Sunday, July 22, 2012

Just Finished Reading

I had this particular book on my wishlist for several months when I saw it for 40% off at the Society of Civil War Historians meeting last month in Lexington and snatched up a copy. Having ancestors from North Carolina, I'm always interested in scholarly studies from that state, and this offering from UNC Press, like a number of others that I have recently read did not disappoint.

Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, & Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina examines how black and white citizens from that state perceived these social maladies before, during and after the war. The book is divided into three section, each of which examines one of the facets of the subtitle.

Author David Silkenat, a professor at North Dakota State and who did his graduate work at UNC Chapel Hill, first examines suicide. His look at personal accounts and obituaries in period newspapers led him to some interesting conclusions and provided some well-told stories. Silkenat's evidence pointed to the conclusion that while suicide was quite uncommon and disdained by white North Carolinians during the antebellum period, it grew to be much more common, and while never fully socially accepted, self-destruction was viewed differently with the perspective that  the war provided. Quite the opposite, blacks, especially slaves, viewed suicide through a different lens before the Civil War, when the vast majority were without rights and freedom. Slaves sometimes used suicide to escape the oppression of the institution and did not place the religious condemnation on the practice that whites did at the time. After the war, when freedom was assured, but racism far from dead, black incidences of suicide became quite uncommon. It seems that after the war, freedmen now had a real purpose for living, while the world whites had known had disappeared and with it much of the economic and social well being ,which as well all know, helps determine our moods and how we view our world.

Divorce, like suicide, was viewed differently by white and black North Carolinians both before and after the war. Divorce was only considered by whites in extreme cases in the antebellum years, but due to the changes in society caused by the war it became much more common during the last three decades of the nineteenth century. Blacks, whose marriage vows were not legally recognized in slavery, and whose family bonds were often disrupted through the domestic slave trade, went to great lengths when freedom was achieved to legalize their marriages through the Freedmen's Bureau. Probably in part due to the court costs that came with divorces blacks sought legal separations less often in the postwar years than whites. Another factor was the rise in importance of the church to African American communities after the war. The black church had a huge influence on what was perceived as moral and what wasn't, and African American preachers made it a point to speak on the importance of family and the devastation that divorce brought.

In the antebellum years wealthy whites often issued personal loans to those in their neighborhoods who needed money as a from of paternalistic benevolence. The practice became less frequent when war came, which made money and resources for gifting and repayment more scare, and as economic downturns brought widespread economic woes in the postwar period. Debt was a fact of life it the South in the antebellum years because the agricultural cycle determined personal economics. Money was prevalent after the harvest, but was most scarce as the fall reaping approached. Slaves of course were not so much effected by personal debt as whites except in that they could be a ready form of capital should crops fail or an owner meet with some other economic failure. I found chapter 9, "What the Landlord and the Storeman Chose to Make It: General Stores, Pawnshops, & Boardinghouses in the New South," especially fascinating. The part of the chapter that covered boardinghouses shows how much economic necessity changed citizens' perceptions of what was and wasn't socially acceptable. Widowed white women, who before the war would have never thought of opening their homes to borders due to the social taboo of having single men living in their homes, after the war often found that this was not only a way to make ends meet, but also get ahead economically.

Moments of Despair makes an important contribution to social history and shows us again, just how much change the Civil War wrought in American society. I highly recommend it, especially to those interested in North Carolina history. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.75.                  

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