Victoria Ott, Associate Professor of History at Birmingham-Southern University, offered a presentation today on young women in the Confederacy who attended school during the Civil War. It was a fascinating talk. According to Ott, the parents of such women often enrolled them in school to get them out of harm’s way. During their time away from home, some young women took liberties they might not have taken before. For example, some engaged in courtship rituals, such as writing letters, with Confederate soldiers and on occasion, Union ones.
Ott, who was born in Alabama, provided background on her interest in young women in the Confederacy. As a child, she was introduced to the motion picture “Gone With the Wind.” By the time she got to graduate school, she needed a dissertation topic. Why not look for some real-life Scarlett O’Hara’s in the archive? She never found such a woman. She did find women who were sometimes frustrated by how the war was changing their lives. Among such women were ones who protected the memory of the Old South. Her talk posed interesting tensions with the core purpose of this class, which is to look for emerging urban life. As I told the audience in my opening remarks, the issue of young women and education in the years surrounding the Civil War was interesting enough on its own even if we never discussed or studied the rise of cities. But indeed, the class tried to do just that.
The longing of Ella Ballard, one young woman who attended a female academy in Frankfort, Kentucky, for a simple watch serves as an example of the emerging consumer culture that accompanied city life. Via an antebellum letter, she asked her father Rice Ballard, a Mississippi and Arkansas planter (and historical actor in my recently published book) to buy her one while he was in New Orleans. She even chatised him for forgetting her request.
A postbellum letter from former University of Alabama President Josiah Gorgas to his two daughters Mary and Jessie, students at Sewanee, University of the South, uncovers his query about the outcome of a baseball game, a sport that was first played in New York City. Finally, Elizabeth Townsend, a young Huntsville, Alabama, woman of mixed race, was enrolled in Wilberforce University along with her sister and cousins on the eve of the Civil War. She traveled to Ohio on boats and a train, two forms of transportation that announced an urbanizing world. A letter she wrote in May 1861, just a month after the war began, finds her not addressing this momentous event, but instead a social she recently attended at school. Without question, these were privileged young women. Still, their lives were not without challenges. Surviving evidence permits us to see their small claims on power in a still patriarchal world.
To which topic will this class turn next fall? I do not yet have a clue. Perhaps we will return to this subject. There’s still so much to learn and recover in the archive. Special thanks to the students: Chris Edmunds, Morgan Johnson, Lin Kabachia, William Newman, Adam Rosenberg and Sarah Yielding for their enthusiasm and openness to learning.
I want to also thank Kari Frederickson, Chair of UA’s History Department; Lydia Ellington, Director of Gorgas House, the event’s host site, Katherine Richter, Executive Director of the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society,Joshua Rothman, Director of the Summersell Center for the Study of the South, History Department Office Manager Christina Kircharr, Susan Reynolds, Associate Editor at Alabama Heritage magazine; and my colleagues Jimmy Mixson and John Beeler, for their support.
Reprinted from The Nineteenth Century City blog.