- The Big House after Slavery: Virginia Plantation Families and Their Postbellum Domestic Experiment
Amy Feely Morsman ushers her readers into the private world of the Big House to examine changing gender roles among elite white men and women after emancipation. In antebellum Virginia, plantation families comprised the state's landed gentry, with twenty or more slaves per family. The Civil War changed these circumstances dramatically. One planter, who had two hundred slaves working his plantation in 1860, hired only twenty-six laborers in 1880. Another slave owner saw his plantation lose half of its value in the same period. Morsman argues that this economic transformation altered the way planters understood their privileged status as men.
As Morsman observes, much of the scholarship on gender in the South has focused on white women. While Morsman chronicles the negotiations between husbands and wives, she emphasizes the struggles of elite men and their postwar crisis of manhood. Influenced by recent books on southern womanhood such as Jane Turner Censer's The Reconstruction of White Southern Womanhood, 1865-1895 (2003) and Caroline Janney's Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies' Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (2008), which see change rather than continuity after the Civil War, Morsman traces a "lasting change" in elite gender relations (8). The revolution on the plantation encouraged men and women to view their marriages as partnerships and to recognize their shared labor. Morsman also acknowledges that this change was not "easy" or "linear" (6). Far more than their wives, and with greater political ramifications, elite men expressed anxiety about their reduced circumstances.
Morsman's study begins on the plantation as former owners and former slaves grappled with an agricultural system reorganized around free [End Page 108] labor. Planters did not view former slaves as qualified for freedom, disparaging freedpeople's desire to control their work and family lives. Morsman also explains planters' frustration by pointing to their financial insecurity. Often, planters did not have the cash to pay their workers. As a result, they downsized their labor force, tried to hire white laborers (whom they found equally vexing), and cut back on other expenses, like caring for sick or elderly employees. Ultimately, planters decided to work the plantations themselves, even if it meant giving up profitable cash crops for smaller-scale farming. This transition led elites to place new social and cultural value on manual labor and to reimagine the ideal woman as healthy, vigorous, and useful. It did not change elites' attitude toward their former slaves. As Morsman points out, "No matter how much they came to champion the idea of labor for themselves and appreciate their own exertions and accomplishments on postwar plantations, elites could not and did not acknowledge that this work experience was one they shared with African Americans" (53).
Despite their paeans to the honorability of labor, elite men experienced a crisis in gender. The Civil War deprived planters of their status as patriarchs of their white and black plantation household, the basis of their manhood. Morsman stresses planters' ability (or inability) to financially support their family as central to their pre- and postwar sense of self. Elite men wanted to maintain the trappings of their antebellum class status, to buy silk dresses for their wives and daughters, pay for private educations for their children, and vacation at luxury resorts. To do so, they went further into debt, found salaried employment away from the plantation, or relied on their wives' labor to supplement the family income. Elite men bemoaned the loss of their economic independence, revealing their pain and sadness in private correspondence. But Morsman suggests that elite men and their wives found support for their newfound interdependence in agricultural associations, such as the Grange and the Farmers' Alliance. In addition to providing economic and social support to farmers after the Civil War, these organizations touted women as helpmates. As one Farmers' Alliance publication stated, "There is no other occupation in which men and women are engaged, whose...