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  • Finding the Southern Family in the Civil War
  • Jane Turner Censer

In a massive compendium Writing the Civil War, published in 1998, James M. McPherson and William J. Cooper gathered essays from numerous scholars of the American Civil War. These pieces detailed how various aspects of the field had changed over time: battlefield tactics, both northern and Confederate strategy, as well as northern and southern politics. Yet in their careful introduction, McPherson and Cooper also pointed out areas such as social history in which they saw "significant lacunae." They noted, "We still know little about the impact of the war on families, children, and marriage patterns...Nor have Civil War historians yet come to grips with questions of sex and sexuality or rape and prostitution."1 In the decade and half since that call to action, some important studies have grappled with the question of the impact of the war on black and white families. Yet their answers to the question of change, while stimulating and provocative, have in many cases also been ambiguous and contradictory.

Even though the American Civil War has long illustrated the ambiguities, contradictions, and complexity of American life, it still seems surprising that historians have come so late to studying family, given the frequent invocation of the war itself as a "brothers' war" and the use of family imagery to describe the "house divided" and reunion of the North and South. Yet while historians rarely measured the influence of the Civil War on real life families, cultural commentators implicitly followed the literary depiction of the war's impact on the family. Finally, historians have begun to trace some of these elements.

The last decade and a half have produced a raft of studies that increase our knowledge of family, gender relations, and sexuality for southern families, but a surprisingly small part of this new literature looks like family history.2 Some might argue that this small number of family histories simply parallels the low profile that family history has recently played in American history. Here a definition seems in order. By family history, I mean history that focuses on the family unit—either nuclear or extended—its members, and the basic tasks and [End Page 219] life cycle of the family from child bearing and rearing to education, courtship and the formation of new families. Instead of comprehensive studies of the family, a host of works defining themselves as women's history, gender history, or the history of childhood, for example, have emerged, and they do not necessarily trumpet their contributions to family history. Perhaps the best histories of the Civil War family will bring insights from these adjacent fields to answer questions about change in the structures, emotional content, and changing gender roles of the family. Because new studies largely chronicle the southern family during the Civil War era, this essay concentrates upon that region.3 Although the histories of African American and white families share a background in social history, the two families have most often been treated separately and differently.

Those finding the greatest change in kinship units have been the historians exploring the African American experience. Using new sources, they scrutinize family forms and structures as well as suggest the emotional content of relationships. Over time they have built on and altered paradigms from the pioneering work of Herbert G. Gutman who in the 1970s surveyed black marriages from the plantation era to those contracted under the aegis of the occupying Union army and in freedom and his successors.4 In contrast to Gutman, who emphasized the two-parent family and the strength of slave marriages (despite their lack of legal standing and the separations of spouses caused by owners), historians currently suggest greater change and upheaval, though the situations they find are ambiguous.

Historians ascribe many of the stresses and strains on the slave family to the system of slavery. Defined as property, enslaved men and women could not contract legal marriage. Even though some underwent ceremonies to cement their ties, they also had to contend with the controls that their owners put on their relationships. Some owners forbade or discouraged slaves forming relationships outside their own plantations. In a...


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