Golden Thread The Plantation Mistress: The Misrepresentation and Myth of the "Southern Belle"

Nathanb1

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No diaries have emerged from my family, but I doubt they considered themselves mistresses of anything. I just looked in the family bible pages (copies... it was published in 1834)...only 8 births of children "of color" were noted from 1854 to 1864. The majority were girls. Some earlier ancestors showed considerably more slaves, back in Georgia and Alabama, and South Carolina, but in all the wills I've seen, there is no mention of plantations... only farms. I guess what I'm saying is that most folks were small farmers--yeoman, if you will. The way they treated their slaves, we know, varied from owner to owner.

Think of this, if you can, as taking a survey of the general population today... there are knuckleheads, and there are good people. My grandfather often said there were bad men and good men of every color... color didn't make you better or worse. As a racehorse trainer, he lived right alongside his jockeys and others, so I guess he'd know. If you extrapolate to the antebellum period... well, I suspect the diary writers weren't necessarily representative as a whole--they're just the ones who had the education and time to put their thoughts on paper.

Like all of us... hope this made sense.
 

Dedej

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This is an interesting topic @Dedej and one that I have become increasingly aware of as I have read about the role of women in Civil War times. In truth the life of a plantation mistress varied from plantation to plantation, but in most cases it was not one of leisure and luxury as often portrayed in movies or historical novels about the Old South. Many of these women worked hard on the property in addition to carrying full responsibility for managing the entire household. Their duties included preparing the food and providing clothing and medical needs for the members of the family and the slaves they owned. In the 19th century, plantation mistresses were often commended for exemplifying the "cult of true womanhood."

It was quite common for the plantation owner to be unfaithful to his wife (the plantation mistress) by having sexual relations (often forced and violent), with the female slaves on the property. The wives were forced to “turn a blind eye” to their husband's infidelity. I’m sure this was a coping mechanism for many of them. While their husbands were not expected to be faithful to them (it was socially acceptable to sleep with other women other than the one they married), it was strictly expected that the wives be faithful, loving and subservient to their husbands.

I’ve often wondered if this dynamic might have led some of the plantation mistresses to take out their pent up anger on the slaves, especially the female slaves. If so it would be ironic since both women and slaves had little to no rights in society. This was a common thread that really linked them together because they were both oppressed, just in different ways.

Do you think this could have been a factor? I'd enjoy hearing your thoughts and those of others on this.


Hi Sweetie!

Thanks for responding :smile: I totally think so - that why I really wanted to know about additional stressors, roles and overall challenges one might have. Because, the image of Gone with The Wind - has always led me to think - their lives were more so protected and one of leisure.

It's interesting because the myth of the "Southern Belle" really does take away from who they really were and what they really went through. It wasn't peaches and cream. That presentation is more damaging than positive to me. I can see them as a person and understand them more with the truth being presented.

But, just knowing that is happening around you and with people you feel and have been taught to believe are inferior to you - could definitely cause rage in some. It's the ultimate betrayal. Plus, as a woman it has to bother you - knowing that is going on.

It also explains the hidden drug use - if the reports were right. It's also interesting because even though they were oppressed - they still supported the system of patriarchy - that didn't allow them to be themselves -- and the institution of slavery - which it appears made them do many things they wouldn't have done - if put in those situations.
 

Dedej

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I don't know if you'd find this interesting, but Angelina Grimke Weld was a Southern woman who grew up with slaves and then later when on to become an abolitionist.

My brief introduction to her was through the book Civil War Wives by Carol Berkin. I have not read more about her, but I bet she would be interesting to look into, especially considering her personal evolution on the subject of slavery.

I'm off to watch your posted videos!

Thanks! I am very familiar with Angelina Grimke Weld (and her sister Sarah Grimké) contributions to witness accounts and abolitionist work.

And thanks for the recommendation! Adding it to my list :smile:
 

Dedej

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No diaries have emerged from my family, but I doubt they considered themselves mistresses of anything. I just looked in the family bible pages (copies... it was published in 1834)...only 8 births of children "of color" were noted from 1854 to 1864. The majority were girls. Some earlier ancestors showed considerably more slaves, back in Georgia and Alabama, and South Carolina, but in all the wills I've seen, there is no mention of plantations... only farms. I guess what I'm saying is that most folks were small farmers--yeoman, if you will. The way they treated their slaves, we know, varied from owner to owner.

Think of this, if you can, as taking a survey of the general population today... there are knuckleheads, and there are good people. My grandfather often said there were bad men and good men of every color... color didn't make you better or worse. As a racehorse trainer, he lived right alongside his jockeys and others, so I guess he'd know. If you extrapolate to the antebellum period... well, I suspect the diary writers weren't necessarily representative as a whole--they're just the ones who had the education and time to put their thoughts on paper.

Like all of us... hope this made sense.

Thanks for responding :smile: I agree. My goal I guess is to get a host of examples to counter + compare what I have read about and to be fair in my own personal assessment of the different type of women of the plantation.

That is important to me. I always hated how the enslaved no matter what location was viewed and presented -- always one way. Which is false.

I know better than to do the same thing to others - no matter who they are -- and what they may or may not have done.
 

Nathanb1

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I can't resist... that hidden drug use was popular well into the 20th century. My ex-husband tore down an old house on their property in Sterling Co., Texas... far away from the south. He vividly remembered the giant pile of old patent medicine bottles under the back porch...seems the old widow who'd lived for years in the house had a raging desire for laudanum... but until she died in her nineties, no one knew... except the local druggist?
 

Dedej

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I can't resist... that hidden drug use was popular well into the 20th century. My ex-husband tore down an old house on their property in Sterling Co., Texas... far away from the south. He vividly remembered the giant pile of old patent medicine bottles under the back porch...seems the old widow who'd lived for years in the house had a raging desire for laudanum... but until she died in her nineties, no one knew... except the local druggist?

That is crazy. But, from what I read it was basically the type of meds they gave to the enslaved when hurt - but also used themselves as well. But, I guess some unfortunately became added. Even members of The Davis family had issues with the drug.

I actually first learned about drugs during that time from a show called Underground. In one of the episodes, one of the slaves had a addiction to opiates - where she kept a cloth with her and smelled it to get a high. MIND-BLOWING - because I had no clue.

Out of everything, I swear learning about drug abuse/addictions has been most shocking.
 

LoriAnn

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I’ve often wondered if this dynamic might have led some of the plantation mistresses to take out their pent up anger on the slaves, especially the female slaves. If so it would be ironic since both women and slaves had little to no rights in society. This was a common thread that really linked them together because they were both oppressed, just in different ways.
Thanks to human nature, I could see misdirected violence happening for sure.
 
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It also explains the hidden drug use - if the reports were right.

In light of the wide-spread opioid epidemic our country is dealing with at the present time, I have become fascinated by the casual and acceptable use of opioids during the Civil War era. It appears that by 1861, there was probably opium of some form in most household medicine cabinets. Catherine Clinton writes about this extensively in her book, “The Plantation Mistress.” She notes that, ”Laudanum was commonly used throughout the antebellum era, prescribed with unfortunate frequency for 'female complaints'.....contrary to the 20th Century image....., the late 19th Century profile indicates that addicts were disproportionately upper-class, Southern, white and female.” I would not be at all surprised to learn that this was indeed the result of pent up anger issues. Obviously the stigma associated with the use of opiates and other illegal drugs today wasn’t present during the Civil War. Opium had been known and used in ancient times as a cure for headaches.
 

Nathanb1

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That is crazy. But, from what I read it was basically the type of meds they gave to the enslaved when hurt - but also used themselves as well. But, I guess some unfortunately became added. Even members of The Davis family had issues with the drug.

I actually first learned about drugs during that time from a show called Underground. In one of the episodes, one of the slaves had a addiction to opiates - where she kept a cloth with her and smelled it to get a high. MIND-BLOWING - because I had no clue.

Out of everything, I swear learning about drug abuse/addictions has been most shocking.

Yeppers, that's one of my favorite shows... and that was pretty mind-blowing. The movie Tombstone was pretty educational, too. All the bottles look the same..." This is the same bottle I had a month ago!" Nothing really changes in the world, does it.
 

amweiner

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Hey @Dedej,
Thanks for posting such an interesting topic! I'm just responding off the cuff as I can't get to any resources right now, but as far as mental health goes, I can't help but think of the story "The Yellow Wallpaper". While it may not be representative of the time, I do think there was a patriarchal "we men know best for you womenfolk" attitude that pervaded attitudes toward women's independence/activity/well being. I can say that perceived powerlessness creates resentment, a sense of loneliness, and desperation. The concept of self medicating troubling feelings away may be a modern one, but could explain substance abuse during the time period.

None of my blathering addresses your question of the enduring popularity of the "Southern Belle" image. I believe this could be influenced by Victorian, romantic ideals of chivalry (very Sir Walter Scott) that held outdated standards for women and men. I can't say for certain that this was an issue, but think it should be considered.

Just some thoughts,
Adam
 

Nathanb1

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In light of the wide-spread opioid epidemic our country is dealing with at the present time, I have become fascinated by the casual and acceptable use of opioids during the Civil War era. It appears that by 1861, there was probably opium of some form in most household medicine cabinets. Catherine Clinton writes about this extensively in her book, “The Plantation Mistress.” She notes that, ”Laudanum was commonly used throughout the antebellum era, prescribed with unfortunate frequency for 'female complaints'.....contrary to the 20th Century image....., the late 19th Century profile indicates that addicts were disproportionately upper-class, Southern, white and female.” I would not be at all surprised to learn that this was indeed the result of pent up anger issues. Obviously the stigma associated with the use of opiates and other illegal drugs today wasn’t present during the Civil War. Opium had been known and used in ancient times as a cure for headaches.


Same as today... many addicts were given their first taste of... whatever... from a trusted doctor, relative, or friend. Hooked before they know it...
 

Nathanb1

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Hey @Dedej,
Thanks for posting such an interesting topic! I'm just responding off the cuff as I can't get to any resources right now, but as far as mental health goes, I can't help but think of the story "The Yellow Wallpaper". While it may not be representative of the time, I do think there was a patriarchal "we men know best for you womenfolk" attitude that pervaded attitudes toward women's independence/activity/well being. I can say that perceived powerlessness creates resentment, a sense of loneliness, and desperation. The concept of self medicating troubling feelings away may be a modern one, but could explain substance abuse during the time period.

None of my blathering addresses your question of the enduring popularity of the "Southern Belle" image. I believe this could be influenced by Victorian, romantic ideals of chivalry (very Sir Walter Scott) that held outdated standards for women and men. I can't say for certain that this was an issue, but think it should be considered.

Just some thoughts,
Adam

The Yellow Wallpaper happens to be one of my favorite novels to teach... and my daughter's, and her English teaching friends... and it is an excellent example.
 

Dedej

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In light of the wide-spread opioid epidemic our country is dealing with at the present time, I have become fascinated by the casual and acceptable use of opioids during the Civil War era. It appears that by 1861, there was probably opium of some form in most household medicine cabinets. Catherine Clinton writes about this extensively in her book, “The Plantation Mistress.” She notes that, ”Laudanum was commonly used throughout the antebellum era, prescribed with unfortunate frequency for 'female complaints'.....contrary to the 20th Century image....., the late 19th Century profile indicates that addicts were disproportionately upper-class, Southern, white and female.” I would not be at all surprised to learn that this was indeed the result of pent up anger issues. Obviously the stigma associated with the use of opiates and other illegal drugs today wasn’t present during the Civil War. Opium had been known and used in ancient times as a cure for headaches.

Yes. That is what really made me say wow - when I read about it and saw the reports. I question why this epidemic is happening again. Especially, with the history of what the drug has done in the past - it was devastating to many during and right after the civil war.

For me it kinda made me understand some of the actions of the mistresses - that is why I wanted to know if this was well known or something really discussed.

Confederate soldiers returned to a defeated and humiliated South, with cities like Atlanta in near ruin. Furthermore, one out of every five southern males of military age were killed in the war. Many heartbroken families turned to drugs to cope with the devastating loss of a husband, son, brother or father. “Maimed and shattered survivors from a hundred battle-fields,” Horace B. Day wrote in 1868, “diseased and disabled soldiers released from hostile prisons, anguished and hopeless wives and mothers, made so by the slaughter of those who were dearest to them, have found, many of them, temporary relief from their sufferings in opium.”[5]

The science of addiction had not yet emerged, and doctors prescribed opium and morphine regularly for pain management and sleeping problems. A.M. Chappell was a veteran of the Fourteenth Virginia Infantry and had been wounded at the Battle of Gettysburg when a ball crashed through his left knee. It was a wound that Chappell noted he “would never get entirely over.”[6] By 1886, Chappell was “very poor indeed” and “with a wife and children to support.” He wrote to the Lee Camp Soldier’s Home for admission into the institution. In his letter he noted his lingering disability, poverty and his addiction to morphine. “The Dr. put me on morphine and I can’t stop that,” Chappell wrote to William R. Terry. “Can’t get it often except people give it to me.”[7]

But the institution’s demise wiped out vast sums of wealth in the American South, leaving many white Southerners destitute and impoverished. To cope with this sudden loss, many southerners turned to drug use. This was clear to many Americans living in the Gilded Age. “Since the close of the war,” remarked a New York opium dealer, “men once wealthy, but impoverished by the rebellion, have taken to eating and drinking opium to drown their sorrows.”[8] It also explains why the weight of addiction was not carried equally between the races. Black southerners were far less likely to be addicts, partly because the defeat of the Confederacy was celebrated not mourned.


Source: https://journalofthecivilwarera.org/2016/11/civil-war-veterans-opiate-addiction-gilded-age/
 
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Even members of The Davis family had issues with the drug.

In James Street, Jr.’s “Under the Influence: Marching Through the Opium Fog”, he states that one female member of the Jefferson Davis family became dangerously addicted because her doctor gave her liberal dosages of opiates. I would like to learn more about that. I'm not even sure who he is referencing. I have a feeling I might have been tempted if I were poor Varina, but I doubt it was her. She appears to have been a pillar of strength.
 

Nathanb1

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There's another entry in the family bible, "Andrew Jackson Sanders, expired January 1864." He was my great grandfather's older brother, and he died of pleurisy in Camp Douglas, Illinois. He was the third son to die during the war, and one of six cousins who died. His older brother was blown to bits in 1863 with one of the cousins, while they served in their uncle's company. The uncle deserted. Why wouldn't you be depressed?
 

Dedej

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Hey @Dedej,
Thanks for posting such an interesting topic! I'm just responding off the cuff as I can't get to any resources right now, but as far as mental health goes, I can't help but think of the story "The Yellow Wallpaper". While it may not be representative of the time, I do think there was a patriarchal "we men know best for you womenfolk" attitude that pervaded attitudes toward women's independence/activity/well being. I can say that perceived powerlessness creates resentment, a sense of loneliness, and desperation. The concept of self medicating troubling feelings away may be a modern one, but could explain substance abuse during the time period.

None of my blathering addresses your question of the enduring popularity of the "Southern Belle" image. I believe this could be influenced by Victorian, romantic ideals of chivalry (very Sir Walter Scott) that held outdated standards for women and men. I can't say for certain that this was an issue, but think it should be considered.

Just some thoughts,
Adam

Hi Adam!

Thanks for the book recommendation! I agree - self-medicating or having to deal with someone else who was self-medicating - can definitely cause someone to lash out on someone and misuse their power.

On Victorian ideals - would that be for all of the South - no matter how big or small the plantation or farm?

And how were these ideals spread? Was it mainly via print, books or social gatherings? I guess I'm asking - how did they all get on the same page of trying to emulate or portray some of those ideals?
 

Dedej

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In James Street, Jr.’s “Under the Influence: Marching Through the Opium Fog”, he states that one female member of the Jefferson Davis family became dangerously addicted because her doctor gave her liberal dosages of opiates. I would like to learn more about that. I'm not even sure who he is referencing. I have a feeling I might have been tempted if I were poor Varina, but I doubt it was her. She appears to have been a pillar of strength.

Ditto. I now think everyone was possibly self-medicating some kind of way. I now know everyone had mental health issues - whether known or unknown. I don't think you can be mentally healthy in times like that back then.
 

amweiner

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Hi Adam!

Thanks for the book recommendation! I agree - self-medicating or having to deal with someone else who was self-medicating - can definitely cause someone to lash out on someone and misuse their power.

On Victorian ideals - would that be for all of the South - no matter how big or small the plantation or farm?

And how were these ideals spread? Was it mainly via print, books or social gatherings? I guess I'm asking - how did they all get on the same page of trying to emulate or portray some of those ideals?
Well, I didn't say it very well, but actually meant the reverse: that powerlessness could have caused the use of self medicating. I imagine that women in both North and South were dealing with tremendous tension - having husbands, sons, fathers away from home for extended periods; fear of loss; grief; having to run the entire household/farm. All of this complex, traumatic dynamic can lead to substances becoming a very attractive escape hatch.

I don't know for certain about the mechanisms used in the South to convey values, but would hazard a guess that church and female academies of the time were powerful social shaping agents.
 

LoriAnn

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The concept of self medicating troubling feelings away may be a modern one, but could explain substance abuse during the time period.
The first time I ever had a serious pain killer, I was absolutely amazed at how good I felt. Not just from the pain relief ~ I didn't care about anything anymore. I was the definition of "comfortable".

I could see people turning to opiates back then. Heck, there are days where I think, "Why am I doing this sober?" I can't imagine what a war torn population had to wrestle with.
 
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