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Moments of Despair

Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina

David Silkenat

Publication Year: 2011

Silkenat argues that the Civil War forced North Carolinians to re-evaluate the meaning of suicide, divorce, and debt, and that the nature of this reinterpretation was predicated on race. The Civil War changed how both white and black North Carolinians understood their place in society and the claims that society had upon them. For whites, this entailed a shift from a world which individuals were tightly bound to their local community to one in which they were increasingly untethered from social ties. For black North Carolinians, though, these trends headed in the opposite direction, as emancipation laid the groundwork for new bonds of community. Looking at these three actions, Silkenat identifies patterns that transformed American society. Silkenat argues that in two significant ways, how North Carolinians understood these three actions differed from broader patterns of social change. First, the attitudes toward these cultural practices changed more abruptly and rapidly in the South than in the rest of American society. Second, North Carolinians understood suicide, divorce, and debt through a prism of race, something that was not a vital consideration in the national discourse on these subjects. As a result, North Carolinians interpreted these three actions with racial meanings.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v-viii

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pp. ix-x

Book acknowledgments often employ the rhetoric of debt to describe the help that the author has received. Given that this particular book is in part about changing conceptions of debt, I have thought long and hard about the ways and words I would use to thank those who have helped me along the way. ...

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pp. 1-6

Reflecting on transformations in North Carolina society since the Civil War, Rev. Frank L. Reid, pastor of Raleigh’s Edenton Street Methodist Church and editor of the Christian Advocate, observed in 1887, “There is a spirit of unrest, disquietude and discontent, which seems to foreshadow some great change. ...

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Part I: By His Own Hand: Suicide

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pp. 7-10

In July 1862, heavy fighting around Richmond and Petersburg overwhelmed the cities’ hospitals with wounded Confederate soldiers. A series of battles, known as the Seven Days, had left, according to one North Carolina soldier, “the dead and dying actually stink[ing] upon the hills.”1 ...

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1. Most Horrible of Crimes: Suicide in the Old South

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pp. 11-22

In 1798, the Philanthropic Society, one of the University of North Carolina’s two debating societies, considered whether suicide was ever justifiable. Although vigorous debate ensued on both sides of the issue, the final resolution was unanimous: suicide was never justifiable. ...

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2. The Self-Slaying Epidemic: Suicide after the Civil War

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pp. 23-52

Professor Ralph Graves’s suicide in 1889 sent the community at the University of North Carolina into mourning. Born in 1851, Graves had grown up on campus, where his father had taught and where his great-grandfather had served as the school’s first steward. ...

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3. The Legacy of the War We Suppose: Suicide in Medical and Social Thought

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pp. 53-70

As the evidence in the preceding chapter has made clear, the Civil War fundamentally reoriented how white and black North Carolinians understood suicide. This evidence also suggests that the Civil War, at least at some level, effected some change in the frequency of suicide. ...

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Part II: To Loosen the Bands of Society: Divorce

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pp. 71-74

Addie May spent her whole life desperately longing for a successful marriage. Born in Pitt County near Farmville in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, she married Francis Dupree in 1882 when she was less than nineteen years old. Her husband began drinking heavily soon after their wedding, often returning home drunk and abusive. ...

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4. The Country Is Also a Party: Antebellum Divorce in Black and White

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pp. 75-94

Antebellum white North Carolinians saw marriage not only as a commitment between a man and a woman but as a fundamental institution holding society together.1 The Southern Quarterly Review concluded in 1854 that marriage was “the primal act by which human society was organized, the first social institution. . . . ...

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5. Connubial Bliss until He Entered the Army by Conscription: Civil War and Divorce

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pp. 95-112

When twenty-three-year-old James Wells enlisted in his local regiment on 6 June 1861, he knew that his service for the Confederate cause would take him farther from his Caswell County home than he had ever traveled. He also knew that it would take him away from his young wife, Nancy, whom he had married only months earlier. ...

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6. The Divorce Mill Runs Over Time: Marital Breakdown and Reform in the New South

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pp. 113-136

The Civil War placed unprecedented and acute pressures on both black and white marriages, often separating partners and submitting them to severe mental and emotional burdens. Although divorces in the immediate postwar period can be attributed to the particular strains of wartime and emancipation, ...

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Part III: Enslaved by Debt: The Culture of Credit and Debt

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pp. 137-140

In its inaugural report, the North Carolina Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded in 1887 that North Carolinians across the state shouldered debts they could not pay. A teacher from Rutherford County observed that “the working people of this county, as a rule, are in debt.” ...

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7. Sacredness of Obligations: Debt in Antebellum North Carolina

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pp. 141-158

Although debt of one form or another was ubiquitous throughout the South during the nineteenth century, indebtedness carried a significant social stigma for white North Carolinians during the antebellum period. Debt functioned as a fundamental threat to an individual’s independence ...

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8. Out of Debt before I Die: The Credit Crisis of the Civil War

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pp. 159-172

The experience of white North Carolinians during the Civil War fundamentally transformed their conception of debt. Their faith in the sanctity of the debtor-creditor relationship rapidly eroded as wartime economic conditions made predictable credit relations almost impossible. ...

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9. What the Landlord and the Storeman Choose to Make It: General Stores, Pawnshops, and Boardinghouses in the New South

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pp. 173-204

If the experience of Dr. James Webb serves as a useful example of the antebellum gift economy, the life of his son, James Webb Jr., epitomizes the new system of credit that developed after the Civil War. While his father liberally extended credit as a pillar of the local gift economy, only to be disgraced by bankruptcy, ...

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10. Nothing Less than a Question of Slavery or Freedom: Populism and the Crisis of Debt in the New South

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pp. 205-216

Hard times is the cry,” argued a tenant farmer from Johnston County in 1887. “Tenants are far behind, caused by short crops for three years. If we could get cash for our work and produce and pay cash for what we buy we would soon be out of debt and doing well. ...

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pp. 217-220

In 1908, at the age of seventy-four, John Brevard Alexander sat at his desk in Charlotte to write his memoirs. In Reminiscences of the Past Sixty Years, the Confederate veteran and Mecklenburg County doctor fondly recalled his youth, a period he referred to as “the best days of our Republic” and “a civilization that has never been excelled.” …

Appendix: Methodological Problems in Studying the History of Suicide

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pp. 221-224


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pp. 225-258


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pp. 259-290


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pp. 291-296

E-ISBN-13: 9781469603353
E-ISBN-10: 1469603357
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807834602
Print-ISBN-10: 0807834602

Page Count: 312
Illustrations: 2 line drawings, 1 map
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Suicide -- North Carolina -- History -- 19th century.
  • Divorce -- North Carolina -- History -- 19th century.
  • Debt -- North Carolina -- History -- 19th century.
  • United States -- Politics and government -- 1861-1865.
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