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Protect Us! White Female Protection on the Homefront


     Introduction | Starvation | Confederates Slaves | The EnemyConclusion 

The Civil War was not supposed to be a long war. Many soldiers on both sides thought the war would be over in a matter of months, not years. In reality the war was long and grueling, destroying the South.  As the war dragged on, patriotism on the home front and battlefront waned. On the battlefield, Confederate losses like Vicksburg and Gettysburg hurt morale. On the home front, the Union blockade caused rampant inflation and shortages of manufactured goods. Everyday life became a battle for many southern civilians. Some southerners maintained their loyalty to the end, but many southerners’ patriotism decreased dramatically as conditions worsened. In states like North Carolina, the loss of morale was especially evident. The hardships of the war in North Carolina tore apart the social structure.

1863 marked a turning point for the Confederate army. The twin tragedies of Vicksburg and Gettysburg damaged morale on the battlefront. By 1863, the Confederate rhetoric of protection failed to motivate soldiers to fight. In 1861, white southern men were called to protect their family and their state. While initially wildly successful, after two years of war many white men saw the inherent contradictions in the Cause. Soldiers who fought and died on the front left behind dependants, creating widows and fatherless children. Soldiers injured in the war returned home unable to assist with their farms. All soldiers who left for the battlefield left their women home without a protector. In households with slaves, this was problematic because it was not appropriate to leave white women in charge of possibly hundreds of slaves. While the calls of protection of the home were effective in recruiting men, it was not effective in keeping the men enlisted. By the end of the war, desertion was rampant because soldiers wanted to return home. The same ideas of protection that brought men to the front also lead to desertion. While white men went away to protect the Confederacy, they could not simultaneously protect the white women from the hardships of the home front. Some Confederate men stayed loyal to the Cause until the end but the losses on the battlefield and hardships on the home front caused men to see the contradiction in Confederate rhetoric. The Civil War broke down a major pillar of southern masculinity.

As the war advanced, white women shifted from being objects of white men’s obligation to taking more active roles in public affairs. In the South, white women could not vote or own property and their formal political roles were limited. The war changed this. First, the Confederacy called on white men to support the war. However, as the war progressed the Confederate government called upon white women to support the Cause, recognizing them as political entities. Stephanie McCurry argues that white women took on the political label of soldiers’ wives to gain power in the Confederacy. Much of this power manifested in petitions to Confederate government to release their husbands. Soldiers’ wives were white women of all classes, so even poor white women had some political power. [1] The role of soldiers’ wives political nature violated separate sphere ideology and furthered the destruction of the South’s social structure.

The war made white women vulnerable and the lack of protection forced them into the public sphere.  Faust argues at the beginning of the war white women’s self-sacrifice was glorified by society. But by the end of the war, the romance of patriotism wore off as the reality of death and starvation set in. [2] The lack of male protection during the Civil War pushed white women into the public sphere forcing them to take the role of soldiers’ wives to bring their male protector home. Faust states that white women’s disenchantment with the war effort caused Confederate defeat. [3] This is bold statement, but the importance of the home front cannot be downplayed. The South did not just lose the war through battle but through a complex interaction of variables, including home front morale. In states like North Carolina, the home front conditions were so dire that they forced white women into the public sphere. The failure of the Confederacy was twofold; the battle and home front conditions combined to bring down the South.

Thousands of southerners petitioned the Confederate state and national government during the Civil War. In the role of soldiers’ wives, many white women requested their husbands return home for protection. White women became the quasi-public advocate for the family. This role was effective because when men requested leave they were viewed as weak or cowardly. These petitions may seem disloyal but Amy Murrell argues that the petitions reveal the complex nature of Confederate loyalty. To the petitioners, family came before the Cause. This did not mean the petitioners did not think the Cause was valid, but the intense suffering on the home front overruled the Cause. Petitions to the Confederate government give insight into home front condition during the Civil War and the letters often expose the tension between loyalty to family and loyalty to state. [4]

“Protect Us!” will use white women’s experiences in North Carolina from 1863 to 1865 to bring clarity to these complex and sometimes contradictory ideas. White women in North Carolina had a unique home front experience. While many states in the Confederacy experienced unrest toward the end of the Civil War, North Carolina’s violence on the home front led Victoria Bynum to designate 1863 to 1865 as the Inner Civil War in North Carolina. The Inner Civil War erupted between loyal and disloyal members of the home front. North Carolina’s diverse economic conditions played into the Inner Civil War. The western portion of the stated comprised of poor whites living in Appalachia. The eastern part of the state held large plantations and port cities. The middles of the state combined these economies. Even before the war, tensions existed between eastern and western North Carolina. The Inner Civil War just brought the tensions to a head.  By 1864, two-thirds of North Carolina troops had deserted the army. This created violence between the deserters and the Confederate home guard. Deserters often attacked households that had food and provisions. Home guards often violently searched the white women they suspected of hiding deserters. Many white women hid their husbands, sons and brothers who left the army and many loyal white women reported those women. [5] No matter how the white women felt about loyalty, they became the victims of a second war. On top of the food shortages and extreme inflation, white women had to work with both home guard and deserters to live. The North Carolina home front suffered not from northern destruction, but from the internal chaos the war brought. Through the examination and analysis of letters from white women to Governor Zebulon Baird Vance, this chapter will show the failure of male protection during the Civil War. Individual men could not protect white women from starvation, other Confederates, slaves and ultimately Union troops. The inadequacy of men to protect their white women led some white women to turn to the government as their male protector.  The government, however, like husbands and fathers, also failed to protect white women.

[1] McCurry, “Citizens, Soldiers’ Wives,” 110.

[2] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 1996, 59, 242.

[3] Faust, “Alters of Sacrifice,” 1226.

[4] Amy M. Murrell, “Of Necessity and Public Benefit: Southern families and Their Appeals for Protection,” in Southern Families at War: Loyalty and Conflict in the Civil War South, ed. Catherine Clinton  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 78, 93.

[5] Bynum, Unruly Women, 130. 

Protect Us!
Protect Us! White Female Protection on the Homefront