Laura Edwards’ Civil War Stories

For the Duke historian, the real drama of the Civil War lies in stories of ordinary men and women.

Scarlett O’Hara of “Gone with the Wind” is hardly typical of Southern women of the Civil War era, says Edwards. Homes of the wealthy weren’t like Tara, either. Edwards takes the viewer through one such home, Duke Homestead.

A century and a half after the Civil War’s end, symbols such as the Confederate battle flag still stir passions, as recent events have shown.

Yet people on both sides of the issue miss a key point about the flag, says Laura Edwards, Peabody Family Professor of History at Duke.

“The heritage of the South is much more interesting and diverse than that symbol suggests. The Confederacy and the South were not one and the same. African Americans fought for the Union, and every Southern state had a regiment of white Unionists except South Carolina.”

In her view, Civil War history should go beyond battles, generals and statesmen. In her own work, Edwards aims for a more nuanced, inclusive picture of Southern history by including stories of ordinary men and women.

Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

Southern women are a key focus of Edwards’ scholarship. And the Civil War women she studies look nothing like Scarlett O’Hara, the iconic character from Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.”

“If you think about the Scarlett image, it’s all about white women of wealth and privilege,” Edwards says. “Those were just a very few of the women in the South.”

In fact, most 19th-century Southern women were poor. Women, white and black, did double duty — farm work as well as all the domestic labor. In her book “Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era,” Edwards describes white plantation women, but also African-American women such as Aunt Lucy, who took over her former master’s abandoned plantation after the war.

“The war happened in their backyards, on their farms, in their lives.”

She also tells of poor white women such as Sarah Guttery, a white Union sympathizer who lived in Alabama. Guttery, an unwed mother, worked in the fields to earn money and was also supported by her son. When her son died in the war, she was left destitute.

Guttery’s case is particularly bleak. But the war deeply affected all the women whose stories Edwards uncovered.

“The Civil War… happened on Southern soil in the midst of people’s domestic lives and women couldn’t escape that,” Edwards says. “The war happened in their backyards, on their farms, in their lives.”

The Birth of New Rights

Edwards discusses how the Civil War era transformed American law — and why that inspires her.

Edwards takes a populist approach to legal history, too. Her new book, “A Legal History of the Civil War and Reconstruction: A Nation of Rights,” describes how ordinary people helped transform American law from the ground up after the war, as they turned to the courts to remedy wrongs.

These days, Americans often debate questions of rights, as the Supreme Court did recently when it debated, and ultimately confirmed, the right of gay people to marry. We take for granted the underlying notion that U.S. citizens have a broad range of individual rights, and the law should uphold those rights.

But those are relatively new ideas, Edwards says.

In the early 19th century, legal rights covered a very narrow range of issues, primarily property rights, Edwards says. The Bill of Rights, she says, applied only in federal cases — a tiny minority of cases.

“Before the Civil War, people didn’t really talk much about rights,” Edwards says. “The legal system was about adjudicating conflicts, about preserving the peace.”

Domestic violence offers a case in point. Husbands were often brought to court for beating their wives. But they were usually prosecuted for breaching the peace, not for violating an individual woman’s rights.

“Before the Civil War, people didn’t really talk much about rights.”

“It was seen as offending the peace of the community,” Edwards says. “The perpetrator had done violence to the public body.”

Following the war, citizens begin turning to courts to address a wider range of ills, beginning a conversation that continues today, Edwards said.

In fact, Edwards finds the roots of many contemporary conversations in the Civil War era.

Edwards’ fascination with the Civil War dates to her undergraduate years at Northwestern in Chicago. She started off studying the Civil Rights Movement, but as she prowled the stacks seeking clues to the origins of America’s racial strife, she found herself reaching more and more for books about the Civil War and Reconstruction.

“I kept being pulled towards the Civil War volumes,” Edwards says. “All the answers seemed to be back there.”

From Local Citizens to Citizens of a Nation

Before the Civil War, Americans identified more with their towns and states than with their nation. Edwards explains why and how that changed.

Americans’ strong sense of national identity also emerges in the Civil War era, Edwards says. Before then, Americans often identified more strongly with the city or state where they lived and traded. The nation, by contrast, seemed remote and abstract.

“In the early 19th century people would say they’re citizens of Raleigh or New York,” Edwards says. “The Civil War really changes that. People start to imagine their connection to the nation.”.

“The Civil War was a time when people began asking, what does the nation mean to all the people that live in it,” Edwards says. “I think we’re still having that conversation.”

Because of the war, the federal government’s role began changing. Before that time, Edwards says, the U.S. government barely touched most people’s lives, except for the post office and the military.

During and immediately after the war, federal military courts and Freedman’s Bureaus took over many cases that had been handled by local courts, Edwards says.

“What does the nation mean to all the people that live in it?”

Those venues accepted cases that local courts did not, including cases from newly freed slaves, who brought complaints of violence and of civil rights and voting rights violations.

“People start to see that the federal government can do specific things for them,” 
Edwards says. “People start imagining that the federal government can be their ally.”

The farmers, housewives and former slaves who came to court seeking justice are vivid characters in Edwards’ mind. She loves the detective work of piecing together their life trajectories and the drama of their stories. She finds it fascinating to try to understand the 19th-century mind, and that fascination shows in her teaching, which has garnered awards such as a 2010 Howard D. Johnson Award for outstanding undergraduate teaching.

Sometimes she seeks refuge in the present, though. She’s a fan of mysteries, for instance, and of music, a love she shares with her husband, a classical trombone player whom she met long ago in summer music camp.

She also finds delight in something 19th century women would have viewed as utilitarian: sewing. Edwards is an accomplished seamstress. In a recent conversation in her office, she sported crisply tailored pants she had sewn herself.

“People really thought they could set the nation on the right path.”

Mostly, though, Edwards enjoys the characters she meets in Civil War diaries, letters and court records. She admires many of them, too. For instance, she has deep respect for former slaves who, immediately upon being granted freedom, begin pushing for fairness: lobbying for public education for their children, seeking justice in the courts.

“People who had been enslaved for generations — what is the first thing they do?” Edwards says. “They fire off petitions to the federal government, and bring charges in local courts. These are people who wanted to be part of this country.”

For Edwards, it’s encouraging to encounter that optimistic spirit on the heels of a brutal war.

“I find in it this moment of hope,” she says. “People really thought they could set the nation on the right path.

“If people had that (optimism) then, then to me that’s really inspiring for what we can do today.”

“Laura Edwards’ Civil War Stories” is a project of Duke University’s Office of News and Communications. It was reported and written by Alison Jones with videography by Carson Mataxis, design by Jonathan Lee and editing by Keith Lawrence.

It is the third installment in the “Taking Note” series, which features profiles of Duke humanities faculty.

© Duke Today, August 26, 2015