Heath Hardage Lee’s Current Reads
One of the best things about being a writer/historian is the guilt-free shopping I get to indulge in for books in my subject area. For the past four years while I wrote my first biography, Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause, I consumed ungodly amounts of books about southern history, southern women’s history, and images of women in nineteenth century art. While I try to buy from independent bookstores and used bookstores as much as possible, I am also on a first name basis with the UPS guy who delivers my weekly Amazon shipments. I typically have at least 15 books perched precariously next to my pillow—and I like to gorge on at least 3 at a time, skipping from one narrative to the next.
My biographical subject, Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis was born in my hometown of Richmond, Virginia, in 1864, and was the youngest daughter of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his second wife, Varina Howell Davis. Winnie was christened the “Daughter of the Confederacy” in 1886, and she quickly became an icon of the Lost Cause. The public role she was forced to play eventually collided with events in private life changing her destiny forever.
During the years I worked on Winnie, I developed a “Top Five” list of books related to women and families in the nineteenth century South and how they coped with life (and death) both during and after the Civil War. Works in this genre are still not numerous. But the quality of these books and of the scholars who write them is astounding.
Harvard President Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War was a game changer for me in terms of understanding how Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln coped not only with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of soldiers under their commands, but also with the deaths of their own children during and after the war. Faust’s examination of the psychology of death, mourning customs and the identification of war dead during this era is both groundbreaking and heartbreaking.
Dr. Carol Berkin is the Presidential Professor of History, Emerita at Baruch College & The Graduate Center, CUNY in New York. I read Berkin’s book Civil War Wives: The Lives & Times of Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis & Julia Dent Grant when it first came out in 2009, and I fell in love with her narrative voice. She so clearly empathizes with the women she writes about and under her pen, these women’s stories flow beautifully.
Dr. Joan E. Cashin, an Associate Professor of History at Ohio State University wrote a meticulously researched 2006 biography of Winnie’s strong-willed mother, Varina Howell Davis entitled: First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War. Cashin paints a compassionate portrait of an opinionated, strong woman decades ahead of her time. She also does an excellent job of describing the marital and familial expectations Southern women were expected to conform to, before, during and after the Civil War.
The 1981 Pulitzer-Prize winning work, Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, (edited by Southern historian C. Vann Woodward, one of the most influential historians of the post-war era,) provides readers with an intimate peek into upper class Southern society during the Civil War. Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut came from a prominent South Carolina family. A child of privilege and wealth, she married James Chesnut, Jr., who became a U.S. Senator for South Carolina and later an aide to Jefferson Davis and a Brigadier General in the Confederate Army. During the war, Mary became one of First Lady Varina Davis’s closest confidantes. Her diary offers the reader a birds-eye view of Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s inner circle as well as a voyeuristic look into his family’s private tragedies.
Finally, Dr. Caroline E. Janney’s 2008 work, Burying the Dead but not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause explains how Southern white women organized almost immediately post Civil War to bring home the remains of the Confederate dead. Janney, an Associate Professor of History at Purdue University, found that Southern LMA’s, or Ladies Memorial Associations were powerful disseminators of Lost Cause mythology; LMA members were also much more effective fundraisers than ex-Confederate male groups would ever be. The LMAs were crucial to the formation and training of women for leadership roles in subsequent women’s organizations such as the UDC and the WCTU.
These books offer the twenty-first century reader a window into nineteenth century views of Southern women and their places in the public and private spheres. The key for me was trying not to judge these women and their choices through a modern lens. I tried to simply empathize with women like Winnie, Varina and Mary as they faced public struggles and private pain caused by the Civil War and its bitter legacy.
Heath Hardage Lee has an M.A. from the University of Virginia and a B.A. from Davidson College. She has worked for Southern history museums such as Stratford Hall, Menokin Plantation, and the Levine Museum of the New South. A native of Richmond Virginia, she now lives in Des Moines, Iowa with her son, daughter and husband. She loves the Iowa State Fair, and the Iowa Summer Writers Workshop, but she misses Parker’s North Carolina BBQ and Sally Bell’s Kitchen caramel cupcakes made in her hometown of Richmond.
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