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Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, $29.95.

The Civil War caused severe upheavals in the lives of millions of Americans. After four years of unprecedented slaughter, no one would be the same again. This was especially true for the women of the slaveholding families in the defeated South.

Drew Gilpin Faust provides an engaging account of the struggles of elite Southern women as their cherished way of life disintegrated. Mothers of Invention draws upon the writings of Confederate women–popular fiction as well as letters and diaries–to paint a picture of cataclysmic social change.

At first, says Faust, women had to contend with feelings of uselessness as their men left for war. They frequently lamented the fact that, as women, they could not fight for the South. Nevertheless, they banded together to do what they could for the war effort. From knitting socks to raising funds, women worked hard to support their men in the field.

Inspired by stories of Florence Nightingale’s efforts in the Crimean War, Southern women also volunteered as nurses. Many nurses were detailed soldiers, whose stint of service in the hospital might be only a few hours. The female volunteers quickly proved to be superior to the often reluctant soldiers.

Faust also examines how the absence of male protectors affected Southern ladies. At the start of the war, many areas were left almost completely bereft of men. Women had to deal with the day-to-day management of their farms and plantations as well as the threat of slave revolts. As the war dragged on, the stress of their new responsibilities took its toll on Southern women.

Mothers of Invention provides a fascinating look into the changes forced upon the women of the South. Faust furnishes numerous examples of the women’s heroism in the face of an invading army, their unstinting efforts on the home front to supply their troops with much-needed provisions, their struggles to manage their properties, and their understandable fears of the unknown as their way of life came tumbling down around them. It is a reminder of just how devastating the war was to the people of the South, both those who fought on the front lines and those who remained behind to tend the home fires.

William J. Watkins, Jr.