The rawness of defeat and roots of the Lost Cause–an 1865 letter from a Spotsylvania Woman

From John Hennessy:

We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that the “Lost Cause” was the production of Jubal Early and a cabal of sympathetic historians who followed in his verbose wake. But the roots of the Lost Cause run deeper than that, and extend well into the war itself. I share with you today one of the best early examples–an immediate postwar letter written by Hannah Garlick Rawlings of Spotsylvania. Hannah Rawlings, born in 1837 of  prominent family, was a school marm. Indeed, she spent much of her adult life before her death in 1901 as the matron of the Female Charity School on Caroline Street–a post she assumed after the war. During the war, she served as a governess in Orange County, but kept close tabs on her former neighbors in Spotsylvania–the Holladays, Boggs, and Scotts (click here for a terrific memoir by Bradford Ripley Alden Scott, first of Pine Grove in Stafford and later of Bel Air in Spotsylvania.)  Four months to the day after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Hannah poured forth bitterness, lament, and even a hint of  nostalgia for the war just passed in a letter to her sister Clarissa, in Pennsylvania. Here is the most vivid excerpt.

O, Clarissa! We people of the South have drained the cup of bitterness to the very dregs! Hardships and privations of all kinds the loss of fortune and friends-all these could have been, and were, borne without a murmur for the sake of our country. But now, what is there to comfort us! We have no country, our very name is lost to us and we must be identified with the hated “Yankee.”

When I look back upon the events of the last five months, I sometimes feel as if it could not be reality, and that I have been the victim of some hideous nightmare. From the beginning of Spring, one “unmerciful disaster” after another came upon us till all culminated in the dreadful catastrophe of the 9th of April – the surrender of Lee’s noble army – that army that had contested with the invader almost every foot of ground in our dear old State, and been victorious on a hundred battlefields. Could you have seen some of our soldiers as I saw them after the surrender, it would have wrung your very soul. They seemed almost heart broken. Those who had marched without faltering up to the cannon’s mouth and faced death in its most horrid forms, were now completely unmanned. Tears flowed from “eyes all unused to weep,” and strong men were so overcome by emotion that their trembling lips could scarcely utter a word. I felt as if I could lay my head in the dust and die! For three days after we learned the fate of our devoted army, I don’t think there were a dozen sentences spoken in the family where I was. A stranger would have thought there was a corpse in the house. You cannot understand how we feel about this thing. You have not watched the struggle as we have, and seen the sufferings of those you love and the insolence of the enemy. We had ministered to the wants of our soldiers, nursed them in sickness and cheered them with kind words until we felt a tenderness for the poorest one in the ranks. They were ours. We were proud of them and loved them as the champions of a just cause, and the heroes of many a dauntless deed. God bless them! I hope they may yet grow strong enough to defy those who consider themselves our masters, and to “rise again and fight for their ain countrie.”

I told a gentleman sometime ago that this dead calm oppressed me and that the sound of a cannon would be music to my ears. His reply was, “I wish to heaven I could hear forty thousand burst out at once!”

The feeling here against the North is intense, tho’ smothered. It will never pass away. Mothers will teach their young children to abhor the slayers of their fathers and brothers, they will teach it to them from their earliest infancy. Had I sons, this is the religion that I would inculcate from the time they could lisp: “Fear God, love the South, and live to avenge her!” That is short and easily remembered.

Hannah added a few other interesting tidbits:  I have here in my desk a bundle of “waste paper,” a specimen of which I send you, in the shape of a $100 bill. Keep it as a memento of the Confederacy. By the way, some of our friends speak of papering their walls with it!

And this little commentary on things romantic:  Had I any matrimonial intentions I should certainly confide them to you, but I am accused of being too proud and cold-hearted to care for anyone. The fact is I never had a gentleman to tell me he loved me that I did not feel a wicked disposition to call him a goose. My friends look upon me now, I believe, as a hopeless case. A little more than a year ago nearly every member of my family believed me to be engaged to a gentleman whom they regarded as too eligible a parti to be refused, but now they have given me up as incorrigible. A gentleman told me last summer “he expected I would go into a convent yet, and if I did he hoped I would die the day I got there.” Wasn’t that nice? Do you know where there’s a convenient nunnery? But a truce to nonsense.

The full letter appears in Andrew Buni, ed., “Reconstruction in Orange County, Virginia: A Letter from Hannah G. Rawlins to her Sister Clarissa Lawrence Rawlaings, August 9, 1865,” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 75, No. 4 (October 1967), pp. 459-465.

5 thoughts on “The rawness of defeat and roots of the Lost Cause–an 1865 letter from a Spotsylvania Woman

  1. I’ve found it very informative that as the field of Civil War memory studies has expanded more and more evidence has come to light showing that the women of the South were the true creators of the Lost Cause mythology, starting with this letter, but also with the UDC histories that began to carry the torch for Southern history from the 1880s to the 1920s. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Pingback: Schooling antebellum style « Fredericksburg Remembered

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