The Story Continues: Women and the American Civil War

The Story Continues: Women and the American Civil War

Today we share the first Field Dispatch from our latest addition to the correspondent team, Angela Esco Elder. Angela is an Assistant Professor of History at Converse College in South Carolina. She is currently revising her dissertation on Confederate widowhood for publication; her dissertation won the SHA C. Vann Woodward Dissertation Prize and St. George Tucker Society’s Melvin E. Bradford Dissertation Prize. Elder recently published a co-edited collection, Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln. On Muster, she will be writing on women’s history and gender history topics.


Todd Heisler, “Final Salute” series, 2008. Courtesy of the New York Times.

On July 7, 2018, numerous headlines informed the public of a “US service member killed in ‘insider attack’ in Afghanistan.”[1] The statement came just days after our Facebook feeds filled with Fourth of July red, white, and blue, with videos of fireworks, coordinated family outfits, and patriotic inspiration posted in abundance. Not long before that, Memorial Day brought its share of American flag memes and quotes about soldiers’ sacrifices. Summer holidays offer a powerful reminder that American freedom is intertwined with American death. Yet, even as we offer our condolences and prayers to the families of fallen heroes, the national narrative often remains on the one who gave “the ultimate sacrifice.” We focus on the deceased soldiers. We print their stories. What about those loved ones, who are sentenced to life?

When I started graduate school, I found myself drawn to stories of loss in the Civil War, sifting through letters tucked away in archives across the South. This was not a topic I expected to fall into. I blame Stephen Berry and John Inscoe, who sent me into the University of Georgia archives to find a seminar topic. The Special Collections in Athens weren’t as fancy as they are now. Back then, the archives existed in a room tucked away in a dated corner of the library, walls overburdened with artifacts, sunlight catching the dust as it floated lazily through the air. Or perhaps that’s the nostalgia of a first archival experience speaking. Either way, in I walked, wanting to read something about women and the Civil War. I have since come up with theory-laden scholarly justifications to support this pursuit, but at the time, the honest truth was that I was just interested in it. I loved stories. I loved writing. I was curious what the war was like for women and had no idea there was already a vast amount of scholarship behind it. So, I began reading through boxes of correspondence.

At some point in that first week, I stumbled across the story of William and Rosa Delony. I had just walked past the location of their Athens home that morning, now a downtown parking lot. They had a summer wedding in 1854. When Will left to fight for the Confederacy, they had three children under the age of four. I fell into their letters, a quiet conversation of paper and ink. They bore the separation as well as they could, focusing on the future, but the couple had their challenges. On his ninth wedding anniversary, Will found himself in Gordonsville, Virginia, miles from Georgia with a “longing for home makes my army life almost insupportable.”[2] What Rosa didn’t realize, and what I didn’t realize, was that I was holding one of his last letters.

Telegraph to Mrs. P. Stovall, October 6, 1863. Courtesy of the University of Georgia Archives.

I flipped the page and the next thing in the folder was a smaller slip of paper, a telegram to a neighbor with the instructions, “on account of her condition, break the news to Mrs. Deloney as best you can.” Will had received a mortal wound in his left thigh. He died in a Union hospital. Rosa was eight months pregnant with their fourth child. And then there was me, 150 years later, sitting in this uncomfortable metal chair, holding a smudged wisp of paper that changed a family’s life.

But the story didn’t end with this telegram, or with Will’s death. There was more in the box. Rosa had her baby, a girl, in November 1863, and turned her attention to bringing her husband’s body home. She wanted his remains in Georgia with her, to have a place to visit and mourn. Then, in July 1866, that final daughter, now a toddler, died of whooping cough.

Delony family plot in the Oconee Hill Cemetery in Athens, Georgia. Courtesy of the author.

Two months later, Rosa buried Will’s body beside this tiny grave. In 1863, Will had not been able to contain his excitement as he planned a trip home to Georgia for Christmas and the birth of his child. Now, he lay beside her in the Oconee Hill Cemetery. If Rosa could have chosen, she would not have planned for this chain of events. But at least now, in the midst of her uncertain future, one thing was certain. Will was finally home with his child. This was the first time I really thought about what it meant for women to live through and beyond the Civil War.

Certainly, she wasn’t the only one to live through a loss. At the Georgia Historical Society, I read a January 30, 1865, letter from a wife to her husband, who served in Company H, 2nd U.S. Colored Troops:

I have waited and longed and longed and waited for a letter from you but seems all in vain why dont you write to me and let me hear some thing from you. Not since October last have I heard one word from you…relieve my anxious mind the children are all anxious to see you and hear from you…[3]

This letter was found close to a body at the site of the Battle of Natural Bridge, in Florida.

At the Kentucky Historical Society, I spent time with a letter between Lucinda Helm and her daughter-in-law, Emilie Todd Helm, dated October 21, 1863:

My son, my son, my first born, my first born, my pride, my hope – Oh this wicked war of oppression—I know he died gloriously fighting for the freedom of his country but I can not feel that…the loss of my child, my darling son, how can I out live him?[4]

Lucinda’s son died during the Battle of Chickamauga. She would live another twenty-three years without him.

At the Tennessee State Library and Archives, I picked up the letter of farmer Asa V. Ladd, dated October 29, 1864:

My dear wife and children, I take my pen with trembling hand to inform you that I have to be shot between 2 and 4 o’clock this evening. I have but a few hours to remain in this unfriendly world. There is 6 of us sentenced to die in room of 6 union soldiers that was shot by Reeves men. My dear wife dont grieve after me. I want you to meet me in heaven. I want you to teach the children piety…I must bring my letter to a close leaving you in the hands of God. I send you my best love and respect in the hour of death…good-by Amy.[5]

Surrounded by several hundred spectators, Asa was tied to a post, blindfolded, and shot at 3:00 p.m. This letter serves as yet another reminder of a woman who lived through and beyond the Civil War.

Many scholars have moments like this, stories that grab them, shake them, and demand attention. We spend months and years of our lives with these characters and stories. And they change us. When I read a news bulletin about warfare or refugees or disease or famine, I now think of the women within and behind these stories. Instinctively, many historians search for the absent voices, the underrepresented voices, the voices not invited to the table. For those of us who teach, we often ask our students after lectures or readings, “Why does this matter? What is the significance of this event? What is the big picture?” I’ve heard it said that the death of a single Civil War soldier is like a stone dropped in a pond, sending out ripples. But I don’t just want to study the stone, I want the story of the pond. Throw in a handful of stones, perhaps 750,000 or so, and well, welcome to the world of Civil War studies.

 

[1] “US service member killed in ‘insider attack’ in Afghanistan,” BBC News, July 7, 2018, accessed July 9, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-44751902.

[2] William Delony to Rosa Delony, May 14, 1863, Delony Family Papers, Hargrett Special Collections, University of Georgia Archives, Athens, Georgia.

[3] C. Ann Butler to William Butler, January 30, 1865, C. Ann Butler Letter, Georgia Historical Society, Savannah, Georgia.

[4] Lucinda Helm to Emilie Todd Helm, October 21, 1863, Helm Family Papers, Kentucky Historical Society, Frankfort, Kentucky.

[5] Asa V. Ladd (Gratiot St. Prison in St. Louis), to wife, October 29, 1864, Asa V. Ladd Papers, 1864, Tennessee State Library and Archives, Nashville.

Angela Esco Elder

Angela Esco Elder is an assistant professor of history at Converse College. She earned her doctorate at the University of Georgia, and the following year she was the 2016-2017 Virginia Center for Civil War Studies postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Tech. Her research explores gender, emotion, family, and trauma in the Civil War Era South. She is the co-editor of Practical Strangers: The Courtship Correspondence of Nathaniel Dawson and Elodie Todd, Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.

One Reply to “The Story Continues: Women and the American Civil War”

  1. Thank you for this wonderful post. I love that your trip to the Special Collections led to this interesting topic. I am excited to read your future posts!

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