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Dixie's Daughters. The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture. By Karen L. Cox. University Press of Florida, 2003. 218 pp. Cloth, $55.00
Many young southerners today may never have heard of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC). If they have, they probably did so when Congress refused to renew a patent on its insignia or when the Daughters defended the flying of the Confederate flag. A century ago, however, most southerners knew of the UDC and its activities; it was the largest independent organization of women in the region. Despite the UDC's historical importance, however, Dixie's Daughters is the first (other than official histories) book-length study of the group.
Author Karen L. Cox traces the origins of the United Daughters of the Confederacy to the Civil War relief efforts of southern women and, more directly, to the numerous Ladies Memorial Associations that formed right after the war. These local organizations cared for Confederate graves and established Confederate Memorial Day, thereby shaping the South's initial memory of the Civil War. In 1894 the UDC organized and soon established chapters across the South, indeed across the nation. By the end of World War I, it boasted a membership of 100,000, made up primarily of upper-class women, both those women who had lived through the war and those descended from Confederate veterans. The group undertook various progressive benevolent projects, including college scholarships and homes for veterans and Confederate women, but the UDC's major goal always remained vindicating the Confederacy. They erected Confederate monuments across the South and in various other ways helped establish a historical record of the war. Most important, the UDC tried to indoctrinate the young with what Cox calls "Confederate culture." They created an organization for them—the Children of the Confederacy—sponsored essay contests, ensured state adoption of school textbooks with a southern view of the war, and placed Confederate flags and pictures of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis in southern schools. Through its efforts, the UDC sought not just to ensure that future generations [End Page 100] of white southerners agreed with them but also to secure vindication from the Yankees. The group had always promoted an American patriotism, conditioned on the North's respect for the South, and in World War I southern support for the war effort evoked a northern response that the Daughters felt constituted that vindication. After the war, Cox argues, the group "never again exerted the public influence it had."
Dixie's Daughters provides a much-needed institutional history of the UDC at the height of its influence; that alone would be a major contribution. But Cox incorporates into it an exploration of the impact of the group on southern culture and the lives of the upper-class women who participated in it. She emphasizes that women, not men, shaped the South's memory of the war and thereby perpetuated a "Confederate culture" that celebrated mainly the veterans but also the women of the wartime generation and that rested on a coherent narrative of the South's history. That narrative stressed that Confederates fought in defense of state sovereignty—not slavery. It also presented an idyllic portrait of the Old South and slavery as well as a vivid account of what the Daughters considered the horrors of Reconstruction. As a result, Cox rightly and forthrightly concludes, the UDC promoted states' rights and white supremacy. In a brief epilogue, Cox even attributes the white South's response to the Civil Rights movement to the lessons that that generation, as children, had learned from the efforts of the UDC. Surely other institutions played important roles as well, but in any case Cox's account provides helpful balance to works that focus on southern women who dissented from their society's defense of white supremacy.
Even as the UDC helped make southern culture conservative, it provided a means for "southern women to pursue a public agenda...