The Big House after Slavery: Virginia Plantation Families and Their Postbellum Domestic Experiment

By Miller, Brian Craig | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, April 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Big House after Slavery: Virginia Plantation Families and Their Postbellum Domestic Experiment


Miller, Brian Craig, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Big House after Slavery: Virginia Plantation Families and Their Postbellum Domestic Experiment * Amy Feely Morsman * Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010 * xiv, 276 pp.* $45.00

The end of the American Civil War sent many southern men and women scrambling to redefine their lives. Men returned home physically shattered and mentally exhausted to a world fundamentally shifted by failure to achieve victory. The plantation system crumbled under the forces of emancipation, which opened the door for planters and their wives to redefine their lives. In her new book, Amy Feely Morsman effectively examines the transition Virginia planters underwent in the shadow of the Civil War. Utilizing a wealth of primary sources and clear prose, the author weaves an analysis of gender and memory within a strong contribution to the social and political history of the era.

The author begins each chapter with an extensive exploration of a planter family in Virginia and how it responded to the new anxieties encountered via emancipation. Virginia emerged as a suitable arena for this exploration because the state consistently faced the burdens of war, and the planter class left some intimate records that chronicled the emotional rollercoaster brought on by a fundamental shift in the old plantation household. Planters downsized their extensive agricultural pursuits and struggled wirh labor contracts and financial obligations while trying to maintain antebellum notions of a suitable husband and man. While women rolled up their sleeves and jumped into household chores, men feared both a loss of manhood and class status as they adjusted to both free labor and "a subtle shift away from patriarchy and toward a more mutual relationship between elite men and women" (p. 4).

In the midst of change, men and women tried to keep up the appearance of membership to an elite class by garnering a privileged education, attending weddings, taking vacations at fashionable resorts, and wearing fashionable attire. Behind their masks of elite status, men and women entered into a codependent relationship to survive the "challenges of defeat and emancipation" (p. 90). As men and women shredded the patriarchal system in favor of codependency, Morsman chronicles their participation in organized religion, politics (especially in the debt battles between the Readjusters and the Funders), and farm clubs (Grangers and the Vitginia Famers' Assembly) as a mechanism for coping with postwar challenges in life, status, and notions of manhood and womanhood. …

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