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  • Genteel Rebel: The Life of Mary Greenhow Lee
  • Nancy Smith Midgette
Genteel Rebel: The Life of Mary Greenhow Lee. By Sheila R. Phipps. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004. Pp. 259. $59.95 cloth; $21.95 paper.)

Mary Greenhow Lee (sister-in-law of Rose O'Neal Greenhow) was born in 1819 to a life of privilege. Her family belonged to the Virginia elite and enjoyed connections that carried her into the social and political circles of Washington, D.C. Unmarried at the time of her father's death in 1840, she inherited a share of property equal to that of her brothers. In 1843 she married a distant cousin, Hugh Holmes Lee, and moved to Winchester, where he had established a successful law practice. Thirteen years later Hugh Lee died, leaving no will. For the remainder of her life (she died in 1907), Lee not only maintained her own affairs but accepted responsibility for a number of family members as well.

At first blush, this story seems not so very different from that of many Southern women of the nineteenth century. Even when we learn that Lee lost a significant portion of her property as a result of the Civil War, it does not seem so unusual or remarkable. In short, this book would not amount to much if it were just another account of a strong Southern woman.

Fortunately, Mary Greenhow Lee's journal provides author Sheila Phipps the opportunity to offer us much, much more. Begun on March 11, 1862, the day that Union soldiers first entered Winchester, this journal provides fascinating insights into the life of an occupied city and the "soldier work" of women—caring for the sick and wounded, acquiring and hiding food and supplies to pass along to Confederates when they were in or near the city, smuggling out mail. Clearly, women were not passive in their war efforts. Many, like Lee, used the complex gender relationships and social demands of the era to their distinct advantage. Lee was quite proud of the fact that she successfully managed to snub Union officers stationed in Winchester, maintaining that such behavior is what eventually led to her banishment from the city near the end of the war.

Phipps works with the record left by Lee, as well as with a multitude of additional primary sources and the strong scholarship of other historians, to transform Lee's story into an insightful analysis of the complex relationships of nineteenth-century Southern society. Focusing on two words that pepper Lee's journal, "visitable" and "connexion," Phipps uses Lee's thoughts and actions to lead her readers to a number of fascinating conclusions. First, and perhaps foremost, a woman's most important attribute was not physical appearance, nor was it measured by wealth. Rather, of primary importance to women like Mary Greenhow Lee was social status as measured by the caliber of people who considered her "visitable." Lee never considered Union sympathizers, no matter their social connections before the war, "visitable." Obviously, Union officers were automatically excluded. [End Page 192]

Second, Lee frequently referred to her "connexions," referencing a wider circle of friends and relations throughout Virginia and Maryland. Upon her banishment in March 1865, Lee knew that this circle would sustain her and, indeed, she had no difficulty securing appropriate accommodations throughout Virginia as she slowly made her way to Richmond. At war's end, she decided to locate permanently in Baltimore, primarily as a result of her "connexions." Still with some financial means, she had relatively little difficulty acquiring a suitable house in a prominent section of town, which she converted to a boarding house.

Third, we see the extent of independence that was possible for women at this time and, in Lee's case, we are able to witness her personal journey to the point where she is able to write, "I feel quite independent now." The death of her husband left her not only with property to look after, but family members as well. Her banishment from Winchester meant that she had to move quickly into a very different lifestyle. It was at this time that she wrote of her pride in...


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pp. 192-193
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