Slaveholding South in the American Civil War

Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War” by Drew Gilpin Faust. Specifically, it will explain how the instabilities of the Civil War South forced southern white women to alter their behavior. What was the key issue they faced as white men were forced to go to the front? In what way did altered gender roles lead to altered clothing styles? What does clothing tell us about civil society? Southern women faced many difficulties during the Civil War. They had to take on new roles that did not fit their upbringing, and they had to make significant changes to the way they lived and worked. It was a difficult and demanding time for southern women, and some of them discovered themselves, while others discovered they were closer to their black slaves than they ever would have believed.

The South, being at a distinct disadvantage for most of the Civil War, sent as many able-bodied men as they possibly could to the fighting front. Women had to step in and run the farms and plantations in their men’s absence, and this included managing an increasingly volatile slave population. Historian Faust notes, “Women called to manage increasingly restive and even rebellious slaves were in a significant sense garrisoning a second front in the South’s war against Yankee domination” (Faust 54). Obviously, this was a new and different role for most of these women, and many of the men left behind in the South did not appreciate or value it. In fact, many of them fought against female management, as Faust notes, “These issues went beyond questions of gender; they represented deep-seated worries about sex” (Faust 55). The key issue facing most of these women forced into unfamiliar roles was fear. They felt incapable of managing a large group of slaves, and some of them even feared for their safety and their lives. Many women felt they could not trust their slaves, and could not manage them as effectively as their husbands or the overseers could. Some slave actions seemed to bear this out, as the author recounts cases of women smothered in their beds, and other ghastly murders (Faust 57-58). Women were afraid of their slaves, and it seems many of their slaves could sense this, and took advantage of their fears, which were mostly sexual in nature.

Of course, not all white southern women feared their slaves. Some saw them as protectors and comrades against the hated Yankees. Historian Faust continues, “There were in fact slaves who buried the master’s silver to hide it from the enemy; there were slaves, like one Catherine Edmondston described, who drew knives to defend mistresses against Yankee troops” (Faust 61). These women had to rely on their slaves for a variety of things, including their very survival, and for many, it was quite an uneasy alliance. One of the biggest problems women faced in their domination of their slaves was the use of violence. In their male-centered society, the men often dominated the slaves with fear of violence and punishment. Faust continues, “In the prewar years, exercise of the violence fundamental to slavery was overwhelmingly the responsibility and prerogative of white men. A white woman disciplined and punished as the master’s subordinate and surrogate” (Faust 63). In southern society, women were raised to be weak and dependent on men for their support. When the men marched off to war, the women had to take on roles that were unfamiliar and frightening, and most of them were very unprepared for these roles because of their upbringing. One woman wrote, “I am so sick of trying to do a man’s business when I am nothing but, a poor contemptible piece of multiplying human flesh tied to the house by a crying young one, looked upon as belonging to a race of inferior beings'” (Faust 65). Interestingly, she described herself just as most southerners felt about their slaves, and she may have ultimately discovered she and her slaves had more in common than she ever could have imagined. Raised to be dependent, southern women were not meant to run a farm, they were meant to be “inferior beings” to their husbands, and so, they fit into another niche in society that was almost totally dependent on strong and authoritarian males. As more and more blacks left the farms and plantations for freedom, women found they were left without servants, and had no idea how to cook, clean, or do their own laundry. Raised as ladies, they were suddenly forced to do menial work, and for some of them, it was almost too much for them to bear. They found managing their slaves was difficult, but living without them was just as difficult.

One aspect of southern women that might not be recognized at first is how their clothing altered during the Civil War. Author Faust states, “Clothing became fraught with meaning for Confederate women” (Faust 220). As the war continued, cloth shortages were normal, and women had to rethink the way they dressed. Southern women had always relished their beautiful clothing – it represented part of their lifestyle and identity. The author continues, “Dress became a language southerners used to explore and to communicate their relationship to the personal, social, and cultural transformations of war” (Faust 221). Women were forced to recycle their household linens into clothing for the family, and they were often quite ingenious in their creations. Faust notes, “Parthenia Hague of Alabama dyed unbleached sheeting with barks and twigs to make a dress fabric in a rich brown and decorated plain homespun with scraps of worn-out old dresses — ‘part of an old black silk, and some red scraps of merino, and a remnant of an old blue scarf'” (Faust 222). Much of a woman’s identity and feelings of self-worth revolve around her appearance, and it is easy to see that at a time of extreme stress for southern women, they still wanted to appear attractive and stylish. This was important to their own feelings of inadequacy as they struggles with roles that were unfamiliar and demanding. Probably the biggest causality of clothing styles during the war was the hoop skirt. There simply were not enough materials available to create the massive swirling skirts and petticoats necessary for hoops, and metal was in short supply too. Faust states, “Many women gave up hoops to economize on the amount of cloth required for a skirt and on the materials necessary for the hoop itself” (Faust 224). Many women hung on to hoops for as long as possible, but continued shortages throughout the war gradually made most women aware that hoops were simply not practical or economical. Women also began to change their hairstyles during the war – many went to short hair as a matter of convenience, and never went back to pre-war longer styles. Faust writes, “Elaborate longer styles required considerable attention and extensive brushing and pinning, tasks often undertaken by slaves, whose labor proved decreasingly available as emancipation neared” (Faust 226). One of the most interesting developments in women’s clothing was cross-dressing – some women dressed as men for safety, convenience, and even humorous encounters. Some men dressed as women to escape captivity or capture. This would have been unheard of before the war, but desperate times often require desperate measures, and as women grew stronger, they grew bolder. They wanted to be more like their men at the front, and so they adopted short hairstyles and dressed in masculine dress to emulate their men as much as assert their own independence. Most Confederate women at one time or another expressed the desire to be a man, and this may have stemmed from their continued repression in society. Faust notes, “To resolve dissatisfaction by becoming — or desiring to become — a man is not to accomplish real change, however; it is to endeavor to flee from a system of subordination rather than to challenge the system directly” (Faust 232). Women were convinced of their own inferiority, and only as men could they truly function as complete and whole beings.

In conclusion, it is clear the Civil War impacted southern women in a number of ways. Some of them discovered they were strong enough to run a farm while the men were away at war. Some of them found they were not. They confronted their fears, their difficulties, and their hopes, and kept the South running while the men fought on the front. In addition, the war forced many changes to society, including clothing and hair styles. Women were different after the war, just as the entire South was different.


Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

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