A Past Still Living: The Grieving Process of Confederate Widows Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Mays, Ashley Michelle
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of History
  • The American Civil War destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and tore asunder the fabric of northern and southern society. In order to understand the long-term consequences of this war, this dissertation examines the way in which death transformed the lives of one group of survivors, Confederate widows. These widows faced staggering emotional consequences because they not only lost a partner and a companion but also a sense of stability in their lives. As widows shouldered the responsibility for their families' survival, a rush of conflicting emotions threatened to overwhelm them. This emotional turmoil encouraged widows to cling to their identities as wives while their social position as widows determined the avenues available to them in the postwar period. No matter how widows felt, Southern communities' cultural prescriptions for grieving shaped the way in which widows expressed their grief. Through letters and ceremonies friends, family, and even strangers comforted widows by demonstrating that their husband had died a good death. In the process, communities encouraged widows to curtail their grief in public. Widows outwardly conformed while relying on a reciprocal relationship with friends and family for companionship and for financial support, a tenuous safety net. Nevertheless, widows often found themselves unable to extinguish their often-conflicting feelings about their loss. As a result, a tension arose between Confederate widows and their communities over the appropriate way to express grief. Ultimately, this dissertation argues that widows and their communities engaged in a dialectical conversation over the expression of emotion that would shape the postwar South. Because widows could not express their grief publicly, they wrestled with their complex feelings about loss privately in an introspective cycle that isolated widows from their friends, family, and even their religious beliefs. Since widows' memories of the war proved to be inseparable from their grief, widows recorded their memories privately by writing memoirs and by preserving their husbands' possessions, rather than participating heavily in Confederate memorialization. As a result, the collected memory of the Civil War in the postwar South did not include widows' unique interpretations of wartime loss and thereby sterilized the memory of the war.
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  • In Copyright
  • Glatthaar, Joseph
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Graduation year
  • 2014

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