Throughout most of this project, the focus has been on threats lower class Confederate wives have faced, we now shift the focus to a threat which upper class Confederate wives faced. This threat came in the form of the institution of slavery, more directly the presence of the female slave in a mistress’ household. The institution itself is viewed as a threat to Confederate women in this instance because of the way the Civil War disrupted society of the Antebellum South. The Civil War changed the institution of slavery forever. As is commonly known, during the duration of the war slavery was abolished in border and Union-occupied Southern states with the declaration of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln. The institution of slavery posed a threat to upper class Confederate women because it threatened their way of life. During the Antebellum period, mistresses’ domains were their households, and all the slaves who worked in it were hers to do with as she pleased. Although the mistress did have authority over slaves who labored outside of the house, they fell more under the jurisdiction of her husband, known as the Master, and his overseers who presided over slaves who worked in the field. In her household, the mistress was responsible for overseeing the cooking, cleaning, and other chores the house slaves conducted as well as planning house parties and overseeing the rearing of her children, the last of which mainly fell to the house slaves themselves. Though these actions painted mistresses as meek and gentle women, from many former slave testimonies a case could be made for the other. As historian Thavolia Glymph notes, “…it often did not matter even when slave women did the work demanded of them. The manner in which they did so angered mistresses because it left little doubt about black women’s sense of violation. Sometimes, their simple presence was enough to vex mistresses” (Glymph, 72). A relevant portrayal of this kind of attitude can be found in last year’s 12 Years A Slave by Steve McQueen. In one scene, the film’s main villain Master Epps (portrayed by Michael Fassbender) gets all the slaves up in the middle of the night to dance and entertain he and his wife. As the scene goes on, Mistress Epps (portrayed by Sarah Paulson) catches her husband staring at one of the female field slaves. Like a quiet storm, Mistress Epps slowly walks over to where the female slave is dancing and throws a glass vase right into the young girl’s face, sending her to the ground in pain (Ejiofor, et al. 2013). It’s this kind of act that director Steve McQueen portrays in his film that represents just how extreme and harsh cruel mistresses could be. Female slaves proved to be a threat to mistresses because of the “danger” they posed to disrupting the picturesque southern family portrait of the Victorian era. Having to compete with their husband’s affections against a woman who was considered like a farm animal, was extremely insulting and had to be destructive to the mistress’ psyche. Apart from this, slaves posed a threat to mistresses when refusing to do household chores or other duties on the plantation.
“By her own estimate, Mary Bain of North Carolina devoted years to the task of teaching Rose how to be a ‘good’ slave. Rose refused the instruction and Bain sent her o the ‘hiring grounds’ as punishment…two years of trying several different arrangements and environments had not rid Rose of her seeming contempt for them or her desire to live her own life” (Glymph, 72).
This passive aggressive attitude put a hindrance in the day-to-day running of the plantation and caused great annoyance to mistresses who ran them in their husbands’ absences. It was resistance tactics like the ones Rose displayed that other slaves used as a form of rebellion against their masters. Like Rose, many slaves were not satisfied, nor accepting of their chattel status. As Glymph mentions in her book, this feeling was heightened when masters and overseers were called to the battlefield, leaving the mistress alone as their keeper. “The evidence lends itself more to an interpretation…more than anything else, it was often the role and status of manager, in and of itself, that provoked backlash, not the sex of the managers” (Glymph, 122). This changed attitude by slaves towards their mistresses relates to the main theme of Thavolia Glymph’s book, which focuses solely on how the gender dynamic changed and transformed during and after the Civil War. Slaves, particularly field hands, did not accept their mistress’ new role as Master and Overseer in her husband’s absence because they did not perceive her as a true leader. “The resistance mistresses faced from field hands drew on slaves’ perception, increasingly salient in wartime, that the division between the big house and the fields was often arbitrary and superficial” (Glymph, 122). Throughout Civil War, without a strong male presence, mistresses were left responsible for more than just overseeing tasks of the “Big House”. In this way, many plantation wives were forced to step up out of their traditional roles as submissive, demure damsels, into strong, hardworking masters. It was in this temporary new role that mistresses ran into problems. For example, slaves did not view their mistresses as appropriate in the role of master and did not respect them. Also, because of this rejection by their slaves as Master and Overseer, mistresses had failed at successfully running their husbands’ plantation in their absences by the time Union soldiers made their way into the South. Though this section did not pertain to Martha Poteet or Ann Bowen, as they were lower class Confederates, this section is important in that it portrays the types of struggles upper class Confederate women faced during the absences of their own husbands. Coupled with the threat of being usurped as their role as keeper of the husband’s affections prior to the Civil War, white mistresses rejection as Master/Overseer by their own slaves greatly hindered and helped crack the already crumbling institution of slavery in the South during the duration of the Civil War.