Women and the Homefront in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee During the Civil War Term Paper

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Women and the Home Front in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee during the Civil War

This paper examines the living conditions and attitudes that shaped the lives of the women in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee during and after the American Civil War. The thesis statement should deal with the breakdown of long standing ties between the people of the mountains as they chose to fight for the Confederacy or the Union. In the pre-war years, these close ties had become strong out of a mutual attempt to try to built a life in the rugged environment they encountered. Based on primary and secondary documentary evidence, this paper will investigate how could friends and family become bitter enemies and how this process played out in the mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee to better understand what the women went through while their brothers, husbands and fathers were away fighting. A historiographical review of the setting is followed by a critical review of primary sources. A review of life on the home front in Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee during the Civil War is followed by a summary of the research in the conclusion.

Historiographical Review.

Background and Overview: Antebellum North Carolina and Tennessee. Virtually any war, particularly those fought in the past where men comprised the vast majority of the fighting force, will have a profound and lasting impact on the wives and families of the men who march off to battle. Nevertheless, households have managed to operate efficiently in spite of wartime shortages and women have assumed responsibilities on farms and in family businesses that, except for the war, would have been shouldered by men. By all accounts, life in the Old South in general, and western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee in particular, was just plain hard work for all concerned, both whites and blacks. Compelling the stubborn soil of the Old South to yield her crops each year was a labor-intensive enterprise and the life of a white wife of a plantation owner was certainly no exception.

Furthermore, just prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, North Carolina was viewed as an economic backwater, known even among its own inhabitants as the "Rip Van Winkle State," the "Ireland of America." Without a major seaport and a system of easily navigable rivers, the state was never able to sustain great plantations like those of its neighbors, South Carolina and Virginia; however, the state's fortunes were nevertheless shaped by the economics of slavery. "Political power rested in the hands of eastern slave owners who held the great bulk of their wealth in the form of human rather than real property. Unlike land, that investment was movable, and its value bore little relation to local development."

Consequently, North Carolina's governing elite did not give much attention to improving the countryside through the construction of railroads, canals, villages, and factories. Rather, these affluent members of Southern society sought to maximize the return on their hefty investments in slaves. When the soil wore out, planters, especially the less affluent ones, simply packed up and moved to the more unexploited lands elsewhere in the state or to the fertile fields of Alabama, Mississippi, and western Tennessee.

Between 1790 and 1860, that cavalier attitude about the land resulted in the population of North Carolina being reduced from the fourth to twelfth largest in the nation. The white planters who remained sought their fortunes with crops such as cotton, tobacco, and rice; these crops helped to orient them toward the coastal export trade rather than inland commerce. As a result, these planters provided only limited support for efforts to connect the state's interior with plank roads and rail lines. While local investors and the state legislature financed a fledgling rail system on the coastal plain during the 1830s and 1840s (primarily to service the cotton and tobacco economy), no track extended farther west than Raleigh, the state capital, which lay just one hundred and fifty miles from the shore, until 1856.

Underdevelopment resulted in most North Carolinians in the upcountry Piedmont and mountain regions living in rural isolation. Inadequate transportation constrained commercial agriculture and reinforced a system of general farming and direct exchange among local producers. "White yeomen and a smaller group of tenants raised corn, wheat, and other grains to feed their families; in the woods and meadows that surrounded their fields, they herded cattle and hogs, hunted wild game for the table, and harvested timber for fuel and shelter." According to Leloudis, in rural North Carolina, "People found dignity in working with their hands, treasured control over their labor, and considered ownership of land -- or at least access to the means of subsistence -- a common right. Although they were not unaware of events in the outside world, they grounded their identities in a familiar circle of family, neighbors, and friends. The first state superintendent of common schools, Calvin Henderson Wiley, who assumed office in 1852, viewed North Carolina as less a state than "a confederation of independent communities." According to Wiley, "Whoever travels over North Carolina," he observed, "will meet with great apparent diversity of character, manners, and interest; and if he be much attached to the ways... Of his own community, will hardly ever feel himself at home from the time that he crosses the boundaries of his county." Almost 30 years later, another traveler found most North Carolinians to be "independent and happy, but very far from the rest of the world."

Further, in other fundamental ways, the antebellum system of public instruction remained relatively unaltered in North Carolina. According to Leloudis, in the years immediately following the Civil War, schooling in black and white communities alike continued to stand on what one observer described as a foundation of "home rule and self-government."

According to Noel C. Fisher, the position of East Tennessee in the antebellum South was ambivalent. For example, the mountain ranges that enclosed this area on all sides also served to cut East Tennessee off from ready communication with other regions; it also created a sense of isolation, and produced a set of distinct economic and cultural characteristics. "East Tennessee was relatively poor in comparison with other parts of the Confederacy, and staple crop agriculture was largely absent. It relied little on slavery, and there are indications that by 1860 a free labor ideology had begun to take hold."

During this period, East Tennessee's rural structure was similar to that of other regions of the state, its manufacturing sector was still small, and its transportation systems provided links not with the North but rather with its Southern neighbors. Furthermore, East Tennessee's political leaders, both Whig and Democrat, proudly identified themselves as Southerners, defended the institution of slavery, and supported Southern interests in Congress. East Tennessee's location in the Appalachians did not in itself separate it from the rest of the South. As John S. Inscoe and Kenneth Noe demonstrated, western North Carolina and southwest Virginia, Appalachian regions with economic structures similar to East Tennessee's, fully supported secession and supplied thousands of recruits to the Confederate army.

According to Barret and Yearns, the election in November 1860 of the "Black Republican" Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of the United States sent a shock wave through the states of the Lower South. "By 4 February 1861, seven cotton states stretching from South Carolina through Texas had held conventions, seceded, and met in Montgomery, Alabama, to form a southern confederacy. To them their entire way of life was so threatened that the only recourse was refuge in a truly southern nation."

Critical Review of Primary Sources.

When the Civil War first started, the overall military strategy of the Southern Confederacy was primarily defensive. "All we want is to be let alone," President Jefferson Davis said in his first message to the Confederate Congress in April 1861, and was essentially the attitude of the Confederate army as well. Later on there was a change to the actively aggressive as Lee burst across the Potomac into Maryland and Pennsylvania; however, the army was generally understood to be designed to fight on the southern home front, in fact, if it was required to fight at all. The Confederate army was to assume its stand on its own side of the border separating the seceded states from their northern counterparts, and there to wait for and repel any attempt at invasion by an armed force. "Many of the Southern people, indeed, labored under the delusive belief that this was all that would be necessary, that the Yankees would be willing to let the seceded states go in peace if they showed that they were prepared to resist invasion." This perception would be dashed, particularly for Southern Appalachia, where there were high concentrations of Union Loyalists.

Southern Appalachia is that region comprised of western Virginia, eastern Kentucky, western North Carolina, East Tennessee, northern Georgia, and northern Alabama; this region proved to be the wild card in…

Sources Used in Document:


Among the Pines," State Chronicle, September 22, 1883 in Leloudis.

Barret, John G. And W. Buck Yearns (Eds). 1980. North Carolina Civil War Documentary. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

In an appendix, the editors provide this excerpt from the diary of an eighteen-year-old girl of Everittsville, who recorded her concerns about the fate of women in the Confederacy and her views about the part played by the Confederate male:

Aug. 30, 1861. Hatteras taken by Yanks-- women and children fleeing. "Quick oh God! Save us from the enemy. Surely thou hast not forsaken us."

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