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Converse College Professor's Dissertation Wins Award

Dec 08, 2017 09:15AM ● Published by Emily Stevenson

By Makayla Gay


The two minute and eleven seconds of applause congress gave to Navy SEAL widow Carryn Owens in February exhibited the power of emotional politics military widows yield. The indictments or endorsements of military widows have had powerful implications since the Civil War.

Converse College professor Dr. Angela Esco Elder researched this phenomenon for her doctoral dissertation, Married to the Confederacy: The Emotional Politics of Confederate Widowhood. Elder received the Southern Historical Association’s 2017 C. Vann Woodward Award for the best doctoral dissertation in Southern history and the Melvin E. Bradford Prize from the St. George Tucker Society for the best dissertation written on any aspect of the American South. 

Much of historical research done on the Civil War has focused on battles and generals, but there’s been little research on the emotional politics by the wives left at home.

“A lot of times, they were married in this patriotic rush at the beginning of the start of the war and then their husbands die. So part of what I’m trying to accomplish is sharing the stories of these young women and to broaden study of history in the Civil War,” said Elder. 

Women in the 19th century society had a particular role they had to play as defined by their relationships. So, what does a society do when thousands of young women are suddenly single?

“The Confederacy wanted widows to mourn in a particular way,” said Elder.

During the Civil War, there was very strict mourning etiquette. A widow must mourn for two and a half years (as opposed to a widower’s three months). She is not to flirt, she is not to dance, and she must wear long, black veils and dresses.

Despite the social expectations placed on widows, these women utilized their unfortunate situation for political and social benefit.

“If  a woman who lost her husband continued to support the cause, that was a really powerful endorsement. If a widow said enough is enough...that is a powerful indictment against the war,” said Elder.

According to Elder, widows were aware of their social capital. Widows who faced greater economic consequences wrote to their local politicians and generals requesting food, money, or a job in payment for their husband’s sacrifice.

“Their husbands were sacrificed for a cause that lost, which prompts the question: was it worth it?”

Researching the confederacy gave Elder some complicated questions to ask herself.

“I had to wrestle with the fact that many of the confederate widows I researched did own slaves and had someone to do all the cooking, cleaning, and household tasks while they mourned,” said Elder. 

Elder seeks to explore more than just one perspective of the Civil War. She believes that the words of the people should construct history and historians should follow the sources where they lead, “rather than how history was done immediately after the war when historians and writers tried to present a particular view of the south that was politicized. They manipulated info to tell a certain story.” 

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