Charleston Tides History Behind the Story – Outtakes
There were a few historical tidbits covered in Charleston Tides that didn’t quite merit their own posts, so I thought it would be fun to do a lightning “History Behind the Story” round covering five “outtake” topics. As always, there are a few spoilers ahead if you haven’t read the series. Here we go!
1. Mementos: You may remember in Charleston Tides that as soon as the war was over, people flocked to Charleston to get mementos of slavery, newly a dead institution. In Charleston Tides, we hear of the slave-trading district being combed for manacles, market bells, and a set of steps that were sent to William Lloyd Garrison as a trophy. John C. Calhoun’s tomb was desecrated, and people were delighted to take little pieces of stone from it as mementos. Clover was picked from the grounds of Institute Hall, where the Ordinance of Secession had been enacted in Charleston.
This seems a bit odd to us, but there was an obsession during the Victorian era with mementos. You can learn more about this in Episode 63 of the Ben Franklin’s World Podcast, “Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War.” The author of a book by the same name, Megan Kate Nelson, mainly talks about the general destruction of the war, but she also goes briefly into the memento fixation of the Civil War era. My first encounter with the same was with the house museums of Middle Tennessee, where hair art was really popular during Victorian times. You would take a clip (or a lot) of hair from every deceased relative and add it to a piece of hair art. These were then made into an elaborate floral display or the shape of a fan, and every family member gets added in as the generations progress. Even Queen Victoria, when she died, had all of her hair cut off as mementos to be given out!
2. Separation of Civil War Families: You may have noticed that a side-character couple, the Rices, have children who are not living with them at the beginning of the war. It is mentioned that their children are in school in Illinois. I didn’t specify whether the Rices were actually from Illinois, because it was most likely that their children were sent there because a school had been found that was a good fit for their needs. Separation was a reality for most Civil War families, especially those of a military variety, and usually the non-combatant members were sent to where it was most expedient based on needs of the day.
Ulysses and Julia Grant, for instance, had to send their children to various schools, often not near them or family or any particular ties, but to where they felt it would be best for the children. If the family was able to come together, it was only briefly, and often with various children here or there at different times. Ellen Sherman, who had always been particularly opposed to living away from her Ohio home, picked up and moved her many children to South Bend, Indiana, where they could attend Catholic schools and be near particular clergy who were close to her family.
In Southern households, safety was also a key factor. In the fictional movie The Beguiled, (recommended to me by a friend!) there is a girls’ school which is still operating because families sent their daughters there to be out of war zones. Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont’s father sent her mother and sisters to live in Paris during the war. Robert E. Lee’s family was scattered out of necessity due to their properties being close to the Union Army lines. His only child to die during the war was a daughter, Annie, who after living in Virginia most of her life, had moved to Jones Springs, North Carolina to try to recover from Typhoid Fever.
And of course, enslaved families who had been separated by ownership continued to be so throughout the duration of the war, unless they lived in an emancipated area and could find their family members. Reuniting with family was a huge challenge for many freed people in the aftermath of the war.
Separation was a very real and very painful thing for many families during the Civil War.
3. Birth Control: [Skip this one if you don’t have a desire to learn about Victorian birth control – haha!] In Charleston Tides, as I was thinking about Shannon’s brother and his wife’s future, it struck me that 1865 Charleston was a very bad time and place to have a baby. To think about having another mouth to feed when everyone is basically starving, with no hope of income, and when there was a recent death in childbirth… Realistically, it just seemed like a “No.” So I started researching historical birth control to see if it was accurate to hint that this might be used. During my Native American studies in college, I had in research stumbled across various practices used with some success, so protection has been used in North America for a long time.
I always see in historical fiction storylines of certain herbs to prevent conception, which… I’m just not convinced, frankly. If you think about the limitations in Victorian medicine and the understanding of the human body in general, getting doses right, taking them at the right times, and even still today they are not seen as being entirely effective… This seems like a historical myth that has been taken a little out of proportion.
Which leads me to…historical condoms. We’ve all read about (I’m just going to whisper it here) sheep’s intestines. Historic condom-like devices have been found dating back to ancient times. I won’t detail all of them here. But actually by 1855, rubber condoms were invented, if not widely used. They were even advertised in the New York Times, which seems to conflict with notions of Victorian fustiness!
Of course, there were various other methods of birth control, and I do think there were people, even married couples, who used them during the Victorian Era. You can read between the lines in letters and diaries. One that stands out in my mind is a Victorian plantation mistress talking about her sister-in-law, who had given birth to two babies in quick succession. A mother herself, the lady says something like, “I don’t know how she does it. I could never do it.” What else can this mean than that she was doing some strategic spacing of her own children?
4. Resistance to Insurgency in the South: There is a brief mention that Shannon’s brother, who had been a Confederate Naval officer, actually supported John Thomas’s political efforts to quell violence against freedmen in the South. I didn’t touch on this in the post about insurgency and violence, but there were such Southerners who lent their aid. There were some who did so for noble reasons, but most who did were thinking more practically. They knew that violence would cause a longer occupation, which would lead to a loss of rights by those traditionally in power, as well as a longer period to recover financially after the war. One example of a Confederate officer-turned aid to Reconstruction is James Longstreet, who was given a job by the Grant administration. Of course, there were many who were not similarly ready to move on and who took action against the goals of Reconstruction, even to the point of joining and forming insurgent societies.