The Southern Belle Tolls

By Hank Burchard (1997, The Washington Post)

WASHINGTON - The myth of "Southern womanhood'' is one of the most enduring legacies of the Civil War. The mothers, sisters and sweethearts Johnny Reb left behind when he marched away have been idealized as being both soft and sweet as cotton candy and tough and scratchy as steel wool.

An earthy and unflinching exhibition at Richmond's Museum of the Confederacy shows the women of the wartime South as hard-pressed human beings who varied from vaporous to valiant to vicious. For every woman who reeled in fainting spells, it notes, there was a host of others who rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Many served as smugglers and spies; quite a few women actually went to war, with an unknown number killed in combat.

Stereotypes take a drubbing in the exhibition, which includes hundreds of home-front artifacts, from slave whips to ersatz soap, and takes up the entire top floor of the museum.

The institution's mission is exploration rather than glorification of Southern history, and while the exhibition is dramatic and touching, it examines the facts with a hard and dry historian's eye. If you want a lot of nonsense about Southern chivalry, go to Gettysburg. [Or to any reenactment. - Jonah ]

White women of antebellum Dixie were even more rigidly confined and defined by notions of class and gender than their Yankee sisters, the exhibit text notes.

A black woman's right to life, much less liberty or the pursuit of happiness, was subordinate to the whim of almost any white person. That slavery was destructive to both races is illuminated by this exchange between an amazingly insensitive and pitifully self-deluding mistress and her servant as Union soldiers approached:

"If they find that trunk or money or silver plate, you'll say it's yours, won't you?'' she asked.

"Mistress, I can't lie over it,'' came the incredulous reply. "You b'ot that silver plate when you sold my three children.''

A WOMAN'S WAR: Southern Women, Civil War, and the Confederate Legacy, through September at the Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, Va. (804) 649-1861.