A Review of Janney’s “Burying the Dead but not the Past” by Angela Esco Elder

Burying the Dead but not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause by Caroline E. Janney. The University of North Carolina Press, 2008. Paper, ISBN: 9780807872253. $24.95.

“Even if future generations would forget their contributions with the passing of time, the women of the Ladies’ Memorial Associations had been in large part responsible for the making of the Lost Cause” argues Caroline Janney in her well-titled book Burying the Dead but not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (199).  Now available in paperback, this book restores middle and upper class members of Ladies Memorial Associations to “the historical narrative by exploring their role as the creators and purveyors of Confederate tradition in the post-Civil War South” (2).  Janney focuses on Ladies Memorial Associations in Winchester, Fredericksburg, Petersburg, Lynchburg, and Richmond, Virginia in her study, relying upon an impressive amount of letters, official minutes, scrapbooks, cemetery records, diaries, memoirs, and periodicals as evidence.  Janney explores mourning activities as a political response to Reconstruction, memory-making as an active project, public spectacles as civic participation, and argues that the Lost Cause began immediately after the war.  Confident in her findings, Janney concludes that Ladies Memorial Associations “were responsible for remaking military defeat into a political, social, and cultural victory for the white South” (3).

Janney’s first chapter provides a solid foundation for the book by exploring the wartime experiences of middle and upper class white women.  She contends that these women seized “a more public and political role for themselves” through their Confederate “patriotism in aid societies, hospitals, and cemeteries” (15).  Sewing, nursing, and mourning brought women together physically and emotionally.  As a result, Janney argues that women “saw this war as their war, too” (22).  Well-chosen quotes support the argument and emphasize the passionate response of women to the conflict.  “Our needles are now our weapons,” exclaimed one Virginia lady, a second begged a nurse “to get her a Yankee Skull to keep her toilette trinkets in,” while a third slept beside “a pile of Yankee bones” so that when she opened her eyes each morning, that would be the first thing she saw (17,28).  The war provided a unifying experience which white women would draw from in their later commemoration efforts.

Chapters two through five trace the development of Ladies’ Memorial Associations (LMAs) from 1865 to 1893.  Though the war had concluded, decomposing bodies continued to turn up in fields, roads, and farms in the months that followed Appomattox.  In May of 1865, women in Winchester began to gather the scattered dead and inter them in a single graveyard.  This group of women formed the first LMA, and by the end of 1866, the former-Confederacy contained over seventy similar organizations.  Janney contends that women who “had sewn battle flags, volunteered in hospitals, and snubbed Yankee soldiers” joined LMAs to “continue to express their Confederate patriotism” and “deploy gender in the interest of Confederate politics” (40, 41).  By honoring the soldiers of the Confederate nation, women “claimed a right to mourn their dead” and began “to engage in civic life as never before” (79, 70).  As women, the threat they posed to the US government and southern white patriarchy appeared minimal in the years immediately following the war.  A challenge arose in 1870, however, with the death of Robert E. Lee.  Some “southern white men were not content to simply follow women’s lead” and “competed to control Confederate memory” only to encounter women who “refused to surrender” various memorialization efforts, like the Gettysburg project (106, 107, 132).  As a result, Janney believes LMAs continued to shape public representations of the Confederate past in the renaissance of Confederate memorialization from 1883-1893.

In 1894, the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) began when white women “involved themselves in contemporary political and social issues of their day by celebrating their Confederate (that is white) heritage” (171).  Chapter six focuses on the rise of the UDC as a formal organization.  Janney argues that while LMAs “did not immediately give way to the Daughters,” they ultimately could “not compete with the Daughters’ ever increasing numbers or national organization structure” (167, 194).  The UDC’s appearance as “a more youthful association” appealed to many young white women while LMA members “continued to reminisce about their role in the 1860s” (169, 181).  After six decades of work, LMAs faded away and the UDC would largely replace them in the historical memory.  In the epilogue, Janney concludes that the “LMAs offer historians a complex and mixed legacy” worthy of scholarly attention and further analysis (197).

Despite all the new information presented, curious readers may close this book with new questions about the role of women in memorialization and the creation of the Lost Cause.  For instance, Janney’s research reveals that LMA members “tended not to be widows” and their mourning was “not of a personal nature” but rather “a bereavement for the loss of the Confederacy, for the death of their cause” (57).  She believes the overwhelming participation by women who “did not lose male relatives in the war” supports her assertions that women truly wanted to “venerate the defeated Confederacy” and participate in the South politically (57, 68).  Janney answers many questions in her thorough book, but never explores why women who experienced the actual grief of losing a husband, son, or other male relative chose not to participate in their local LMA’s activities.  Was it too painful to honor a cause that killed a loved one?  Did mothers of dead sons and wives of dead husbands approve of their neighbors’ memorial activities?  Did the members of LMAs feel that they needed to prove their commitment to the cause, since their families remained intact?  After all, members of LMAs could decorate a grave or organize a monument dedication, but at the end of the ceremony, they returned home to their fathers, brothers, and husbands, many of whom “did not serve in the Confederate military” (56).  While this book is a necessary exploration into the political relationship between LMAs and the Lost Cause, it also reveals that there is work to be done on the emotional and political implications of death and memorialization in the postwar South.  Certainly, Burying the Dead but not the Past is an important opening salvo in that broader conversation.

Angela Esco Elder                                                                           University of Georgia

Angela Esco Elder (M.A., Georgia) is a doctoral student in history at the University of Georgia in Athens.  Her research focuses on the lived experience and social capital of Confederate widows.

This entry was posted in 19th Century, Book Reviews, Civil War. Bookmark the permalink.

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