situations improves the historical understanding on the transitions in gender roles of the southern plantation mistress.

Plantation mistresses differed from the average American woman at this time, due to the effects of growing up in the privileges of a slave society.[12] When given the ability to socialize with the other female heads of nearby plantations, these societies were closely aligned with the church and typically under the supervision of men.[13] However, due to the nature of the American antebellum South, plantations were widely spread, thus having contained the plantation mistress to her household.[14] It was not only the household that became the mistress’s area of responsibility, but also all of the domestic operations that were performed inside of it and throughout the entirety of the plantation. In the larger plantations, the kitchen was separated from the house, and was mainly used by enslaved domestic laborers, since it was not the duty of the mistress to cook.[15] Instead, the plantation mistress’ involvement with the cooking included mainly supervision as well as providing the domestic servants an order for ensuing meals. Other responsibilities included sewing and providing clothing for all families on the plantation, both white and Black.[16] Specific examples of day-to-day activities include, “gardening, dairy activities, salting pork, preserving fruits and vegetables, mixing medicines, the making of candles, soap, rugs, pillows, linen, bedding, and so on.”[17]

Another “responsibility” that was prioritized by the south was the women’s duty of providing husbands with “heirs,” thus providing the nation with citizens.[18] Despite the mistress not necessarily performing the typical activities of a “housewife,” such as childcare, cooking and cleaning, she had to bear the children as well as work with the nurses, cooks, and other domestic servants to keep the plantation’s inner workings running smoothly, with little problems existing on the plantation escaping her attention.[19] By understanding the standards and responsibilities of the plantation mistress prior to the war, a number of things become clear: they were already isolated on the plantation, their lack of knowledge and experience meant that the agricultural production of the plantation was typically left to the planter, and that their daily activities would change when the Civil War erupted.

On April 12, 1861, the Confederate attack on the US military base of Fort Sumter signaled the beginning of the American Civil War, sparking thousands of white men on both the Confederate and Union sides to fight on behalf of their nation. Women, too, experienced significant upheavals in their lives following these events. Mobilization efforts were extensive on the Confederate end, estimating there to be around three-quarters of a million men in total fighting for the southern cause, representing about seventy-five to eighty-five percent of the draftable male population.[20] With this staggering percentage of men leaving their estates and homes in order to fight, many women expressed their concerns and struggled to choose what to do next. Martha Roadcap wrote to her son, John B. McGuffin on July 19th of 1861, “We are all well here at home, but in great trouble. Every person between the age of 18 & 45 have been drafted and now I am alone with a house full of children.”[21] Roadcap continued, “It is impossible to tell you the distress of mind I am in.” As Roadcap had expressed, the responsibilities of the southern women had increased, such as being the sole person in charge of many children in this case. Her illustration of worry was not alone, for many not only noticed the increasing lack of male presence on the southern home front, but were also concerned about what that could mean in regard to protection or even day to day activities. Faust’s Mothers of Invention highlights just how little male presence remained, with concerned groups of women in New Bern, North Carolina having informed the governor that only 20 white men remained in their town, with eleven of them old, and three having been likely to be conscripted; less than five percent of the population that remained in the town were able bodied white men.[22]  Likewise, in Alabama, voting numbers displayed the drop in male presence, with Randolph County having lost 2,016 of 3,000 voters, and Shelby County having similarly lost 1,600 of 18,00 voters to military recruitment.[23]

With so few men staying home, southern white women took on previously masculine societal roles and aspects of society, whereas previously the majority of power and authority existed with men. Men leaving the household proved to be “a devastating blow to the most fundamental structures of the South’s society and economy.”[24] Despite the circumstances that southern white women may have been put in, they remained faithful to their husbands and the cause, as they “pledged to support their men in war… Confederate chauvinism now claimed their loyalty.”[25] In cases of plantation mistresses in an already isolated atmosphere in the rural American South, the war took a large part of these women’s household: being their husband and owner of the estate. It was at this time where plantation women were forced to make a decision despite being left with very few options. These options included a variety of situations such as following their husbands, staying with extended family, or ultimately trying to stay at their plantation estate and maintain it. All of these proved to have their own unique effect on the women’s emotional wellbeing, including negative consequences.

In response to the impacts the mass mobilization of males for the southern war effort had on the homes and lives of southerners, many women chose to leave home and follow their husbands throughout the war, which exposed them to new hardships and experiences.  Women’s decision to follow their husbands to various camps throughout the duration of the war provoked emotional distress. Laetitia Lafon Ashmore Nutt, for example, traveled alongside her husband as well as their three daughters. As the war did not seem to end by 1864, Nutt reflected that she was not only exhausted by the war, but also by bringing along her children.[26] Sarah Jane Estes did not take her children after deciding to follow her husband, but her diary reveals that traveling with him seemed to make him happier than herself, since she longed to be with their children.[27] Despite being able to stay connected with their spouses, the two women experienced emotional hardship due to their children, since one brought them along while the other did not. Either decision made by these women resulted in negative effects on their emotional wellbeing. Regardless, there were a number of southern women that did choose this path during the war. Aside from the idea of taking care of or being away from their children, traveling throughout the South by military camps proved to be an exhausting mental aspect for these women. Through this decision of coping with their wartime situation, these invested southern wives combined the home front with the battlefront, seeing firsthand the sufferings and limited luxuries the Confederate soldiers endured.

            Family and community ties helped women to cope with their new responsibilities and situations in a number of ways, as southern women often looked for help from extended family members along with other women nearby.[28] Some members stayed with the planters’ wives on the plantation, while others invited these women to stay at their homes to ensure their safety. Despite the benefits of living with family, whether it be another hand to help on the estate or being able to receive shelter somewhere else, there also seemed to be drawbacks. The ones that chose to move off of their estate and instead into the households of various relatives or in-laws proved to face a “very stressful” living situation.[29] Relatives, through blood or marriage, seemed to get on each other’s nerves, ultimately resulting in annoyances and a feeling of discontent for the ladies that chose this path of dealing with the war and its possible effects of displacement.

            Unlike women who left plantations to follow husbands or seek assistance from distant kin, far more of these slaveholding women braved the war in their home. Resulting from the large absence of white men from their homes in the south, much of the plantation’s responsibilities now fell to the plantation mistress, who was previously only concerned with the domestic sphere of the estate. Though there were a number of mistresses that received help from overseers, male neighbors, or male family members, these women nonetheless struggled mentally and physically with their altered societal role. In a letter to a friend, Susan Middleton described her inability to wrap her head around the scenario she has been put in, “The realities of my life and the situations in which I have been placed have been so strangely different from what my character and the early promise of my life would have led one to expect. Anxiety, responsibility, and independence of thought or action are what are peculiarly abhorrent to my nature, and what has been so often required of me.”[30] Many southern slave-holding women felt hesitant about the changes to their limited gender role and believed themselves incapable of stepping up to fill the highly authoritative role that was the antebellum male planter.

            Many southern women revealed their experiences of emotional trauma from loneliness and isolation in their correspondence with family and friends.  In the spring of 1863, Lila Chunn wrote to her Confederate soldier husband, “I experience such constant dread and anxiety that I feel all the time weary and depressed,” a sentiment that permeated the letters of southern plantation women throughout the war.[31] Texas slaveholder Lizzie Neblett wrote to her soldier husband Will Neblett, “I do feel so utterly wretched and hopeless at times, when I think that you may never return and my being left a widow with five little helpless children, to raise and educate.”[32] Eventually having six children in total on her Texas plantation, Lizzie Neblett not only struggled with caring for her children, but also with being away from her husband, dealing with her enslaved, and the increasing responsibilities she acquired. Many historians that look into Neblett seem to indicate that she struggled with depression before and during the war, due to her descriptions of her feelings, such as, “this gloomy, desponding, hopeless feeling that almost kills me at times.”[33] Neblett represents the extreme on the scale of emotional wellbeing of southern slaveholding women during the Civil War. 

The fear of becoming a widow was a big concern among these women for multiple reasons, including that they would be left alone to care for their children. One southern white woman had her worst concern come true, when in February of 1863 her husband died, leaving Mary Vaughn alone on her plantation. She described her struggles in dealing with her loss:

“I cannot for the life of me realize my forlorn situation. He must come home yet. It cannot be true he has left me to suffer and endure alone. He always would shield me from everything like trouble and annoyance, how I can walk the dark future alone and unassisted by his strong arm of protection. I have but one wish and that is to die… I know, I feel but one thing, I am alone, utterly desolate.”[34]

Though Vaughn did not reflect on her life on the plantation without her husband, she was clearly struggling emotionally about the loss of her male counterpart, as well as the protection and security that went with him. Many southern women, regardless of whether they became widows, struggled with their emotional health throughout the duration of the war, due to aspects of childcare, anxiety for their husbands, or being lonely. As the war continued on, other southern women, notably the ones that remained at home, encountered additional problems with those they enslaved and their growing resistance.

            The lack of male presence due to war in southern homes proved to be troublesome for the wives who saw over enslaved individuals throughout America’s lifespan, for there had been resistance during wars prior to the Civil War. In April of 1813, Maria Beverley wrote to her husband Robert about his sister’s struggles with those enslaved without her husband present, as he was an officer in the War of 1812 and aspiring senator, saying that without him “their Negroes are becoming very ungovernable.”[35] With the transition to a much less traditionally authoritative figure now in charge in the southern plantation household, many enslaved people and servants began to resist their oppression. Due to the mass of white men in the early 1860s leaving their homes to fight for the Confederacy, the opportunity for resistance, and in some instances, freedom was much more obtainable.

            The degree to which the enslaved expressed their resistance differed and each southern woman had a different experience dealing with them. Some of the forms of resistance were more subtle than others, such as the case with Mary Jeffreys Bethell and those she enslaved. On June 22, 1862, she wrote, “The servants have been stealing my things, I was fretted about it, and one of them was disobedient.”[36] Despite the behavior of the enslaved peoples under her ownership, Bethell had a unique situation during the war on her estate. Her husband did not go to fight in the war; however, her two sons, Will and George, did join the war. She still faced times in which she was alone, due to the multiple times her husband left for various trips, whether it was to go see their sons or for other business. On August 3rd of 1862, Bethell expressed her desire for her husband to return, “I am looking for my husband home, been gone 12 days, I am anxious to see him at home.”[37] Due to her circumstance, she was better off than other mistresses since her husband was not gone for the entirety of the war, but still experienced some struggles emotionally and with the other members of the household when he was away.

            Prior to becoming a refugee during the Civil War, Kate Stone also wrote of the people she enslaved and the ways in which the conflict provided opportunities for their resistance on the Brokenburn Plantation. Over the course of a week, Stone reveals the disobedience of her enslaved, beginning on June 29, 1861:

“The house servants have been giving a lot of trouble lately-lazy and disobedient. Will have to send one or two to the field and replace them from the quarters if they do not settle down. I suppose the excitement in the air had infected them.”[38]

Not only had she noticed these enslaved people growing more hesitant to do their work, but Stone had also realized that the “excitement in the air” as a result of Civil War battles was what was causing this resistance. The trouble continues on to July 2nd, 1861, when Stone writes that there is “still trouble with the house servants. Aunt Lucy, the head of them all, ran away this morning but was back by dinner.”[39] Many enslaved people, when hearing about the success of the Union from the battlefront, felt more compelled to try to escape the life of slavery, especially as the Union began to turn the war around. Southern white women such as Kate Stone found it increasingly harder to manage their servants and enslaved people due to the situations that the Civil War brought. Following the U.S. Independence Day on July 4th, 1861, Stone described her beliefs and how she thought her enslaved would have acted on the day associated with freedom:

“The Fourth and today passed without any trouble with the Negroes. The general impression has been that the Negroes looked for a great upheaval of some kind on that day. In some way they have gotten a confused idea of Lincoln’s Congress meeting and of the war; they think it is all to help them, and they expected for ‘something to turn up.’ I hope the house servants will settle to their work now.”[40]

Through her monitoring of the attitudes of those she kept enslaved during the week of June 29th to July 5th, Stone revealed her thoughts on the Union actions, such as battles or Lincoln himself, having had a connection to the enslaved populations and how they behaved. She also gives insight into the growing efforts of resistance from enslaved as well as some different methods, such as hesitancy to complete tasks and completely trying to leave the estate. Other servants and enslaved laborers had better luck in escaping these plantations, especially as the war waged on.

As the Union forces were able to go deeper into the South, those that remained enslaved had a better chance of achieving freedom, which distressed southern women left in-charge of their family’s plantation. One southern slaveholding mistress, Mary Elizabeth Woolfolk, experienced this issue firsthand. During the war, twenty-four of the people she enslaved, including men, women, and children, had escaped.[41] This not only demonstrated the loss of power southern slaveholding women held over those they enslaved as the Union advanced further into the South, but also illustrated that with each enslaved individual leaving to seek freedom, the plantation lost profitability and struggled economically. Since enslaved persons were regarded as property, plantations all across the American South experienced losses of revenue in the once prosperous economic economy of the South that was incredibly dependent on slavery and enslaved labor.

There were still different, much more direct, and sometimes more violent ways in which enslaved individuals and servants on plantations expressed resistance, adding to the new realities for plantation women. In addition to her already troublesome situation in terms of emotional wellbeing, Lizzie Neblett also encountered problems with the behavior of those she enslaved. Although she was regarded as fortunate due to having an overseer on her Texas Plantation, her enslaved population “resisted whippings from the overseer… or ran away for days at a time,” of which she considered problematic.[42] Those she enslaved showed a more violent approach to resisting their bondage than the ones of women such as Kate Stone, shown by the detail that many of Neblett’s neighbors grew to be terrified to whip their enslaved laborers out of  fear of what might be to come.[43] Without the traditionally authoritative masculine presence on plantations, enslaved people exploited the greater opportunities for resistance, and sometimes engaged in violence.  When writing to her husband, she found herself to be unsurprised if they were to “stop work entirely” as well as so scared that she “won’t sleep with [her] doors open, anymore.”[44] Although not largely common that enslaved laborers would stand against the overseer to resist whipping, this action proved to be monumental in the cultural shift of the South. The entire concept of the antebellum slave system stood on the grounds of power and control. Now, without the presence of planters and the majority of white men, enslaved peoples took opportunities to dismantle the control and power that belonged to the head of the plantation and took it for themselves. This piecewise breakdown of the southern slave system illustrates how the war produced a change of the tides, as well as shows the gravity to which these southern slaveholding women had their lives altered.

Even more instances of resistance from enslaved individuals exists to highlight the threat of the rise of slave resistance and its effect on the southern woman. One example stunned the community of Society Hill, South Carolina, where enslaved individuals killed the plantation mistress that enslaved them, Betsey Witherspoon, during the war.[45] A cousin to well-known southern slaveholder and mistress Mary Chestnut, Chestnut writes that she was “murdered by her own people. Her negroes.”[46] This event, and some similar to it, made other slave-owning women in the area weary that their own slaves and “negroes” had the capability or want to do such a thing. Chestnut reflected:

“Hitherto I have never thought of being afraid of negroes. I had never injured any of them. Why should they want to hurt me? Two-thirds of my religion consists in trying to be good to negroes because they are so in my power, and it would be so easy to be the other thing. Somehow today I feel that the ground is cut away from under my feet. Why should they treat me any better than they have done Cousin Betsey Witherspoon?”[47]

Chestnut’s worries show a different thought process of slaveholding women that was not typically found prior to the war. By comparing herself to her deceased cousin, she tried to see why they would feel the need to harm her, or if she had done anything to inspire their contempt. The violent actions of a growingly resistant demographic both instilled fear among these women, as well as made the slaveholders more hesitant to trust any of the laborers below them. The once privileged southern slaveholding lady now not only had to face the possible economic downfall that resulted from enslaved laborers resisting forced labor or leaving for their own freedom, but also had to worry about their own safety inside the household. Although the example of Betsey Witherspoon was not terribly common throughout the South, “household enslaved individuals expanded their repertoire of tools of resistance and became more firmly committed to the destruction of the plantation household.”[48] Those enslaved proved to be a big match for the southern women that chose to stay home and maintain their estates for a variety of reasons including their mental stability, their economic stability, and their physical safety.

In the discussion of southern slaveholding women, many think first to look into the wives and mistresses of plantations; however, the story of widows and their troubles too contribute valuable insight into the current historical discussion in the sense of detailed, unique accounts. Despite most of Ms. Matilda Fulton’s life on the plantation taking place prior to the start of the Civil War, her sufferings in the times before the war seemed to pay off. Losing her husband at the age of 49 in 1844, Matilda Fulton had to learn early on how to manage a plantation on her own. When the war came and many of the men in the South left their wives and estates to fight, “this was nothing new to Matilda Fulton, for she had lived on her own for two decades.”[49] By the year 1860, her wealth only amounted to a few enslaved individuals, however her daughter, Elizabeth Fulton Wright, owned over 150 enslaved persons at the time of the outbreak of the war.[50] Elizabeth represented a different type of anomaly than her mother due to her circumstance. She too, was left a widow in April of 1857 after her husband, Morehead Wright, died at age 49.[51] By late 1857, Fulton Wright was able to obtain legal authority to run the family affairs and had an overseer to work with. During the war, she provided for the Confederate troops, opening her Little Rock Plantation to them for food or a place to stay. By 1861, she enslaved more than 150 people and owned approximately $34,000 worth of land.[52] Her suffering came in a different way than other southern women may have experienced, being the loss of revenue. Due to the emancipation of enslaved populations nearing the end of the war, her wealth depreciated, and her land was eventually worth $27,060, resulting in a decrease of over 20%.[53] The retelling of both Matilda Fulton and her daughter Elizabeth Fulton Wright allows others to understand how different situations may have produced different struggles, or even advantages, like the case where Matilda was prepared to see a decrease in white men in her community.

An important consequence of the Civil War that some southern slaveholding women faced was the idea of becoming a refugee, as displacement was a hardship with which this wealthy, privileged portion of the population was unaccustomed. As Faust puts it, “The term refugee soon came to be used most often for wealthy individuals who had chosen to abandon their customary place of residence, frequently with an eye to keeping property, especially slave property, out of Union hands.”[54] The idea of the wealthy refugee proved to be controversial, since it caused others, more specifically less wealthy individuals such as smaller slaveholders or farmers, to complain about their inability to essentially abandon their current lives and move away to avoid the impacts of the war. The negative connotation of the “refugee” in the South went so deep that “a woman with the option to become a refugee was in some ways like a conscripted man able to hire a substitute.”[55] People in the lower rungs of society saw being a refugee as something similar to almost not exercising full nationalism and in other words “weathering out the storm.”[56] No matter the effect it had on society, many women took the chance of the life of a refugee.  The first appearances of Civil War refugees were largely a result of the locations and expanses of battles. Refugees began to appear because people in close proximity to the battlefield picked up and left their homes in order to protect the interests of themselves and their families.[57] The members on the plantations in Virginia, closer to the Union’s capital, Washington D.C., were the first to become refugees. Although this may represent the first example, the most significant was “the mass exodus of low country South Carolina slaveholders in 1861 that foretold the larger-scale white refugee problem.”[58]

Despite the lower class’ resentment towards wealthy women’s ability to travel distances to avoid the war, in becoming a refugee, these southern women did not have problem-free experiences, and quite often saw the horrors of their situation, and the war. These once privileged women were left on the run, away from the luxuries they had become accustomed to. In wars prior to the American Civil War, the concept of the refugee was something that typically described the poor or enslaved women who were displaced due to troop movements or battles.[59] Now it was the southern slaveholding elite who had also become displaced, which was something that not only drastically altered their accustomed lifestyles, but took a toll on the overall Confederate pride and society. In a letter to his daughter Mary in November of 1862, General Lee recalls seeing southern refugees:

“[Women and children] have been abandoning their homes, night and day, during all this inclement weather, cheerfully and uncomplainingly, with only such assistance was our wagons and ambulances could afford, women, girls, children, trudging through the mud and bivouacking in the open fields.”[60]

Although General Robert E Lee commended these women and children for their high spirits in a gloomy situation, the fact of the matter is that many of these people on the home front, most notably women, had to abandon their homes as a result of the war. With the addition of children like Lee noted, this added to their issues, since they no longer had a home to provide for their children and they faced childcare on the go. Lee described weather also as a problem, as he mentioned these groups of women and children had set up temporary camps without cover in open fields, which not only exposed them to the harsh elements of the weather, but also made them susceptible for the possibility of discovery from enemy troops passing by. Unlike General Lee’s optimistic outlook on the position of the refugees he encountered and helped, refugee and plantation mistress Sarah Morgan displayed a different recollection of refugee movements in the late spring of 1862:

“Three miles from town we began to overtake the fugitives. Hundreds of women and children were walking along, some bareheaded, and in all costumes… Women searching for their babies along the road where they had been lost, others sitting in the dust crying and wringing their hands.”[61]

This horrific anecdote completely contrasts Lee’s depiction of his encounter with the women and children refugees. These women experienced, for the first time for many, the struggles of the life of a refugee, including problems of uncertainty, extensive travel, childcare, weather, and access to shelter. Living and travelling as refugees, these women were experiencing only some of the aspects of the lives that enslaved individuals had been enduring for generations. In addition, this excerpt represents an incredibly different image of the southern lady, illustrating the previous pristine, proper lady to now be covered in dust, lost, wringing their hands in utter sorrow of the situation they found themselves to be in. Like the comfort of power and authority taken away from the mistresses that chose to stay home when the enslaved resisted, the comfort of security had now been wiped away from the privileges of a mistress gone refugee.

Kate Stone is a prime example of a mistress that became a refugee during the course of the war, having described the new experiences of women like herself, coming in the form of refugee hubs, exhausting travel, and physical obstacles that had impeded her travel. In a plantation called Brokenburn, she lived with her family on a 1,200-acre estate with 150 enslaved individuals as servants, laborers, or property.[62] When faced with the decision to leave, she and her family picked up from her Louisiana plantation in efforts to head to Texas. During her travels as a refugee, she details most of her encounters, good or bad. She writes, describing a “hub” for refugees called Delhi:

“Such crowds of Negroes of all ages and sizes, wagons, mules, horses, dogs, baggage, and furniture of every description, very little of it packed. It was just thrown in promiscuous heaps- pianos, tables, chairs, rosewood sofas, wardrobes, parlor sets, with pots, kettles, stoves, beds and bedding, bowls and pitchers, ad everything of the kind just thrown pell-mell here and there…While thronging everywhere were refugees- men, women, and children- everybody and everything trying to get on the cars, all fleeing from the Yankees or worse still, the Negroes.”[63]

The disheveled and messy atmosphere depicts an image of what wealthy southerners wished to keep most as they had to pick up and leave. Still, Stone acknowledged that some refugees weren’t as fortunate as her and the others that brought things such as furniture, since these owners of large plantations with hundreds of enslaved only traveled with “the clothes they have on.”[64] Traveling with so much evidence is difficult, as Stone described countless examples of trouble while traveling through multiple types of terrain. Her and her family reached an impassable road, thus having to put the baggage on mules as they had to wade through deep water.[65] Other obstacles included encounters with northerners, rowing for miles, traveling by boat through swamp and enduring terrible storms.[66] Similar to Sarah Morgan’s account of travels as a refugee, Stone demonstrated that there was constant adversity to face and adjust to as well as sacrifices to make. The travels of female refugees during the Civil War showed how being put in a different situation could easily produce a different set of problems never experienced by these women before. Despite some having family and friends to provide for them on some parts of the journey, many of these women had to face a life that they never experienced, which included struggling to find basic necessities such as food and shelter.

Although, again, this subsect of women was by no means the majority of southern women at the time of the Civil War; however, it is important to look into their struggles and the developments in their gender and societal roles to understand their positioning in a post-war society. By adapting to their situation, whether it had been following their husband, staying with family, remaining at the plantation, or becoming a refugee, these women were forced to take a step outside of the comfort of their once limited gender role.  As a consequence, they had to face new problems previously foreign to them, such as different aspects of childcare and provision, becoming the authoritative head of the plantation, and losing the luxuries due to leaving their estates.  In the new southern atmosphere, southern slaveholding women were subject to a loss of privilege in society, having experienced challenges other women had been going through for generations. This altered way of life for the elite women of southern society reinforced the sympathetic narrative of the “Lost Cause of the Confederacy”, fueled by the victim mentality of white southern plantation women. Because of this, the narratives of southern plantation women presented themselves sympathetically as the victims of northern aggression. The new adversities this demographic of southern women had to face set the framework for their roles in society within the Reconstruction South.


Primary Sources:

Bethell, Mary Jeffreys. Diary, January 1st 1861- Dec. 1865. Manuscripts Dept., Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2000.

Chestnut, Mary Boykin and C. Vann Woodward. Mary Chestnut’s Civil War. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1981.

Lee, Robert E and Captain Robert E Lee, his son. Recollections and Letters of General Robert E Lee. The Project Gutenberg EBook of Recollections and Letters of General Robert E Lee, by (His Son) Captain Robert E. Lee. September 2000.

Roadcap, Martha L. Augusta County: Martha L. Roadcap to John B. McGuffin, July 19, 1861. McGuffin Family Papers, Accession #6732, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.

Stone, Kate. Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861-1868. Edited by John Q. Anderson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1955.

Secondary Sources:

Baker, Lea Flowers. “Elizabeth Fulton Wright: A Capital Woman.” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 65, no. 2 (2006): 138-62. Accessed March 25, 2021. doi:10.2307/40038294.

Clinton, Catherine. The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South. 1st ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. “Altars of Sacrifice: Confederate Women and the Narratives of War.” The Journal of American History 76, no. 4 (1990): 1200-228. Accessed April 3, 2021. doi:10.2307/2936595.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996. Accessed April 3, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth. Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Gallagher, Gary W. and Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana (Mississippi State University Libraries). The Confederate War. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Glymph, Thavolia. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Accessed March 28, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central.

Glymph, Thavolia. The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. Accessed April 2, 2021.

Jones-Rogers, Stephanie E. They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019. Accessed March 23, 2021. doi:10.2307/j.ctvbnm3fz.

Levine, Bruce C. The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 2013.

Marten, James Alan. Civil War America: Voices from the Home Front. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2003.

Moore, Jessica Parker. “”Keeping All Hands Moving”: A Plantation Mistress in Antebellum Arkansas.” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 74, no. 3 (2015): 257-76. Accessed March 28, 2021. Toplin, Robert Brent and Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana (Mississippi State University Libraries). Ken Burn’s the Civil War: Historians Respond. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

[1] Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), 197.

[2] Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2019), 2.

[3] James Alan Marten, Civil War America: Voices from the Home Front (Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO, 2003).

[4] Thavolia Glymph. Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 97.

[5] Definition of “refugee” that fits the time period is included in page 19.

[6] Thavolia Glymph, The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020), 26.

[7] Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996), 31-32.

[8] Drew Gilpin Faust, “Altars of Sacrifice: Confederate Women and the Narratives of War,” The Journal of American History 76, no. 4 (1990): 1203, doi:10.2307/2936595.

[9] Faust, “Altars of Sacrifice,” 1228.

[10] Bruce C Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution that Transformed the South (New York: Random House, 2013), 4.

[11] Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie, 4-5.

[12] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 38-39.

[13] Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 80.

[14] Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 81.

[15] Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 98.

[16] Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 115-116.

[17] Clinton, The Plantation Mistress, 20.

[18] Clinton, The Plantation Mistress, 8.

[19] Clinton, The Plantation Mistress, 18.

[20] Gary W Gallagher and Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana, The Confederate War (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997), 28.

[21]  Augusta County: Martha L Roadcap to John B McGuffin, July 19, 1861, McGuffin Family Papers, Accession #6732, Special Collections Department, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia.

[22] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 31.

[23] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 31.

[24] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 32.

[25] Clinton, The Plantation Mistress, 197.

[26] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 35.

[27] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 36.

[28] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 36.

[29] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 37.

[30] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 52.

[31] Faust, “Altars of Sacrifice,” 1222.

[32] Marten, Civil War America, 21.

[33] Marten, Civil War America, 23.

[34] Robert Brent Toplin and Frank and Virginia Williams Collection of Lincolniana, Ken Burn’s the Civil War: Historians Respond (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 70.

[35] Clinton, The Plantation Mistress, 74.

[36] Mary Jeffreys Bethell, Diary, January 1st 1861- Dec. 1865. Manuscripts Dept., Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2000.

[37] Bethell, Diary, August 3, 1862.

[38]Kate Stone, Brokeburn: The Journal of Kate Stone. 1861-1868, ed. John Q. Anderson (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1955), 33.

[39] Stone, Brokenburn, 35.

[40] Stone, Brokenburn, 37.

[41] Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property, 159.

[42] Marten, Civil War America, 20.

[43] Marten, Civil War America, 20.

[44] Marten, Civil War America, 20; primary source cited from Neblett, Lizzie. Papers. Austin: Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. From Papers August 13, 1863 and August 18, 1863.

[45] Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage, 97.

[46] Chestnut, Mary Boykin and C. Vann Woodward, Mary Chestnut’s Civil War (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1981), 198.

[47] Chestnut, Mary Chestnut’s Civil War, 199.

[48] Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage, 100.

[49] Jessica Parker Moore, “”Keeping All Hands Moving”: A Plantation Mistress in Antebellum Arkansas,” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 74, no. 3 (2015): 275,

[50] Moore, “”Keeping All Hands Moving,”” 275.

[51] Lea Flowers Baker, “Elizabeth Fulton Wright: A Capital Woman,” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly 65, no. 2 (2006): 157, doi:10.2307/40038294.

[52] Baker, “Elizabeth Fulton Wright,” 158-159.

[53] Baker, “Elizabeth Fulton Wright,” 158.

[54] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 40.

[55] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 42.

[56] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 40.

[57] Glymph, The Women’s Fight, 24.

[58] Glymph, The Women’s Fight, 24.

[59] Glymph, The Women’s Fight, 28.

[60] Robert E Lee, Letter to his daughter Mary, November 24, 1862.

[61] Glymph, The Women’s Fight, 25. Excerpt cited from source East, Sarah Morgan, May 30, 1862, 90.

[62] Marten, Civil War America, 27-28.

[63] Stone, Brokenburn, 191.

[64] Stone, Brokenburn, 191.

[65] Stone, Brokenburn, 199.

[66] Stone, Brokenburn, 200-202.