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326 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 38 illus., notes, bibl., index

$59.95 cloth
ISBN 978-0-8078-2255-5
Published: Spring 1996

$24.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-8078-5573-7
Published: Fall 2004

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Read the Preface

Read the Introduction


Mothers of Invention
Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War

by Drew Gilpin Faust

Copyright (c) 1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Excerpt from Chapter Four: We Must Go to Work, Too
Us Poor Treasury Girls

By 1864 Elizabeth Richmond of Caswell County, North Carolina, was so "worn out" with teaching's "duties and privations" that she wrote to Governor Vance in hopes of finding "a place of employment that will not require as much energy of mind and body, and yet, will give me a comfortable support." She, like hundreds of other southern women who petitioned Confederate and state officials, sought a government clerkship.

As the Confederacy struggled to place every able-bodied man in the ranks, officials turned to women to fill many of the resulting civilian vacancies. Women were employed in the War Department, the Post Office, the Quartermaster Department, and the office of the Commissary General, but the Treasury Department held the largest proportion of these posts. Females signed each of the hundreds of thousands of Confederate banknotes by hand and helped as well to cut the sheets on which the bills were printed.

The allocation of this "department work" is curious, for it seems to have been a form of government welfare distributed on the basis of gender and class. Ladies of the South's privileged orders who had fallen on hard times constituted the overwhelming majority of the women who received these desirable situations, and the recommendation of well-connected friends exerted significant influence. Women petitioned Davis for the jobs, emphasizing their need for assistance, the sacrifices they had made for the Cause, and their dependence, in the absence of other male support, on the Confederate president. "My only apology for troubling you with this communication," wrote Diana Johnston, a young war widow of Mobile, "arises from the fact that I regard you as 'the Father of the people' over whom God has called you to preside, and believe therefore that even amid the engrossing and perplexing cares of public business, there is sympathy in your great and noble heart for individual suffering, and a just regard for private claims." Lizzie Yarrington was upset when she had to write a second time in search of government employment, for she had expected the state to acknowledge and provide for her needs. "I think I deserve this at the hands of a government for which I have been gratuitously laboring since the first year of the war. To my eyes it looks very inconsistent that now when I am in absolute distress that I am unable to obtain assistance." General Samuel Cooper testified to the requisite "standing and necessities" of a seventy-eight-year-old widow who sought the "patronage" of a job in the War Department, but then he went on to explain that not she but a young relative would actually do the work of copying reports. Miss M. H. Sydnor informed Davis of her sad decline from "a state of independence" and sought to strengthen her claims to office by promising recommendations "to prove me to be a lady of the first social position." Catherine Windle of Williamsburg referred to the posts as "Government gifts" in Davis's "bestowal" to meet her urgent circumstances.

Other women felt they deserved jobs not so much because of their past contributions to the Confederacy or because of their pronounced distress, but because of their superior qualifications, attributes often indistinguishable from their social standing. Treasury posts required elegant handwriting, so the fashionably educated held a clear advantage. Jefferson Davis scribbled on the petition of a Yorktown refugee for a Treasury job, "Writing as shown by this note is quite good." Another applicant submitted a sample of her name signed twenty-five times.

The salary scale for female clerks reveals their social location and influence as well. Privates in the Confederate army were paid $11 a month. In 1862 and 1863, by contrast, female clerks received $65. By 1864 the annual salary of women holding Treasury posts had risen to $3000 in the South's depreciated currency. These women were seen to be worth more than the Confederacy's ordinary fighting men and to have needs and expectations for special treatment that the Confederacy did not wish to gainsay. Clearly, too, they were regarded differently from most other females in national service.

Ordinary women performed a variety of government work across the South. Seamstresses for the Clothing Bureau—3,000 to 4,000 of whom took in piecework in Richmond by the last years of war—made $1.00 for a shirt, $1.50 for a pair of pants, or $4.00 for a coat, which might take days to complete. In Augusta the 500 women employed by the Georgia Soldiers' Clothing Bureau made $6.00 to $12.00 a week. Arsenal workers in the same city sewed cartridges for $1.00 a day. Richmond's female ordnance workers, nearly 50 of whom were killed in an explosion in March 1863, confronted danger as well as low wages, and they organized to express their grievances in a strike for better pay. One supporter of their action saw clearly the differentiation the Confederate government made between these female workers and their well-connected and well-born counterparts. "Why is it that … poor women engaged in a perilous and hazardous occupation … are denied a living compensation for their labour, when so many of the departments are filled with young ladies (not dependent on their pay) with nothing to do, at salaries equal to and in some cases better than the best male clerks in the different departments?"

Meanwhile Mary Darby DeTreville, employed in the Treasury Department, felt embarrassed to receive any salary at all. She worked assiduously signing notes at an expected rate of 3,200 between 9:00 in the morning and 3:00 in the afternoon each day. But "when pay-day came, the first time I had ever worked for wages, how mean I felt when I went up and signed for my pay." Volunteer work could be incorporated within the image of woman as ministering angel, as moral force; uncompensated labor could be seen as simply an extension of the work women did for their families. It involved no entry into the public world of the marketplace, and it offered no fundamental threat to woman's ultimate dependence. Wage labor, however, posed serious challenges to existing assumptions about behavior appropriate to women of the South's ruling class. At the same time, arsenal employees advanced their claim to specific rights as wage labors, their elite sisters still maintained their commitment to the familial relationships of female dependence, relationships in which support was expected as the bounty—the "gift," as Catherine Windle put it—of the benevolent patriarch. That this benevolence now came in the form of office employment marked a significant departure, but that it was bestowed by the supreme earthly father, Jefferson Davis, in response to humbling petitions begging assistance represented strong continuity with the past. It is revealing that unlike white working-class women striking for a living wage, Mary DeTreville felt uneasy about the notion of wages and paid work altogether. With its implication of individual right and of autonomy and independence, the exchange of labor for wages controverted the tenets of the social order of paternalism within which privileged white women had established their place and constructed their identity.

Criticism of "department girls" was fervent and widespread. Clara MacLean, who had herself grudgingly taken up teaching, disapproved of a friend who spent her days cutting Confederate bonds, then had to walk home "in the broiling sun. See what this dreadful war has brought delicate ladies to." Mary Chesnut was even more horrified by the notion of women working in public, outside the "rooftree" of the prescribed domestic sphere. She and her friend Mrs. John Preston vowed never to submit to such degradation. "Survive or perish—we will not go into one of the departments. We will not stand up all day and cut notes apart, ordered round by a department clerk. We will live at home with our families and starve in a body. Any homework we will do. Any menial service—under the shadow of our own rooftree. Department—never!"

Perhaps a generational difference made Adelaide Stuart, just twenty, more enthusiastic about the Treasury post she assumed in 1864, for she proclaimed herself able to adapt "easily to all circumstances." Within six months she had developed "much greater facility than formerly in signing my name" and was able to finish early and help slower employees complete their daily quotas. In September 1864 she reported proudly "a compliment paid to me at the office—The 4500 bills are only given to a few favoured girls who have great beauty of signature." With her days filled with work and her evenings occupied by social outings, Stuart had "not a moment to myself." But she was thriving. "I am rarely ill now even with a headache—the fact is I have not the time to be giving up to such lady like ailments as nervousness—headaches etc." Stuart concluded that the "loss of property" that had pushed her into the workforce was "the best thing that could have taken place for me—It is bringing into active service, & strengthening all the best parts of my character & enabling me to root out all that was objectionable."

Malvina Gist, who at age twenty lost her husband to war, seemed quickly to forget her grief amidst the excitement of her new Treasury job. As the speed of her signature increased, her employer assured her she was "a treasury girl worth having." But Gist seemed more interested in her activities outside the department. When Sherman threatened Columbia, Gist prayed the note bureau would not be returned to the comparative safety of Richmond. "It is high time," she asserted, "I was having some experiences out of the ordinary…. I want to stay. I want to have a taste of danger." In fact the move to Richmond proved highly satisfactory. The secretary invited all "us poor Treasury girls" for a dinner and somehow managed to produce, even in the last weeks of the war, a "varied menu, elegantly prepared and daintily served." With her dead husband apparently forgotten, Gist was most thrilled by the Confederate capital's "surging, intoxicating stream" of men in uniform. Gist's and Stuart's independence was just what clucking matrons like Mary Chesnut regarded as most dangerous about women's new public roles.


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