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.
Welcome to the last post for the History Behind the Story Series for Charleston Tides! My sister is in graduate school in Charleston. When I heard that she was researching elite free Black women in Charleston around the time of the Civil war, I knew I wanted to request a guest post from her. [Warning: There will be a few spoilers in the next paragraph if you haven’t read Charleston Tides. Just skip it if you need to and go on to the next!]
In Charleston Tides, we encounter a number of characters who are Black women who held a legal free status in Charleston long before the Civil War emancipated the enslaved. These were: Jeptha, who becomes the housekeeper in Shannon’s household, Justinia Reed, who has been a midwife for twenty years (who is also Shannon’s father’s mistress), and Miss Millington, a dressmaker.
The lives of Charleston’s free Black population are important to history, as well as fascinating. In addition to the regular free Black community, which I was able to explore in the series to a degree, there was also a thriving aristocratic free Black community in Charleston. This historical topic is one that I wish I had been able to cover in more detail in the Torn Asunder Series. But in lieu of that, I asked my sister to streamline one of her graduate papers which explores one facet and family in Charleston’s elite free Black history. So without further ado…
The Bettingall-Tunno Women:
Navigating Charleston’s Legal Landscape Before, During, and After the Civil War
*Warning: some of the quoted language in this post contains historical rhetoric used in the aftermath of the Civil War which would be considered offensive today.*
I’m so excited to make a guest contribution to Tea & Rebellion! As a History graduate student at the College of Charleston and The Citadel, I’m passionate about bringing historical resources to life. What started as a pet project digging through faded papers in South Carolina Historical Society’s archives developed into a substantial research endeavor exploring Charleston’s elite free Black community experience in the period before, during, and after the Civil War through various facets of rhetoric and law.
For the purposes of this post, I explore the experiences of a specific community of free Black Charlestonians which was considered aristocratic in its day. I investigate changing norms, laws, and race rhetoric to reveal how Black aristocrats engaged, managed, and interacted with the law in a white-dominated patriarchal society in the aftermath of the war. In doing this, I narrowed down my scope to a family known to history as the Bettingall-Tunno family. The Bettingall-Tunno women’s perspective reveals the relative ease with which elite free Blacks negotiated Charleston’s legal and paternalistic landscape. These women embodied Charleston’s elite free Black pre-war experience, making the study of their court records and attorneys’ papers significant to the field of African American history.
Margaret Bettingall, a free woman of color, married Adam Tunno, a prominent white merchant turned planter in antebellum Charleston. They lived openly as husband and wife, and this did not stun elite white society. Margaret brought a daughter to the marriage, and the couple had another daughter. When Adam Tunno died in 1832, his wife, daughter, and stepdaughter found themselves well-positioned in Charleston. Then, on the precipice of the Civil War, Margaret Bettingall-Tunno and her daughters increasingly challenged systems that began to value their skin color more than their social position. Later, in Reconstruction Charleston, maintaining significant real property, wealth, and a sense of agency meant that the Bettingall-Tunno women had to learn to maneuver the law when others tried to take advantage of what they perceived as race or gender ignorance. Let’s take a moment to look at the world in which Margaret Bettingall and her family lived.
South Carolina differed from other southern states in its laws regarding marriage before the Civil War. South Carolina law allowed free Blacks to marry anyone of their choice, except an enslaved person, “even…white people.” Black and white intermarriage occurred in antebellum Charleston, though this was by no means a typical experience of elite free Blacks.
Regardless of race, marriage served an important societal function of rationalizing the patriarchy. Just as aristocratic husbands modeled greater American society, aristocratic wives represented all that a wealthy woman should be based on societal expectations and patriarchal prescriptions. A free Black woman’s ability to embody these expectations could determine the legitimacy of the marital union in the eyes of white Charleston. Even though the law recognized intermarriages between the races, social acceptance of interracial couples only happened under extraordinary circumstances.
Margaret Bettingall and Adam Tunno demonstrate a rare example of an interracial couple who found community acceptance both among elite free Blacks and elite whites in antebellum Charleston. Though recent scholars have debated whether their marriage was in fact legal, I accept testimony that they filed a marriage certificate in their church, and many of Tunno’s friends openly called Bettingall his wife. Those in the elite white community who did not know Tunno well called Margaret his housekeeper in public, while privately referring to her as his concubine. Reverend Johnson, Rector of St. Philip’s Parish, verified their marriage ceremony was listed in “Record of the Parish of St. Philip’s” in defense of the Bettingall-Tunno union.
Following Tunno’s death in 1832, these three women (Margaret, her daughter Hagar, and Margaret and Adam’s daughter) inherited real estate, enslaved individuals, and a significant portion of money from his estate. Critically, they also retained access to certain influential white men who would be key to survival in patriarchal Charleston. Tunno, as her stepfather, assigned legal guardianship of Hagar to Edward Frost, granting her a link with a white parent she did not have and fulfilling the requirement of the law for free Blacks.
To manipulate the law and to experience autonomy, the Bettingall-Tunno women “understood that men were both a hindrance to and a help in their efforts to secure greater liberty for themselves.” Their independent wealth allowed them to maintain agency, and their connections to white men permitted them engage in legal and business ventures.
During the Reconstruction period, a shift occurred from class-based consciousness to complete race consciousness. Post-Emancipation miscegenation fears prompted changes in legislation. South Carolina adopted a Black code in 1865 that prohibited marriage between whites and Blacks, an unprecedented law in the state.
Redefining marriage, though, changed race rhetoric completely. White Charlestonians carefully reconstructed the memory of marriage between Blacks and whites in pre-war times to benefit them socially in Reconstruction Charleston. In an effort to retain a social patriarchy post-Emancipation, former white enslavers and business elites played on fears concerning white women. Regulating interracial marriage and sexual relationships simultaneously placed control of Black bodies and white women back into patriarchal hands. Importantly for elite Black and elite white relations in Reconstruction Charleston, however, the elite free Black community retained kinship ties and blood relations that still held significance among influential whites after the war.
Maintaining a good reputation, for both free Black women and white women, remained crucial to receiving due inheritance from a husband’s estate. If a will became contested in court, a woman of ill-repute was not entitled to her husband’s inheritance. Thus, the language used to describe married women mattered a great deal. Elite Black women who had been considered legally married to white men in Antebellum South Carolina, then, truly felt the weight of changing laws and race rhetoric.
Margaret Bettingall-Tunno encountered the changing race rhetoric when her late husband’s niece, Elizabeth Webb of London, England, contested the Tunno Estate on grounds that “mulatto” children should not rightfully inherit what a man’s white family should. At every deposition, attorneys asked Charleston community members who recognized Margaret and Adam’s relationship what they knew of her character, if she had a good reputation, if they ate meals together or walked together publicly, and if Adam considered her his wife.
John N. Gregg, an elite white man who lived in Charleston and knew of the Bettingall-Tunno alliance, accepted the legality of the interracial marriage. When Margaret’s attorney asked about the legitimacy of her union with Tunno, Gregg replied, “I have heard that she and Mr. Tunno were man and wife, she was a communicant of St. Philip’s Church and you all know that she couldn’t be a communicant of St. Philip’s Church without being the wife of Adam Tunno.” Theodore F. Mitchell, in his court testimony to prove the virtuous nature of Margaret’s character, stated, “The relationship as I have heard was very close… close as she was the head and front of his household.” Mitchell further elaborates that she possessed an upstanding reputation and that the community regarded her as “a good woman.” Another testimony by Mr. Moffett verified that “there was no better woman in Charleston than her.”
In pre-war correspondences between Webb’s attorneys and the Tunno family’s counsel, prominent Charleston attorney Langdon Cheves III, defined the standard for rhetoric regarding the Bettingall-Tunno women, changing it from “mulatto” to “alleged half-caste relatives.” Cheves served as Adam Tunno’s attorney in his lifetime and continued to defend the Bettingall-Tunno women even as late as 1904. His support of these women appears dissonant with the language he used to describe them. The legal rhetoric that passed between both attorneys in the case between Webb and Bettingall-Tunno more accurately reflected the increased conformity to race rhetoric regarding all Blacks than the attorneys’ ability to exercise legal integrity. Writing in the post-war moment, and valuing their white client’s claims, Elizabeth Webb’s London attorneys at Sole, Turner, and Knight drafted, “We do not think for a moment that the testator was really married to these nigger women or either of them, and the document incorporated in his will, by which he made some provision for them, clearly suggests that the relationship between them (if any) were only that of concubinage.” (Tunno’s will did not specify any relationship with the women of his family, only listing them as devisees of his estate.)
Marriage between Margaret Bettingall-Tunno and Adam Tunno, even though proof of a marriage license was unearthed, became in their words “in the highest degree improbable.” The altering language used to describe people of color exemplifies the shift to value race more than social position or class. The Bettingall-Tunno union seemed “improbable” to a white-dominated patriarchal society in which Blacks were stereotyped negatively, thus measured by their skin color and piety rather than their business reputations, wealth, prestige, and connections.
The Bettingall-Tunno women’s responses to the lawsuit are seemingly lost, as only their attorney’s records and the court testimonies from witnesses regarding their characters survive. The fact that Langdon Cheves and attorneys at his firm represented them for so long suggests that even in a city with changing race rhetoric, the Bettingall-Tunnos found avenues to protect themselves by maneuvering within the system, a technique they had utilized in the antebellum years.
Surviving records illustrate that Cheves never hesitated to represent these women or their claims. A cursory search of his other clients, including elite Charlestonians like the Drayton family, reveals the speed and efficiency that Cheves conducted business for his other clients. That Cheves allowed the suit between Webb and Bettingall-Tunno to extend over the course of decades suggests that he knew the limitations women of color would experience in the law, and that the outcome would not be in their favor. He would wait weeks, sometimes months, to reply to letters from the attorneys at Sole, Turner, and Knight. Even though correspondences had to travel from Charleston to London, Webb’s London lawyers always produced a response to Cheves within a couple of weeks. The Bettingall-Tunno women never relented in any part of the case, either, which suggests their persistent resistance to changing race attitudes.
Years progressed in Reconstruction Charleston, and as late as 1902, the court case between Elizabeth Webb and the Bettingall-Tunno women continued. Elizabeth Webb eventually won her case against the Bettingall-Tunno women in 1904. Margaret Bettingall-Tunno and her daughters were already deceased at this point, and Elizabeth Webb died before she could receive what was left of the funds from Adam Tunno’s estate.
Law, grounded in racism, became the basis for justifications that purposefully excluded on the basis of gender, class, and race in the decades following Reconstruction. Charleston’s elite free Black community experience witnessed unprecedented transformations both in law and rhetoric. Formerly engaging in unique privileges due to wealth, standing, and connections with prominent Charlestonians, elite Blacks now experienced contingent freedoms with increasingly more stringent social parameters.
Charleston’s legal landscape in the short period surrounding the Civil War reveals the ways in which elite free Blacks constantly adapted to maintain a prominent social position and find protections against race systems that devalued this group. Experts at manipulating the often-unfair law and pursuing personal gains, Charleston’s elite Blacks created a community that both utilized Black-white relations and circumvented a society that valued a white patriarchy.
Tara again – Thanks so much for sharing your work with us, Hannah! Please note that, while most everything on Tea & Rebellion is permitted to be used with a citation or crediting to the blog, the information in this post may only be used or quoted by permission of Hannah Cowan Jones, which can be requested at the contact tab, the reason being that this post is the result of extensive scholarly research.
There are no known photos existing of the Bettingall-Tunno women. So I thought I would share some images of elite nineteenth century ladies below.
 “Testimony of Reverend John Johnson of St. Philip Parish” in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).
 Elizabeth Webb, Adam Tunno’s white niece, contested his last will and testament in hopes of gaining her Black cousins’ inheritance; see “In re: Estate of Adam Tunno Deed” in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).
 Cynthia M. Kennedy, Braided Relations, Entwined Lives: The Women of Charleston’s Urban Slave Society (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 103. For a Virginia comparison to view South Carolina’s extraordinary legal position concerning marriage, see Joshua D. Rothman, Notorious in the Neighborhood: Sex and Families Across the Color Line in Virginia, 1787-1861 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2003), 56-59.
 Sandra F. VanBurkleo, and Amber D. Moulton, “Moses Married a Colored Woman” in The Women’s Review of Books 33, no. 2 (2016): 8-9. See also Wilbert L. Jenkins, Seizing the New Day: African Americans in Post-Civil War Charleston (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 2.
 See Drayton Family Papers in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).
 One such example is found in Cheves’ February response to Sole, Turner, and Knights’ November letter. See “Re: Adam Tunno Decd.” 7 February 1902 in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).
 “Re: Adam Tunno Deced” in Langdon Cheves Legal Papers (South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston).
Welcome to the third installment of the History Behind the Story Series for Charleston Tides. Today’s topic is very broad, and there is no way we could even scratch the surface in one post, so I am going to state the very basic facts to give you an idea of the enormity of the issue. I will also specifically focus on the aspects of this subject with which I chose to grapple in Charleston Tides.
History Behind the Story #3: Violence Against Freedmen and the Rise of Insurgent Movements
THE HISTORY: In the aftermath of the Civil War, as guns were being laid down and people were returning home, America had a lot of adjusting to do. We talked about missed opportunities for really instituting great change for newly emancipated men and women in a prior post. What happened in actuality was a period of intense instability and violence. Freedmen were keen to claim their rights, and many found this threatening for various reasons, which in turn led to violence. I will list some bullet points to give you an idea of just how huge the problem was.
Thousands of newly emancipated men and women were murdered and assaulted. In 1865–1866, the Freedman’s Bureau in Texas alone recorded over a thousand murders, for example. This was a key factor in forcing the occupation of the formerly Confederate states, which lasted about a decade. In addition, racial violence was happening simultaneously all over the country, including in the North and in the territories.
The Ku Klux Klan, White League, Knights of the White Camelia, and other groups began to form and spread quickly. There was no centralized organization, but local groups could be quite powerful and devastating. These organizations threatened freedmen and anyone who helped them. There were both isolated instances of violence and mass murders.
Once “Radical Reconstruction” began, there was also political violence. Both Black and white Republican officials were targeted, intimidated, and assassinated. Several high-ranking politicians were killed. People were shot and lynched and had their homes burned. In addition, much of the violence was aimed at voter suppression. Election nights and days were huge times of violence, arson, and other threatening behavior because the organizations mentioned above wished to disenfranchise the newly freed populace (this means men, of course – women wouldn’t be given voting rights for decades).
Economic intimidation also became a huge factor in preventing newly freed men and women from claiming their rights. The sharecropping system became a system of de facto slavery in which formerly enslaved people would be unable to leave due to loans held by landowners for their planting, which, because of the oppressive economic conditions, they would never be able to repay. In addition, simply “acting free” very often inspired whippings or shootings. Violence also often resulted if people tried to leave.
In Charleston Tides, we see most of this history come to a head at the end of the book (spoiler alert). John Thomas is almost assassinated because of a speech he gave in Congress highlighting the number of murders which had occurred. These kinds of assassinations or attempts were all too common and documented against Republican politicians. In addition, Shannon receives a warning from the Ku Klux Klan at her home in Massachusetts. There were many such reported incidents of insurgent activity against government officials who were Black or who were seen as supporting freedmen’s equality.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: I am going to block quote a few stories which were already told quite succinctly by one of my sources, which is cited below the stories. These involve officials who were attacked for their political beliefs.
“In Georgia on October 29, 1869, Klansmen attacked and brutally whipped 52-year-old Abram Colby, a formerly enslaved Black man who had been elected to Congress by enfranchised freedmen. Shortly before the attack, a group of Klansmen comprised of white doctors and lawyers tried to bribe Mr. Colby to change parties or resign from office. When he refused, the men brutally attacked him.”
“In August 1870, a Black legislator named Richard Burke was attempting to organize a meeting of African Americans in Sumter County, Alabama, when he was shot and killed near his home. Mr. Burke was accused of encouraging armed Black people to stage a protest in Livingston, Alabama, but the Southern Republican newspaper reported that the charges against Mr. Burke were most likely made up as an excuse to kill him for his political leadership.”
“In 1870, Guilford Coleman, a Black delegate to the Alabama state convention, was abducted from his home and killed the week he returned from nominating a Reconstruction governor in Demopolis. Investigation into Mr. Coleman’s murder was minimal but reports indicated he was beaten and dumped into a well solely for his political involvement. Reports warned that pro-Reconstruction politicians “dare not canvass the district, lest they lose their lives.”
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: The Reconstruction Era is known as one of the darkest times in American history. There were many actions taken that set precedents for generations to come. Many have speculated that if Lincoln had lived things would be different. What do you think? Did President Johnson’s handling of early Reconstruction constitute the most important series of actions during this time period?
PHOTOGRAPH: I wanted to introduce you, if you are not already acquainted, to Hiram Revels from Mississippi, who was the first Senator elected of African and Native American ancestry. He was born free in North Carolina in 1827 and became a preacher in the South before being elected in 1870 to finish the term of one of Mississippi’s U.S. senators. Thankfully, Mr. Revels was not a victim of violence during his tenure, and I wanted to include his story to highlight the strides that he made.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia.com
These posts which cover violence are always very difficult to write and read. If you are interested in learning more, there are so many resources out there which cover Reconstruction history quite well, and I am happy to recommend some. Stop by next time for a special guest post, which also happens to be the final History Behind the Story Post for the Torn Asunder Series.
Chernow, Ron, Grant (New York: Penguin Books, 2017).
We’re on to the next History Behind the Story article for Charleston Tides! Settle in and learn about the background for the historical choices I made concerning the fame of Civil War officers…
History Behind the Story #2: Fame of Civil War Officers
THE HISTORY: One thing that I learned only relatively recently was that the Civil War produced modern-type, completely famous, all-out celebrities. Obviously there had been famous Americans before. But railroads, the press, circles of communications, public interest, and the telegraph combined during the Civil War to make public hysteria for celebrities as intense, if not more so, than it is today. Civil War celebrities and their families had to contend with public interest, adulation, and, sometimes, hostility.
Civil War sensations were famous not just in their states or in the United States, but across the entire world. They became folk legends in Europe and Asia, with military scholars and the general public at large watching their movements intently.
Europeans hungrily waited for reports of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson’s latest moves and wrote ballads and poems about him. Jackson even sometimes received cheers from Union soldiers he had captured as he walked by them. People would try to touch the officers and rip their hair and buttons off for souvenirs. Once, a captured Union soldier began ripping hairs out of Jackson’s famed horse, Little Sorrel, and was ordered to stop but did not. When Jackson came out, he asked, “My friend, why are you tearing the hair out of my horse’s tail?” The prisoner responded, “Ah, General, each one of these hairs is worth a dollar in New York.”
After the rise of his fame, Ulysses Grant would be swamped at every railroad from which he disembarked. We’re talking such a tide of people that you are unable to move and people are at risk of getting trampled. The same was true of other Civil War celebrities. William Tecumseh Sherman wanted to go visit a friend in Detroit after the war but wrote his brother, “But [I] am bothered by people in travelling so much that I prefer to be quiet ‘til the people run after new gods.” Jackson was horrified to be engulfed at a church he stopped to attend during the war, and even more so to be accosted by throngs of admiring ladies. (One pictures Victorian fangirls looking slightly different than those of The Beatles.)
The famous officers’ coping mechanisms varied, but a lot of the strategies bear resemblance to modern tactics. Grant was delighted when his more magnificent-looking doctor was mistaken for himself. He often used him as a decoy so that he could slip away unnoticed. The famous officers would duck out back doors, stay indoors, keep a low profile, and sometimes flat-out flee from their worshippers.
When Jackson’s daughter was born during the war, he told his wife not to send the news across the telegraph wires and told no one in his camp. This likely wasn’t unfounded, since months later during the many stops of his extended funeral, people clamored madly to see, touch, and kiss the baby. At one point, she was even taken outside the train and passed from stranger to stranger to stranger as people wept and engaged in mass hysteria.
You also hear of Grant holding his children’s hands in public situations, even after they were a little older than the norm. Modern celebrities do this, too, so I would assume it is a protective gesture.
The way officers dealt mentally with fame was generally in keeping with the individuals’ personalities. Grant would smile at the crowds; I think he appreciated the praise, but I don’t think it ever went to his head. Jackson tried to stay out of the spotlight and was always careful to deflect praise from himself and back onto Providence. He just did not believe God would be happy with him for reveling in glory. Robert E. Lee handled fame soberly and also was careful to remind admirers that any praise belonged to God. After the war when Nathan Bedford Forrest was attracting a large crowd in New York, he said, “Get out of my way, God damn you!” And they did. So that was one way to deal with it.
For a lot of these officers, nothing in their prior lives would have prepared them for this level of public scrutiny. Before the war, Grant had been a store clerk who had been more or less forced to resign from the army. Jackson was an unpopular professor at VMI. Both Grant and Jackson had flashes of brilliance during the Mexican American War, but nothing to cause them to receive true renown.
One wonders if the fame was a little less foreign to Lee. The Lee family had been mildly famous during the Revolutionary War, and he had married the daughter of George Washington’s adopted grandson. The Washingtons had been the first American family to be forced to deal with a frenzied level of interest and adulation, so maybe they had passed down some practical coping mechanisms. In addition, Lee had received relative renown in military circles for his engineering endeavors during the Mexican American War. Therefore, he had been introduced somewhat to a public life, though his personal experience of it was only a fraction of what it would become as the war progressed and he executed his successful battles.
These celebrities’ fame did usually arise from success in battle: Grant, for his inventive victories in the Western Theater when all else was going badly for the Union; Jackson, for his record-breaking forced marches and aggressive battlefield strategies; Lee, for his stunning victories in Virginia; Sherman, for the turn-around at Shiloh, and Forrest, for his lightning campaigns and startling successes. So, with fame based on success, the danger was that if things didn’t go well, you would plummet in public opinion just as rapidly.
Of course, Jackson never lived to face that reality, but Grant, Lee, Sherman, and Forrest all did. When Grant was transferred by Lincoln from the Western Theater to battle Lee’s army in Virginia, he was also promoted to Lieutenant General and made overall commander of the Union armies. The fanfare he met with in Washington was like nothing ever seen on this continent, and yet he said, “Nothing ever fell on me like a wet blanket so much as my promotion to the lieutenant-generalcy.” He knew the stakes were high.
When Grant took on Lee, the first battles were extremely fierce and bloody, prompting the North to suffer a slight check in Grant-worship. Grant seemed to take this in his stride, saying something to the effect of that he had always said defeating Lee would come at great expense of human life and he didn’t understand why anyone assumed it would be any different.
Lee suffered a severe blow to his pride by the ultimate surrender, of course. It seems like he was never truly blamed by the South for failure in the war. Still, he seemed to have had some degree of difficulty coping with the final result, even finding it impossible to laugh at a joke Grant made to him years later when he visited Grant in the White House. One imagines defeat was made more difficult through world fame.
The extent to which Forrest was personally involved in the event which won him a degree of infamy (the massacre by his troops of the USCT at Fort Pillow) has been debated by historians for more than a century and is beyond the scope of this article. But history records that he did face an intense level of scrutiny from those who believed he was responsible. He was the subject of strong denunciation in Northern newspapers, which also began digging into his personal life and that of his family members. Forrest recounted stories of people approaching him in the streets and mobs forming, as well as that of one lady knocking on his hotel door and entering before he was even dressed in order to rebuke him.
Similarly, Sherman’s moral responsibility for the scorched earth tactics in the South are also highly debated and beyond this article’s scope. He, too, faced immense criticism and rebuke from those on the opposite side.
There was another very tangible danger, too: assassination. People like Lincoln and Grant came to embody in public perception the political causes which they were executing on the battlefield. We all know how this turned out for Lincoln. Grant was haunted by menacing characters dogging his steps, riding up to his train, and even invading his home during the week of Lincoln’s assassination, and he eventually had to leave Washington. He was rather heedless of the danger, but his faithful group of officers concocted a security plan for his protection. It was a miracle he survived.
All of this, naturally, inspired the direction in which I took John Thomas’s story. The Navy played a huge role for both sides, often accomplishing the seemingly impossible and acting with a precision common to more modern wars like WWII. There were a few famous naval heroes during the war—Admirals Porter, Foote, and Dahlgren come to mind. I don’t believe they achieved quite the A-lister fame of the generals I have discussed above, but when it came to John Thomas, I thought…why not?
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: When Ulysses and Julia Grant travelled to England, they were met with overwhelming crowds. In Liverpool, an estimated 80,000–100,000 people turned out to see them. They were even hosted by Queen Victoria for a lavish dinner. The reception was similar in Egypt, Jerusalem, Greece, Rome, Russia, Austria, Germany, Japan, Vietnam, Burma, Singapore, and Thailand. The Grants’ tour of the world offers a fascinating snapshot into the global connectedness of the 1870s. Ron Chernow covers this historical moment spectacularly in Grant, but if you want a shorter read, here is a link to a PBS article on the same.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Public interest creates celebrities. What makes us do it? Fascination, boredom, curiosity, a desire to stay up with the times? I was considering as I was writing this article how the combination of so many factors catapulted the most prominent officers of the Civil War to fame.
Military figures had always held a fascination for the public during wars anyway, partly due to previous centuries’ romanticization of wars. And for the American public, these officers’ decisions were directly affecting their daily lives in a very real way. Civil War celebrities became symbols for causes whether they wanted to be or not, often even when they were just doing their military job and not directly trying to impact public opinion or politics. Was this unfair? Or was it healthy, politically speaking, for the public to be able to hold those in power accountable or promote certain platforms through the mighty force of public opinion of celebrities?
ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: Take a look at this photo of Grant’s funeral procession in 1885 in New York. 1.5 million people attended. The fame, celebrity, and infamy of Civil War officers was enduring, and, I think, still endures today.
Stop by next time for a look at the rise of insurgent movements after the Civil War.
William Tecumseh Sherman, by James Lee McDonough
Grant, by Ron Chernow
Bust Hell Wide Open, by Samuel W. Mitcham Jr.
Rebel Yell, by S.C. Gwynne
Clouds of Glory, by Michael Korda
Nathan Bedford Forrest, by Jack Hurst
 Grant’s granddaughter even married minor European royalty, which shows the level of A-lister fame these officers were catapulted into.
 Horrifying in terms of all of the diseases the population was riddled with and considering she was only six months old. Jefferson Davis and Jackson’s wife were in the train car, and my initial thought was, “Why are they letting this happen!?” The mother was upset, but because they were exhausting the baby, not because they were spreading, you know, tuberculosis. And then I remembered how little was understood in terms of germs. A very real reminder of why time travel is not something I could ever desire.
Welcome back to the History Behind the Story Series! Since Southern Rain was first published, I have been writing a series of articles which give you the background on the events that happened in my books or the historical choices I made when writing them. There were ten articles in total for Southern Rain, five for Northern Fire, and the following is the first of the four articles that will dig into the history behind Charleston Tides. Note that there are usually a few spoilers which pertain to the historical aspects of the books. Okay, here we go!
History Behind the Story #1: Charleston’s Festivals of Freedom
THE HISTORY: When I was researching the history of the South in the days and months following the conclusion of the armed hostilities of the Civil War, it seemed like most information pertained to the military or government. For the ordinary men and women who were either piecing back together lives or starting totally new lives, I fell back on the research which spoke comprehensively about the insurgent movements that got underway really quickly after everyone laid down their weapons. I originally depicted a lynching in Charleston, knowing that this was something that happened repeatedly in the city in the years after the war. I was wary of making it seem as though just because slavery had ended peace and equality had been established as well.
Then my sister went to graduate school for Public History at the College of Charleston. I got a call from her while we were in the revision process of Charleston Tides, and she said, “You’re never going to believe it.” What she had found was a little-known but huge moment of empowerment for the newly freed men and women of Charleston. Most of the following history comes from research gleaned from a book called Denmark Vesey’s Garden.
Basically, from February 18, 1865 when Charleston fell until roughly a year later constituted what is known as the Year of Jubilee in Charleston. A flag raising ceremony at Fort Sumter (a heavily symbolic place) with formerly enslaved people, abolitionists, and military personnel present kicked off a series of great festivals of freedom in which Charleston’s newly freed community celebrated their freedom again and again. I don’t want to give the impression that this type of open, public celebration was happening all over the South, because it wasn’t. However, this was possible in Charleston for several reasons. First, Charleston’s newly freed contingent made up a majority of its population. The Union military presence was heavy in Charleston. In addition, Charleston was the archetype city for slavery, so when anything involving slavery was happening, the eyes of the country were upon Charleston.
So what exactly was happening during these festivals? They were elaborate. There were parades, public speeches, demonstrations, and commemorations. Famous abolitionists often travelled to Charleston to participate. Ten thousand people gathered for one parade at the Citadel Green, the cite of the South Carolina Military Academy’s former parade ground (again, highly symbolic). It was a massive procession, more than two miles long, even going down the Battery (where fictional Ravenel House is located). There were dignitaries, military personnel, tradesmen, fire companies, freed schoolchildren who were newly enrolled in schools, and many other formerly enslaved people.
The scene I depicted of the mock slave auction during a parade in Charleston Tides also happened. This demonstration was a satirical statement highlighting the breathtaking barbarity of something that was, in fact, taking place not long before the festivals. The idea was, “Look at these normal, intelligent, capable humans who were sold like cattle just a few months ago.” As I depicted in the book, this reenactment did induce trauma in some women, for whom the memory of losing their children was still too fresh to make satire bearable.
As noted in Charleston Tides, there was indeed a banner carried that read, “We know no masters but ourselves.” To us, this seems like a normal expression of human rights, but think about how revolutionary this was given the freshness of slavery’s downfall! Some of the processions included more funereal elements, such as a mock wake to the institution of slavery, or a hearse carrying a coffin labeled “slavery.” There was singing of songs that were considered very controversial at the time. There was also a float which carried young Black women representing each of the slave states. They wore white dresses and, if the depictions are correct, also crowns, these choices being a political statement of purity and status.
There were lots of ways that the newly freed people of Charleston expressed their freedom and political stances. One was in the building of the Martyrs of the Race Course Cemetery, which I also discuss in Charleston Tides. This was an effort by the freed community to give a proper burial to the 257 Union prisoners of war who were buried in unmarked graves after dying at the prison camp which had been held at Charleston’s Washington Race Course. I am always hesitant to glorify people, armies, or causes in my books because history is simply too fraught and complicated to allow exaltation to be entirely truthful. But I felt that depicting this outpouring of support wasn’t glorification for several reasons.
While this was an act of tribute, there were many nuanced reasons the freed community singlehandedly raised all of the money, made all of the plans, and did all of the work in order to make this cemetery happen. One was that during the time that thousands of men were imprisoned in pitiful conditions at the camp, it was Charleston’s Black community which brought them relief in the form of food, bandages, and medicine, and some risked their lives to do so. I would imagine that bonds had been created in the process. In addition, creating the cemetery was a political expression, an alignment with a very personal cause, an expression of support for one side of the war, and another statement that slavery was dead.
Ten thousand people turned out for the dedication of the cemetery on May 1. Then, it was called “Decoration Day,” but it started a tradition that we know today as Memorial Day.
There had been the strictest of hierarchies before the war. But in the year after the war, the social order in Charleston was turned on its head. The Union military presence, including United States Colored Troops (USCT), was strong. Newly freed citizens were now the ones standing guard with guns outside of buildings. White Charlestonians were shut out of the dedication ceremony for the cemetery. They might find themselves shoved off the sidewalk. They were held to a strict nightly curfew, once a practice applied to slaves. There were insults made on the streets, and people who had once held ultimate power were forced by the turning tables to take it lying down, so to speak. Many were baffled, having been thoroughly inculcated in the belief that the enslaved community had been content and even fond of their masters. You read genuine confusion in some of the writings from the time, something which shows how thoroughly cultural conditioning can instill ideas that aren’t necessarily grounded in reality.
Ultimately, after several discussions with people in-the-know, I decided to take out the lynching scene I had depicted because in this specific place, in this specific year, it seemed unlikely. Charleston would, not too much later, become the scene of various tragedies, including lynching. But for this one year, I do believe that there was a significant power shift, and I think those are as important to discuss as oppression when recounting race history.
The following link is the article which ran in the New-York Daily Tribune on April 4, 1865, from which I believe much of the research in Denmark Vesey’s Garden was pulled.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: When Charleston fell, various Union troops poured into the city over the course of the next couple of weeks, many of them USCT. One Black sergeant, John H.W.N. Collins of the 54th Massachusetts, reported, “I saw an old colored woman with a crutch—for she could not walk without one, having served all her life in bondage—who, on seeing us, got so happy that she threw down her crutch, and shouted that the year of Jubilee had come.” This is a very moving description, depicting sheer joy. I don’t know if this woman coined “the Year of Jubilee,” a Biblical expression, to apply to this situation or if that was how the enslaved community had referred for many years to the year that would be their liberation. I love the snapshot into this woman’s life. She strikes me as someone who had been actively anticipating liberation. I wonder if she might have been an activist or an encourager within her community.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: As I read about the Year of Jubilee, I received the impression that the newly freed men and women of Charleston were there to claim their equality, their freedom, even their political enfranchisement. You can sense the tides of change in the air, the feeling that anything was possible. There was no Jim Crow yet, the KKK was in its infancy, and the military and government seemed to be on the side of the freedmen. One article said that “the promise for a bright future was at its zenith in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.” This makes me wonder… If a few things had been tweaked, if a few politicians had followed through and made better decisions…could America have fast-forwarded a hundred years in terms of equality? Maybe this is outlandish, but it doesn’t really seem so when you look closely at the days and months right after the war. What do you think? Do you think things are inevitable in history, or is every decision important?
ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: Sorry that it’s a drawing rather than a photograph! I believe this ran in a newspaper which recounted the events of one of the parades some time after the fact. This depicts the USCT marching as they sing “John Brown’s Body,” a highly controversial song at the time! Notice the schoolchildren in the foreground, as well as the burned out shells of Charleston’s buildings in the background.
Photo Credit: Charleston County Public Library, ccpl.org.
Stop by next time for a peek into the fame of Civil War officers!
 Of course, I’m not saying that by any means it was impossible. I could not find specific instances, but the failure to find specific instances doesn’t mean that it absolutely never happened, as we have discussed in previous posts.
 “The History of Emancipation Day in Charleston.”
Hello, friends! It’s that time again: the announcement of the articles I will write covering the history behind the story for my next book. This is always a fun announcement because it gives you, the reader, a little sneak peak into the historical framework of the book before the book is released.
This time will be a bit different. There will be three articles, which is less than usual, but the themes were broader in this book. Plus, there will be a special guest post from my sister on an ancillary theme in the book. So without further ado, I give you the History Behind the Story Topics for Charleston Tides!
Festivals of Freedom
Fame of Civil War Officers
Violence Against Freedmen and the Rise of Insurgent Movements
Special Guest Post: Elite Free Blacks in Charleston
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.
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. It must be remember that there was rule of law to the extent that 450 women were able to seek justice. 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.
THE HISTORY: If you have read Northern Fire, you know that my historical male lead, John Thomas, makes the decision to quarantine his ship when Typhoid breaks out. When I first wrote Northern Fire, I never imagined a quarantine in modern times. Then when I did the first read-through edit, the quarantine scene felt eerily familiar to me. I realized that this is an instance in which history could be very useful to us. Our ancestors have experienced something that we never have. I encourage you to look at historical pandemics to see what it was like for those in the past.
Naval quarantines have a long history. Do any of you watch Outlander? Claire and Jamie are forced to contend with a quarantine on their way from Scotland to America, if you would like to see an example in film. Of course, there were diseases in the Civil War which led to this necessity, too.
Even though we’re fond of saying that the Germ Theory had not been accepted during the war, we too often leave it at that and imagine that people were without any sense that there was a possibility that diseases were transmittable from person to person. This simply is not true. There would have been no historical quarantines if it were. People had witnessed too many epidemic diseases and the toll they took to be completely unaware that there were forces that they could not see at play. You can find examples very far back in history of people being afraid they would “catch” something from someone else. They just didn’t always know how.
A lot of diseases were thought to be caused by inflammation (this was why bloodletting was popular, although it was going out of fashion by the Civil War). There was also a Miasmas Theory which hypothesized that “bad air” caused illness. Not always untrue, but wrong, of course, in relation to what we now know about viruses and bacteria. But if you think about it, the Miasmas Theory, while primitive, may actually have been useful for preventing the spread of disease during the Civil War. A lot of illnesses are airborne, so not breathing air near a sick person was not a bad idea anyway.
Unfortunately, a lot of times, being cautious of the air didn’t hit at the actual cause of disease. For instance, in Northern Fire, the illnesses at play are Typhoid and Yellow Fever. The first was caused by bacteria in drinking water, the second, by mosquitos. For Typhoid, there was actually an American scientist during the Civil War which put forward the “unclean food and water” theory, but it hadn’t gained much traction, as you can see during John Thomas’s conversation with the doctor, who writes it off as a bunch of nonsense.
Okay, so let’s move on to actual Civil War quarantines themselves. There’s not a lot out there on this subject. I think Civil War quarantines have slipped through the cracks for a lot of historians. I have found few to no mentions even in my books solely devoted to Naval history, so this is a subject where you have to piece together scraps from letters and use a little imagination.
A lot of sources seem to indicate that Civil War Naval quarantines were used most commonly and effectively for Yellow Fever. Robert F. Reilly says, rather boldly, that quarantines “virtually eliminated” Yellow Fever during the war. So let’s dig into why that might be.
First of all, Yellow Fever really hit Union soldiers in the Mississippi Delta hard since they were newcomers who hadn’t built up an immunity to the disease. As an example of contrast, Jefferson Davis had Yellow Fever as a young man, which would have given him lifelong immunity. Therefore, the Union had a real problem on its hands and dealt with it swiftly. The following is an extract from the Baylor University Medical Journal which explains what happened.
Outbreaks would often occur after a ship arrived from a Caribbean port. It could be prevented by quarantining newly arrived ships in most cases. Attempts at its prevention by Benjamin Butler in New Orleans may have been the first example of a medical incentive plan. Butler, with urging from his superior officer Rear Admiral David Farragut, told Dr. Jonathan M. Foltz: “In this matter your orders shall be absolute. Order off all you may think proper [ships to quarantine], and so long as you keep yellow fever away from New Orleans your salary shall be one thousand dollars per month. When yellow fever appears in this city your pay shall cease.” Dr. Foltz quarantined all ships for 40 days 70 miles below the city, and this virtually eliminated yellow fever in New Orleans.
Reilly, Robert F., “Medical and Surgical Care during the American Civil War, 1861-1865.”
Yellow Fever is not transmissible from human to human except to the extent that mosquitos transmit it between them. Mosquitos become infected by biting humans or monkeys which are infected and then pass it to other humans, and so the cycle goes. That would be why this method of keeping people out of New Orleans was effective, even though mosquitos, and not humans, technically spread the disease. New Orleans mosquitos didn’t have the chance to become infected as long as infected ships stayed quarantined.
A specific example of a quarantine was the USS Albatross (featured in the cover photo), which had a Yellow Fever outbreak while in service in the West Gulf Blockading Squadron. It was ordered to Pensacola, Florida, where it went into quarantine until the crew was healthy again. The same thing happened the next year, and it was back to Pensacola for another quarantine.
What did a quarantine look like onboard a ship? Total shutdown, out at sea, trapped in a ship. During the Black Death in the fourteenth century, Venice established formal quarantines that lasted for forty days. Forty days seems to have been pretty standard until more modern times when we were able to tailor quarantines to incubation periods for specific illnesses.
So for the Mississippi River, which is where John Thomas was, the situation was a little different. You had huge Naval vessels in a river, not on the open sea. They were closer to land and closer to other people. The information is scant on how quarantines were carried out on the river. There was a pre-war quarantine station south of New Orleans where river ships and boats would be stopped and kept in quarantine if there were disease on board. The station was recaptured by the Union. However, at the point Typhoid and Yellow Fever break out in Northern Fire, the Union Army and Navy are still driving south toward Vicksburg by way of the Mississippi River. There would have been no way to get the ship south of New Orleans.
Therefore, I used a little imagination and a little history of Army quarantines and had John Thomas actually order his men to be removed from the ship and taken high up on a hill to quarantine tents.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Speaking of Army quarantines, there was a botched attempt at smallpox inoculation which led to an outbreak among the 20th Maine, of the Army of the Potomac. A surgeon named Nahum P. Monroe grew really concerned at the possibility of an outbreak among the whole army, especially since they were on the eve of the Chancellorsville Campaign in the spring of 1863. He said there was no telling where it would end if it ever got started. He had to use persuasion to get anyone to listen. He pointed out that all a smallpox outbreak would accomplish would be to give aid and comfort to the Confederate Army. He was effective: the regiment, sick and healthy, were quarantined away from the rest of the army on a hill. Signs were posted around camp warning of danger if you got too close. The 20th Maine, therefore, did not fight in the Chancellorsville campaign.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: If you do a search for “Civil War quarantines,” you can find all sorts of primary source references to many different types of quarantines (just not Naval!). Some involve armies, while others involve civilian refugees. There were outbreaks in certain cities. Sometimes people would flee for that cause, while sometimes they would be displaced by the war. In any event, there are reports of hotels quarantining against people coming from infected cities. Quarantine seems to have been a common word, a common experience and way of life, then. Do you find that thought comforting regarding our current pandemic? Does it make you grateful most infectious diseases in America have become more manageable?
ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: This is a portrait (not a photograph, sorry!) of Quarantine Station near Port St. Phillip below New Orleans. Any Louisianans out there? Tell us what you know! This is a very interesting piece of American history that seems to have been lost. It was built some time before the war, presumably to prevent the spread of disease as vessels entered from the Gulf and could potentially spread diseases all the way up the Mississippi River into Canada. There were several buildings on site, including a hospital, a storehouse, and a house where the Union high command once had headquarters. Some sources report that vessels were pulled into quarantine here during the war.
History Behind the Story #2: The Roper Hospital in Charleston
THE HISTORY: It all started with a bequest. Colonel Thomas Roper, a former mayor of Charleston, left the Medical Society of South Carolina $30,000, which, along with other donations and city funds, was ultimately used in 1852 to build the Roper Hospital. The building was located on the corner of Queen and Logan Streets. It proclaimed the following mission: “to treat all sick and injured people ‘without regard to complexion, religion, or nation.’” I probably don’t have to tell you that this mission was pretty progressive for its time. The Roper Hospital was intended to be charitable from its foundation. In fact, it was specifically intended to benefit “paupers,” the word in that day for financially disadvantaged people.
Hospitals were a little different from today. In the Victorian Era, those who could afford it were traditionally treated at home. Therefore, any hospital was first and foremost a chartable institution, whatever else they might also do. And the Roper Hospital did a lot!
There was a Medical College in Charleston, and Roper served as the teaching hospital for the new doctors/trainees. The hospital was adjacent to the College, so that made it easy for students to go back and forth. This is quite a modern system, kind of like the university hospitals we see today.
The hospital didn’t start out soft—its beginning constituted more of a baptism by fire. Roper was forced to contend fairly quickly with various epidemics, including Smallpox, Cholera, Yellow Fever, and Typhoid. There was also the Great Charleston Fire of 1861, which was covered in the last History Behind the Story article. The Charleston fire doesn’t seem to have touched the hospital building, but it seems almost certain that the injured and burned were brought to the hospital.
And of course, there was the Civil War. Trustees are required to try to carry out the purposes for which the organization they serve (in this case, the hospital) was founded. Therefore, when he Civil War started, the Roper Hospital trustees were concerned about there not being enough room for its mentally ill and poor patients if thousands of Confederate wounded were allowed to be treated at the hospital.
You see, the Confederacy had a hospital problem. While the Union was able to form a very cohesive medical system with hospitals specifically designated as military hospitals, the Confederacy had nothing really of the sort. It had a system cobbled together from private donors and hospitals that were willing to open their doors. I won’t say there was no effort to create a medical system that functioned cohesively, but there were never enough funds.
Therefore, it was really up to the Roper Hospital as to whether they would open their doors to wounded and sick soldiers. But Roper did become an unofficial military treating hospital. I can find no documentation as to why this happened over the objection of the trustees, but if I was guessing, I would say it was probably the pressure of public opinion.
Let me place the Roper Hospital in its place in history at the outbreak of the Civil War. I tend to think of the leaders in the American medical field being located in Philadelphia or New York during the Victorian Era. But Charleston was the largest and wealthiest city south of Philadelphia, so it was able to compete in the profession.
Roper Hospital was a teaching hospital, which means it was on the cusp of the latest innovations in medicine. It also was only five years old at the outbreak of the Civil War, which means it was well-equipped and state-of-the art. One source says, “Very modern for its day, it contained a library, a large amphitheater for clinical lectures, and living quarters for physicians.” So this was a pretty large operation.
There is not a lot in the way of comprehensive online records for Roper Hospital, so I had to be a bit of a sleuth, scrapping together mentions here and there of the hospital’s war years. For Northern Fire, I had to base Shannon’s experience as a nurse largely off of the experience of other Civil War nurses, both Union and Confederate because I could find nothing on the actual experience of nurses for Roper specifically.
But here were a few things I was able to find about the war years. One article says that “the hospital…served as a Confederate Hospital and prison for Union soldiers during the Civil War.”  I did a double take when I saw the word “prison.” But I’m assuming that what is meant is that is, if there were wounded Union soldiers who fell into Confederate hands, they were treated at the hospital under a technical status of prisoner. After they recovered, they would have been dealt with as would any other prisoner, which means they would have been paroled or sent to a Confederate prison.
We do know that women were instrumental in keeping the hospitals supplied. The Soldiers’ Relief Association distributed supplies to the various hospitals in Charleston, including Roper. There seem to have been at least nine hospitals in Charleston during the Civil War, and the Association provided supplies to them all. Supplies would have included food, wine, clothing, bedding, and the all-important mosquito nets. The number of hospitals would have caused, I imagine, competition for supplies as the blockade tightened over the war years.
Since my main character, Shannon, would have been of high social standing, let’s focus on the history of women in her position. It has long been known that ladies provided help to hospitals in the form of letter writing and bringing baskets of food and the like to the soldiers. However, necessity meant that their work was actually a little grittier than that. They often became full-fledged nurses, which meant they had to contend with gangrene, lice, body lice, various contagious diseases, gruesome surgeries, and any other issue a patient might be facing. In other words, they got their hands dirty, too.
It was fairly common for a female relative of an injured soldier to go and act as nurse to their family member, so I think it is likely that the Roper Hospital had family members in and out all the time, likely even staying on its premises wherever they could fit.
I won’t go into detail about all that women did as nurses and hospital staff during the war because that could take up several books. But I will add that often it was enslaved or Free Black women who kept the hospitals running by cooking, cleaning, and providing support staff. I can find no evidence in the Roper Hospital records available of who provided such services, but I think it is likely that Roper was no different from the norm.
When Charleston fell, Roper Hospital was taken over by Union forces. Later, it was able to continue its operations. The original Roper Hospital was damaged in a tornado in 1885 and destroyed in an earthquake in 1886 (geez, so many disasters in Charleston!). But the hospital was rebuilt and is still in operation today.
PERSONAL SPOTLIGHT: Since records were a little difficult to find on Roper Hospital, I thought we would do the Personal Spotlight on my fictional character, Phoebe. If you’ve read the Series so far, you know that Phoebe was enslaved by the Ravenel family at one time. However, Shannon’s husband insisted that she be freed if she went to the North with them as Shannon’s servant. Therefore, Shannon’s father freed Phoebe around the time of Shannon’s marriage.
As a condition of allowing Shannon to work at the hospital as a nurse, Shannon’s father insists that Phoebe accompany her. Phoebe does so, where she works and encounters several instances of discrimination. Phoebe was in a bit of an interesting role as a “Free Black” in Charleston during the war. However, there had always been a fairly significant Free Black population in Charleston, and I don’t think it is stretching reality at all to think that women like Phoebe would have played a significant role in hospitals in the Confederacy during the war.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: Have you ever imagined yourself as a nurse during the Civil War? What must it have been like for elegant ladies to have to make that transition? We tend to think favorably of those who acted as nurses and scoff at those who hesitated. But have you pictured yourself, if you are like me and are not trained in medicine, leaving your parlor, assisting in multiple amputations per day, tending gangrenous wounds, and dealing with the lice and smells? It had to have been a difficult adjustment!
ANALYSIS OF PHOTOGRAPH: Look at this beauty!
Photo Credit: University of Notre Dame Archives
Italianate architecture was very much in vogue in the 1850’s. You see it all over the South. Notice how piazzas grace all three of its stories. There are also six towers, one at every corner and two at the main entrance. I could definitely see Shannon (if forced to work) gracing such an establishment.
Stop by next time for some neat history on Naval Quarantines – something to which we can all, unfortunately, now relate!