The Pre-Civil War South


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the pre-Civil War era, only about 5 percent of white Southern women actually lived on plantations and about half the Southern households owned no slaves at all. Still, slavery defined everything about life in the South, including the status of white women. Southern culture orbited around the strong father figure, simultaneously ruling and caring for his dependents - Mary Hamilton Campbell was struck when her servant Eliza refererred to Campbell's husband as "our master". Black and white women never seemed to develop any sense of common cause, but every Southern female from the plantation wife to the field slave was assinged a role that involved powerlessness and the need of a white man's constant guidance. A Southern slave owner named George Balcombe advised a friend to "Let women and Negroes alone. Leave them in their humility, their grateful affection, ther self-renouncing loyalty, their subordination of the heart, and let it be your study to become worthy to be the object of their sentiments."

Southerners compared themselves to the ancient Romans, another proud race of slave owners. Dipping back two millennia, they gave their slaves names like Cato and Cicero and celebrated a culture in which families were strong, men were in charge, and slaves did the physical labour. women were expected to follow the lead of the Roman matron, who presided over the hearth, took care of the children, and entertained her husband's guests. poor women, of course, did not get to stay home. They worked as seamstresses and washerwomen, often to support a family in which the man had run away or failed in his duties as a breadwinner. Slave women were expected to labour with their men in the fields. But plantation wives, who set the tone for Southern culture, despite their small numbers, did not do physical housework. Their letters, which are full of reports about gardening, smoking of meat, cooking, and sewing, actually referred to work done slaves, which the white mistress supervised.

The overwhelming impression of the lives of most plantation wives is of isolation. When Anne Nichols moved to her husband's Virginia estate, she wrote that she was "absolutely as far removed frome very thing....as if I was in a solitary tomb." Houses were far apart, and Southern mores prohibited ladies from travelling alone, or even with another woman. "It is quite out of our power to trvel any distance this summer as we have no gentlemen to go with us" wrote a stranded plnatation mistress.

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Considering how fragile women were presumed to be, planters left them alone on remote farms among hundreds of slaves with stunning impunity. "I presume you have planted all the crop. I have only to add that I wish you good luck and good speed" wrote one husband in 1790. John Steele, who had been away in Washington for a year while his wife ran the plantation, responded to her complaints by writing "I know you will live disagreeably, the Negroes will be disobedient, the overseer drunk and foolish, but I must rely on your good management." These casual demands were sometimes interspersed with reminders about the importance of maintaining the standards of Southern femininity, which the wives must have found maddening. "I would willingly follow your adivce and not go in the sun if I could avoid it, but there is many things to do about a place that you men don't think of" wrote a Louisiana woman to the husband who had left her in charge. The husbands' absences were not always compulsory. Southern men went to spas to "take the waters" about five times more frequently than women.

By the mid nineteenth century there were nearly 4 million slaves in the souther states. The vast majority, including about 80 percent of the women, worked in the fields, plowing, hoeing, planting and poicking crops, They worked up to fourteen hours a day, and perhaps sixteen hours at harvest time. The women did the same jobs as them men, using heavy iron tools to hoe and in some cases steering the bulky wooden plows, controlling the mules or oxen that pulled them. The elderly, children, and pregnant women were put in "trash gangs" tht did weeding and cleaning chores.

Slave owners expected women to do three-quarters of the field work a man could do, but some did much more. But even though both sexes worked in the fields, the men did not share much in the family housework. "The women plowed just like the men" remembered former slave Henry Baker. "On Wednesday night they had to wash and after they washed they had to cook supper. The next morning they would get up with themen and they had to cook breakfast before they went to the field and had to cook the noon meal at the same time and take it with them." Men hunted for game and tilled the family garden, but even small boys were gnerally excused from cooking, cleaning, or washing chores.

In addition to the fieldwork, many planters required women to do a quota of spinning or weaving before they went to bed. they worked as a group, with the children helping to card the wool. Bob Ellis, whose mother was head spinner on a Virginia plantation, said that as the other slaves worked, she walked around checking progress, singing "Keep your eyes on the sun, See how she run, don't let her catch you with your work undone". The point, Ellis said, was to make the women finish before dark because it was "mighty hard handling that cotton thread by firelight." Fannie Moore hled the light for her mother to see while she made quilts. Sometimes, she said, her mother sewed through the night. "I never see how my mammy stand such hard work."

During her working life, a female slave spent much of her time pregnant, and most owners put a high value on good "breeders" The Plantation manula advised readers to encourage reproduction by giving every woman "with six children alive" all their Saturdays off. Major Wallon, a plantation owner, offered every new mother a calico dress and a silver dollar. More important than the presents to many young women was the fact that if they became pregnant, they were much less likely to be sold away from their husbands and relatives.

Plantation slaves typically lived in one-room cabins. Some were substantial, with plank floors raised well above the ground and solid chimneys. but many were as small as ten feet square, with dirt floors and no windows. Slaves often had plots of land where they gardened, although the work had to be done as one recalled "on moonlight night and on a Sautrday evening".

half the Southern slaves worked for small farmers, who lived in houses only slightly more impressive than the slave cabins on large plantations. white women on small Southern farms worked exceedingly hard, and when a farmer became prosperous enough to acquire a slave, his first purchase was often a woman to help his wife. "That sure was hard living there" recalled Mary Lindsey, who was the only slave of a poor blacksmith "I have to get up at three o'clock somtimes so I have time to water the horses and slop the hogs and feed the chikcens and milk the cows and then get back to the house and get the breakfast." A former slave in Nashville whose master hired her out to a working-class family said that she was required "to nurse, cook, chop in the fields, chp wood, bring water, wash, iron, and in general just do everything." She was six years old at the time.


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