Lee and Grant: Images of Fatherhood in Victorian America

By Abigail Cocco ’19

Before they were great Civil War generals, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant were fathers. Lee had seven children, three sons and four daughters. Grant was the father of three boys and a single girl. Though they are intended to paint overwhelmingly positive portraits of the two men, their children’s words give us a sense of these two generals as fathers and the ways in which they reflected standard trends in fathering during the Victorian Era.

During this period, the rise of industrialization and capitalism codified gender norms and altered the dynamics of family life. Fathers increasingly worked away from the home as the production of goods shifted from the hands of artisans to the hands of unskilled laborers. Men left the farm for factories, where they completed specialized tasks in the manufacturing process. New ways of producing goods cut costs and made these goods affordable for middle-class Americans. A new middle class ideal emerged, and central to that ideal was a father who could provide these material goods while his wife and children stayed home. The shift in priorities that resulted from the emerging capitalism changed the father’s role within the home. These changes were especially pronounced in the North but also appeared in the South in a more muted version.

U.S. Grant with wife, Julia, and son, Jesse. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.


As more men went to work outside the home, mothers came to occupy the central role in the family. It was during this era that the idea of “separate spheres” for men and women became firmly entrenched in American society. Both Grant’s and Lee’s families followed this typical model of the “ideal” Victorian family: their military service necessitated that their wives be the ones to care for and educate their children. However, while family life typically centered on the mother’s care and moral guidance, fathers continued to serve as the ultimate authority within the household, having the final say in disciplinary matters and teaching their children about morality and virtue.

Lee’s and Grant’s families confirm this generalization of fatherhood, particularly of the father as the disciplinarian. Grant’s wife, Julia, wrote in her memoirs, “Whenever [the children] were inclined to disobey or question my authority, I would ask the General to speak to them.” Robert E. Lee Jr. said that while he could sometimes circumvent his mother, “exact obedience to every mandate of my father was a part of my life and being at the time.” Yet, the means by which a father disciplined his children during this time were reflective of society’s greater emphasis on personal choice over external pressures.

Photo credit: virginiapioneers.net

In early America, the father typically managed his household in an authoritarian style, demanding obedience from both his wife and his children. In the mid-19th century, however, a child’s sense of social responsibility was expected to come from within, rather than from oppressive modes of discipline. According to his son, Frederick, Grant’s “usual method of correction was to show disapproval of our actions of his manner and quiet words.” This, he remarked, “was more effective with us than scolding or whippings would have been. We all felt consternation and distress when he looked with disapproval upon what we had done.” Robert Jr., too, feared the disapproval of his father. He wrote, “I never thought why, but was perfectly sure when he gave an order that it had to be obeyed.” Even when his father was away during his childhood, Young Custis Lee felt the weight of the responsibility to please his father. On most of the occasions when he acted up, he “could be managed by a gentle reminder that his father had left the family in his care.” The way that Grant and Lee disciplined their children is unlike the strict nature of the discipline we associate with them as generals. The disconnect between society’s emphasis on personal choice and the army’s more traditional means of keeping troops in line partially explains why officers in both armies struggled to discipline their men. Many soldiers, particularly volunteers, resisted the army’s erosion of their independence and personal choice. A similar resistance could arise in the home when sons grew older and began to assert their own independence and manhood by challenging the previously unquestioned authority of their fathers.

Though fathers remained the ultimate disciplinarians in the home, their role in the family shifted from an authoritarian one toward a more companionate relationship with their wives and children. Though wives were still subordinate to their husbands, the emergence of two distinct spheres for men and women ensured that husbands and wives would begin to work together as equals in the management of the household. At the same time, the culture’s emphasis on personal choice, as well as the diversification of means of earning wealth, meant that people were more likely to marry for love and attraction rather than to consolidate land holdings or political power. Outward displays of affection and emotion inside the home became a way for fathers to escape the strictness of life outside of it. Familial ties in the Victorian Era were usually rooted not in the authoritarian relationship of the past but in the mutual desire of fathers and their children for love and tenderness. While Lee was “very firm on all proper occasions, his children’s “greatest treat was to get into his bed in the morning and lie close to him, listening while he talked to us in his bright, entertaining way.” According to Frederick, Grant showed affection to his children through actions rather than words. He “bought his children many toys” and “liked to make them paper boats, which he would sail in the gutter after a rainstorm.” These images of Grant and Lee stand in sharp contrast to the ways in which they are typically remembered as firm, martial, masculine men. They remind us that Grant and Lee were not just incredible generals but were also ordinary men forced to make difficult decisions and grapple with the emotional effects of those decisions.

The middle-class ideal was a family in which the father worked to provide for his family and allowed his wife and children to stay at home. Unfortunately, this ideal was not attainable for most families. Working-class fathers had no choice but to send their wives and children to work in factories in usually terrible conditions. The exploitation of children in factories led to calls for reform and the emergence of ideas about the sanctity of childhood. These ideas prompted adults of all classes to take a greater interest in the well-being and education of children. Moral obligation and deep affection demanded that parents involve themselves in their children’s education. Though mothers took primary charge of their children’s education, the Lee and Grant children recall their fathers taking active roles as well. Robert Jr. wrote that on many occasions, his father would help him with difficult arithmetic by going through the problems step-by-step. Frederick Grant recalled fondly the times when Grant would read aloud to his family from classics like Oliver Twist and the works of Charles Dickens. Fathers were also responsible for teaching their children the strict moral code of the Victorian Era, as well values like “purity, honest, truthfulness, and consideration of others,” which Grant, according to his son, taught his children by example. Considering the emphasis on separate spheres for men and women during this time, it is no surprise that fathers’ interactions with their children were colored by perceptions of gender norms. Fathers encouraged their sons to pursue activities associated with masculinity. Both Robert E. Lee Jr. and Frederick Grant confirmed this image of the Victorian Era father. Grant was “so anxious that his boys be strong and manly, and took the greatest interest in our sports and pleasures.” Lee, too, took a great interest in his sons’ physical activities. He monitored their progress in sports like horse riding and swimming. Both men encouraged their sons to uphold values traditionally associated with masculinity from a very early age. Frederick wrote, “My father…would not tolerate timidity in his small boy, and a display of it meant an unhappy hour for him, and me also.”

A father’s relationship with his daughter was often incredibly important in Victorian America. However, as family members negotiated their social and gender roles in a war-torn and increasingly capitalist society, this relationship took on a different dynamic that in had in the past. Fathers were more inclined to treat their daughters as companions, and both increasingly relied on the other for love and affection. In one sense, this relationship was a way for fathers to maintain a sense of stability in a family unit that was increasingly out of their control, though “power over daughters now came less from authority than from paternal love.”

Both Grant and Lee were incredibly close with their daughters. Grant’s only daughter, Nellie, was said to be his favorite child, and Lee referred to his daughter, Mildred, affectionately as “Precious Life.” The relationship between fathers and daughters in the North and South was a familiar constant that served to preserve a sense of the old social order. In the South, these relationships took on political significance. The legitimacy of fathers’ authority over their wives and daughters served to “naturalize subordination” and, therefore, help justify the subordination of African Americans under the slave system. The political significance of the father-daughter relationship in the South perhaps ensured that this relationship would more closely resemble the paternalistic one of previous generations than it would for Northern families. In the North, close and more companionate relationships with strong fathers seemed to produce self-assured daughters who were more willing to strike out on their own. It was sometimes mentioned in the press that Grant’s daughter, Nellie, “was too fond of partying, staying out late and doing other things teenagers are prone to do.” In 1874, Nellie married against Grant’s wishes and moved to England with her husband. While in the past, marriage often meant separation from their fathers, daughters in the Victorian Era maintained strong bonds with their fathers. Nellie communicated with her parents very frequently and sometimes spent summers with them, even after her marriage. She remained extremely close to her father for the rest of his life. Upon learning of the severity of his illness, she rushed to the United States. Grant, though he was dying at that point, met his only daughter at the dock when she arrived.

As typical relationships between fathers and their children evolved, physical proximity became a central element of conceptions of family. The practice of sending children to boarding schools declined, indicating the preference for parental involvement on a more daily basis. In fact, two of Grant’s children, Nellie and Jesse, lasted only a few days in boarding school before returning home. Unfortunately, war threatened families’ abilities to remain physically together. Grant and Lee both longed to be physically close to their families. In 1861, Lee wrote to his daughters, “I wish indeed I could see you, be with you, and never again part from you.” Grant’s wife, Julia, wrote that Grant “wrote me many times, urging me to visit him…which I, at length…decided to do. He desired the children to accompany me.” It is true that Grant often implored his wife to visit him, as long as he determined that the place and time was safe. Frequent letters and visits to camp were just two of the ways that families resisted the separation wrought by war.

In many cases, fathers and sons went off to war at the same time. All three of Lee’s sons served in the Confederate Army, and Lee’s youngest son wrote that whenever he had the opportunity to visit his father, Lee would “talk to me about my mother and sisters, about my horse and myself…I think my presence was very grateful to him, and he seemed to brighten up when I came.” Grant’s son, Frederick, though only twelve years old, accompanied his father on several campaigns. As much as possible, families tried to bridge the separation by keeping each other informed. Lee wrote to his wife, “I have not laid eyes on Rob since I saw him in the battle of Sharpsburg…Custis has seen him and says he is very well, and apparently happy and content.” Lee and Grant exchanged frequent letters with their wives and children, and their families followed their military movements through the newspapers.

As fathers, Lee and Grant were just two examples of shifts in parenting that occurred during the 19th century. Broad societal changes such as the rise of capitalism altered family dynamics and challenged fathers’ total control of their households. In a rapidly changing world, fathers used emotional expression in the home to escape the rigidity of public life and resist the disruption of civil war. Above all, fathers in 19th century America, like Lee and Grant, expressed their love for their wives and children and hoped that it would be returned. Images of Grant and Lee as fathers are valuable because they help us view these two generals, who have been immortalized and so often vilified, as ordinary men. Grant and Lee were imperfect generals and fathers, and they were products of the societies in which they lived.


Block, James, The Crucible of Consent: American Child Rearing and the Forging of Liberal Society, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).

Frank, Stephen, “Rendering Aid and Comfort: Images of Fatherhood in the Letters of Civil War Soldiers from Massachusetts and Michigan,” Journal of Social History, 26 (1) (1992).

Grant, Frederick Dent, Ulysses S. Grant Association Newsletter, April 1869, Accessed at http://www.granthomepage.com/frederick_dent_grant.htm.

Grant, Frederick Dent, Missouri Republican, 1912, Accessed at http://www.granthomepage.com/frederick_dent_grant.htm.

Howe, Lewis, George Washington Custis Lee, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 48(4) (1940) 317-327.

Lee Jr, Robert E. Lee, My Father, General Lee, (New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1960).

McCurry, Stephanie, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Ramold, Steven J., Baring the Iron Hand: Discipline in the Union Army, (Dekalb, Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010).

Rose, Anne C., Victorian America and the Civil War, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).

Stone, Lawrence, “Family Values in a Historical Perspective,” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, Delivered at Harvard University, November 16th and 17th, 1994.

The 2017 Fortenbaugh Lecture: “I’m a Radical Girl”

By Olivia Ortman ’19

In Gettysburg, we celebrate the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address in two ways: the Dedication Day ceremony and the Fortenbaugh Lecture. Every year on November 19, Gettysburg College and the Robert Fortenbaugh family invite a scholar to present their new Civil War research. This year, that scholar was Dr. Thavolia Glymph who presented her lecture titled “I’m a Radical Girl”: Enslaved and Free Black Women Unionists and the Politics of Civil War History. As the title reveals, her lecture revolved around black women unionists and their place in war efforts—a role which has often been overlooked.

Thavolia Glymph
Duke University history professor and 2017 Fortenbaugh Lecture speaker Dr. Thavolia Glymph.

During the Civil War, the title “unionist” was given to Southern women helping the Union cause. These women were accorded favors and gifts from Union soldiers and the government, often being given any aid they required with no expectation of repayment. When the Union soldiers came into town, there were many benefits in being a unionist woman. Unfortunately, black women were excluded from those ranks. Even though black Southern women were contributing to the Union cause, they were not honored with the title of unionist or with the benefits that went along with it. That didn’t stop these women from sacrificing, though, or from forcing their way into American politics.

Towards the beginning of the lecture, Glymph showed a picture of a young African American woman with a small American flag tucked into the waistline of her dress. When the picture first popped up on the screen, it meant very little to me. It was just the picture she had chosen for the cover of her book, probably a photo of one of the women she had talked about as an example of black unionists. I would have completely forgotten this image if it weren’t for the pointed question Glymph posed. Why would a woman who has been dismissed by Northerners, a woman who would have to work extra hours to pay for rations from Union soldiers whom she helps, why would that woman wear the Union flag? Blacks were treated poorly by Union soldiers. Runaway slaves who went to Union troops were often given deserted tents and forced to sleep on the ground, made to pay for food rations and supplies, and in one extreme case, a group of runaway slaves were put on a train and sent to Chattanooga where they were left at the side of the tracks. The American flag was not necessarily a symbol of sympathy for blacks.

Yet, in spite of all those dismissals of blacks by Union supporters, or because of those dismissals, that black woman has stuck an American flag in her dress. By doing this, she asserts her ability to change what that flag stands for. She claims the freedoms that flag promises for herself and forces the Union to reevaluate their ideas of what they should do for blacks. All that black women unionists sacrificed in support of the Union war efforts made it clear that they had as much a right to be a part of the Union as any white person. They refused to be forgotten or pushed aside.

Talking to Dr. Glymph at breakfast the next morning, she explained that she always took her time with her writing because lives were at stake. She was referring to the people she writes about. Their lives and how we remember them are influenced by how she portrays them in her books. Decades after their deaths, she still has the power to guard or take their agency. I cannot speak for those black women unionists, but I think she gave them a platform for their voices to be heard. She brought those women back into our historical consciousness and finally gave them the title they deserved 150 years ago: unionist. 

Confederate Women and Union Soldiers in Sherman’s March to the Sea

frank-1By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Lisa Tendrich Frank, an independent historian, editor, and writer on issues related to the American Civil War and American women.  She received her PhD from the University of Florida and has taught at universities and colleges across the U.S.  Dr. Frank is the author and editor of several books and articles on women’s and American military history, including The Civilian War: Confederate Women and Union Soldiers During Sherman’s March (LSU Press, 2015); The World of the Civil War: A Daily Life Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2015); and “Bedrooms as Battlefields: The Role of Gender Politics in Sherman’s March,” (in Alecia P. Long’s and LeeAnn Whites’s edited collection, Occupied Women: Gender, Military Occupation, and the American Civil War, LSU Press, 2009).  She has also worked as a consultant for various non-profits and as a public lecturer.

CWI:  What was the nature of the interactions between General Sherman’s army and Confederate women during the infamous March to the Sea?

FRANK:  The interactions between Union men and Confederate women were incredibly gendered throughout the march through Georgia and the Carolinas. As a result, physical confrontations were rare. Instead, Union soldiers and Confederate women traded verbal barbs and largely fought over feminine material possessions. Union soldiers frequently entered and ransacked homes occupied by the region’s most privileged women, entered their bedrooms and parlors, and then seized various domestic treasures. Soldiers destroyed and stole an endless list of items that had no military value but instead struck at the heart of femininity and included wedding gowns, lingerie, sheet music, personal diaries, artwork, jewelry, and pianos. Continue reading “Confederate Women and Union Soldiers in Sherman’s March to the Sea”

The Authenticity of Memory: Belle Boyd, Spying, and Skepticism

By Danielle Jones ’18

Hollywood’s Civil War narrative is one that transports its viewers back to the golden age of hoop skirts, mint juleps, and a group of people who just wanted to be left alone with their way of life. Many people trace this ideology of the Civil War  in literature and film to the 1930s, but the for-profit Civil War existed long before Scarlett O’Hara fled Atlanta. During the war, buying your way out of service, scamming your way into a government contract, and selling souvenirs of the aftermath of battles were just a few ways people could make a profit off of the war. In the immediate aftermath of the war, widows suddenly had to find new ways of supporting themselves and their children after the loss of their husbands, fathers, and sons. Belle Boyd was one of these women.

Belle’s story is unique; she had married a Union Naval officer, Lieutenant Sam Hardinge, in England in 1864. She returned to the United States in 1866 and began travelling across the country, telling the story of her experiences during the Civil War. She performed on the stage until her death in 1900 of a heart attack. Her story intrigued audiences across the country because she served as one of the most influential female spies of the Confederacy during the Civil War. But was she? While there is plenty of evidence that supports her claims of being a Confederate spy, including jail records and mentions of her service in letters from various Confederate soldiers and officers, the true extent of her influence has been put under scrutiny.

Belle Boyd was one of the most notable Confederate spies during the war, though the authenticity of her stories has been questioned. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Belle Boyd was one of the most notable Confederate spies during the war, though the authenticity of her stories has been questioned. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “The Authenticity of Memory: Belle Boyd, Spying, and Skepticism”

Remember Harpers Ferry: Masculinity and the 126th New York

By Annika Jensen ’18

“The Harpers Ferry Cowards” is not an enviable nickname, but it is the one with which the 126th New York Infantry was stuck after September 15, 1862, the date that saw the largest capture of United States troops until the Battle of Bataan roughly 70 years later. The regiment, which had been active for a mere 21 days, was stationed on Maryland Heights and had been successful in fending off Joseph Kershaw’s brigade on September 12 and 13, but when the 126th observed their colonel, Eliakim Sherrill, being carried from the field after receiving a wound to the face, a few companies lost all bearings and fled. After the surrender on September 15, the 126th was paroled at Camp Douglas in Chicago until November.

In retrospect, the treatment these New Yorkers received for cowardice and the reputation they bore seems difficult to validate (after all, only about 20% of the regiment fled, while the rest stood their ground), but Civil War era notions of masculinity were far too strict to excuse them; they would remain the Harpers Ferry Cowards until their actions at Cemetery Ridge on July 3 reinforced their honor. An account of the regiment’s experience by Captain Winfield Scott (not to be confused with the Winfield Scott of The Anaconda Plan) during Pickett’s Charge bathes the regiment in golden light: “That cheer struck terror into the heart of the wavering foe, and nerved to desperation and deeds of valor the boys in blue.” Scott’s account is a romantic one, extolling the bravery of the 126th, men who were cowards no more. “Thus officers and men, with perfect composure, and in confidence, formed the line,” he writes; “They poured in a terrible fire upon us. We answered it with another more terrible.”

Monument to the 126th New York Infantry at Ziegler's Grove. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Monument to the 126th New York Infantry at Ziegler’s Grove. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Remember Harpers Ferry: Masculinity and the 126th New York”

Beneath the Mulberry Tree: Sarah Edmonds and Women in Memory

By Annika Jensen ’18

In her memoir Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, Sarah Emma Edmonds, a woman fighting in the Union Army disguised as a man, employed florid diction and a subtle romantic flare to illustrate an emotional and confounding moment in the aftermath of the Battle of Antietam: discovering another woman undercover. Edmonds writes of the “pale, sweet face of a youthful soldier,” of a boy trembling from blood loss who, she knew, had only a few more minutes on earth. He tasted his last sip of water, and with his remaining breaths the soldier beckoned Edmonds closer and uttered a secret: that he was really she, a woman who had enlisted and seen her brother, her only family, die upon the same field just a few hours before. The soldier confessed to being a devout Christian and asked only that she be buried by Emma, so no other might discover her true identity. She then died, “calm and peaceful.” Emma obliged the soldier’s request and buried her beneath a mulberry tree; she would be separated from her fallen comrades but rest upon the same field. Emma wrote of the woman soldier, “There she sleeps in that beautiful forest where the soft southern breezes sigh mournfully through the foliage, and the little birds sing sweetly above her grave.”

Through the lens of gender or feminist criticism, which analyzes the social and political status of women as well as their relationships within and without their gender, this is perhaps the most evocative and compelling anecdote of Edmonds’ memoir; not only is the fallen soldier made a romantic hero by the overwhelming, illustrious language, but the interaction between Edmonds and the unnamed is depicted as one between two women, not two women pretending to be men. Essentially, Emma reverts back to her true gender–her truest self–in this instance, and it is clear that the anonymous soldier found, in choosing to reveal her secret upon her death, solace in her womanhood.

Sarah Emma Edmonds, alias Franklin Thompson, served as a soldier, nurse, and spy in the 2nd Michigan Infantry. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Sarah Emma Edmonds, alias Franklin Thompson, served as a soldier, nurse, and spy in the 2nd Michigan Infantry. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Beneath the Mulberry Tree: Sarah Edmonds and Women in Memory”

Interpreting Race and Gender at Maggie L. Walker NHS

This post is part of a series featuring behind-the-scenes dispatches from our Pohanka Interns on the front lines of history this summer as interpreters, archivists, and preservationists. See here for the introduction to the series.

By Ashley Lookenhouse ‘17

The essence of Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site is to show how Maggie L. Walker shattered gender, racial, and even societal norms and expectations. She was heavily involved in her community by working with the Independent Order of St. Luke, a fraternal organization, for most of her life, and serving as the Right Worthy Grand Secretary-Treasurer of the organization for several years. She also founded a bank, being the first African American woman to do so, started a newspaper, ran a department store, and bought her house with her own money. Presenting a visitor with the fact that Mrs. Walker paid for her home – without the help of her husband who was employed – helps them realize that Maggie Walker was not just some woman who randomly has a National Historic Site dedicated to her.

Lookenhouse 1.jpg

The house, and the neighborhood surrounding the house is used to discuss some of the typical gender norms of the era, such as married women not being able to be teacher and women being limited in the jobs they could hold due to their gender. Her story is long and impressive, ranging from her involvement with St. Luke on both a local and national level, her important work with other local and national organizations such as the NAACP that helped advance racial equality, her connections to other famous African Americans such as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, how hard she worked to support her family and give them nice things, and her struggle with paralysis later in life and how she overcame it. As it grows before them, visitors begin to realize that she did incredible things – things they didn’t realize a woman could do in the early 20th century. However, when visitors see the house they aren’t directly seeing Mrs. Walker the banker or the businesswoman. They are seeing Mrs. Walker the grandmother, the caretaker, and the friend. Continue reading “Interpreting Race and Gender at Maggie L. Walker NHS”

Tactical Insight and Sick Burns from a Woman at War: The Diary of Nadine Turchin

By Ryan Nadeau ’16

On June 27th, 1863, while camped at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Nadine Turchin, wife of Brigadier General John Turchin of the Army of the Cumberland, wrote an irate entry in her journal. “Really, I think that the commanding general should take me as his chief of staff,” she began, “or at least as his personal advisor.” She went on to discuss the movements of her husband’s regiment as they campaigned in the west, criticizing the orders given to him by his superiors that had resulted in several deaths within the regiment and offering her own take on how they should have proceeded. “Oh, uncivilized beasts!” she concluded, in reference to the army’s leaders: “They are dedicated to sacrificing this unfortunate army.”

As I have previously written on this blog, Nadine Turchin was an extraordinary woman. Not only did she follow her husband to war (and by some accounts directly engage in the fighting), but she was highly articulate and possessed an incredible intellect. A multilingual Russian immigrant from an aristocratic background, Nadine was a unique observer of the Union army. She kept a diary while with the army, written primarily in 1863 as a writing exercise so that her mastery of French would not decay. In it, she recorded her frequently scathing thoughts on a variety of topics, including the rights of women, the conduct of the war, and the state of the country. She also used it to record her wartime observations, and it includes accounts of both the Battles of Chickamauga and Chattanooga, written from her point of view during the fighting.

The Battle of Chickamauga, witnessed by Nadine and described in her diary.
The Battle of Chickamauga, depicting the Union army Nadine Turchin believed only knew how to die, and the Union officers she believed to be incompetent. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Continue reading “Tactical Insight and Sick Burns from a Woman at War: The Diary of Nadine Turchin”

Causing Conversation: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation”

By Annika Jensen ’18

Not only did Beyoncé slay in her latest music video, but she got historical. Her single “Formation” touches on feminism, oppression, sexuality, and police brutality, and her video offers a visual representation for the overall theme of African American cultural ownership. It is, of course, an essential message for contemporary discussion, and the formerly-silenced subject is beginning to achieve prevalence in the music industry, but there is something special and bold about Beyoncé’s take on race: by appealing to Civil War memory and forcing viewers to accept the African American struggle for life, freedom, and success, she is shattering perceptions of one of our country’s most popular areas of historical study. What’s more? She’s a woman.

In some scenes, the iconic singer reconnects with her Southern roots by appearing in a Civil War era Southern-style parlor with other women of color, all sporting opulent Victorian clothing. In another, she stands clad in black outside what appears to be a large plantation home and, in an act of rebellion, flips off the camera. These historical allusions certainly create a powerful image of African American social progression, but they also present a more subtle message about the memory of slavery and the Civil War. Beyoncé is denying any attempt to erase her from our history while presenting the complexity of black lives during the Victorian era. She carefully lays out the connotations of black and white, of woman and man, and of power and submission.

Beyoncé gets historical in her latest music video. Photograph via Billboard.com.

Continue reading “Causing Conversation: Civil War Memory in Beyoncé’s “Formation””

Sexual Healing: Nurses, Gender, and Victorian Era Intimacy

By Annika Jensen ’18

In the first episode of the new PBS series Mercy Street, nurse Anne Hastings is seen applying a plaster cast to a wounded soldier’s bare legs before a captivated audience of surgeons and hospital workers. This action seems trivial today, even unquestionable, but as the show progressed and more scenes portrayed this seemingly insignificant concept of touch, of intimacy between a female nurse and her male patients, its true magnitude became apparent.

Sex was not a popular topic of discussion in Civil War Era America; Victorian society shunned intimacy between men and women and regarded intercourse solely as a means of reproducing and building families, a convention that led to the establishment of separate spheres. Women were expected to remain pure and chaste, while men were responsible for fighting off their intrinsic sexual instincts (both of these standards are sexist, of course, but that’s a story for another blog post), and interactions between the genders were meant to be courteous and, frankly, prudish. The publication of The Scarlet Letter in 1850 did not help this case as women became more apprehensive and fearful of the reactions they might receive; no woman wanted to be the subject of public scorn. Continue reading “Sexual Healing: Nurses, Gender, and Victorian Era Intimacy”