Tara Revisited: Women, War, and the Plantation Legend

Tara Revisited: Women, War, and the Plantation Legend

3.5 2
by Catherine Clinton

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This volume cuts through romantic myth, combining period photographs and illustrations with new documentary sources to tell the real story of Southern women during the Civil War. Drawing from a wealth of poignant letters, diaries, slave narratives, and other accounts, Catherine Clinton provides a vivid social and cultural history of the diverse communities of Southern… See more details below


This volume cuts through romantic myth, combining period photographs and illustrations with new documentary sources to tell the real story of Southern women during the Civil War. Drawing from a wealth of poignant letters, diaries, slave narratives, and other accounts, Catherine Clinton provides a vivid social and cultural history of the diverse communities of Southern women during the Civil War.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal - Library Journal
Historian Clinton (who has taught at Harvard, Brandeis, and Brown) returns to the Civil War South, scene of her Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (LJ 9/15/92) and The Plantation Mistress: Woman's World in the Old South (LJ 11/15/82). Although not as richly detailed as either of those earlier works, Tara Revisited is valuable for its segue into the postwar mythology of the Lost Cause-a mythology that affected countless books and films. Clinton's thorough knowledge of her subject, reliance on primary sources, and lively style all render the book accessible to any reader wanting a brief introduction to Southern women-both black and white-of the period. Libraries collecting Southern or women's history will want this title, and others should consider; see also Elizabeth Fox-Genovese's study, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (LJ 12/88).-Donna L. Cole, Leeds P.L., Ala.
School Library Journal - School Library Journal
YA-This accessible history of women in the South begins with English promoters promising ``paradise on earth'' for settlers, briefly acknowledges the success of the planter class by the time of the American Revolution, gives an account of slavery and the growth of female responsibilities as the slave-dependent economy expanded, and explores the impact of the Civil War. Abundant use of primary-source materials provides intimacy across time for YAs. The role of black troops, Harriet Tubman's career as Union spy and scout, letters of former slaves, hospitals formed and run by women, southern belles, saboteurs, smugglers, soldiers, government workers, keepers of the home, and black self-sufficient settlements are all examined and documented. Life following surrender, establishment of the Southern perception of the war, and the continuing commercial aggrandizement of that perception conclude this volume.-Barbara Hawkins, Oakton High School, Fairfax, VA

Product Details

Abbeville Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.78(w) x 8.71(h) x 0.82(d)

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Introduction: Of Legends and Plantations

The most famous plantation in the American South never existed. The mythical Tara was a series of iconographic images conjured from fact and fiction, a celluloid dream for some and a nightmarish caricature for others. Mementos and misremembering, pride and prejudices, were mixed into the historical batter and served up as legend to hungry fans. Every year hundreds, perhaps thousands of visitors flock to Georgia and inquire, "Where's Tara?"

This book is not an attempt to find Tara but to relocate the legend in a complex interweaving of myth and memories, particularly in relation to the lives of Southern women. The creation and evolution of the legendary Old South will be as important to this exploration as the harrowing and heartening tales of women who lived through the rise and fall of the Confederacy. Despite the myth that will serve as backdrop, the book will focus primarily on the actual impact of the war upon real women during the battle for Confederate independence, a battle that was simultaneously the struggle for black emancipation.

Despite the considerable mists of sentiment that have clouded this chapter of the Southern past, stories of women's courage and female heroics are riveting and relatively unheralded. Many tales need no embellishment to wring empathy from a reader. Yet the creative bending of the truth to suit poetic license in Civil War literature strikes a powerful chord for many Americans. The images of Scarlett, Mammy, and other women of plantation lore still hold us in their thrall. But before analyzing the realm of myth and folklore, I will explore the lives of those real women whose experiences illuminateour appreciation of the Civil War past.

In order to convey something of the realities of plantation life, Tara Revisited will chronicle challenges confronted by Southern plantation women with the outbreak of the Civil War, sketching dilemmas faced by all plantation women, black and white, and exploring their struggles with one another. The secession of the Southern states and the formation of the Confederacy was one of the most dramatic chapters in the American past, one that has inspired thousands of books. But despite the fascination this period holds for readers and scholars, aspects of it remain trivialized. Indeed, the topic of women's responses to and roles in the Civil War-so long a popular theme in fiction and film-has only just begun to blossom in scholarly literature.

Despite this academic neglect, publishers long ago discovered the magnetism of Civil War memoirs. Although Abraham Lincoln—a symbol of triumph and tragedy for the Union—reigns supreme within the field, the Southern experience has been well represented in historical and popular writing. In particular, Confederate women have provided us with a steady stream of important historical characters—from the fascinating Jones family women introduced in the prize-winning Children of Pride (1972) to the equally beguiling Mary Boykin Chesnut, whose story earned C. Vann Woodward a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 with Mary Chesnut's Civil War.

The lives of black Southern women, on the other hand, remain obscured and uncelebrated. Too little evidence remains on slave and freedwomen. And so, to a great extent, we must extrapolate the experiences of African-American women from African Americans in general. The National Archives have provided a treasure trove illuminating black experience during this dynamic era. The heroism of the black soldier during the Civil War, so long a forgotten chapter of our past, has enjoyed a new popularity. This powerful image was highlighted when Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for his performance in Glory (1989), a film featuring the experience of black soldiers in the Union army. The dramatic impact of the war on Southern slaves and the struggle for freedom waged by blacks within the Confederacy continues as a vital legacy of the Civil War.

The intensity of this experience is revealed in the voices of thousands of former slaves—women and men—interviewed during the Depression for a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project sometimes referred to as "the slave narratives." Also, the millions of documents collected and recorded by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, familiarly known as the Freedman's Bureau, have also been surveyed, processed, and edited for publication in an ambitious multi-volume work entitled Freedom: A Documentary History of Emancipation (1861-1867). This sampling affords us precious insight into the obstacles and opportunities confronted by newly-emancipated blacks, both women and men.

Still, the pages of history remain overcrowded with material drawn too heavily from white interpretations of black experience and from Confederate perspectives on events. As we well know, the meanings of war are as varied as those individuals who experience it. Our rich storehouse of documentary sources allow us to explore multiple voices and alternative views of this watershed event. These stories will perhaps never be woven into one smooth narrative that can satisfy both North and South, black and white, male and female, or any of the other divides that predated the war and survived the struggle. By allowing diverse and even clashing perspectives to emerge, however, we can create an historical mosaic that pieces together the meanings of the conflict for us several generations later. And we can come to hear the historical voices of black women, so long muffled by the din of alternate interpretations, incorporating their roles into this emblematic era.

The Civil War still exerts gravity—both a pull and a weight on the late twentieth century. Even in 1988, more than fifty thousand gathered at Gettysburg for a re-enactment of the battle on its one hundred and twenty-fifth anniversary. This crowd was even more diverse than those who fought near Little Round Top in 1863. Costumed participants mingled with the crowd of observers who had flocked to watch the event, in an atmosphere reminiscent of that surrounding the first Battle of Bull Run, when festive picnickers and ladies in carriages drove out from Washington to see the show in July 1861. The modern re-enactment of Gettysburg brought old and young, predominantly men, but many women, and almost all whites. (Of the less than fifty blacks at the site, most were members of the media.) This group reflected the spirit of those who wanted not just to commemorate history, but to relive it.

As William Faulkner wrote about Gettysburg in Intruder in the Dust (1948): "For every Southern boy fourteen years old not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods... and Pickett himself... with his hat in one hand... and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet, it hasn't even begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin."

This fictional character's romantic escapism pales by comparison to the reality of Confederate revisionism. The Cult of the Lost Cause reworked the war to Southern advantage. "They may have won," the defeated South avowed, "but we remained gentlemen." This Lost Cause ideology became a kind of religion in the postbellum South, one that has been explored imaginatively by a growing body of historians. The slow and steady progress of hero worship and memorialization lifted the Stars and Bars of the Confederate battle flag out of the ashes and into a defiant stance. And the repercussions of this posture continue to the present day.

Post-surrender white Southerners recognized that they could rebuild their region not just with bricks and mortar, but by laying a foundation for historical revisionism. To many, this involved reconfiguring facts to conform to political agendas. In the wake of Lee's surrender, former Confederates launched an immediate verbal and literary counterattack. Curiously, many Northerners not only forgave former Confederates, granting them their historical license, but by the 1870s had joined the revisionist pack. When America's official Centennial festivities opened in Philadelphia in 1876, the theme of unification predominated.

Unlike their European and Latin American counterparts, former Confederate insurrectionists were not concerned with the possibility of being beheaded, or even of prolonged imprisonment. Instead, some sought to recoup their losses at sword point by taking up the pen. In 1881 Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, published his own apologia, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government. By the last quarter of the century Southern voices had become cherished chroniclers of the "good old days," and by the turn of the century Southern historians exerted notable influence, even gaining positions within prestigious Ivy League institutions. None was more impressive than the prolific Ullrich Bonnell Phillips, writing from his position as a professor at Columbia University in New York City. The Phillips school of Southern history dominated the study of slavery for almost half a century after his publication of American Negro Slavery (1918). Phillips and his students preached a philosophy of planter paternalism, asserting that slavery was a benign institution—benevolent slave owners created a "plantation school," he suggested, to educate backward blacks to the virtues of discipline and productivity.

The images promoted by scholars and intellectuals were secondary, however, to the way in which the Old South, with its mass appeal to white Americans, was depicted within popular culture. Most strikingly, the immigrant generation that founded the American movie industry, along with their offspring (both literal and intellectual), became hooked on the tales and images of the Old South. Plantation epics supplanted historical texts while "moonlight and magnolia" captured the national imagination. Even if Americans did not learn most of their history from the silver screen between the world wars, and from the smaller screen, television, from the 1950s onward, the entertainment industry has indelibly fashioned nostalgic perceptions of the plantation South with these popular and sometimes purposefully misleading renditions, particularly those of the Civil War era. At the same time serious treatment of slavery and its consequences has been extremely rare in popular culture. Black artists and critics rightfully deplore both the sympathetic treatment of slaveholding and the lack of diversity in depiction of the African-American experience. Indeed, media commentators have noted that in the 1990s, more black women have been relegated to playing maids in films and television programs than ever before. And so we must ask when will we see Harriet Tubman on the screen, or Sojourner Truth? Harriet Jacobs or Susie King Taylor? These celebrated figures of black resistance form significant counter-legends to Lost Cause propaganda. African Americans rightly demand more diverse illuminations of the past, not the comfortable cartoonish aspects traditionally served up.

At a minimum, we must acknowledge that blacks within the Confederacy had a disproportionate stake in the outcome of the Civil War. Black and white women on plantations were not left behind during wartime, but were right at the center of their own victories and defeats. As some have argued, the slaveholders' inability to maintain order, discipline, and productivity on slaveholding plantations was a major blow to Confederate independence. Dislocations and deprivations plagued white and black, rich and poor, and the plantations enjoyed little respite from the ravages of war. Loss of household and loss of loved ones all took their toll during the many long years of conflict. So the drama of wartime struggle was not confined to combat in the field, but included battles faced by the black and white women besieged on Southern slaveholding estates, embittered and themselves locked in struggle. Today, as well, the plantation remains contested terrain, a vital intersection of historical images that summon up warring visions of the southern past.

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