Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, & Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina

Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, & Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina

Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, & Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina

Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, & Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina

Synopsis

During the Civil War era, black and white North Carolinians were forced to fundamentally reinterpret the morality of suicide, divorce, and debt as these experiences became pressing issues throughout the region and nation. In Moments of Despair, David Silkenat explores these shifting sentiments.
Antebellum white North Carolinians stigmatized suicide, divorce, and debt, but the Civil War undermined these entrenched attitudes, forcing a reinterpretation of these issues in a new social, cultural, and economic context in which they were increasingly untethered from social expectations. Black North Carolinians, for their part, used emancipation to lay the groundwork for new bonds of community and their own interpretation of social frameworks. Silkenat argues that North Carolinians' attitudes differed from those of people outside the South in two respects. First, attitudes toward these cultural practices changed more abruptly and rapidly in the South than in the rest of America, and second, the practices were interpreted through a prism of race. Drawing upon a robust and diverse body of sources, including insane asylum records, divorce petitions, bankruptcy filings, diaries, and personal correspondence, this innovative study describes a society turned upside down as a consequence of a devastating war.

Excerpt

Reflecting on transformations in North Carolina society since the Civil War, Rev. Frank L. Reid, pastor of Raleigh’s Edenton Street Methodist Church and editor of the Christian Advocate, observed in 1887, “There is a spirit of unrest, disquietude and discontent, which seems to foreshadow some great change. Public feeling is about to cut loose from its old fastenings…. Ties that have bound men together heretofore are weakening…. the foundations of our social fabric are being shaken.” Born in 1851, Reid had seen firsthand how the Civil War had transformed North Carolina’s political, economic, and social order. Yet the most significant changes he had witnessed were intangible. An 1881 editorial in the Raleigh Farmer and Mechanic expressed a similar opinion: “We are tempted to add some regrets which occur to us whenever called upon to chronicle the decrease of any of our old citizens. These be the links, whose gradual dropping away, one by one, lessen the ties between the Old South and the New; the Old Time South, with her Hospitality, Chivalry, Integrity, and High Personal Honor; the New South with her Money Getting, Wire Working, Energetic, Scheming, Go-a-head, Free-and-Easy Social and Personal ‘ideas’!” At the root of both sentiments was a deep unease about how the Civil War had transformed the moral framework through which North Carolinians interpreted their world.

Generations of historians have explored the myriad ways in which the Civil War left a lasting imprint on the South. They have outlined in great detail how Confederate defeat and emancipation transformed the region’s political, economic, and social landscape. Yet, as the quotations above indicate, many North Carolinians understood that behind or beneath these visible changes, there had also been a significant shift in moral sentiments.

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