Expectations of Wives and Widows During the War

Margaret Mitchell’s novel begins, as one would expect, with a description of the main character, Miss Scarlett O’Hara of Clayton County Georgia, daughter of Ellen Robillard O’Hara of Savannah and Gerald O’Hara of Ireland. Accepting, for the moment, that the daughter of a socially and financially well-placed French family would, (or even could) marry an Irish immigrant who had made his fortune with one extraordinarily lucky hand of cards may seem farfetched, but is not outside the realm of possibility.

Out of this union is born Scarlett, the eldest of six children, three of whom were dead. Sixteen in April of 1861, Scarlett has a "magnolia white skin" prized by Southern women and the demure behavior instilled upon them from birth by mammies and Mothers. It becomes obvious almost immediately that Scarlett has no knowledge of politics and no desire to hear of any news of the War. Her mother and sisters also display this apathy. Ladies in 1861 were not encouraged to display any interest in governmental events, as seen in the diary of Anita Dwyer Withers, the wife of a Confederate Lieutenant Colonel. Her entries throughout the war show interest for her husbands well being, but display little knowledge of any specific battles except Fredericksburg, Vicksburg and the evacuation of Richmond, where her husband was stationed.

The social niceties of the Ms. Mitchell’s infamous barbecue six are also supported by Mrs. Withers diary. She notes various parties and dances in 1861, as well as calls made and received. In her writings she always referred to her husband as "Captain," (despite his promotion in 1862 to Lieutenant Colonel) and her friend are afforded equal respect with all the ladies addresses as Mrs. All the gentlemen are called by their military rank.

During the barbecue, the gentlemen in attendance get the news of the firing of Fort Sumner. A rush of weddings soon followed as young men and women hurried into marriages before the heavy fighting began. (A similar event occurred just prior to World War II as marriages were hastily planned and entered, perhaps in anticipation of the lonely days to come.) Scarlett married two weeks after hearing the news at the barbecue, only to lose her husband two months later to the disease that ran so rampant in military camps. Statistics show that for every one soldier killed in battle, two died of disease. The close proximity of the soldiers aided the spreading and increased the fatality of many childhood diseases like measles. Dysentery, diarrhea, typhoid and malaria were the most deadly of the diseases and were caused principally by the elements, insects, infested food and bad water.

Following the death of her husband, Scarlett discovers that she is expecting a child. Subject to the conventions of society, Scarlett carries her child with a minimum of fuss. Pregnancy, while difficult even today, was rarely discussed in the 1860’s and not outside the closest of friends. Women never went out during their "confinement," the period at the end of their pregnancy when it became apparent that they were obviously expecting a child. They stayed at home and received no callers except family and a few close friends. The young Mrs. Withers, whose diary is referenced above, does not mention her pregnancy in 1861 until she writes briefly of an illness and a miscarriage. When she becomes pregnant a year later, she again fails to write a word until her child is born. She does not mention morning sickness, doctor’s visits, weight gain or the delivery, only saying that she has a beautiful new son. There is no discussion of pain or a difficult recovery, only her delight with the new baby. Further, as it was socially undesirable for a genteel woman to nurse her own child, Mrs. Withers engages a wet nurse/nanny to care for the infant. Scarlett O’Hara does the same upon the birth of her son. Scarlett cares very little for him, leaving the issues of feeding, changing and bathing to his nurse, as did most well-to-do mothers.

After her son is born, she travels to Atlanta to be with her deceased husband’s family. Upon arriving, she sees a fresh and vibrant town teaming with people and productivity. The railroad and yards are busy; the streets are full. The factories are busy producing goods for the Confederacy. In reality, the factories in Atlanta are among the very few in the South. Those items that the factories turn out must supply the entire Confederate Army- a huge task for such a small city.

Almost immediately upon arriving in Atlanta, Scarlett gets into a great deal of trouble when she, accompanied by her aunt and sister-in-law, attend a bazaar to raise money for the Confederacy. According to the Rules of Society, a widow does not appear at a social function for many years after the death of her husband. She is to wait at least five years before she wears clothes that are not black. Any amount of time over and above those five years that she spends in mourning serve to advise others of her devotion to her husband. For Scarlett to appear at an event with her husband only dead a year was scandalous in the extreme. That she danced ( and particularly that she danced with the unsavory Rhett Butler) would normally have socially ostracized her had it not been for the War. The Rules were often bent while the men were at war. Scarlett manages to extricate herself for her difficulties by explaining that she was doing it for "The Cause." Even the most hard nosed of conservatives gave way. Given the change and the necessities of war, the incident blows over fairly quickly. Later, during the Reconstruction she appalls the women even more when she runs a sawmill and is seen in town in an advanced state of pregnancy.

The Rules of Society were strict for women everywhere in the nineteenth century. With the onset of the Victorian Age, a period of repressed sexuality and rigidly defined codes of conduct, women were forced to live by the highest of moral standards. Every word, every action was subject to examination by ones peers. A damaged reputation was difficult if not impossible to repair. The most minor of indiscretions made one "fast" and disgraced her entire family. Duels were fought over imagined breaches of honor. No lady was without escort- even married women seldom went out alone. Their husbands often left them at home while they traveled on business or on news of a loved one in danger, but even in those times, when she was alone, she did not go shopping or to make calls without a friend or relative to accompany her. For instance, in the diary of Julia Fisher, her husband often left her to try to find word of their sons, both of whom were fighting for the Confederacy. During those visits, Mrs. Fisher did not make alls on her neighbors. She received callers almost every day, but she does not write of a single instance where she calls on someone. The previously mentioned Mrs. Withers went to stay with relatives or friends when her husband was called away.

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