The Confederate Belle

The Confederate Belle

The Confederate Belle

The Confederate Belle

Synopsis

While historians have examined the struggles and challenges that confronted the Southern plantation mistress during the American Civil War, until now no one has considered the ways in which the conflict shaped the lives of elite young women, otherwise known as belles. In The Confederate Belle, Giselle Roberts uses diaries, letters, and memoirs to uncover the unique wartime experiences of young ladies in Mississippi and Louisiana. In the plantation culture of the antebellum South, belles enhanced their family's status through their appearance and accomplishments and, later, by marrying well. During the American Civil War, a new patriotic womanhood superseded the antebellum feminine ideal. It demanded that Confederate women sacrifice everything for their beloved cause, including their men, homes, fine dresses, and social occasions, to ensure the establishment of a new nation and the preservation of elite ideas about race, class, and gender. As menfolk answered the call to arms, southern matrons had to redefine their roles as mistresses and wives. Southern belles faced a different, yet equally daunting, task. After being prepared for a delightful "bellehood," young ladies were forced to reassess their traditional rite of passage into womanhood, to compromise their understanding of femininity at a pivotal time in their lives. They found themselves caught between antebellum traditions of honor and of gentility, a binary patriotic feminine ideal and wartime reality. Rather than simply sacrificing their socialization for patriotic womanhood, belles drew upon southern honor to strengthen their understanding of themselves as young Confederate women. They used honor to shape and legitimize their obligations to the wartime household. They used honor to fashion their role as patriotic women. They even used honor to frame their relationship to the cause. By drawing upon this powerful concept, young ladies ensured the basic preservation of an ideology of privilege. Their unique Confederate bellehoods would ultimately shape the ways in which they viewed themselves and the changed social landscape during the conflict-and after it.

Excerpt

It is hard to write a book about the Southern belle without mentioning Scarlett O.Hara. Margaret Mitchell's imposing character with her raven locks, penetrating green eyes, “magnolia white skin,” and seventeen-inch waist has come to dominate our popular understanding of the belle and the American Civil War of which she was a part. Ironically, Scarlett was anything but the embodiment of the quintessential belle ideal. Clad in a green-trimmed muslin dress that stole the heart of more than one eligible Southern gentleman, Scarlett's ability to assume the physical guise of an accomplished young lady did little to mask her complexity or her passion. Quick witted, charming, cunning, and determined, Scarlett demonstrated a tenacity to use anything, including the war itself, to snare her beloved Ashley away from the meek and mild Melanie Wilkes. She possessed neither the piety nor gentility required of elite Southern ladies, and assumed the sacrificial air of the patriotic woman only to further her own personal ambitions. While this lavishly dressed, charismatic young “heroine” has become synonymous with the Southern belle, Scarlett O'Hara was actually the antithesis of the exalted feminine ideal.

Perhaps Scarlett's stranglehold on representations of young Southern womanhood can partly be attributed to a relative lack of scholarship in this area. Anne Firor Scott, Catherine Clinton, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Drew Gilpin Faust, and Marli Weiner have published an impressive body of work on the plantation mistress, but surprisingly, the Southern belle has not been examined in detail. Similarly, Civil War historians are yet to examine the lives of young, elite, white, Southern women, whose wartime experiences have often been dismissed because of their strong association with the romance and fanfare of war. Other studies have used the diaries and letters of young women, but distorted the experience of the belle by incorporating it into larger analyses of elite . . .

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