By Tracy Revels, Ph.D
Susan Bradford lived on a plantation near Tallahassee during the Civil War. She knew hardship and sacrifice, she lost family members and she worked for the Confederate cause. At the end of the war, she married an impoverished soldier and began a family. When she was elderly she composed Through Some Eventful Years, a sprightly memoir of her youthful experiences. Because she was the only Florida woman to publish her reminiscences, she is frequently used as the sole example of Florida’s women during the Civil War. But Susan Bradford is representative of only a tiny minority; most females in Florida were not privileged plantation belles, but farmwomen and slaves. The women of the state were Confederates, but they were also Unionists, collaborationists, and neutral observers. Heroines, cowards, and women who merely wished to be left alone all mingled in a state that knew virtually every aspect of the war, including invasion, occupation, and deprivation.
The 1860 census found a total of 67,494 women in Florida: 36, 619 white females, 30,397 slave women, and 478 free women of color. This compared to 72,930 men: 41,128 white males, 31,348 slaves, and 454 free men of color. For the vast majority of women, white and black, life was defined by unceasing toil, whether in the fields or in their homes. Slave women were generally expected to do the same type of labor as slave men: plowing, chopping wood, and picking cotton, as well as performing their traditional gendered work of cooking, cleaning, and caring for children. Free black women found employment in occupations considered distasteful, such as doing laundry, and lived under complex legal restrictions that made them second-class citizens. Most white women were members of the “Cracker” class, the ordinary farmers known for their independence and fierce spirit. Cracker women tended gardens, raised large families, bargained at local markets, and filled the pews of clapboard churches. Very few women lived on plantations or in towns, but those elite women who enjoyed the benefits of wealth, education, and social connections were fond of writing letters and keeping journals. Because of this, historians know far more about the lives of Susan Bradford and her class than they do of the lives of illiterate slave and Cracker women. But even elite ladies who wore fashionable hoop skirts did not escape the work of mothering children and supervising household slaves.
As the war began, Florida’s Confederate women went to work for their cause. They would spend countless hours rolling bandages, making flags, and packing boxes with everything from soap to cooked chickens to Bibles. “Thimble Brigades” formed, marshalling women to sew uniforms and knit socks for the troops. Women also improvised replacements for items that became increasingly hard to find, such as sugar, ink, and coffee. With no formal training as nurses, women helped staff the impromptu military hospitals that formed in most every town and railroad depot. Princess Catherine Murat of Tallahassee took injured soldiers into her home, while other women fed stragglers from both armies. After the clashes at Olustee and Natural Bridge, women were mourners and gawkers, fascinated by the scenes of battle.
“I was young, healthy, and strong,” she later recalled, “and felt that I must do something for the general good.” Mattie English Bunch
Every free woman’s largest job was to take over the role of family provider. Farm wives learned to plow and plantation ladies managed the accounts and made assignments to slaves in the fields. All white women puzzled over the baffling array of taxes and the fluctuating Confederate currency, frequently doing battle with commissary agents determined to seize horses and cattle. Many women helped their weaker comrades. Mattie English Bunch made the rounds of her Liberty County neighborhood, assisting her friends with planting corn, peas, and pumpkins. “I was young, healthy, and strong,” she later recalled, “and felt that I must do something for the general good.”
Women endured separation from their male relatives by staying busy, praying, and focusing on the immediate needs of their families. Fathers sought to be active in their children’s lives even when far apart, sending constant admonishments through their letters, urging their offspring to be obedient, helpful, and scholarly. Increasingly, however, women had to make important decisions independently. While a Union prisoner, William Stockton of Quincy recognized that it was his wife’s job to give their son permission to join the army. He approved the idea but admitted, “I fully rely on your own judgment and patriotism.”
Slave women watched and waited. The active slave grapevine provided them with details of the war. Many were emboldened to commit small acts of rebellion, to wage a kind of psychological guerilla war against their mistresses. Mysterious illnesses struck them, tools were inexplicably broken, and eggs in the henhouse became impossible to find. Some slave women fled to the Union lines with their families, but most were satisfied with finding small ways to make life miserable for their owners, confidant that if white female morale collapsed, a vital foundation of the war would crumble. Free black women, meanwhile, discovered new economic opportunities. Clustered in port cities and close to Union lines, they found that their race and gender were advantageous, and they quickly took advantage of Yankee longing for home cooking and clean laundry. In Fernandina, black women were famous for being cooks and caterers. Most newly freed women sought health care and educational opportunities for their children.
War’s end came as both a shock and a relief to Florida’s women. Approximately 15,000 Florida men had joined the Confederate ranks. Roughly one-third of these men were killed, one-third returned with significant injuries, and one-third emerged relatively unscathed, though assuredly shell-shocked and traumatized by their service. With such a vast percentage of men affected, it was virtually impossible to find a woman in Florida who was not in mourning. Slave and free black women were also affected, as many families had been separated or sold apart during the war. Simply finding their loved ones was the first step in the great reconstruction of their lives.
Across the state, women returned to work to support their families rather than the Confederate cause. In St. Augustine, widows made palmetto trinkets to sell to tourists. In Jacksonville, white and black women took in laundry. In Tallahassee, Ellen Call Long, daughter of a former territorial governor, a woman who managed to be a Confederate in practice if often a Unionist at heart, sold off family heirlooms. Women in Florida had been fortunate to a degree; their state had been a frontier in 1861 and many of them had never enjoyed the luxury of being anything but improvisational to meet their needs. They would continue to endure the hardships of the coming decades with fortitude and even pluck. Like the slave woman who tossed away her crutches and walked off the plantation when emancipation was announced, many white women threw off conventions that had limited their responsibilities and opportunities. While nothing could erase the tragedy of the lives lost, the war opened doors of literal freedom and personal aspiration for Florida’s women.
II. Civil War Women
The Florida Women in Civil War video was produced by Bill Dudley with special guest
Tracy J. Revels, Professor of History, Wofford College.