The Congregationalist Church in New England

History Behind the Story #7: The Congregationalist Church in New England

Who were they? The Puritans. What was their creed? To make themselves The City Upon a Hill.

As a Southern girl, I was largely unacquainted with the Congregational/Congregationalist Church, for most of my life until learning about it in a Religious Studies class during college. And of course, once someone clued me in that the older name for the church was “Puritan,” the pieces fell into place. According to Sara Georgini, who authored Household Gods: The Religious Lives of the Adams Family, Puritans turned into Congregationalists by the 18th Century, and there was a bend toward Unitarianism among the more liberal wing by the 19th Century, although Congregationalism remained its own strain.

So I had two denominational[1] choices from which to choose (Unitarianism or Congregationalism) when carving out the background of my historical protagonist, John Thomas Haley. John and Abigail Adams, who are (fictional, of course!) ancestors of John Thomas, were Unitarians. Ultimately, I chose the Congregationalist wing because, having been raised in churches that believe in a Trinity, I didn’t want to misrepresent the Unitarians, who did not quite believe in a traditional Trinity.

This strain of Protestantism today is considered one of the more liberal churches in America, so, at first, the connection back to the Puritans was odd for me, until I really thought about it and realized that the Puritans have always been “progressive” during their eras throughout the generations. From breaking away from the Church of England to the abolition movement during the Civil War, it seems like you can always trace New England’s most famous voices back to a Puritan heritage.

So, how did they get their start in New England? Basically, the Puritans wanted to purify the practices of both the Catholic Church and The Church of England during the 16th and 17th Century. They were part of the Reformation movement that sought greater purity within the church. Their beliefs were “codified” in the Savoy Declaration in 1658, with the full title of: A Declaration of the Faith and Order owned and practiced in the Congregational Churches in England. For a more thorough look into the Reformation movement and the beliefs and ideas swirling around Europe during the Martin Luther era, see my post entitled History Behind the Story #1: French Huguenots in South Carolina.

The Puritans were dissenters from the Church of England and ended up having to worship on the down-low because dissenting was Not Allowed. Also, Puritans in Holland were being persecuted. Hence, the Mayflower. You’ve all heard of the Mayflower, I presume. English and Dutch Puritans made up a big chunk of the people who sailed for the colonies and eventually landed at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts after trying to land initially in Virginia. And it’s crazy to think of that moment, of the serendipity of events, and the impact they would have 250 years later during the American Civil War. But more on that next week!

The Mayflower Compact was signed before they disembarked, and if you read the text of it, it shows already these New Englanders’ commitment to order, peace, democracy, and religion. It feels like you could almost draw a straight line in history from the Mayflower Compact to the Massachusetts Colony’s extreme chafing under British dominion in the days leading up to the Revolutionary War.

Now, keep in mind that these “Pilgrims” were a particularly devout strain of Puritans called “Separatists,” who believed that they could not worship or find full expression for their beliefs by reforming any other church but needed to be a separate body from any existing church. Each local church in New England ruled itself and was not answerable to a higher denominational structure. However, Congregationalism became the “state church” in the colonies where Puritans predominated, in which taxpayers supported ministers and only church members could vote in elections.[2] This led to some pretty restrictive practices since authority can so easily be abused. And, of course, this kind of compulsory society was unsustainable just a generation or two out.

Luckily for the Congregationalists, though, was the emergence of the First Great Awakening. You all remember “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?” Yeah, I bet you do! (*Shudders*) Jonathan Edwards was a Congregational minister. While ensuring the continuance of the Congregationalists, the First Great Awakening did lead to a split between the “Old Lights” and “New Lights” of the Church, but the depths of that chasm are beyond the scope of this post.

Not surprisingly, most Congregationalists sided with the Patriots during the American Revolution. I’ve noticed a tendency to confuse the Congregationalists with the Quakers, who were pacifists. However, Congregationalists were not pacifists and fought in the Revolution. (This was why I could craft the storyline of John Thomas building a career in the Navy later on in the antebellum period, and have his family be very much behind that career.)

Right from the beginning, Congregationalists were dedicated to education. They founded Harvard very quickly after landing in the colonies, and Yale was very much supported by the Congregational Church. Both seem to have placed an emphasis on training pastors and building a literate ministry in the early years. In order to give a nod to John Thomas’s Puritan roots, I had John Thomas’s brother-in-law, Jonathan, attend Harvard before entering the ministry.

In addition to higher education, there was an emphasis placed on the education of children. While reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams, I was struck by the fact that one of John Adams’s first jobs while he was still a bachelor was teaching at a co-ed school. He noted that one of his sharpest pupils was a little girl. That admission alone would have been revolutionary in most places. And then, fast-forward a hundred years, and we see New Englanders pouring into the South after the Civil War to found schools for former slaves– men, women, and children. They had a strong commitment to the ideal that education was necessary both for advancement in the secular world and as Christians.

So, who were some famous New Englanders with Puritan roots? To name just a few:
-Louisa May Alcott (You may know that she was actually raised as a Transcendentalist, a movement which grew out of the Unitarian movement.)
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
-Emily Dickinson
-Harriet Beecher Stowe
-Henry Ward Beecher

Something that turned out to be really neat was that, while Shannon’s Huguenot roots which turned into Presbyterianism and John Thomas’s Puritan roots which turned into Congregationalism felt poles apart, they both arose out of Reformation Era movements.[3] Therefore, while their ancestors came from different countries and sects, both had a history of rebellion, of familial persecution, of commitment to faith, and of an unwavering confidence of beliefs. Likely the foundation for both attraction and turmoil!

Stop by next time for a look at how these roots and principles led to one of the strongest abolitionist movements in the world!

Image Credit: https://www.historicaltheology.org.

[1] I am using the term “denominational” in a way the Congregationalists probably wouldn’t have themselves. Rather, they saw each church as independent and autonomous from larger denominational ties.

[2] The Congregationalist Church wasn’t disestablished as the official church of Connecticut until 1818, of New Hampshire until 1819, and of Massachusetts until 1820! The Congregationalist Church in Massachusetts still received state funding until 1833, when, after the shift toward Unitarianism, the state constitution was amended to eliminate church taxes.

[3] There was even a Congregational-Presbyterian Union in the early 1800’s in which churches could hire pastors from either denomination, joint committees of Congregationalists and Presbyterians were formed, and there were even colleges born out of the union. This was largely due to the fact that in lesser-populated areas, it was difficult to get numbers or ministers for either denomination. Of course, the Union broke down due to theological and ideological divides, a major one being slavery.

Whoops!

Public Service Announcement: Error in Southern Rain!

A little while back, a reader brought it to my attention that there is an erroneous line in Southern Rain. The line reads, “Cervantes from the original Greek.” As many of you know, Cervantes wrote in Spanish, not in Greek. Some of you may have even read his novel, Don Quixote, which is one of the most translated books in the world.  We’re not sure how Cervantes weaseled his way into Southern Rain. We only know that he would be highly offended.   So we are tipping our (historically appropriate) hats to Miguel de Cervantes, and most humbly begging his pardon. The error has been corrected for future prints of Southern Rain.

Northern Fire – First Details Revealed!

Book 2 of the Torn Asunder Series: Northern Fire – First Details Revealed!

Since Southern Rain was published in September 2019, the No. 1 question we have gotten is: “When will the next book be out?” I’m happy to say that Northern Fire will be available in the Late Spring of 2020!

Northern Fire was intended to be a sequel in a two-book series. However, ever since I conceptualized the story arc for this series, I knew there would be some difficulties determining the number of books in the series. So I just decided to write the story in its entirety as if it were going to be only one book and see how it worked out.

A few technical difficulties arose: the historical storyline took such a different path halfway through that it felt like it should be two books, while simultaneously the modern storyline was skipping along happily as one succinct-feeling book (the trouble with dual storylines!). But the biggest problem was the word count. The No. 1 complaint I have gotten about Southern Rain is that it is so big, which has me continually smiling since I’m a nerd who loves big books. But even trimmed down significantly, Northern Fire was finishing out at about 30,000 words more than Southern Rain.

So, with a wince of apology, I gave the behemoth to my sister, who is always my first reader, and told her to fix it. You can find ways to trim it down, right? – Okay, bye!

So she put on her harshest critic’s hat and set about finding scenes to shear. Her response was that we didn’t need to change a single thing. Nothing could go. Everything was necessary to tell the story in its full capacity. And we’re agreed that it has to be divided into two books, right? – Okay bye!

My sister, who has been my first reader and first editor for nearly ten years, has absolutely never led me astray in literary matters, and I knew I should trust her instincts. So there you have it! You will be getting two books, both roughly consisting of 70,000 words, rather than one book consisting of roughly 140,000 words. This will make Books 2 and 3 a little smaller than Southern Rain, but I’m guessing that won’t be a negative for most!

So what will the books cover? I don’t want to give anything away, since we haven’t developed the official blurbs yet, but here is the time frame:

Southern Rain covered:

Historical: October 1859 – November 1861
Modern: A few months

Northern Fire will cover:

Historical: December 1861 – April 1865 (roughly the end of the war)
Modern: The next few months

Book 3 (Title to be released at a later date) will cover:

Historical: April 1865 – November 1867 (well into Reconstruction)
Modern: The next few months

We’ll be releasing the blurb for Northern Fire soon and revealing more information over the coming weeks and months. In addition, we’ll be doing an FAQ interview for Northern Fire to follow up on our FAQ interview for Southern Rain. In the meantime, stay tuned! We’ll be giving a release date for Northern Fire soon!

-Tara

Civil War Rhetoric

History Behind the Story #6: A Break-Down in Civilities: Rhetoric Before the Civil War

I have recently been reading Ron Chernow’s very famous biography, Alexander Hamilton. The more I learn about the founding generation, the more I see that the Civil War first began brewing while the ink was still wet on the Constitution. Tensions between the North and South and a possible Civil War were alluded to several times in Hamilton. The regions’ economic interests were simply so different that suspicions began to develop in the Cabinet of George Washington, finding their expression in the very real and yet often-hilarious hatred between Thomas Jefferson (Virginia) and Alexander Hamilton (New York). When viewed in this light, the Civil War can be likened to friction between two brothers which has been building for years and then finally explodes, leading to a slugfest until one or both are nearly wiped out.

But there was more to the Civil War than a feud which was a long time coming. Hostilities spilled from the floors of Congress to the battlefield when they did for a reason. There was a reason idle threats of war from the last eighty years mobilized into armies and navies, into two separate countries with two separate presidents, when they did. Shear Davis Bowman says that “not until the winter of 1860-61 did a critical mass of citizens in the states of the…South become willing to quit the Union.”[1]

The reasons were linked to the occurrence of several events in history, a disastrous stew that made the situation ripe for drama: the growing debate over the economic interests between the North and South (linked overwhelmingly to slavery and its spread into the West), the South’s fear that it would lose a voice in the government to an economically superior North, the rise of abolitionism, the North’s loss of patience in appeasements to the South that often took the form of protecting slavery, and of course, the ultimate, hysteria-inducing fact that Lincoln was elected without a single Southern vote. But facts alone rarely make a war. There has to be drama and hype and legal justification. There has to be precisely the right rhetoric to tip people over the brink. And I have found in my research that such rhetoric almost always begins, like a children’s squabble, with name-calling.

Here are just a few names the South called the North or certain groups of Northerners:

  • Black Republicans (because of their determination to end slavery and Southern power in the Union and promote racial equality)
  • Aggressive
  • Cruel
  • Unjust
  • Wanton
  • Tyrannical
  • Fanatics
  • Radicals
  • Power-hungry

And here are a few of the North’s loving epitaphs to the South or Southerners:

  • Slave Power Conspirators
  • Slavocracy
  • Doughfaced toadies (Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan were called this for pandering to the South.)
  • Treasonous
  • Despotic
  • Dictatorial
  • Aristocratic
  • Privileged
  • Arrogant
  • Entitled
  • Rebels

The constitutionality of Secession was also put through the rhetoric grinder, with the South having to justify the legality of breaking away from the Union and the North having to justify making war on states which had seceded. While the arguments on both sides always seemed pretty even (except for the fact the North always had the moral upper hand in arguments pertaining to the slavery aspect of the War), I always had trouble understanding how the North sold its populace on taking war to the South and executing it over the course of four years and at a death toll eventually rising to the hundreds of thousands. We might understand a moral argument, but, unfortunately, the moral cause to end slavery did not, at least in the early years, form enough of a justification for the Northern populace to mobilize for war because the immediate abolition argument was just not taking hold. Obviously, the government had economic and territorial reasons to keep the South in the union, but how did they convince the populace of the legality of making war? Rhetoric. Not that it took too much convincing to fight in the early years. Both sides were positively chest-thumping for military battles (see brothers’ slugfest above). But it wasn’t until I really studied the North’s justification rhetoric for war that I finally understood.

To the North, simply losing an election or disagreeing with the new President was not cause enough to warrant the severance of ties to the union (a valid argument!). However, they still had to contend with the fact that the South had some pretty good legal arguments, such as the ability to revoke the states’ ratification of the Constitution and the principles enumerated of the Declaration of Independence. But the North itself could find nothing in the Constitution to justify secession and argued that secession had happened before the South’s interests had even been attacked. The South was sacrificing “a noble experiment in liberty” simply because they wanted to “perpetuate a distinct, distasteful, and anachronistic regional interest, black chattel slavery.”[2] That was a really good argument, and I imagine it was the one that convinced the North to mobilize for war and sustained them through its rigors. A simple argument of, “You just can’t do that,” is sometimes very powerful.

Both sides remained very “American,” tying their causes back to the American ideals which were fought for in the Revolution. Both sides talked of fighting for freedom. It was surprising for me to realize that “Americans in both North and South believed themselves custodians of the legacy of 1776.”[3] And there was also Christian rhetoric flying, with both sides preaching the justness of their cause, evoking God’s favor for their side, and using language of trusting that God would uphold them in their righteous endeavors.

The South (and I am generalizing here) believed that states had a sovereign right to secede and used the rhetoric of liberty (“the natural right of revolution against tyranny and despotism”) to back that up.[4] The North (generalizing again) simply didn’t believe that the Constitution created state sovereignty to the extent of powers to withdraw from the Union and offend the sovereignty of the real power, the United States. Therefore, any state which seceded, was technically in a state of treason.

While President Buchanan (the little-known President who was in office before Lincoln) didn’t think the Executive branch could coerce a seceded state back into the Union, Lincoln “did not rule out the propriety or necessity of ‘presidential and military coercion’ in response to palpable aggression against U.S. government sovereignty.”[5] You can see how semantics are everything: if the South acted aggressively, it provided the justification for military coercion back into the union. Similarly, the South would use military force if confronted with an unacceptable challenge from the U.S. government to their new government’s sovereignty. Hence, Fort Sumter. The bombardment was begun by the South because of the affront from the U.S. government in refusing to surrender the fort, which was in South Carolina’s waters. Likewise, the bombardment provided Lincoln with what he needed to constitute the South’s actions as an “unconstitutional insurrection ‘too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.’”[6] And here we have the perfect stew for war. In the words of Bowman, “A rage militaire swept across slave states and free states alike…the war fever ‘cut across social classes, creating a heady sense of solidarity.’”[7] The North had been OFFENDED. The South had been OFFENDED. And it just proved to both that all of the rhetoric, all of the stewing hatred, had been correct, and both sides were swept up in a consensus. That’s the stuff wars are made of.

And so civilities began to break down and while, from our 21st Century seats, war seemed avoidable, with the provocative and sometimes hysterical language prevailing, it must have seemed inevitable at the time. It’s sometimes hard to imagine that in 1860, America was a united country, with an integrated economy and citizens who travelled back and forth freely across the Mason Dixon line and engaged in debate and attended the same universities. And then within a year they were killing each other. But that shows the power of words, doesn’t it? If you’re feeling depressed, we can console ourselves with two things: I don’t believe either side thought the war would be so long, or exact even a tenth of the toll it did. That seems to have been an entirely unintended consequence. And, of course, the institution of slavery did come to an end, even if the struggle for equality was just beginning– oh, no, I’m depressing you again! History can be like that: compelling and horrible all at once.

Stop by next time for a look into the Congregational Church in New England, in which my historical male lead, John Thomas, was raised. Adieu for now!

Photo Credit: New York Historical Society/Getty Images

[1] Bowman, Shearer Davis, At the Precipice: Americans North and South during the Secession Crisis. (The University of North Carolina Press, 2010), pp. 10.

[2] Ibid, 17.

[3] Ibid, 11.

[4] Ibid, 18.

[5] Ibid, 7.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

Kissing Cousins?

History Behind the Story #5: Kissing Cousins: Did People Really Marry Their First Cousins?

The simple answer is: yes.

This is taboo in a lot of cultures these days, isn’t it? I remember my mom telling me as a child that Victoria and Albert were first cousins and thinking… Whoa. And yet, for most of history, and across all cultures that I have studied, cousin marriage has been a common occurrence.

If you’ve read Southern Rain, you’ll know that (spoiler alert!!!) Shannon’s brother marries their first cousin. This may have been a jolt for some of you. When I was looking about for something to ground the story in the historical era, I thought: yep, that’ll do it! You might think life wasn’t much different (and I do have a theory that people have been the same since time began), but boy howdy were their practices different.

I read a lot of British literature and novels, and I think the book that really pushes it on this subject is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, where the couple not only share a set of grandparents but were also raised in the same house. When I read the book as a teenager, I thought, “Whew, that was odd!” and kind of filed that away in one of those unexplainable-historical-things-that-perhaps-never-existed folders. And then I got into Georgette Heyer. She plays not just with cousin marriage, but also with cousin love a lot. In Frederica, they’re distant relations, perhaps not really related, so you think, “Okay, no biggie.” But she goes for it full blast with The Grand Sophy and The Unknown Ajax. Keep in mind that Heyer was writing from the 1920’s through the 1970’s, so she was obviously looking back on the Regency Era and finding the same thing as Austen: cousin marriage was a way of life. I suppose I always heavily emphasized that was until I found a little-known short story by Heyer online called A Proposal To Cicely that was actually set in the 1920’s. The second line of the story lets you know that Richard is Cicely’s “first cousin once removed.” They were an extremely modern, fun couple, and the guy was hung up on his cousin. And that was when it hit me: it’s only very recently that this has not been a thing.

The temptation is really there for me to say that this happened a lot more in Britain and Europe than America. I certainly see it a lot more in European fiction, and it would make sense, given that the need that royalty and nobility engendered to make prudent political and financial choices often seem to push the same families into alliances over and over. That would, in turn, make the practice socially acceptable and even in vogue. And yet… Every time I formulate an argument to that effect, I find a strong counter-argument or example from American history that proves that the exact same thing was happening here.

For example, did you know that Ashley and Melanie Wilkes were cousins? Gone With the Wind has a character say that the Wilkeses and Hamiltons always marry their cousins. And it was actually set up for Ashley’s sister to marry Melanie’s brother (before Scarlett got her claws in him!). This isn’t hugely important on its own. I know these were fictional characters. But what is fascinating are the social implications Margaret Mitchell makes. She is trying to convey, I think, that the Wilkeses are a cut above the other gentry, the American equivalent of a British “old family.” They are supposed to be exquisitely cultured and naturally gracious. The only person in the community who is like them is, I think, Scarlett’s mother, Ellen, who was from Louisiana. Ellen ends up in this odd marriage to Scarlett’s father because her marriage to her cousin, Phillippe Robillard, with whom she was deeply in love, doesn’t go through. I think Mitchell is using cousin-love as the same plot device to convey the same thing: they were like royalty and had strong reasons for cousin marriage or were high enough up the ladder to be eccentric. And I have to say, it was effective: I knew exactly where the Wilkses and Robillards stood.

There is a lot of discussion in Gone With the Wind about whether cousins ought to marry, mostly having to do with washing out the blood and including some very humorous comparisons to horse breeding. But I actually think those conversations had more to do with Mitchell writing in the 1930’s than any real qualms people would have felt in the 1860’s. While cousin marriage wasn’t appalling in the 1930’s, I do think this general feeling may have begun to grow that it was much better to at least be second cousins. This would be supported by Heyer (in England, of course) making a point to add the “once removed” language for Cicely when she was writing just a few years before. Also, in the movie (but not in the book) Ashley goes on a long ramble about wine having been his father’s uncle Hamilton’s, who married so and so, who married so and so and later on connects it with the Wilkeses again. I remember watching that a few years ago and thinking that it was odd. This was during the war, so the only sense I could make of it was that Ashley was suffering from PTSD or very severe homesickness. But one of my sources suggests that, basically, the screenwriters needed to get it in there that Ashley and Melanie were distant cousins so that audiences wouldn’t be morally squeamish. That seems very plausible to me, given that the movie does seem to paper over the fact that Mitchell indicates they were very close cousins.  She just apologizes to her generation for it in another way in the book: by having the characters’ peers discuss it reasonably so you would know that she hadn’t gotten carried away with this idea or anything.[1] Apparently, some doctors today attribute the current bias against cousin marriage to the eugenics movement in the early Twentieth Century, which was obsessed with genetic perfection.[2] It would make sense that Mitchell was being sensitive to that.

So I think societal disapproval of first cousins marrying began in the 1920’s and has only grown stronger with every passing decade. In fact, in my childhood in the1990’s, I remember hearing that it was okay to marry your tenth cousin, because you were, you know, basically back to Adam at that point. But I’m not sure anyone would say even that today. In my lifetime, I have only heard of, and never known personally, two couples who were first cousins, even though it is legal for first cousins to marry in Tennessee.

Okay, so what’s my historical background for having Frederick and Marie marry? First of all, I used the same plot technique Mitchell did: nothing says really fancy Southern family in the Nineteenth Century like having cousins marry. I needed you to know that the Ravenels have a certain status, and regardless of history, I knew that would convey it. But there is history to back cousin marriage up.

John and Abigail Adams were third cousins. Their grandson, John Adams II, married his first cousin in 1828. Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, married her third cousin, Thomas Mann Randolph, Jr. in one of those dynastic alliances. Jefferson’s other daughter married, apparently for love, John Wayles Eppes, whose father was her cousin and whose mother was her mother’s half-sister. (In case you were keeping count, that’s probably closer than first cousins.)

John C. Calhoun married his cousin, Floride, who was, you know, before their marriage, Floride Calhoun. Andrew Jackson’s adopted son, married his first cousin (yes, by blood), and when she died married another first cousin (yes, by blood). As one does.[3] We all know about Edgar Allan Poe. Robert E. Lee was married to his third cousin, the great-granddaughter of Martha Washington. I could go on and on. Did you know that Eleanor Roosevelt was a Roosevelt before she married? Okay, I’ll stop.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: what about the kids??? When Charles and Sophy kiss and ride off into the sunset in The Grand Sophy, they are So Not Thinking Their Kids Could Have Six Fingers. Heyer almost seems to throw it in your face, her complete lack of concern or mention of genetic hazards. Obviously, we know a lot more today about the mutations that don’t get erased if there’s never fresh blood. But come on, they knew a lot about it when she was writing, and they had to have known a little about it throughout history. If you read biographies of some of the people I listed above, or novels like Mansfield Park written in the era in which they were set, I have to tell you that this really doesn’t seem to cross their minds. There’s a rather interesting conversation in Gone With the Wind about the fact that, if one really knew what one was doing, one could breed horses that were even closer than first cousins, if you know what I mean. So if you could do that with no harm, that may have been the only science they had to base it off of. Certainly, no one seems to have linked hemophilia with a straight-line family tree. There are even reports that Queen Victoria’s son’s hemophilia was blamed on her using morphine to ease her pain during childbirth.

And then there’s the question of whether this pre-conceived notion we have of mutations with cousins marrying is completely accurate. Did some of the above people have unhealthy children who died in childhood? Yes, they did. But so did everyone else. The above people also seemed to have had a lot of healthy children, too. A very fascinating New York Times article came out in 2002 stating that, yes, first cousins are somewhat more likely to have a child with health problems, but that “the increased risk is nowhere near as large as most people think”.[4]

There are certain communities where the rate of autosomal recessive disorders are extremely high, such as among the Amish of Lancaster County and Britain’s Pakistani community. Without a thorough scientific knowledge, my guess is that in such communities, rates are higher because there has been a tradition of first cousin marriage for many generations, and there’s almost no chance that an allele can mask and skip a child over. This could also explain the hemophilia with which royal families throughout history have struggled: those dynastic alliances stretched back for centuries. It was unlikely that you would ever marry someone who wasn’t your cousin, or that your children would.

And, there we are. It all comes back to politics and money, doesn’t it? And sometimes it would seem, love. Hope you enjoyed! Stay tuned for the next installment of History Behind the Story in which we experience the break-down in civilities between the North and South on the brink of war.

Also, here is a link to A Proposal To Cicely: (Note: some of the editing is a bit off because it seems to have been copied from an old serial newspaper, so just ignore that.):

https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/audio-visual-e-text-media/a-proposal-to-cicely-tweets-by-georgette-heyer/.

[1] Side-note: She may also have been sensitive to the common stereotype that Southerners marry their cousins. I don’t know when this stereotype started, but it certainly still persists today, since my Southern mama, when she heard I was writing this article, said, “Make sure they know it wasn’t just Southerners!”

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/04/us/few-risks-seen-to-the-children-of-1st-cousins.html

[3] See Jacob son of Isaac being married to two first cousins at the same time.

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/04/us/few-risks-seen-to-the-children-of-1st-cousins.html.

Sources:

https://relatedhowagain.wordpress.com/2013/01/27/104-o-cousin-what-art-thou/

https://www.nytimes.com/2002/04/04/us/few-risks-seen-to-the-children-of-1st-cousins.html.

The Genetics of Cousin Marriage

Photo Credit: JSTOR Daily: https://daily.jstor.org/the-genetics-of-cousin-marriage/

 

 

Quirky Charleston Customs

History Behind the Story #4: Quirky Charleston Customs and Tidbits

We’ve talked about Charleston history in some of our earlier posts, but what we haven’t discussed is Charleston’s social customs during the Antebellum Era.  The Holy City was founded way back in 1670 by English settlers and went on to become the largest city south of Philadelphia before the Civil War.  Richmond might beg to differ, but there is a strong argument that Charleston was the premier Southern city. Charleston had the wealth, culture, sophistication, population, and social life that few places in a largely agrarian region could rival, and that’s what makes it such a fun setting.

When I first began writing Southern historical fiction, I quickly realized that Southern, or even American, social seasons and rules of society were largely based on locality and weren’t quite as compulsory as European rules. For instance, New Orleans social life would have been very different from Savannah’s, whereas if I were writing a story set in England in the Nineteenth Century, I could find book after book with strict lists of rules because it was a much smaller territorial base, much more structured social hierarchy, and there was seemingly more willingness to conform among the British. For Southern social practices, the best you can do is glean what you can from tours of house museums and period letters.  And since that kind of research inevitably makes what you find a little random, I thought bullet points of random quirky customs were in order for this post. Here we go!

  • Sources tend to indicate that in many Southern cities, the social season took place starting right after Christmas and ran through the beginning of the planting season, when the men would need to leave and return to the plantation. This makes sense when we juxtapose that hypothesis with the fact that the London Season always began roughly in April with the opening of Parliament and ended roughly at the beginning of June when society fled London for their country estates to escape summer diseases. I compare the two because I notice a pattern: a social season taking place around the work schedule of the men as well as the danger, or lack thereof, of disease.
  • Speaking of diseases, the Lowcountry experienced what was called a “sickly season” every year. One quirk of Charleston is that, while the rest of the world was fleeing out of cities during the summer months, many people actually fled into Charleston, which was considered to be more salubrious and less at risk for fun things like Malaria and Yellow Fever. And this makes sense when you consider that Charleston is right there on the ocean.  If you had a plantation in the Sea Islands, like where my fictional Santarella was located, you would probably find it a safer bet in the summer even than Charleston and retreat there. But people from the outlying Lowcountry with plantations situated in the swamps would have to evacuate them for the sickly season, often going to Charleston. One thing I found interesting was that many of those with plantations in the swamps didn’t have Charleston homes, and so from the end of May until the first frost (which could be late September or early October), they led a nomadic existence, staying with friends and relatives or travelling. If you visit Charleston, you’ll find that if a plantation wasn’t on one of the Islands, the hot spot was the Ashley River Road, which is now actually within the city boundaries of Charleston but then was just a few miles outside of it.  The sickly season seems to have hit these plantations pretty hard, too. And so you had this almost comical situation where people owned vast plantations just a few miles away from where they owned mansions in Charleston.  Of course, this enabled those people to take part in Charleston’s social life, too, which was considered a benefit for sophisticated elites.  So Charleston was always fuller in the dead of winter and heat of summer, with various people either fleeing Charleston or coming into it for safety. You can see this is all very complicated!
  • Charleston was a bit of a pilgrimage spot for the state of South Carolina, with people crowding in during the social season from all over the state. One would be presented with a huge menu of events to fill one’s calendar– theater, opera, ballet, public concerts, not to mention parties, balls, horse racing, and morning social calls. Think of an isolated rural life in the Nineteenth Century, and compare it with such a modern social calendar– the two must have seemed like different worlds.
  • We know that when Southern Rain opens, Shannon’s brother has been on a year-long grand tour of Europe. This is one custom that is strongly documented. Young, wealthy Southern men would be sent upon reaching adulthood or graduation from university to the Continent in the hopes of giving them cultural exposure.  An alternative to this was that sometimes couples would be sent on a similar tour as a honeymoon or “wedding trip.” These trips could last for up to three years.  I remember touring a plantation near Charleston which had a beautiful portrait of a couple painted while they were on their honeymoon in Europe.  Also featured with them is their two-year-old son, who was born while they were abroad touring.  It’s a bit of a different concept of “honeymoon” from what we have now!
  • Speaking of babies… I’ve found at least one instance of a woman from a rural plantation going to Charleston to give birth.  The thought process was that there would be better access to medical care in case of an emergency.  My instinct tells me that this was fairly common: if you were wealthy enough to own a plantation, you were sophisticated enough to want the finest medical care of the day. Couple that with the fact that South Carolinian plantations were steeped in isolation due to geography, which is enough to scare you, especially if there wasn’t a decent doctor nearby, and it would just be easy logic if you owned your own house to go there to give birth.  But… In the documents I was reading, the couple didn’t own a house in Charleston and instead would stay with friends!  That seems like a lot to ask of your hosts, especially when you think of the horror that was childbirth in the Nineteenth Century, but it seemed like hosts and guests seemed to think nothing of it and were instead delighted by the couple’s social visit!
  • Okay, on to dining!  One thing that will be broadcast loud and clear if you tour plantations in the Lowcountry is that: DINNER TIME WAS AT THREE O’CLOCK. As in dinner.  As in the afternoon.  There were reasons for this (various and conflicting).  But one thing that struck me when we visited Charleston was that when we would try to beat the tourist crowd and grab dinner at three or four o’clock, we would find the restaurants so congested that we couldn’t move. We would look at each other thinking, Imagine what six o’clock is going to be like! But no!  At supper time, the bubble popped, and the restaurants were utterly deserted. And, so while I have seen no empirical evidence of modern-day Charlestonian eating customs, I’m pretty sure they still follow this rule!
  • If you lived on the Sea Islands, a lot of what you could do entertaining-wise was determined by the tides. If you couldn’t get your guests out quickly enough, they might have to spend the night (one possible reason for three o’clock dinners).  If the tides turned against you, you could be trapped with your guests for days or even weeks!
  • The connection between New England (John Thomas) and Charleston (Shannon) may seem tenuous except for the friendship between John Thomas and Shannon’s brother, but there were actually strong ties between the two regions given the fact that Northern mill owners bought their cotton from Southern planters. In fact, a society called the New England Society of Charleston was founded in 1819.
  • Elite children were generally sent to private academies from a young age, with girls like Shannon being sent to “female academies” where they would learn the basics plus special polishes such as music, dancing, and art, along with the usual running-a-household type courses.
  • The social season in Charleston continued even once the Civil War started. There were officers stationed at the three nearby forts, and they were welcomed at balls, weddings, and dinners.  The wealthy in Charleston weren’t deeply affected by the war (unless you lost a loved one) until the Union started chipping away at the surrounding Sea Islands, which caused panic in Charleston and rocked their world.

Okay, that’s a wrap for this one!  Let me know if you hear of any fun Charleston facts during your visits or research!

Photo Credit: http://cityofcharleston.blogs.wm.edu

Civil War Fashion

History Behind the Story #3: Civil War Era Fashion

The female lead in Southern Rain, Shannon Ravenel, is a very fashionable young woman. She was launched into society in Charleston, which was the largest city south of Philadelphia, and it was filled with extremely wealthy and cultured residents, where the marriage market was a bitterly-fought contest. So a girl’s gotta look the part! Shannon’s mother pushes her to make bold fashion choices which set her apart from the other girls hoping to snag a wealthy planter, and the Ravenels spare no expense on her wardrobe. Often, families such as Shannon’s would go as far as sending to Paris for cloths or even full gowns, and they would have been very sure that they were on the cusp of American fashion.

So what were the fashions? Hoop skirts, certainly– we all know about and are terrified by those. But there was a lot more to it, so let’s dive in!

First, I should note that the majority of women in the Victorian Era had only two or three dresses at any given time. However, wealthy women like Shannon would have changed dresses two or three times in one day alone. Women like Shannon and her mother would have had wardrobes full of gowns – day gowns, walking gowns, ballgowns, not to mention riding habits and mourning gowns.

So let’s start with underpants! These would have been called drawers and would have usually been white cotton or linen. Then we have the chemise, which is like a long nightgown that covers everything. After that, there would be garters on the thigh which hold up stockings (nothing but silk, dear), and then over the chemise there be the corset with whalebone boning, tightened with laces up the back or sometimes in the front. Then the hoops would have been attached by tying the top around the waist. What we typically think of is the wire-looking contraption that was made of whalebone or steel and collapses up or down and is covered with fabric petticoat. However, there were other options, including layering of voluminous petticoats (which is why ladies often say my skirts plural), as well as a crinoline, which might mean a cage crinoline like the traditional steel hoop skirt or might simply mean a really stiff fabric to give the dress structure. Then you would don the corset cover and voila! You’re ready to start getting dressed. (Unless you need to put on sleeve plumpers. Or a lace fichu. Or– this is exhausting.)

You would first don a morning dress, which was plain and was generally prim – buttoned up to the throat and perhaps featuring a print or just being plain. You would go up and shimmy that off if you had to step out to do some shopping or take a walk through an obliging field and put on instead a plainer, more sensible walking gown which had a matching fitted coat which ended halfway down the skirt and looks rather like a cute doctor’s coat. And for heaven’s sake, don’t forget your parasol and hat. But wait! Your beau has called and would like to go riding with you (properly chaperoned, of course) and so you must run upstairs, strip down, and wrestle on your riding habit (these actually stay quite similar through the years with a fitted coat and long skirt to cover any accidental indecency caused by hoisting oneself over a side-saddle). Remember your hat, gloves, and riding whip. And if you are not too exhausted to make it to dinner or the ball, your evening dress will be of a more expensive material such as silk or satin and would generally be off the shoulders or almost so and have decorations such as lace, beads, flounces, artificial flowers, or even jewels. And don’t forget your shawl. And gloves. And jewelry. And hair décor. And reticule. And fan. And handkerchief. Do you have everything? With evening or ball gowns, you would wear slippers made of satin, velvet, or even crochet. And of course, if a near relative had died, all of this would be black for the appropriate time period.

Whew. On to color. Ladies were encouraged by popular magazines to engender harmony and nature and lalalala! So we see some wild colors like bright green and weird pinks, as well as bold patterns like stripes or plaids. But of course, we also see more traditional colors like creams and blues and reds. Shannon’s favorite color is a sort of emerald green because she knows perfectly well it is becoming with her rusty red hair.

Let’s take a break and talk fashion influences. First of all, ladies would have read fashion periodicals like Godey’s Lady’s Book, so American women were very much influenced by European fashion. There would be fashion plates which showed you the possibilities, and you can still find a lot of these in antique stores today! The perfect silhouette was the hourglass, with a tiny nipped in waist. The skirt reached its full breadth and bell shape right before the Civil War, and after that narrowed just slightly with an almost unnoticeable flattening in the front, which grew more pronounced as we get on toward the 1870’s. You would have been told that the wide pagoda sleeves were the most fashionable for morning and walking gowns and that a collar of a lighter fabric was also becoming. Also, there was also always this undercurrent influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites which encouraged medieval style like juliette sleeves. And there was Queen Victoria, who influenced fashion her whole life. There’s a lot going into the pot of stew here, isn’t there?

As soon as the Civil War kicked into gear, everything went military, which is a fashion I actually love. We see lovely double-rows of buttons marching down ladies’ bodices, structured shoulders, and military-style hats. We also see velvet patches on the shoulders or sleeves reminiscent of officers’ uniforms, as well as cuffs on the sleeves. Also, your winter coat would have had extremely wide sleeves and been reminiscent of an officer’s greatcoat. Gray seems to have been a very popular color for all of this.

Another way the war had its influence was in jewelry. The Victorians are known to be very sentimental, and their jewelry was no exception: you might carry the hair of a husband, beau, son, or brother in a ring or necklace if you were separated by the war or death. And of course, those items made the perfect accompaniment to your mourning wardrobe which, unfortunately, most women had to acquire over the course of the war.

Women were starting to flex their muscles as nurses, and if you were working in a hospital, more than likely you would have left off the impractical hoops and just would have worn a couple of petticoats, along with a white apron and white sleeve covers. And if you were a Southern woman cut off from Northern textile mills due to the blockade, your skirts, if you had new ones made, would have likely been a lot narrower because they simply didn’t have the fabric to spare. But for the most part, there was constant re-wearing.

Ladies’ fashion from the era is so intricate and fascinating that it would be easy to say blah, blah the men wore suits, but I’ll try to give a brief sketch. Basically, there were suits. But I have to say, they were really good suits. This is my favorite era for men’s fashion, actually. As long as you were tall and thin, you were destined to look elegant. Trousers were full length, often with a stripe down the side. Neckcloths were really wide and often tied into a floppy bow. Waistcoats were high to the chest but ended at the top of the hipbones.

Men had lots of wardrobe changes during the day, as well. Basically, there was the mid-length sack coat worn for business occasions, the morning coat for more formal day occasions, and the dark tail-coat and white cravat for evening wear. We all know about the top hat, but there were other hats, too, such as the bowler.

Okay, so that’s it for today, but there still a whole lot of information out there if you’re interested! Check out the sources below to learn more!

Sources:

Civil War Women’s Clothing, https://www.visit-gettysburg.com/civil-war-womens-clothing.html.

Monet, Delores, Women’s Clothing of the South in the American Civil War, https://bellatory.com/fashion-industry/WomensClothingoftheSouthintheAmericanCivilWar.
Image Credit: The Smithsonian Institution, http://www.civilwar.si.edu/life_fashionplate.html.