Female Partisans

New Orleans, Nov. 16, 1860

On fine afternoons that week, throngs of strollers promenaded on Canal Street. The thoroughfare, one newspaper reported, “was crowded with an unusually large and brilliant array of the beauty of our city – the stately matrons and lovely damsels of the South. What gave peculiar interest to this grand display of beauty, grace, and elegance, was the exhibition of blue [secessionist] cockades worn on the shoulders of nearly all the ladies who appeared in public. All our ladies are for the South, and for resistance to the aggressions, outrage, and insult of an Abolition dynasty. No man will merit their favor who is not ready to sacrifice everything for that cause.”

Much had changed in recent months in the Crescent City. At the corner of Canal and St. Charles, the promenading citizens passed an imposing statue of Henry Clay – the Great Compromiser, whom many said had single-handedly held the Union together – that had been installed, amid the usual patriotic fanfares, just that past April 12, Clay’s birthday. (Next spring, the first shot fired at Fort Sumter would give the date a new and very different significance.)

All across the South – as in New Orleans – “stately matrons and lovely damsels” seemed more eager than men to split up the nation that Americans had so long struggled to preserve. On an Alabama steamboat, a passenger took an informal poll: in the gentlemen’s cabin, there were still five votes for acquiescing to Lincoln’s election, while the ladies’ cabin was unanimous for disunion. “Secession was born in the hearts of Carolina women,” one Charlestonian went so far as to write in her diary.

On the cover of an 1861 issue of Harper’s Weekly, a “Southern belle” parades through Baltimore in a dress sewn with a Confederate flag.

This outburst of female political fervor took husbands, fathers, and sons by surprise. Below the Mason-Dixon Line, even more than in the rest of the country, women had long been expected to refrain from involving themselves in, or even commenting on, public affairs. But no longer. One young North Carolinian, Catherine Edmondston, described arguing with her Unionist parents and sisters when they expressed their attachment to the American flag. “Who cares for the old striped rag now that the principle it represented is gone?” she wrote bitterly. “It is but an emblem of a past glory.” On the day of Abraham Lincoln’s election, four sisters in Florida wrote a letter to the local newspaper calling for resistance to the “Abolition Emissaries of the North.” Women, they said, could not remain “idle spectators of the passing scenes and excitement,” but should “reserve their crinolines to present to our Southern Politicians who have compromised away the rights of the South.”

Some were yet more militant – even military – in declaring their sympathies. At one all-female high school in Columbia, S.C., students emulated the secessionist militia units called “Minute Men” by forming a company of “Minute Girls.” They turned out en masse for a nighttime rally with the letters “M.G.” emblazoned on the fronts of their dresses.

Even more widespread tokens of secession were the cockades – usually made with blue ribbons – that women stitched together and wore on their clothing or hats: “a token of resistance to abolitionist rule,” as one observer noted. Many, too, pinned them to the coats of husbands and sweethearts who had already begun drilling for battle. A Charlestonian named Mary Walsingham Crean even wrote a song entitled “The Blue Cockade”:

There’s many a gallant laddie who wears a blue cockade,
Will show them what it is to dare the blood of Southern braves!
And God be with the banner of those gallant Southern braves,
They may nobly die as freemen – they can never die as slaves.

Any incongruity in the last line of Crean’s song was apparently unintentional.

Not all secessionist cockades were blue. This red one from North Carolina may represent the color of a local militia regiment’s flag.

Not everyone in the South, let alone the North, was delighted by the sudden incursion of women into American political life. “Woman has not business with such matters,” sniffed Ada Bacot of South Carolina. The Nov. 16 issue of the Philadelphia Inquirer, meanwhile, featured an article headlined “Female Partisans.” “It is with much regret that we have seen, in various papers, notices of the prominent part taken by Southern ladies, as agitators in this (to all true Americans) sad state of affairs,” wrote the anonymous male author. “The Greeks thought it so improper for women to interest themselves in contests and contentions, that they forbade them, under pain of death, to be present at the Olympic Games …. Our ladies, who have so many accomplishments, should distinguish themselves as tender mothers and faithful wives, rather than as furious partisans.”

American women – both Northern and Southern – would end up sacrificing more for “the cause” than anyone could have predicted on that bright afternoon in New Orleans. In the process, however, many would also find new horizons opening up. Even before the first shots of the Civil War were fired, some heard amid the war cries a different call to arms. In another newspaper article that ran on Nov. 16, 1860 – this one in the San Francisco Bulletin – a California woman addressed herself “solely to ladies,” writing: “The opposing questions of Northern and Southern rights naturally suggests to me OUR RIGHTS.”

Sources: Baton Rouge Daily Advocate, Nov. 15, 1860; Leonard Victor Huber, “New Orleans: A Pictorial History”; The Constitution (Washington, D.C.), Nov. 14 and 24, 1860; Anya Jabour, “Scarlett’s Sisters: Young Women in the Old South”; Catherine Edmondston Diary, North Carolina Office of Archives and History; Tracy J. Revels, “Grander in Her Daughters: Florida’s Women in the Civil War”; Richmond Dispatch, Dec. 27, 1860; Frank Moore, “The Rebellion Record: A Diary of American Events”; Drew Gilpin Faust, “Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War”; Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 13 and 16, 1860; Daily Evening Bulletin (San Francisco), Nov. 16, 1860.

Adam Goodheart is the author of the forthcoming book “1861: The Civil War Awakening.” He lives in Washington, D.C., and on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he is the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director of Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.

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Full article and photo: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/11/15/female-partisans/