As one travels across the southern United States, it is not unusual to find monuments and memorials to the Confederate dead in many small towns. In fact, these sculptural pieces, often composed of the same statues and plinths from the Monumental Bronze Co. of Bridgeport, Conn., can be found as far north as Pennsylvania and New York. A study in 2016 found some 1,500 monuments still standing. While in recent years these monuments have become a new source of political conversation their very erection was a movement by Confederate women.
In the years following the Civil War, Confederate women’s efforts at preservation and memorialization led them to form memorial groups who worked to keep the memory of their local dead alive, through obtaining land for Confederate cemeteries, maintaining far-flung grave sites, and erecting public monuments. Among the earliest postwar female charitable organizations in the south, these groups were also some of the longest lasting. Often composed of upper-class women, these organizations were female-led though they occasionally included male members, who liaised with the community or completed those tasks considered unseemly for women. These groups, which spread across the south, gave Confederate women outlets for mourning and fueled the creation of the “New Southern Woman”. They paved the way for a variety of other women’s organizations through which elite women created roles for themselves in the community and outside their homes’ domestic spaces.
These women’s groups were part of a larger social movement which melded the Victorian ideal of the woman as the “Angel in the House” with a need to do something to cope with the large scale grief and death. Groups of middle and upper-class women came together, seeking to memorialize the large numbers of dead in their families and communities as well as their lost cause of the Confederacy. These early efforts came in the same vein as the later romanticism of the plantation most famously seen in “Gone With the Wind” – a book and film which serves, for many individuals in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, as their main point of reference for what pre-war southern life was like, as well as the southern experience during the war. Like Margaret Mitchell’s later fiction, these public memorials were designed to maintain the social and cultural hierarchy of the old south, in this case by placing visual reminders of white male Confederate veterans and the Confederacy in public places and at high vantage points. These actions epitomize the postwar political climate during which Confederate Veterans and their children dominated the positions of power in local governments and communities, but while those politicians were men in male roles, the monuments represent a trend in women’s work outside the home and their incursion within the traditionally masculine realm of politics.