Sunday, December 16, 2012

Just Finished Reading

I have always enjoyed reading collections of essays. I think the main reason for that is because you get to think about so many different aspects on common theme, and thereby expand your knowledge both in width and depth.

Somehow, since its publication in 2000, I had overlooked Southern Families at War: Loyalty and Conflict in the Civil War South. This collection of essays edited by respected Southern and women's historian Catherine Clinton cover a set of topics as diverse as the geography of the South.

With these essays we get a glimpse of life for Southern people - black, white, rich, poor, religious, secular, native, immigrant, during and immediately after, behind, and sometimes caught up in the battle lines of the Civil War.

As always seem to be the case, some of these essays spoke to me and interested me more than others. Of course, the main reason for that is because they cover topics that I find personally intriguing or because they cover events that happened in locations that I am familiar with.

The first essay offered up in this collection, "Looking for Lost Kin: Efforts to Reunite Freed Families after Emancipation," by Michael P. Johnson, looks at the effort former slaves made in trying to locate their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and extended family after the Civil War. Johnson closely examines the advertisements in the Christian Recorder, a weekly newspaper of the African American Methodist Episcopal Church. Johnson contends that the ads were submitted in such a way to take advantage of the African American "grapevine" that extended throughout the nation; that is, that these ads were meant to be read to congregations and other gatherings and then discussed among each other. The ultimate desired end result was reunion, but just getting some word about the condition and locality of separated loved ones often too provided a sense of comfort for those that had been estranged for years or even decades.

"In the Shadow of the Old Constitution: Black Civil War Veterans and the Persistence of Slave Marriage Customs," by Donald R. Shaffer, offers another fascinating study. Here Shaffer examined pensions of former USCT soldiers to find that some abandoned the "old constitution," that is, the old slave marriage customs, while others continued in that style of informal common-law relationships that had been prevalent in slave days. Shaffer explains that these marriages caused issues when wives or widows attempted to provide proof of marriage when  potentially collecting a pension. One reason for the persistence of slave-type relationships that Shaffer cites is the cost of formal marriages and especially divorces. Before the days of no-fault divorces, the court costs could prove quite prohibitive to African Americans barely scraping by. As Shaffer summarizes  "Hence, even as former slaves embraced the possibilities of freedom, their years in bondage continued to shape their behavior in a significant way even decades later."

Another essay that caught my attention was "A Family of Women and Children: The Fains of East Tennessee during Wartime," by Daniel W. Stowell. Having lived in East Tennessee for a number of years as a youth and later as an adult made me acutely aware of many of the places and circumstance included in this selection. The Fains were from Hawkins County, Tennessee and were unique for their location in that they supported the Confederacy, while the majority of their neighbors were Unionists. Eliza Fain left an incredible record of her life experience in the series of diaries she kept from 1835 to 1892. Her records on the war years are a fascinating look into the tumultuous life she and her family experienced in East Tennessee. She wrote about her experiences with her slaves, her Unionist neighbors, guerrillas, and the Union forces that rode through and occupied her land. In the end, with her husband and sons off fighting for the Confederacy, Eliza assumed the probably unwanted position of farm and slave manager and sole influential parent. She relied heavily on her intelligence and strong faith to survive the terrible conflict that turned her world upside down.

Other essays that I especially enjoyed were, "Good Angels: Confederate Widowhood in Virginia," "The White Wings of Eros: Courtship and Marriage in Confederate Richmond," "Power, Sex, and Gender Roles: The Transformation of an Alabama Planter Family during the Civil War," and, "Patriarchy in the World Where There Is No Parting?: Power Relations in the Confederate Heaven."

I highly recommend this great collection of essays. In fact, I enjoyed reading Southern Families at War, so much, that on a scale from 1 to 5, I feel confident in giving it a 5.

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