- Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina by David Silkenat
In Moments of Despair, David Silkenat adds to a growing body of work on the impact of the Civil War. Defining the Civil War era as 1820-1905, Silkenat focuses his study on three "social constructs, suicide, divorce, and debt," which he argues "functioned as barometers of change reflecting the relationship between the individual and society" among black and white North Carolinians (2). While such issues arose in other areas of the United States in the nineteenth century, Silkenat contends that perceptions of these issues transformed more quickly in North Carolina (and, at times, in the South). More distinctively, he asserts, "North Carolinians understood suicide, divorce, and debt through the prism of race" (3).
Situating his work within specific southern historiographies of the perceptions of mental illness, marriages, and financial obligations, Silkenat also contributes to larger historiographical debates about the nineteenth century. He views the Civil War as a catalyst for change, a discontinuity in cultural understandings of suicide, divorce, and debt. He also describes a general trend of whites as increasingly individualistic, while blacks moved toward an increasing sense of community. Using a wide array of sources, including government documents, church records, newspapers, asylum reports, diaries, letters, divorce petitions, bankruptcy records, autobiographies, and Works Progress Administration interviews, Silkenat structures his book around the three distinct cultural constructs before, during, and after the Civil War. [End Page 144]
Silkenat breaks new ground as he explores the changing perceptions of suicide in North Carolina. Before the war, whites opposed suicide on social and spiritual grounds, whereas blacks, in the midst of slavery and influenced by some West African traditions, saw the act as understandable, even brave. Silkenat details a perceived "suicide mania" (9) among white elites decades after the war, blamed at the time on their health, domestic issues, or finances. Given the large percentage of veterans among those who committed suicide, Silkenat hypothesizes that war trauma likely played a role as well. Although suicide was not condoned by postwar whites, there was an increasing sense that it was a tragic rather than a criminal act. In contrast, Silkenat finds little evidence of postwar black suicides.
The second section begins with an antebellum world in which social stigma, stemming from white belief that divorce represented a genuine societal threat, prevented couples from seeking the legal separation that he argues (unlike other scholars) was readily available to white North Carolinians. While Silkenat stresses the importance of marriage to slaves, he notes that the dissolution of marriages was at times sanctioned by churches, slaveholders, and black communities. Studying five counties, he argues that because of the Civil War, North Carolina's blacks and whites reversed their views on divorce. Divorce rates increased throughout the postwar period in the state, with black clergy opposing the rise from the start and white society reacting only decades later.
Finally, Silkenat takes a wide-ranging approach to debt, studying credit networks, financial records, general stores, female-owned boardinghouses, and Populists at the end of the nineteenth century. He describes a prewar world in which blacks had no access to credit, but where farming whites normalized debt (which they saw as threatening independence) through interpersonal networks, a system in which personal bankruptcies represented significant social stigma. The Civil War destroyed that system and resulted in a world that placed the "needs of the individual over those of the society," as evidenced by increases in "personal bankruptcies" and "new credit-granting institutions, including general stores and pawnshops" (138). Silkenat observes that after 1865 blacks had access to limited credit, but they tried to avoid owing whites. He finishes with an account of the North Carolina Populists as a brief, failed challenge to that postwar system of debt and credit.
Throughout, Silkenat focuses on attitudes toward—more than he does the actual numbers of—suicides, divorces, and debts. This approach allows him to proceed despite the limitations of his...