Collection reveals postwar attitudes
This collection of Reconstruction-era letters is a welcome addition to the Southern Texts Society
series and to a period of southern history that to date has yielded few personal primary sources, especially when compared to the many published accounts from the antebellum and Civil War periods. Correspondence, of course, implies that people are apart, and during Reconstruction, fewer southern families were separated. Also, fewer southerners after 1865 had the time, energy, and financial resources to write extensively. This volume of selected letters covers a few months in the early 1870s when Francis Dawson, editor of the Charleston News and Courier
, was making every effort to encourage Sarah Morgan to emerge from her depression, write for his newspaper, and most importantly, become his wife. Morgan is known for her published Civil War journal, a standard source for understanding women's experiences during the war. Dawson was British by birth, but he was drawn to the South, to its lifestyle and culture, and even to volunteer and fight for the Confederacy. He then remained in the South and became a successful, fairly liberal-minded newspaper owner and editor. Although the editorial comments focus primarily on Morgan's letters and essays, her writings comprise only a portion of the full collection; most of the correspondence is from Dawson. As editor of this collection, Giselle Roberts, a research associate at La Trobe University in Melbourne, has done an admirable job of creating a context and personal background in her long introductory essay and many explanatory notes. Morgan's letters reveal the thoughts of a privileged, articulate southern woman, but one who had seen her world turned upside down after she lost her father and two brothers in the Civil War. She then had charge of her mother, and the two women resided with Morgan's brother until his wife could no longer tolerate their presence. Morgan thus became a woman at loose ends, seemingly without purpose or marketable skills until Dawson entered her life and offered her paid work. Several of Morgan's essays from the News and Courier
are included here. Predictably, her views on life reflected her class bias and personal situation. But by writing under a pseudonym, Morgan was able to express her feelings openly on such varied topics as Easter fashions, woman's suffrage, widows and widowers, and Whites and Blacks. Yet the newspaper writing caused her much soul searching. While a number of women in the North were taking up their pens to write, Morgan's response to her brief writing career shows that this occupation was less acceptable among the southern elite. Morgan seemed embarrassed that a woman of her standing now had to engage in what she saw as the distasteful task of earning a living. Equally interesting, if not more so than Morgan's letters and essays, is Dawson's extensive correspondence, which reveals a great deal about the man's inner thoughts and perspective. His thoughtful, extremely affectionate letters to Morgan, whom he met through her brother only weeks after his first wife died, reflect an interesting, educated, obviously smitten, and determined man, who was extraordinarily sensitive to Morgan's needs. He expressed constant concern about her situation and fragile health, interspersed with passionate expressions of devotion. Dawson hired Morgan to write for his newspaper in order to move her beyond her depressed state. He came up with the idea and the funds to send Morgan and her mother to the spa at White Springs, Virginia, to provide a much-needed respite and have her write several essays for his paper on life at this upscale retreat. Dawson's written responses to Morgan's dark moods and seeming indifference to his affectionate outpourings reflect an extraordinarily patient and understanding man. As future scholars study more about men's daily lives, Dawson's letters should prove an invaluable source. Readers and scholars interested in the post-Civil War South and in male-female relationships will find these letters both interesting and an important addition to what one hopes will be a growing collection of personal documents from this period of southern history. Sally G. McMillen, Professor of History and Department Chair at Davidson College, is the author of
Motherhood in the Old South; Southern Women: Black and White in the Old South, and
To Raise Up the South: Sunday Schools in Black and White Churches, 1865 - 1915.