Date of Graduation
Eberly College of Arts and Sciences
Peter S Carmichael
This dissertation analyzes the carefully crafted cultural rituals and social interactions of elite women in Richmond, Virginia in order to understand how those women sought to reaffirm their contested claims to ladyship and impose "proper" social and moral order over an increasingly disordered Confederate capital during the Civil War. As the capital of the Confederacy, Richmond stood for four years as the heart and heartbeat of the Confederate nation and thus as a conspicuous model for southern society. Throughout those four years, Richmond found itself continuously barraged by an influx of soldiers, refugees, prostitutes, scam artists, impoverished soldiers' wives, and both free and enslaved African-Americans who sought shelter, employment, self-betterment, and mere survival. However, with this influx came a rise in vice, crime, and dangerous social unrest. Through forceful projections of their unique class and gender identity, and through both direct and symbolic negotiations with their subordinates and peers for power during house visits, exclusive parlor parties, promenades, theater-going, presidential receptions, "starvation parties," and holiday celebrations, Richmond's "capital elite" (the wives and daughters of politicians, generals, and wealthy civic leaders) sought to reaffirm their threatened cultural authority and stabilize the city's precarious social order during four years of civil war and unprecedented social unrest.;Such rituals provide a fascinating lens into the evolving worldviews, social perceptions, and self-consciousness of the leading ladies of the Confederate capital. In several instances, some of those perceptions of self and social responsibility resulted in charitable aid and patriotic acts that contributed to the physical and emotional health of the Confederacy in valuable ways. Such was especially true during the early part of the war, when the ladies maintained a strong presence in both public and private social settings. However, in other instances, certain worldviews created mental blind spots that prevented the ladies from fully understanding the needs and frustrations of their subordinates. Those blind spots frequently resulted in behavior that ultimately alienated many of the ladies from the very individuals whose deference they so desperately sought to gain. Such alienation, combined with the numerous and mounting stresses that the war continued to place on the civilian population, sewed additional seeds of social unrest and disaffection for the ruling class amongst the public masses. Thus, over the course of the war, the ladies turned increasingly inward and began to place a greater emphasis on more intimate and exclusive social rituals. However, despite such reverses, the leading ladies continued to cling to their rituals with a remarkable perseverance and tenacity of purpose until the very end of the war (and some, even beyond that time), revealing the cherished, influential, and foundation role that such rituals played in the minds, lives, and identities of the female capital elite.;Generally speaking, this valuable portal into these women's minds reveals how individuals have relied on unofficial and often informal social interactions as rituals through which they have sought both to reaffirm their own contested power and to affect broader social change upon society as a whole. Specifically, it brings us ever closer to understanding the complexities of gender roles in the Civil War South, the evolving mental frameworks that governed the lives and actions of this influential group of female actors, the changing power dynamics that shaped social relationships and the functioning of the Confederate capital, and the leading ladies' responses to both the civil and civic wars that engulfed society and transformed their lives from 1861-1865.
Luskey, Ashley Whitehead, ""A Debt of Honor": Elite Women's Rituals of Cultural Authority in the Confederate Capital" (2014). Graduate Theses, Dissertations, and Problem Reports. 6124.