A review of David Silkenat’s “Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina” by Angela Esco Elder

Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce,
and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina

By David Silkenat
Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011
$45.00 [Cloth]

Angela Esco Elder (M.A., Georgia) is a doctoral student in history at the University of Georgia in Athens.

Pills stalled their hearts, bullets tore their brains, and knives sliced their wrists when men refused to live another day. Farmers fought and survived the bloodiest war in American history only to return home to pregnant wives, but not by their seed. Other wives came to court battered and beaten, begging for release from their marriages because for their husbands, war was not over. Meanwhile, debt shackled families across the South, clasping white and black North Carolinians alike into a form of economic enslavement in a land supposedly free from slavery. Suicide, divorce, and debt— this was the legacy of the American Civil War and is the topic of David Silkenat’s new book Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, & Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina.

Behind Silkenat’s anecdotes of desperation and death is his argument that “the Civil War forced North Carolinians to reevaluate the meaning of suicide, divorce, and debt and that the nature of this reinterpretation was predicated on race” (2). In addition to exploring the actions of those affected by these social ills, Silkenat also analyzes the ways in which the individuals’ communities responded to their desperate actions. He argues that the Civil War not only had a lasting impact on North Carolina’s social order, but also affected the state’s moral framework. Silkenat’s study traces suicide, divorce, and debt from 1820 to 1905 to expand and complicate our understanding of the psychological impact of the Civil War on North Carolina’s black and white communities. To address these topics, he divides his book into three sections.

In the first section, titled “By His Own Hand: Suicide,” Silkenat investigates the social role and cultural meaning of violence against the self. In the antebellum era, white North Carolinians condemned suicide as a deed that could never be justified. In the years after the Civil War, however, middle and upper class men found themselves infected by a “Self-Slaying Epidemic” and a “Suicide Mania,” which forced the post-war South to not just become more sympathetic to this act, but nearly glorify it as Confederate veterans removed themselves from the world (9). For African American communities, suicide became less acceptable after the war, as it no longer represented a symbol of resistance. Silkenat’s third chapter uses modern psychological theories to discern data patterns, including applications of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a phenomenon known as contagious suicide, a theory that posits that one suicide in a community could inspire a string of additional suicides.

“To Loosen the Bands of Society: Divorce,” is the second section of his book. White religious leaders, politicians, and journalists condemned divorce, as they did suicide, during the antebellum era. The tremendous increase in divorce in the wake of the Civil War forced communities to reconsider how they understood it, concluding that the decision was “personal rather than social” (117). For African Americans, the hardships of slavery demanded a more flexible interpretation of marital relationships, while after the war, divorce gained a greater stigma.

The third and longest section, “Enslaved by Debt: The Culture of Credit and Debt,” consists of four chapters which complete this study. Silkenat traces the Civil War’s unprecedented levels of inflation and subsequent destruction of informal white credit networks of the antebellum period. A new understanding of debt placed the individual above society and led to “a dramatic increase in personal bankruptcies, the rise of female-owned boardinghouses, the growth of new credit granting-institutions, including general stores and pawnshops” (138). Silkenat’s discussion of general store ledgers and female-run boardinghouses provides a fascinating look into a new notion of debt in which financial needs took precedence over cultural prohibitions. For African Americans, sharecropping provided the hope of freedom but also the looming threat of debilitating debt. Silkenat concludes this section with the rise and fall of the Populist movement and its attempts to construct a new credit system that could reduce the burden of debt.

Readers should not close the book at Silkenat’s brief conclusion, but instead turn to his notes and bibliography to observe the work of a dedicated researcher. Silkenat’s arguments are supported by an extensive array of sources, including over 45 newspapers, 70 paper collections, and numerous primary, secondary, and microfilmed sources. Insane asylum records, bankruptcy filings, and divorce petitions add detail to the dark situations this book describes.

Is North Carolina uniquely bloodied by these moral dilemmas or did the Civil War leave this haunted legacy to all states across the South? What of alcoholism, theft, and murder, topics outside the scope of this work? Silkenat’s book invites other historians to step into the shadows of American history and explore the gloomier underside of our past. From here, historians can dig deeper into the realm of emotions history. In this book, Silkenat focused on events that can be verified: either a person does or does not kill themselves, does or does not file for a divorce, does or does not buy something on credit. He thereby avoids the crucial but slippery slope of emotions history by providing a tale of events with little emotional diagnosis. How happiness, frustration, anger, sadness, and other feelings affected the men Silkenat studied is central to understanding their lives, yet it remains under analyzed in this book. Despair is not an event, but rather an emotional response that can and should be historicized. By digging into this graveyard of disregarded and forgotten subjects, Silkenat has unearthed topics that historians have left buried for far too long. With emotions history as a lens, this field will gain even more depth as historians wrestle with the demons that plagued Americans a hundred years ago.

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3 Responses to A review of David Silkenat’s “Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina” by Angela Esco Elder

  1. MCH says:

    Excellent review (as expected), Angela. In light of pills stalling hearts, bullets tearing brains, knives slicing wrists, and all other mentioned forms of gloom and domestic atrocity, I have to say you’re a chip off the old advisory block (and I mean that as the highest possible compliment!). That said, I think I’ll wait out a suitably rainy day to crack the spine on this one…

  2. JHW says:

    I concur with MCH completely. Very well written; in a Berry-esque style but all your own. Very well done!

  3. Angela says:

    Thanks Matt and Trae! Anytime you want to borrow the book, let me know. It’s a dark read, but a good one.

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