Hill on Elder, 'Love and Duty: Confederate Widows and the Emotional Politics of Loss'

Angela Esco Elder. Love and Duty: Confederate Widows and the Emotional Politics of Loss. Civil War America Series. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2022. Illustrations. 224 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-6773-7; $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4696-6774-4

Reviewed by Taylor Hill (East Tennessee State University)
Published on H-Nationalism (April, 2023)
Commissioned by Evan C. Rothera (University of Arkansas - Fort Smith)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58435

In Love and Duty: Confederate Widows and the Emotional Politics of Loss, Angela Esco Elder tells the stories of multiple Confederate widows during and after the Civil War. Using letters, scrapbooks, and diaries, Elder examines how these women behaved with their husbands and how they survived without them. Many aspects of widowhood are covered, from political and social relationships to mourning customs. Opening with the nature of courtships before and at the start of wartime, the book moves onto rushed wartime weddings and pregnancies, before ending with chapters on how wives survived the war and how they proceeded afterward without their spouses. Elder’s work navigates widowhood through politics, family life, and societal and religious expectations.

In the introduction, Elder notes that her work offers three takeaways: paying attention to widows "changes the way we think about the Civil War household,” emotions mattered, and widows existed (p. 5). Widowhood altered families and households across the Civil War in unexpected ways. Elder also notes that emotions mattered to widows, even if society expected emotions to be hidden or did not consider them to be serious. In this vein, Elder uses emotion to show how widows reacted to and shaped the world the Civil War made.

Elder rejects the notion that women were incapable of doing anything other than await their husband’s return. While many women undoubtedly longed for their husbands to return, they still had to take care of their home and children and possibly oversee farms and slaves. They often received advice from family and friends through letters on how to grieve, how to take care of their children, and more. The way a widow carried herself in grief is central to this work, and the author analyzed grieving customs, dress, and the reactions of others to the mourning widow. Elder discusses typical mourning periods and appropriate dress, reactions and help from family and friends, and expectations for widows in public settings and in legal or political matters. For example, some grieved too much and some grieved too little, breaking customs by remarrying or dating before the grieving time was over. Families, friends, and the public all had expectations for how widows should behave and frequently gave widows advice and sympathy.

Divided into six chapters, the book examines hasty prewar marriages, the horrors of losing husbands in war, and widow self-care after the war in the rebuilding of the country. In the first chapter, many women whose stories continue through the book are introduced, including Tivie Stephens, who married right after her eighteenth birthday and lost her husband shortly after. Stephens represents many women from prewar society, young and under social scrutiny to hold up womanly values of getting married and starting a family with a respectable man. The rush to get married and do it within society’s expected standards are the key components of the first two chapters. The next contains the manner of death for these husbands and delivery of this news to widows, a difficult task. Also examined here is the notion of closure, which many widows did not receive as they were often not by their husband's side at his death. The fifth chapter moves onto how women acted following their movement into widowhood, some relying on family and friends or even remarrying, though this placed them under scrutiny. To conclude, Elder focuses on the legacy these widows sought to leave. Many felt a duty to continue the legacy of the Confederacy and its cause despite their own great personal losses, though others did not.

Elder’s inclusion of a postwar narrative is significant. As expected, women of higher class and officers’ wives received better treatment both during and following the war due to their husband’s or family’s connections. How these women planned for their futures and even grieved were essentially overseen by the Confederacy during and after the war. Women whose husbands died were used as tools, broadcasting to the Confederacy that a woman sacrificed her husband for a cause so great she herself was still devoted to it. While this is certainly the attitude of some widows, not all remained devoted to the Confederacy after their husband’s death. Women who chose not to continue their support were often shunned by peers and received little sympathy from the Confederate government, even less than that provided to widows who supported the Confederacy. Widows certainly struggled with the idea of remaining devoted to the Confederate cause, with some citing their husband’s efforts as a reason to remain committed, while others felt bitterness at the institution. Many were forced to move in with family all the while petitioning the government for assistance, something women had never done before. The newfound sense of power that women possessed during and after the war enhances Elder’s points on the political notion of loss. Widows were typically either celebrated and used to boost morale or shunned for revoking their involvement.

In conclusion, Elder provides a detailed study of Confederate widows and the effects of war on them. Due to the death of their husbands, they were forced to take on new tasks. Perhaps the best parts of the book come from the departures into individual stories, such as that of Stephens and her long journey from courtship to widowhood. These stories give the work a personal feel. While beneficial to scholars studying Civil War and Confederate women, this book would also intrigue any history lover interested in an in-depth history of the wartime widow. Through six chapters, Love and Duty focuses on different classes of widows to tell their stories of how the war affected them and they in turn affected the war. Elder’s goal of pushing Confederate widows to the forefront to confront politics entangled with emotions is met through covering many aspects of a widow’s everyday life and her navigation without her husband through both the support and scrutiny of society, family, and friends.

Citation: Taylor Hill. Review of Elder, Angela Esco, Love and Duty: Confederate Widows and the Emotional Politics of Loss. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. April, 2023.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58435

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.