Women and Confederate Culture on Monument Avenue

Fitzhugh Brundage and Karen L. Cox, both historians of the Lost Cause, have recently noted the United Daughters of the Confederacy’s central place in the erection of Confederate memorials. The UDC today is keenly aware of its own history, and conscientious of how public attitudes have changed. “Our members,” writes current President-General Patricia Bryson, ”are the ones who, like our statues, have stayed quietly in the background, never engaging in public controversy.” But in today’s larger public dialog about Confederate history, the critical role of women in creating the pantheon of men on Monument Avenue is largely overlooked.

Seeing the women behind Monument Avenue does not distract from contemporary ideas about reconciliation or racially and socially conservative politics. But seeing them also reveals how the politics of memory often diffused itself into everyday culture in the early 20th century and how Confederate symbols, while venerated, also moved into “the background.”

First organized in 1894, the UDC came late to the world of Confederate memory.  Whereas earlier women’s groups had become closely associated with grief, graveyards, and Memorial Days, the UDC attracted younger women with a broad agenda of social and cultural activities.

In the 1890s, women’s clubs proliferated throughout the United States. White and black women joined groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Colonial Dames, the National Association of Colored Women, and hundreds of other clubs devoted to social uplift and civic engagement. The UDC offered a way in Progressive-era America for young Southern white women to earn social capital and engage in charitable work, all in connection with a common desire to honor ancestors, preserve history, and care for veterans.

The UDC hardly lingered in the background. Daughters were keen historians, closely monitoring—and even writing—school textbooks with a Confederate point of view. They raised money to care for elderly Confederate veterans and their families, and for scholarships for their descendants. They raised money for monuments all across the South, and contingents in Richmond built the Confederate Museum and fully participated in fundraising for all of the Confederate statues on Monument Avenue. So skillful as fundraisers did the Daughters prove to be that the Jefferson Davis Memorial Association in Richmond, financially struggling since its inception in 1890, fully turned over their project to the Daughters in 1901.

The Daughters felt a special obligation to Davis. He had not only been the Confederate president, but “he was our martyr. He suffered in his own person the ignominy and the shame our enemies would have made us suffer.” The Daughters referred to Davis’ years of captivity after the Confederate surrender, which they imagined as a Christ-like sacrifice so that their own fathers could go free.

With Richmond’s Janet Randolph in the lead, the UDC solicited, cajoled, and implored southern men and women through letter-writing campaigns, the sale of calendars, and postage seals. When donations fell short, Randolph did not shy from chastisement: “You have not done your duty,” she sternly admonished the United Confederate Veterans in 1902.

The Daughters, in partnership with the Confederate Memorial Literary Society mounted their most impressive fundraising success in 1903 with the two-week long “Confederate Bazaar.”

At Richmond’s Masonic Temple, UDC chapters from around the country set up tables, staged plays and musical concerts, hosted speeches and themed presentations (South Carolina’s table, for instance, had a Japanese theme). Texans sold lace at their table, Tennesseans sold lemon trees, while Louisianans operated a soda fountain. State chapters named their tables after popular novels: North Carolina’s, naturally, was “My Lady Nicotine” and featured a “smoking den” where the Tar Heels sold peanuts in souvenir silk bags.

Children enjoyed “soap-bubble parties” and pony rides while “Professor Brooks, of London, England, the world’s famous illusionist and slight-of-hand artist” entertained families with his renowned “box trick.”

Richmond Times Dispatch, April 16, 1903.

Richmond Times Dispatch, April 16, 1903.

Janet Randolph reported that the Confederate Bazaar cleared $22,013.38 and, divided between the Confederate Memorial Literary Society and the Jefferson Davis Monument Association, set the latter on a firm footing for the 1907 unveiling.

The women who organized the Confederate Bazaar in 1903 realized what historian Karen L. Cox has called Confederate culture, “those ideas and symbols that Lost Cause devotees associated with the former Confederacy.” Those ideas were about the righteousness of the Confederate cause, a hierarchy of race and class, and social and cultural traditionalism, represented by the symbols of monuments, flags, school curriculum, and aged veterans.

Yet, Confederate culture was not always so high profile or monumental. The Confederate Bazaar of 1903 also symbolized how Confederate culture blended into the popular and mundane. For young people, Confederate culture may have just been “in the background” of the atmosphere in which they enjoyed cheekily named tables, sleight-of-hand artists, soap-bubble parties, and other opportunities to engage in the fads of the day.  

Chris Graham3 Comments