Hi friends and readers! I am thrilled to announce that Charleston Tides, Book 3 of the Torn Asunder Series, is in its final edit. That means it will be in your hands very soon! It also means that it is time to share the synopsis with you! So without further ado, I give you the Charleston Tides blurb:
Charleston, Modern Day:
Adeline Miller-Ravenel came to Charleston to restore a historic Battery Street mansion. She never expected her ties in the city to run so deep or her decisions to be so difficult. With her reason for staying drawing to a close, she is torn between making the sensible choice and following the promptings of her heart.
The war is over, and Charleston lies in ruins. In a world quickly changing, Shannon Haley must piece together the fragments of her marriage and former life. Her journey will plunge her deep into the heart of Reconstruction and into the highest stakes for the fate of a nation and her own future.
Charleston Tides is the final book in the Torn Asunder Series. It is the poignant culmination of great emotions, fears, trials, and triumphs for the characters of the series, both modern and historical.
I’m so excited to share this final installment of Shannon and Adeline’s journeys with you! Stay tuned for a cover reveal soon. (Hint: it’s my favorite cover yet!)
Welcome! Put on the kettle while you get acquainted with Tea & Rebellion…
You’ll find tidbits about my books, reviews, history, travel musings, and tea. Sit back and enjoy a bit of rebellion while you sip.
TARA COWAN has been writing novels since she was seventeen. She is the author of the Torn Asunder Series, including Southern Rain and Northern Fire. A huge lover of all things history, she loves to travel, watch British dramas, read good fiction, and spend time with her family. An attorney, Tara lives in Tennessee and is busy writing her next novel.
TARA holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Political Science, with minors in English and History, from Tennessee Tech University and a Doctor of Jurisprudence from the University of Tennessee College of Law.
TO CONNECT with Tara, follow her on Instagram @teaandrebellion_, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.
Today is Veterans Day in America. I thought that, in special recognition of this day, I would talk about a class I took in college that meant a great deal to me and greatly influences my writing: The American War Novel. We got to discuss topics like the changing attitudes regarding PTSD throughout the centuries, the conceptualization of women in war literature, realism versus romanticism, and the nitty gritty effects of war on the people who fight them.
Our professor was just out of grad school “up north” as we say in the South, and he brought to Tennessee Tech a passion for war and trauma literature (shout out to Dr. Williams!). It was a small class in which we sat in a circle and discussed the literature assigned.
Going chronologically through history, we started with some essays and excerpts from the nineteenth century. There was a lot of romantic and flowery language during this era, the language of glory in death, etc. It is beautiful language but way off base in accuracy, according to most veterans, in that it doesn’t touch on the realities of war. I always thought that this rhetoric, which was what much of America took into the Civil War, must have led to a huge wake-up call in the wake of what became America’s most violent conflict to date. It may even have prolonged the conflict. You see in primary documents people clinging to this rhetoric of glory and “knights on a charger” even amidst the growing casualty counts deep into the war.
After that, we read The Red Badge of Courage. This book, written about the Civil War by Stephen Crane in 1895 (thirty years after the conflict ended), is, according to Matthew Arnold, “a touchstone for modern war fiction.” In other words, it is the mother of all war novels. While “the war” is kind of universal in The Red Badge, most believe that The Battle of Chancellorsville is the setting. Crane’s work is remarkable in that it obliterates the clichés of prior war fiction, giving us a depiction of a young boy who is simply a human, afraid that he will run at his first battle. Every sentence is literary and could be carefully unpacked. Romantic traditions are rejected in favor of reality and genuine courage. I remember so vividly Henry Fleming’s inner struggle. Even though we as a class could never take away a distinct “meaning” from the book (not a bad thing), it resonates. And I have to think that was due largely in part to the fact that Crane interviewed a lot of Civil War veterans.
We moved on to Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. This is about an American lieutenant serving in World War I in Italy who falls in love with his nurse, Catherine, after he is injured. It is part gruesome and realistic war novel and part romance (although not in a happy-go-lucky way). I liked this one for its narrative ease, for the way Hemingway strips his language down to the bare bones, and for the fact that a woman featured prominently in it. However, the really depressing ending stays with you long after you read it. It does contain one of my favorite quotes, however: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” Just don’t read the line after that—hope never lasts long with Hemingway!
Next, we read Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, which was WWII-related and linked to the firebombing of Dresden. It was also part sci-fi, part meta, part really off-the-wall novel! This was not my cup of tea at all, but I am glad we read it to get exposure to all of the different varieties of war novels, and Vonnegut is certainly one of the legends of the war novel genre. My reaction paper for this one was about the sexism used towards every female in the novel and my theory that it was done to highlight the degradations towards women that sexism causes (in other words, in an attempt to help, not to hurt). The sexism was so blatant that my professor commented on my paper, “I really hope you’re right!”
After that, we moved on to Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko. This was my favorite war novel and stands as one of my favorite novels of all time. It is about a Native American soldier who fought in WWII in the Pacific Theater and was forced to take place in the Bataan Death March. After this, he returns to his tribe with what was then called “battle fatigue,” and would now be known as PTSD. We follow his journey to healing, which was aided by the spiritualism of his heritage. It was beautiful. I remember feedback from a fellow student who was commenting on how fascinating the war’s effects were to explore through the Native American experience. She said, “When I try to think, What is the opposite of PTSD, I think, It is balance.” Balance is such an important concept in Native American culture, so in this and in many other ways, you watch an entire culture’s answers to his illness come to the forefront. I presented on this book in my class, and the subject I chose was the history of the Bataan Death March and the physical toll it took on the soldiers. This book was a wonderful contribution to American literature, and, for me, a constant reminder that, of all racial, ethnic, and cultural American groups, per capita, Native Americans served in the largest number in WWII.
Next, we read Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien. O’Brien is a Vietnam veteran who went on to write war novels. I think he is most famous for his book, The Things They Carried. O’Brien has a lot to tell us about the nature of war as it is actually fought and lived. He was almost like a second professor for our class; we read so many of his quotes that they could frame almost every discussion we had. For instance, we talked about the theme of masculinity in war, or the concept in literature that, if war does nothing else, it makes you a man. The thing I loved about O’Brien was that he seeks to present you with the truth; he doesn’t deny any reality about war. His answer to the “war makes men out of boys conversation?” He agrees, but he doesn’t stop there. He says, “War makes you a man; war makes you dead.” Try grappling with that quote! He talks about the beauty of war and juxtaposes it with its grotesque nature. In addition to the Hemingway quote above, another of my favorites is by O’Brien: “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love.” That quote has influenced me so much as I grapple with war themes in my own novels. It gives a first-person perspective to those of us who have not fought in wars but want to honor the experiences of those who have in our own writing. Cacciato is about a soldier in Vietnam who sets off on a journey to find another soldier who has gone AWOL. It was another book that was very heavy on the literary elements. It blends reality and fantasy. It wasn’t my favorite, but Tim O’Brien is certainly worth discovering.
Last, we read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain. This one featured an Iraq war veteran who is sent on a victory tour after coming home. It explores the reactions Americans had to troops during the Iraq/Afghanistan wars and the ways in which they might not have been helpful. For instance, really vivid in my remembrance is the scene in which Billy and his group are expected to go down on a football field at halftime while Destiny’s Child performing. It was revealing about the fact that we need to go much, much deeper in addressing the needs of returning veterans. However, it was, in my opinion, a bit too political. Our class was all over the political spectrum, and everyone seemed to agree on that. Like I said, though, there were lessons to be gleaned from it.
We were slated to read In Country, by Bobbie Ann Mason but had to cut it because we ran out of time. I was disappointed by that because it details the home front experiences of a little girl during Vietnam. Most war novels focus primarily on men, and I would like to read more featuring women (one of the reasons I focused so heavily on women’s experiences in Northern Fire). We did discuss women in relation to every book, era, and theme, however, so I felt like I left with a pretty good grasp of war novel trends throughout time with regards to women. If you want to see a movie that plays with a lot of those themes (and don’t laugh…), I actually have to tell you that Mulan (animated) is excellent. You can tell that the writers were students of the war novel genre. Every song could be used as one of the war novel themes we discussed in relation to women. For example, “A Girl Worth Fighting For,” was a recurring theme in early war literature, etc.
I really like the genre of the war novel. It is a field that builds on every previous generation’s theme, almost as if all of the authors from Stephen Crane onward are having a conversation. We discussed many difficult themes, and I think the class helped me to get just a small glimpse inside of the experience of those on the frontlines of wars and conflicts. In the words of O’Brien, “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”
To all veterans, thank you is not enough. “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including the silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” – Tim O’Brien
History Behind the Story #5: The Fall of Charleston
THE HISTORY: Since the Jacksonian days of John C. Calhoun, South Carolina and Charleston, specifically, were known as the “cradle of rebellion” or the “hotbed of secession.” Many in the Union states felt that there would have been no war if the people of Charleston hadn’t agitated for one. Charleston was blamed primarily for three things:
For the divorce of the Democratic Party at the first Democratic Convention in 1860, which was hosted in Charleston and which ultimately led to the nomination of a Northern Democrat and a Southern Democrat. This ultimately led to a fractured party which didn’t stand a chance of defeating the Republican nominee, Abraham Lincoln.
For being the first state to secede, almost immediately after the election.
For firing the first shots of the war, which happened at Fort Sumter in the Charleston harbor.
We could have a discussion of whether it was entirely fair to pin these things primarily on one city. I could make an argument that Charleston was deeply involved in agitating for secession, and I could also make a counterargument that there were a lot of other factors at play. But what really matters is what people thought during the era, and Charleston was a sort of target for propaganda.
Charleston wasn’t, psychologically speaking, a great place to be during the Civil War, enslaved or free. The city was so heavily guarded that it didn’t fall until late in the war. Therefore, the Emancipation Proclamation had no practical effect for enslaved people within the city; slavery remained status quo. I imagine that must have led to feelings of desperation. Not only this, but with South Carolina having a majority black population, many feared uprisings. Sanctions were tightened and freedoms limited. On the eve of war, many Charleston residents sent their slaves out of the city, selling them or sending them to other properties, to prevent uprisings. This was the sort of action taken by owners that led to familial separations and uncertainties among enslaved communities.
For the citizens of Charleston, there were a lot of concerning threats to Charleston in Northern newspapers. I was surprised when I read a report calling for a “holocaust of Charleston.” I had actually thought the word was coined during WWII to describe Nazi actions against Jewish people, but it is actually a Middle English word. The definition of holocaust is: “destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, especially caused by fire.” So this was the language of genocide against a city. This is pretty heavy stuff for the Civil War, or for any civil war. It could probably make you a bit on-edge.
Then, to top it off, Confederate President Jefferson Davis took the stance that it would be better for Charleston to be reduced to “a heap of ruins” than surrender. So as a civilian, slave or free, you know you are in a strategically important city that the government is going to try to protect but that will be a sort of last holdout which may functionally be a shell by the end of the war.
Charleston became a real challenge for the Union, militarily speaking. The guns on the ironclad ships of the Union Navy made the old fort system that America had used to protect port cities more or less obsolete. But there was one exception to this: Charleston. Due to the geography and the heavy fortifications of Forts Sumter and Moultrie, the Union Navy never did break through those Confederate-manned forts until the Army broke into Charleston from behind on land just two months before Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Charleston was one of the first targets in the war. I’ll briefly go through failed Union attempts before we get to the final Union success.
Fort Sumter began the war with Beauregard taking the fort fairly easily from the U.S. military, which had not been sufficiently reinforced. The Battle of Port Royal, a fort versus naval battle, resulted in a Union victory and the fall of most of the Sea Islands between Savannah and Charleston. Most of the white population evacuated the area. The battle and the evacuation led to what has been called “The Port Royal Experiment,” during which the former enslaved people on the islands operated the plantations on their own.
After this, the Union sort of failed to “follow up” on the victory. There were a few other attempts to take Charleston. One was the Battle of Secessionville on June 16, 1862. Secessionville was an Army rather than Navy endeavor. Basically, the Confederates repulsed the Union attack, and the Union evacuated James Island (which is very close to Charleston).
Other than these attempts, the most important one included the continual bombardments of the city and its forts by the Union Navy. These were never successful, but Charleston was indeed slowly being reduced to rubble during the 587-day bombardment. Other amphibious and land attacks were planned or attempted, but they were always repulsed until late in the war.
Charleston officially fell on February 18, 1865. So what eventually caused the fall? It was late in the war, so Confederate resources were tapped out. When Sherman executed his famous march from Atlanta to Savannah, he showed what the Union military was capable of doing: basically, that there was no “interior” of the Confederacy anymore and that he could go anywhere he wanted. He threatened to raze the city of Charleston during his march. “Raze,” again, is a word with connotations of total destruction.
Three days before the fall, Beauregard ordered an evacuation of Confederate troops from Charleston. So as a civilian, this is your worst nightmare: a city that is the last holdout that has finally been abandoned by the military. Civilians were left alone to deal with the aftermath, and the mayor surrendered the city. That has always been an interesting concept for me. A mayor is by nature a civilian, not a military person. One tends to think of military officers or generals surrendering cities, but this was something that happened all over the South, an elected official having to become a quasi-military ruler and take the white flag out to the opposing army.
Union troops moved in, the first soldiers entering the city being United States Colored Troops of the 54th Massachusetts and the 21st Infantry. There is some fascinating history surrounding what happened among the freedmen in Charleston in the year after its fall. I don’t want to give anything away for Book 3 in the Torn Asunder Series, Charleston Tides, however, so that will be covered in a History Behind the Story article for that book.
So was there a holocaust of Charleston? Yes and no. Basically, you could argue that between the bombardments, the Fire of 1861, the blockades, inflation, and starvation, Charleston was already on its knees before it ever fell. Witnesses compared Charleston to Pompeii. There were lots of homes of prominent people burned. You can see that when you visit Charleston’s plantation district on Ashley River Road. But there wasn’t a holocaust in the since that people burned in their homes or the entire city was bombed, as the rhetoric had threatened. Why was that, given the threats?
I speculate that Columbia has something to do with it. South Carolina’s capitol was overtaken just before Charleston. A good portion of the city burned, and there are ongoing arguments about whether it was burned by Confederates or Federals. It seems like there is more evidence that the retreating Confederates burned buildings in an attempt to destroy war materiel. In any event, there does seem to have been a lot of looting and violence in Columbia.
All of this is to say, if vengeance was really wanted against a South Carolinian city, it was had in Columbia. And then imagine you get to a city, Charleston, that’s already reduced to a heap of rubble. There wasn’t much left to destroy in Charleston. Plus, surrendering cities always fared better under Sherman if they actually surrendered than if his army overtook them. His philosophy was that all he really wanted was their surrender.
I depicted a brutal take-over scene at Santarella in Northern Fire. Santarella was envisioned as being on an island really near to Charleston. Its fall happened a few months previous to Charleston’s fall, so it wasn’t part of the overall take-over of Charleston. Everything I depicted was based on actual stories of things that happened during overtaking raids – houses looted and burned, huge trees felled, people shot, land and property confiscated. Many historians say that if the brutality of Sherman’s March through Georgia has been somewhat overstated, it has probably been understated in relation to the march through the Carolinas. South Carolina, in general, greatly suffered during the war. These stories are complicated, though. You probably noticed in Northern Fire that the take-over of Santarella wasn’t purely a story of destruction; the Union soldiers also liberated hundreds of people who were held in bondage.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Mary Chesnut, a South Carolinian woman, kept a diary which historians have called one of the most important works of the Civil War. Her observations of the Confederacy were obviously limited by the times in which she lived, but she is thought to depict powerfully all levels of society and the intricacies of Southern culture. Here is what was recorded in her diary the day she learned Charleston had fallen:
“Charleston and Wilmington—surrendered. I have no further use for a newspaper. I never want to see another one as long as I live. . . . Shame, disgrace, beggary, all have come at once, and all are hard to bear—the grand smash!…
Rain, rain, outside, and naught but drowning floods of tears inside.”
ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH:
These are photographs of Charleston’s ruins after the war. A great deal of what you see was caused by the Charleston Fire of 1861. Just take a moment to notice little details in the photos, things that give you a window into the past.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: These were the words of General Sherman about Charleston:
“I doubt any city was ever more terribly punished than Charleston, but as her people had for years been agitating for war and discord, and had finally inaugurated the Civil War, the judgment of the world will be that Charleston deserved the fate that befell her.”
This is an interesting statement, eloquent and involving both sympathy and ruthlessness. Did history prove him right? What do you think? He seems to include natural disasters, spontaneous fires, and acts of the Union military in the word “punishment,” indicating that he believed Charleston’s ultimate destruction was a culmination of fate. Do we still think of disasters and destruction like this today?
This is the final History Behind the Story post for Northern Fire! It has been a pleasure to be on this journey with you! Thanks to all who have taken the ride. I plan to write a similar series of articles for Charleston Tides, which will release late this autumn.
 Oxford English. The definition says: “by fire or nuclear war.” It has been modernized to include modern technology. I think just “fire” is more appropriate in the historical context. The interesting thing was that a good portion of Charleston was destroyed by fire without intervention of the Union military. See “History Behind the Story #1: The Charleston Fire of 1861” on this blog.
 There were some islands closer to Charleston that didn’t fall until the end of the war, which is the route I chose to go for the fictional Santarella.
 This was a fascinating “dress rehearsal” for Reconstruction. It is beyond the scope of this article, but I encourage you to look up history on the Port Royal Experiment.
 With the exception of head-shaving, a historical choice which was discussed in “History Behind the Story #4: Violence Against Women in the Civil War.”
 Chestnut, Mary Boykin, “A Diary From Dixie,” D. Appleton and Company, New York: 1905.
Cover Image Credit: Bonanza.com. This depiction is of Union ironclads bombarding Fort Sumter.
Our final house museum tour while we were in Newport was Chateau-sur-Mer. We’ll take a look at this interesting house, and I will also give you some insight into some other things my sister and I got into in Rhode Island!
Chateau-sur-Mer was different from any of the other Newport houses we had toured in that it was built decades before any of the other fabulous cottages. It actually was not a part of the cottage fad except to the extent it was remodeled to add a few grand touches. It is “High Victorian,” which means it’s kind of heavy – dark rooms, oppressive wallpaper, dark wood paneling… I kind of thought of it as a Gothic architectural style, which was definitely a change from the opulent, bright, and sunny cottages. There were things that were really cool about Chateau-sur-Mer, though.
One was the fact that you could stand in the foyer and look up and see level after level of balconies until you reached the roof. Here is a picture. It really doesn’t convey how cool this architectural technique is, but you can get an idea.
George and Edith Wetmore hired Richard Morris Hunt to redesign the house in the Second Empire French style during the 1870s, which is why, I would imagine, there are several opulent touches. And yet, there are still some High Victorian remnants. Here are a few pictures in which you can see the attention to detail and the blending of 19th century design trends:
Here is a of picture of the exterior:
It was good to visit Chateau-sur-Mer to remind us that Newport had a rich and intricate history before the Gilded Age. Speaking of… Let’s talk about a few more things you can do in Newport!
First, just driving around is a treat. You can go to one part of town and see numerous colonial-era or colonial-inspired buildings that would fit in perfectly in Colonial Williamsburg. There are also lots of Victorian houses where less wealthy, but still rich people once lived, and those are beautiful, too. Of course, there’s no denying that Bellevue Avenue, where all of the mansions are, is really spectacular. There is shopping on the Avenue, too, and you can just picture the carriages going down the streets in summers past.
There is generally good shopping in Newport – lots of boutiques, and both chain and local stores. For groceries, there is a more traditional grocery store as well as a smaller, completely organic store, where prices are actually reasonable. Newport is also the sailing capital of the world. We had intended to go sailing but ran out of time. You can see some of the boats in the pictures behind us here, though:
This was our first experience with New England food, and so we might not be the best judges. Some was wonderful, while some was…not so much. Annie’s is famous for their breakfasts, and it was fine, but we weren’t overwhelmed. Again, this could just be because we were used to a more Southern-style breakfast.
We ate at La Forge Casino Restaurant because of the history of the tennis club in the building. We dined outside, and it was cool to have an experience similar to what it would have been in the Gilded Age. Again, the food was just okay.
We went twice to Griswold’s Tavern, which was our favorite place. I got the Veggie Nachos once, which were delicious. The real upside of Newport food was that there are usually healthy and vegetarian options at most places.
We love seafood, and there was plenty of that. We had been used to a certain style of doing seafood from the beach towns of the Gulf of Mexico, so this was quite different from that. Whereas in Florida, Alabama, or Mississippi, the emphasis is on mahi mahi, grouper, and salmon, in Newport, you have lobster, scallops, and lots of cod. We went to three seafood places. We really loved the scallops at The Lobster Bar. Flo’s Clam Shack was a more traditional beachy place with plenty of fried food and a line of people waiting to get in backed out the door. We also went to The Landing, which was my sister’s favorite! Just a note: if you’re going to a beachy type place, wear whatever you want; if you’re going to a more upscale restaurant, they kind of dress up in Newport. We saw one restaurant where people were going in wearing evening gowns and tuxedos. Never fear, though; you don’t have to go too fancy at most of the restaurants – just dress like you would kind of dress up for a date night.
You can visit the beach, too. We met some very friendly seagulls while we were there, I remember. It was a little too chilly for us to wade in, even in August, but some brave souls tried it!
But the real crown jewel, the do-not-miss activity in Newport, is the Cliff Walk. There’s nothing like the beauty of the ocean on one side of you and mansions on the other. And bonus: it’s totally free! Here are a few pictures:
If you ever have the opportunity to visit Newport, do not miss it! It is one of our favorite places, and we do not regret going one bit!
The fourth house museum stop for our Newport, RI trip was The Elms. Get ready for some beautiful gardens and general splendor!
4. The Elms
The Elms was our next stop, and it did not disappoint. Welcome to the foyer!
I really liked the scheme of the house: white, gold, marble, and black iron. The inspiration was the 18th Century Chateau d’Asnieres in France. Sarah and Edward Julius Berwind, of the coal fortune, built The Elms in 1901 so that they could host on a larger scale.
The Elms is famous for its gardens, so let’s have a look at those first:
I really loved that bench, and there were fountains, pavilions, and statues galore.
There was what I call a “sunroom” to bring the outside indoors. This included possibly the word’s plushest lawnchair.
The inside was equally lovely. Here are a few of the rooms, which definitely give you the impression of French grandeur (except for the green library, which was more homey). Look at those gorgeous ceiling medallions!
Did you spot both pianos?
I seemed to have collected pictures of a lot of different bedrooms, so I’m thinking there may have been more rooms available for viewing at the house than at the other houses. Here are a few of the bedrooms. (Never mind my sister gazing dreamily at that fainting couch.)
Oddly enough, I remember the portraits acquired by this house the most. This portrait of Elizabeth Wharton Drexel Dahlgren Lehr is quite famous. My sister bought a jewelry dish with this portrait on it while we were in Newport. Elizabeth’s first husband was the son of the famous Admiral Dahlgren (who, as a side note, is discussed by Shannon and her father in Northern Fire!) Her first husband died young. I remember her sad story of her second husband telling her on their wedding night that he had only married her for her money. (Note, this is not the owner of the house. I can’t remember why her portrait is at The Elms – maybe she is a relative?)
Another notable portrait at the house is that of Maria Cosway, an Englishwoman who had, shall we say, a more than casual acquaintance with Thomas Jefferson while he was Minister to Paris. This portrait was painted by Cosway’s husband. I’m not sure how the Elms acquired this original either. Here it is:
Does anyone remember how the Elms acquired either of these fascinating paintings? Comment below if you do!
Stop back by next week for our final mansion. I’ll also talk about some of the other stuff (including a lot of eating) that we did in Newport!
The tour of Newport continues with Rosecliff today!
On the third day of our trip, we went to Rosecliff, which is perhaps less famous than The Breakers and Marble House (even though it has been in several movies!). But I think it is actually my favorite of the Grand Dames along Bellevue Avenue because Rosecliff is *slightly* understated in comparison to the two houses we discussed previously.
Of course, it all started with an heiress. Theresa “Tessie” Fair was the daughter of an Irish immigrant who had hit it big in Nevada silver. She met her future husband, Hermann Oelrichs, playing tennis in Newport. (We actually had lunch one day at this tennis club/casino, which is still there!) He was pretty wealthy himself, and together they purchased the property along the Cliff Walk and built Rosecliff. [Just as a side note, Tessie’s sister married Alva Vanderbilt’s son (Alva, of the Marble House fame).]
Tessie couldn’t wait to start giving lavish parties at Rosecliff, and she certainly had the ballroom for it. This is probably my favorite room in all of Newport.
One of the things I loved about Rosecliff is that it relies on artistry more than flash. You can see that the ballroom walls are just white, but look at the ornate plaster and molding. And the mural on the ceiling isn’t garish in the least; it is just the sky, like you’re looking through a glass ceiling.
Take a look at the art encapsulated in this fireplace in another room.
Here are a few more rooms.
The exterior was very elegant. It puts you in mind of Marble House and the White House a bit. It was fashioned after the Grand Trianon at Versailles.
I’ll leave a few more pictures below. Spot the circular library table with books, and the modern bathroom. I loved those. Also, the staircase – wow! Enjoy!
Continuing our virtual vacation of Newport, RI, this week we’re stopping at the home of Alva Vanderbilt herself, Marble House. So sit back on your (expensive) lawn chair, grab something cool to drink, and enjoy the history.
2. Marble House
Marble House was built by William K. Vanderbilt, another grandson of the famed Cornelius, and a brother to Cornelius Vanderbilt, II. You may remember Cornelius II as the owner of The Breakers, where we stopped last week. I seem to remember that there was some sister-in-law rivalry during the design of the two houses. Richard Morris Hunt was the architect of the Versailles-inspired Marble House. He did a fabulous job, as usual, but Alva Vanderbilt’s stamp is all over it. Mostly, that stamp takes the form of marble.
There is marble everywhere. Just take a look at the dining room, the foyer, random halls…
Anything you can put marble on, Alva tried it. Marble House was magnificent in the sense that you really got that feeling of European royalty. Which, I believe, was one of Alva’s aims, given that she ultimately arranged a marriage between her daughter and the Duke of Marlborough. This is the room where they most likely became engaged:
Called the Gothic Room, this one really stood out to me. It had the solemn feeling of a church and duplicated the old history of some castles in Europe particularly well. Even though the marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt and Sonny was doomed to failure, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a great place to get engaged!
Here are some other neat tidbits. Does anyone else love library stairs?
What about fancy servants’ stairs?
Resplendent sitting rooms?
Or bedrooms fit for a queen?
At most of the Newport houses, they also do a great job of interpreting the lives of the servants. You definitely get Downton Abbey vibes, for any lovers of Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes out there!
The thing I most remember about Marble House is Alva. She was a complicated, fascinating woman. She undoubtedly pushed her daughter into marriage for social gain—and then, in order for her daughter to divorce and be happy, she testified before a court that she compelled her daughter to marry. She was the victim of her husband’s adultery—and then divorced him, married his best friend, and moved across the street. She was a champion of women’s suffrage and of art. On the whole, she was a woman ahead of her time.
So whom do I think won the sister-in-law rivalry? Well, if you remember, Alice had those stunning verandas. Then again, Alva had 500,000 cubic feet of marble. Plus, she caught the Duke. So you tell me.
Below, this happened to be my favorite photo from Marble House. It reminds me of Alva and speaks to her strength—and to how she was (just a tad!) over-the top:
Since many of us couldn’t take a summer vacation this year, I thought it would be fun to take you on a tour of Newport Rhode Island by recounting my trip there in August of 2017. My sister and I, both history fans, bought tickets from The Preservation Society of Newport County, which allowed us to tour five different Newport “cottages.” There will be five posts, mostly dedicated to individual mansions, but I’ll give you details of some other stuff we got into, as well. Here we go! Buckle up; the ride starts in Atlanta, Georgia.
Cottage #1: The Breakers
As the plane touched down in Rhode Island, we could feel the cool air from the window. It had been ninety-eight degrees when we had left the South. We looked at each other, thinking, “This is going to be a very good trip.” And that premonition proved very true!
It had all started when my sister and I had, through various media (Downton Abbey, the book, To Marry an English Lord, numerous novels) become interested in seeing the “cottages” where these Robber Barons—ahem, American Royalty—had summered during the height of their wealth and prestige. For those unacquainted with Newport, it is a beautiful coastal town in Rhode Island. It has Revolutionary War history (there are lots of Colonial structures), and it had been a sort of resort town for Southern gentry before the Civil War. Flash forward twenty years after that, and an unprecedented level of American wealth had been created in a few families (the Vanderbilts, Morgans, Carnegies, Astors, etc.) by such industries as railroads, steel, oil, and finance. It was royal-level wealth—more than that, in some cases. And one place they decided to display that new money was in Newport.
An entire Newport season developed when the wealthy would retreat there during the summer. For more information on this brief but vibrant era, I would highly recommend To Marry an English Lord by Carol McD. Wallace and Gail MacColl. Newport is where the Duke of Marlborough courted Consuelo Vanderbilt, just to give you an idea of the match-making shenanigans you are in for!
For us, the journey started with one of those miserable bouts with TSA in the Atlanta airport. Pat-down completed for me, we boarded and settled in for the flight to Providence.
It was about sixty-five degrees when we touched down. In August. We got into our rental, a Ford Escape we dubbed “Penn” (on account of its Pennsylvania tags), and drove the short distance to Newport. We were staying on the third floor of a beautifully renovated Victorian home, which we loved immediately.
After checking the condo out, we drove toward Cliff Walk, which is a walking/running path directly on the coastline of cliffs. It spans pretty much the entire distance of the city, the mansions behind you, the bay in front of you. It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. We got out of our car near Salve Regina University (right there on the beautiful cliffs!) and just looked across the water. We got cold. And we were in sweaters or long sleeves. Maybe you would have to be from the South to understand how remarkable this was!
Here are a couple of pictures from this moment:
For the first tour, we decided to go for gold: The Breakers, which is the grandest of the Newport mansions. It was built by Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and I think it is most known for its beautiful verandas which overlook the bay.
Here is a picture of the back of the house:
And the side of the house:
We really wanted to see the views. And that gate:
At all of the Newport Mansions, the tour is self-guided with a headset. Headsets are a germaphobe’s worse nightmare, but they carefully clean them as soon as you return them. I also remember only a couple of times that having the headset on was key to understanding anything. You can leave them off and just enjoy the general splendor and put them on at the points where something sparks your interest.
Here is a picture of my sister with the headset on, listening to the story:
I will post a few collages of pictures from The Breakers so that you can see the general splendor, the minute attention to detail, and the vast fortune spent on this house. Some of the highlights for me were the sweeping lawn overlooking the bay, the massive double staircase (with a fountain under it), and the molding and trim work everywhere you turn. The house is supposedly an Italian Renaissance style palazzo. I saw some of those touches. But make no mistake: the main architectural style of this house was splendor, in every aspect. The goal, I think, must have been to show the world that the Vanderbilts had arrived.
Enjoy the pictures below! Take in all of the exquisite details. And stop back next time as we continue our journey through Newport’s mansions!
History Behind the Story #4: Violence Against Women in the Civil War
*Please note: This article recounts history involving violence, which may be disturbing for some. It is a good idea for parents of children under 18 to read first and then decide whether to let your child read. As always, let me know if you have any questions. Thank you!
THE HISTORY: When I first decided to write The Torn Asunder Series, I made the decision not to sugarcoat the past. This was a tough decision because so much of history can be disturbing for readers. Slavery was a rough and violent institution. The freedmen after the war faced extreme hardships and violence. Women, black and white, slave and free, faced horrors from enemy invaders during the war. I decided that to gloss over any of these truths would be to dishonor those who suffered and tell a falsehood about history.
While I do talk mostly about violence by members of the Union Army directed toward Southern women, it is simply the nature of history that women in war zones are vulnerable to enemy combatants, and most of the Civil War was fought on Southern soil.
The Confederate Armies did stray into Union territory on a large scale twice: for the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg. General Robert E. Lee issued orders that there was to be no violence or looting against civilians as a PR measure: a sort of “show that we are morally superior” plan. This seems to have also been his personal preference. But the novel, Widow of Gettysburg, by Jocelyn Green, imagines what it must have felt like for women in those areas who had escaped slavery, knowing that Confederate Armies were coming through and could round them up and take them back to their former owners. This did happen to hundreds near Gettysburg, and I am sure there were other accounts of Northern women who felt threatened or were abused.
There is still a lot of silence around violence against women, North and South, during the Civil War. I think there are several reasons for that. One is that the women themselves had various reasons not to be vocal about it. This was the Victorian Era, which placed a premium on a woman’s chastity and gave women few legal rights or redresses. And, of course, there are always political reasons for violence to be hushed up by militaries or governments.
But I think the main reason for the silence is that the history of the Civil War as we know it is the history of men, whether they be of the political or military persuasion. You can read an entire one-thousand-page book without a single woman ever being mentioned. In those books which do mention women, a woman’s role is usually considered in connection to men: seeing men off to war, how useful they were to men as nurses, whether they were supportive of their powerful husbands, etc. Rarely does a historical work ever focus on the actual life of a woman as she lived it during the war. Crystal Feimster, who wrote Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, has said that we need to see women as combatants during the war. They were combatants. They were not safe. They were actively engaged in the struggle. And yet, very rarely are women viewed as active players or victims during the Civil War.
That being said, there are hints on the topic of violence if you look for them. Most are scant references to military history. You’ll see something like: “Rape, looting, and murder occurred as the army came through.” And then, of course, the narrative will continue with the army itself and move on. You usually have to seek out the whole story on your own, but a few individuals’ stories have made it to light.
Violence and the threat of violence against women drove more of what happened in the war than has been adequately stated. Of course, a lot of the fear of violence was fear of the unknown. For example, if you hear an enemy army is coming through your town, you know only two things: 1) That they are the enemy; and 2) That they could hurt you if they wanted to. So much of how things would go in the Civil War came down to the personality of the officers. Some Northern officers were almost gallant in their treatment of enemy women. Some were kind, some were indifferent. But, as in any population, some were cruel, and some looked the other way while their subordinates were cruel.
Anne LeClercq details a story from one of her family members’ diaries in An Antebellum Plantation Household. The woman, then a child, remembered a Federal soldier going up to her mother and ripping the necklace from her neck. The mother eventually convinced him to give it back, and she wasn’t physically harmed, but such events could definitely cause the imagination to spiral out of control.
And, unfortunately, women didn’t have to rely on imagination. Feimster, a Professor of African American Studies at Yale, has said, “that sexualized violence was ‘common to the wartime experience of Southern women, white and black. Whether they lived on large plantations or small farms, in towns, cities or in contraband camps, white and black women all over the American South experienced the sexual trauma of war.’”
Federal records show that there were over four-hundred-fifty federal court martial trials for rape or attempted rape committed during the Civil War. It would be a mistake to think that this number represented anywhere close to an accurate reflection of how widespread the violence was. Kim Murphy, the author of I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War, said, “[When] I uncovered several hundred cases [of rape], I think that speaks loudly because very few women would have come forward. Very few women come forward during peacetime; it’s even fewer that come forward during wartime, so we know that this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what’s being reported.”
She goes on to make a point about how difficult it was to report even if a woman wanted to.
“Also, the thing that most people don’t recognize is that most of the records, like the court-martial records that we do have, were reported during times of occupation. That means that the troops were there, they weren’t in an active battle situation. That’s when women could find someone to go forward to. During times of battle, the chances of them even knowing who they could report to would be almost nil, and even if they did find someone, the chances that the officer in charge would be able to find enough officers to take on a court martial at that time would be next to impossible. In the book, I mention [a rape that occurred during] Sherman’s March, when the army was on the move. The victim did report it. But by the time the case made it to court martial, they were 100 miles away, so she could not testify. That’s what people don’t understand—it was totally against the women to even be able to report it.”
Beck, Julie, “Gender, Race, and Rape During the Civil War.”
A few studies have shown that Southern black women were particularly vulnerable to violence during the war. Already, a lot of states had legal systems that offered them no protection from violence. So to the extent wartime psychology makes people think they can get away with crimes, that would have been multiplied tenfold when applied to an enslaved or a free black woman. Rape and violence of all forms against black women were already extremely common to slavery, making wartime violence all the more tragic.
A lot of times, there were isolated events when certain troops or groups of them would happen upon a home, commit violence, and then just get away with it. Sometimes, violations occurred in the chaos of a place being overrun by enemy invaders or during times of battle. Violence also continued during occupations of towns or regions. Other times, violence against women was used as an officer-sanctioned military tactic of suppression.
As example of the latter, General Benjamin Butler gave General Order No. 28 during his occupation of New Orleans. The text is, “As the officers and soldiers of the United States have been subject to repeated insults from the women (calling themselves ladies) of New Orleans in return for the most scrupulous non-interference and courtesy on our part, it is ordered that hereafter when any female shall by word, gesture, or movement insult or show contempt for any officer or soldier of the United States she shall be regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation.”
A leap was made so quickly from insults to sexual violence. Logically speaking, there really isn’t a connection between the two things. But during the Civil War, a woman was most always defined in reference to her sexuality.
There was a huge outcry both in the United States and worldwide against Butler’s order. Even though the implication of sanctioned rape is plain, even some newspapers and commentators who condemned the order were unable to say so, pretending that being treated as a prostitute would mean that women would be imprisoned. However, if you look at rape trials from the time, to prove rape had occurred, a woman had to physically fight off a man even to the point of being killed or almost killed by him. And of course, during that time, a prostitute could never prove that by the very nature of her being a prostitute, so any “woman of the town plying her avocation” (read: asking for it) would be seen as open to sex and ineligible to claim rape. Butler himself said that he meant that the women should be ignored. If he had wanted them to be ignored, however, it seems more likely that he wouldn’t have issued the General Order at all. And a look at venereal disease rates (183,000 reported cases were treated) among the Union Army indicates that the automatic response to a prostitute wouldn’t always be ignoring her.
It is hard to know whether this Order led to heightened instances of violence. In keeping with Civil War history being mostly men’s history, most sources just state that the General Order solved the problem of women insulting the military and move on. But it seems likely that some violent episodes arose out of this. If it was happening when the government and officers had strictly forbidden it, violence seems much more likely when actively encouraged by authorities.
There are other examples of officer-sanctioned civilian suppression. General William Tecumseh Sherman’s promise to “make Georgia howl” was a promise of total warfare, a strategy to take the war to homes to finally bring the South to its knees. It may have been a sound military tactic, but it was women who ultimately suffered from it. A lot of individual stories of violence arise out of the March to the Sea. Sources debate whether the violence which ensued was sanctioned by General Sherman or simply committed by stragglers off the radar. I do think the plan to “make Georgia howl” certainly had undertones of civilian violence from its inception, and sometimes, that is all that is needed to set a mood.
President Lincoln did issue General Orders known as the “Lieber Code,” which laid down rules for dealing with enemy combatants and civilians. Basically, the gist was that “if you couldn’t do it at home, don’t think you can get away with it there.” The Lieber Code encouraged very strict punishment for violence against civilians, particularly women civilians. The part of The Code that got the most notice, though, was how to deal with prisoners of war.
Historians have suggested that Lincoln’s purpose in issuing the Orders was to send a message to the Confederate government. The Confederacy had made the decision to treat captured black Union troops not as prisoners of war but just as captives, which usually meant sending them back to slavery (if not killing them outright, as often happened). So while the Lieber Code addressed one huge problem well, the part that addressed civilian violence was a side-show. There is some evidence that many Union commanders never consulted the Lieber Code for rules on their actions toward civilians.
That isn’t to say that the effects were not good for women’s history: the Lieber Code was used as a template for international law moving forward, and with WWI and WWII not too far down the line, that was a very good thing. It also provided grounds for any court martials that did occur during the Civil War or after, and some did occur. Particularly, this was the first time many black women had any protection under the law at all, and some were able to prosecute their attackers successfully. However, whether the Code actually prevented violence during the war is more questionable.
In Northern Fire, I chose various ways to represent what women lived through during the war. [The following contains a few spoilers for Northern Fire. Skip the next five paragraphs if you would haven’t read the book yet and hate spoilers!]
Shannon and Phoebe met with Confederate troops who assumed they were prostitutes on their way back to South Carolina. Prostitution was so widespread during the Civil War that one soldier called his camp “a perfect Sodom,” and it is known as one of the few professions to cross enemy lines. And Shannon and Phoebe were crossing enemy lines where there were numerous camp followers who were prostitutes, as well as brothels nearby. Therefore, there was a real danger that women travelling alone and unkempt from travel could be deemed prostitutes and taken into camps as such or sent back across to the lines to the enemy camp.
Another depiction of this history is that Phoebe is tragically killed during the chaos of the takeover of Santarella by Union troops. After all of my research indicated the depth of violence black women faced during the war, I knew I had to convey that truth. Even though I cried, along with readers, I think Phoebe’s story translates the extent to which the law was no protection for women in her situation. Which, sadly, was nothing new, since slavery had perpetuated violence and nonchalance for it under the law for decades.
The other instance is that Shannon and her sister-in-law, Elizabeth, have their heads shaved by Union officers during the confiscation of Santarella. You may have only heard of this form of wartime violence in relation to French women in WWII. But this was a common practice perpetrated against women who were considered traitors dating far back in history. I first learned that this was the case when I read Grant, by Ron Chernow. Ulysses Grant witnessed Mexican women’s heads being shaved during the Mexican American War. I knew immediately that I wanted to use this little-remembered piece of history in Northern Fire, so I set out to find if there were specific instances of head-shaving during the Civil War. But as I said, much of the violence against women has been covered in silence. It is hard to track down specific instances because they were muted so thoroughly. So I found no recorded instances of head-shaving during the Civil War in my research.
I think it is possible, and even likely, that this did happen, however, given the widespread violence that was occurring. For one, many officers and soldiers of the Civil War had been in the Mexican American War. They, too, had seen this happen to Mexican women for giving aid to the Americans. There are many instances of officers drawing on their Mexican wartime experience during the Civil War.
This particular type of violence is a little different from outright revenge violence or lustful violence. It is driven by a desire to humiliate and subjugate the victim and the populace, so the psychology is a bit more nuanced. In fact, it is psychological warfare. Even though I wanted to use head-shaving as a plot device, I decided I wouldn’t do so unless I could find specific instances of that kind of subjugation psychology during the war. I found plenty. There are numerous reports of Union troops forcing white women to watch while they raped black enslaved women. Feimster says, “Just as the rape of white women implied that Southern men were unable to protect their mothers, wives and daughters, the rape of slave women told whites they could no longer protect their property.” This was violence for a purpose: to get into the enemy’s head. A message of subjugation was sent. I think that is very similar to the message sent by head-shaving, except that head-shaving has an added ingredient of woman-shaming—sort of this idea that you have stepped out of your role as a lady, and you’re going to be punished for that. We see a lot of that in the Civil War, too.
I want to reiterate that I do not mean to degrade whole armies on account of the acts of some men who were in those armies. There are always two dangers to any researcher of the Civil War. There is the Lost Cause Theory, which was a body of history that developed after the war to make the Southern cause appear noble and heroic in every aspect, while conversely degrading Northern causes and actions. Conversely, on the other side of the coin, Feimster, writes that “there are people who work on the Civil War and Reconstruction who have been committed to writing the narrative as one of progress, of liberty, and of freeing the slaves.” Particularly, as it relates to violence, she adds, “and to suggest that the soldiers would have raped black women goes against this narrative. It’s hard for historians to grapple with this because it changes the way people see the war, and most people don’t want to see the war as one of occupation.” Please know that I am always cognizant of both theories and vet every story I come across for the taint of each.
I think the greatest danger on this particular topic is that women’s stories have been covered up, whatever the reason for doing so. The more we can uncover, the more we will know about women’s experiences and about the war itself.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Minerva Cook lived at Hardtimes Plantation near Vicksburg, Mississippi during the Union occupation. The situation during occupation was volatile between the civilians and the military. General Grant gave the Cooks a paper guaranteeing safety from harassment. However, orders do not always translate to individual soldiers’ behavior. Union soldiers came to the house at night to loot, tossing the Cooks’ young sons out of bed to look in their mattresses. Minerva and her husband, Jared, were dragged out of bed, and arguments escalated to the point that Jared Cook was shot in the shoulder, a wound from which he survived, and Minerva was shot fatally. The perpetrators were dealt with swiftly: they were court-martialed and executed. While this story is little-known today, it must have loomed large during the war. One report calls it the largest mass-execution of Union troops during the war, so I have a feeling the story would have been widely circulated.
Reports say that there were as many as twenty-five men who went to the plantation that night. Most say that they were all USCT (United States Colored Troops), although I think that would be hard to say at this distance. Ultimately, nine USCT soldiers were executed. Race was instantly a factor in the discussions. There is no evidence that USCT troops were more violent than regular army troops. But I imagine this incident was used by people already inclined to prejudice to promote the idea that the populace was especially endangered by the USCT. I speculate that the perpetrators were dealt with so swiftly and comprehensively to soothe the populace. Possibly, the swift reaction was even to protect other USCT who would have been more at risk for something like Fort Pillow (where USCT troops were killed after they surrendered) happening if the populace didn’t feel that the Union had fully punished the perpetrators.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: There seems to be a deep political connection to violence against women and how prisoners of war would be treated. One historian has suggested that the killing of the men who should have been treated as prisoners of war at Fort Pillow was motivated in part by violence against local women. We already discussed how the Lieber Code addressed both prisoners of war and women civilians together. Another connection was that Jefferson Davis issued a statement that General Butler and his officers would be executed if captured following the General Order about treating women as prostitutes. Again, there is the same link between violence against women and treatment of male prisoners of war. This is a perfect example of women being combatants, or active participants, in the Civil War.
What do you think? Were women being used as political pawns, or was the link made to prisoners of war an honest effort to police violence against women? Perhaps it was considered to be the only way to protect civilians in that era?
In Benjamin Butler’s Orders, he shamed women for not acting like ladies (he sneers: “calling themselves ladies”). There was overwhelming societal pressure for women to be docile, and this political cartoon from Harper’s Weekly illustrates that well.This is a depiction of New Orleans before the Women’s Order and New Orleans after the Women’s Order. The women in the first, one of whom is turning her back to the Union soldier and the other of whom is spitting in his face, were drawn to look ugly, and, of course, the whole thing is unflattering. In the picture on the right, after women are acting submissively, they are drawn in a flattering light—pretty and meek. The implication was: if you make noise, you are ugly and socially unacceptable; if you are submissive, you are pretty and accepted. What a tough world it was!
 There are also many incidents of recorded violence against civilian men, which I do not seek to ignore. Those incidents are merely beyond the scope of his paper.
 Paterson, Kerry K., “Q&A: A Fresh Look at Rape During the U.S. Civil War,” WMC: Women Under Seige, May 9, 2013.
 Paterson, Kerry K., “Q&A: A Fresh Look at Rape During the U.S. Civil War.”
 Beck, Julie, “Gender, Race, and Rape During the Civil War.”
 Feimster, “Rape and Justice in the Civil War.”
 Historically speaking, a woman’s hair was regarded as caught up in her womanhood. So when her head is shaved, she is “unwomaned” in a way, or defeminized, which would have been a penance to a Victorian woman. She had to wear her shame for all to see.
 Mitcham, Jr. Samuel W., “Bust Hell Wide Open.” This may or may not be true. The book does not go into great detail or explore the charges of violence. Still, the connection was made.
I recently read Ryan Reynolds’s statement about his deep remorse for holding his wedding at Boone Hall Plantation in South Carolina. The actor related that he saw a pretty venue on Pinterest but that, in reality, it was a place with a tragic past. He felt that he had really made a huge misstep that perpetuated division. I’ve read a few articles on the subject that seem to agree with him: that getting married on a plantation is a horrible thing to do. One author called it “promot[ing] a whitewashing of history atop crimes against humanity.” The commentary on the subject shows that this is a really hot-button issue.
As always, I do not wish to delve into political topics, and my desire is for this to be a respectful forum for all. I can definitely see Reynold’s point: that having a happy-go-lucky wedding on top of soil that was once the sight of enslavement feels incongruous. In addition, I have this weird (frustrating, to those around me!) ability to see both sides to almost every issue which arises. So I’m not writing this article from any desire to join this argument—just from a desire to be useful on a topic about which I can see that there is some confusion.
I have visited countless historic homes, in the North and South. Like my modern heroine, Adeline, my real love is for old things and for architectural history. Therefore, I’m looking mostly at weird antiques and interesting windows or cupolas while I’m touring (nerd alert!). But I do think that I have learned a few things from these many tours that might be helpful to people who haven’t been on them, so I thought I would share.
First of all, I will kind of explain the field that house museums fall into: Public History. It’s an old field that relatively recently has begun to be treated as a discipline or wing of academic history. Public History encompasses archival documentation, museums, historic preservation, curatorial work, educational tours, and a few other fields. It’s a really important field for all of us. If these people didn’t exist, we would literally only know oral and archeological history. Historians would have no documents to research, no buildings to visit, and no antiques to examine.
In addition, Public Historians are the people with boots on the ground, so to speak, who make it their business to educate the public. They give cemetery tours at Halloween. They are the docents when we see the dinosaurs in the museums. They are the ladies dressed up in Victorian garb who help schoolchildren learn to make candles. They translate handwritten recipes for us to buy in cookbook format. They are the men who sit in tights literally all day long in Williamsburg to show us how an eighteenth-century blacksmith wielded his hammer. Academic Historians do their work for other historians and for the field. Public Historians work so that all people will know the importance of history. (Shout out to my sister!)
So what does that have to do with this controversy? A lot. You see, unless a museum, house museum, or plantation is very underfunded, it is generally run by Public Historians. One person, when speaking about the Reynolds wedding, commented on an article with a view that plantation house museums are built around a business model that perpetuates a rosy view of the past. This may have been that person’s experience, and I’m sure that at one time in history, that was true. However, that has not been my experience.
The people who work at these historic sites, generally speaking, are not the fan club of or apologists for the families who owned them or for horrific things that may have happened there. They are highly-trained academics who know that the history they are interpreting is problematic, and they are trained to address those topics.
So far from brushing things under the rug, I have known docents to take a sort of macabre pride in laying out the nitty gritty details of the past for visitors. I remember one instance in Savannah, Georgia, where the docent got so frank about the violence of slavery that I was glancing nervously at the children in our group, afraid they would have nightmares (luckily, the kids spoke only French!). At Carnton Plantation in Franklin, Tennessee, they shove back the furniture to show you huge blood spots on the wooden floors where men died during the Civil War (so much for romanticizing battles!). At most plantations, you are shown just how small slave cabins were and how many families were forced to live in them. There’s nothing like stepping into one of them for yourself to evoke poignant and painful knowledge of just how things really were for those who lived there.
I have learned a lot about slavery by touring Southern plantations and house museums—more, I think than I have learned in all of my academic studies. It was at McLeod Plantation in South Carolina that I learned from the docent that saying “enslaved people” instead of “slaves” was an effort on the part of Public History to remind us that the people who were held in bondage were just that: people. They had lives and stories, and not all of them are lost to history if we look for them in the right places. Almost all of the tour at McLeod is devoted to individual enslaved people whose lives the historians there have meticulously researched. We learned who they were and what a typical day would look like for them. I had always thought that enslaved people’s individual stories had been tragically lost. For me, this excellent piece of Public History showed me that this was not true.
Again, if those I saw responding to the articles about the Reynolds wedding have had a bad experience at a house museum, that is truly a shame. My guess is that, when it does happen that history is whitewashed in museums, it would likely be from a lack of training and funding, although, of course, there may be certain people who have, or had in the past, specific goals in mind when doing so.
You may be wondering what touring a house museum has to do with hosting a wedding there. The argument could be made that the first is merely history, which is good for people to learn, and the second is a celebration of a personal event at a place of troubled history. Some may feel they chose a plantation venue for the wrong reasons.
But I have known of people to get married at plantations for a variety of reasons which include no cause for judgment or blame. One was a girl who couldn’t find another venue in a rural area to take the burden of hosting off her family. One was an African American woman whose decision to marry at a plantation could only have held profound meaning for her family that I can’t even begin to understand.
And I could have taken this wrong, but I think Reynolds and the commentators weren’t just talking about the wedding: they were implicitly extending their feelings to house museums and plantations operating for business in any capacity. That is to say, I think they felt they should all be closed for business.
And I think that belief misunderstands the nature and purpose of house museums as they operate today. Yes, we are dealing with humans who sometimes tell the wrong story or have the wrong beliefs, just like in any aspect of life. But we are also dealing with a field that provides one of the few forums communicating directly to the public about the lives of people who were enslaved.
And to lose this forum would be a loss to all of us.