Women as Objects in Civil War Art

Richmond Bread RiotIt’s difficult to deny that the image of women in the work of contemporary Civil War artists tells us much more about the individual artist than the reality of women’s lives or the way those lives were transformed during the Civil War.  I pick on Mort Kunstler quite a bit, but his characters beg for analysis and often ridicule.  Such is the case with his most recent offering, “Autograph Seekers of Bel Air.”  One could even go so far as to suggest that in a great deal of the Civil War print culture women don’t even exist outside of the gaze of men or, in this case, fawning over men – usually Confederates.  Historians of the Lost Cause have noted the role that women played in support of the Confederate cause and their admiration for Confederate chieftains such as Jackson, Stuart, and most importantly, Lee.  Of course, while there is a great deal of evidence to support such claims, it also offers a very narrow view of women that obscures class distinctions and the hardships that they faced throughout the conflict.

I recently finished reading Stephanie McCurry’s lead essay in the newly-published collection, Wars Within a War: Controversy and Conflict Over the Civil War (UNC Press, 2009).  McCurry focuses on poor soldiers’ wives who took steps to organize in response to an increasingly encroaching Confederate government which left them with serious food shortages and unprotected from the Federal army and slaves.  In her analysis, McCurry uncovers interstate communication and organization that led to food riots in Richmond and Petersburg, Virginia, Salisbury, North Carolina, Atlanta, Georgia and Mobile, Alabama.  According to McCurry, the extent that the war politicized women involved a renegotiation of their relationship with the state.

McCurry’s essay (part of a larger and much anticipated book project) represents a small piece of a much larger story about women during the Civil War that historians have uncovered over the past few decades.  Much of this literature has redefined what we know about women, their roles, and the consequences of the war on the place of women in the polity.  It would be silly of me to inquire into the absence of these women in contemporary Civil War art.  Most of these images tell us very little about the lives of Southern white women during the war, though they tell us a great deal about how white men today choose to depict them or what they hope their customers (white men) will want to purchase.  And that is their purpose.  They reaffirm an image of women as apolitical and submissive in the presence of men and a world where gender roles have been solidified.  Northern women may have pushed for the suffrage, equal pay, and other anti-discrimination laws, but not white Southern women.  They have always been content to worship and serve at the altar of men.

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28 comments… add one
  • Virginia S. Wood Jan 4, 2012 @ 7:42

    Your link does not connect to “Autograph Seekers of Bel Air”. I did find it, however, on Kunstler’s site, and those simpering females are indeed insulting as hell. I did not know much about Kuntsler, although I have of course run across some of his work in the course of my research, and I thought he had a reputation for historical accuracy. However, reading the text under the various pictures on his website, I see that he is a hopelessly lost Lost Causer.

  • Vicki Jun 23, 2009 @ 5:12

    It can indeed be difficult to dig out the voices of the poorer women of the South. I took on that challenge with “‘A Sacred Charge Upon Our Hands: Assisting the Families of Confederate Soldiers in Texas, 1861-1865,” in _Seventh Star of the Confederacy: Texas in the Civil War_, edited by Kenneth Howell, which came out this spring. I’ve been through both the Governor’s correspondence and the Adjutant General’s here in Texas and found a number of letters and petitions, although not exactly in the same voice that McCurry has found in Georgia and North Carolina. Only occasionally do they speak for themselves in newspapers, but sometimes editors speak for them as do letters to the newspapers from husbands at the front. In Texas, county judges sometimes included descriptions of conditions with their tallies of families needing aid. Ann Raney Coleman, in Lavaca, occasionally held a pistol on ration distributors and a miller to get what she and others needed. “Be assured that it was the women that protected themselves in this war and not the men.” In Woodville the women stripped out government corn depots. They told the agent “it was out of any man’s power to prevent them. They declared that they were starving & would have it.” Another group followed and told him “if I did not sell them corn that they would burst open the doors and take what they wanted & that there was not enough men enough in the County to prevent them & that if they were gentlemen they would not prevent them as no gentleman would prevent starving women & children from helping themselves to government corn when they could not get it elsewhere.”

    Now THAT would make an interesting painting!

    Vicki Betts

  • Kevin Levin Jun 23, 2009 @ 1:11


    But other than I assume you like this print? 🙂 As for Kunstler’s failure to properly capture gazing soldiers, at first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. In fact, for a few moments I actually felt dizzy trying to figure out what was going on.


    “…maybe I better stop right there” also has a sexual connotation. If you are going to take the plunge there is no telling where it stops. 🙂

  • toby Jun 22, 2009 @ 23:27

    I read an essay some years ago about how swords, daggers, etc have phallic symbolism in classical art, while seashells, cups etc are vaginal symbols. A lady kissing a man’s sword ?… well, maybe I better stop right there ….

  • Mannie Gentile Jun 22, 2009 @ 20:20


    Art of this sort makes me shudder.

    If it were the work of a talented ninth-grader I’d praise the ambitious scope of the work, a mythic setting with heroic figures, as well as a high school teacher’s appreciation of this art student going “across the curriculum” to embrace an historical theme.

    For this talented ninth grader I’d then provide some directed critique especially regarding the flawed perspective (simple mechanics, really), as well as the disturbing illusion created by the group of soldiers on the viewer’s left, who seem to “float” slightly above the surface of the canvas. I’d ask the student to trace vanishing points as well as perspective lines to discover that so few of the gazing eyes are actually finding their targets. I’d ask if this bright student has had any opportunities to see and sketch live horses which are quite unlike those lampwork glass figurines that appear in the painting. I’d pose a similar question, with great delicacy, regarding the students familiarity with actual women, as organic forms rather than spun-sugar pieces of confectionary. I’d also question the garish aquamarine of the Candy-Land like river complete with large clusters of rock candy in the foreground. The near spastic brushwork of the foliage on the far left; I’d leave that discussion for another day.

    That’s the conversation I’d have if this were merely the work of a promising ninth-grader.

    Otherwise, yikes!


  • Robert Moore Jun 22, 2009 @ 17:00

    Thanks Kevin. Oh, I agree entirely regarding the image of the woman stitching the flag. I often think that many who seek a connection through the art become distracted by the art. On one hand, there is great-great grandpa who is the common dirt farmer who owns no slaves and joins the Confederate army. Yet, the imagery of the flag-stitching woman is detached from this and reflects several levels above the common dirt farmer. It’s a curious “memory,” as we both know.

    Yes, I need to pick up the book. I’m in the process of catching-up on my readings. I’m about to dive into Plain Folk in a Rich Man’s War: Class and Dissent in Confederate Georgia (David Williams, Teresa Crisp Williams, and David Carlson). Ultimately, before the year is out, I’d like to collect a number of books that focus on dissent.

  • Robert Moore Jun 22, 2009 @ 16:40


    Looks like I need to read McCurry’s essay.

    The image of the bread riot also brings to mind another that I saw this past year, showing a women scorning her husband (a Confederate soldier) for returning home, a deserter. I’ve often seen it written where some Southern women (those who were secesh-leaning, of course) were referred to as worse than some Southern men (in regard to secession spirit). I’ve also seen letters that back-up that thought. Of course, as opposed to the clouded understanding of some that the “idyllic Southern woman” sat in front of a window stitching a Confederate flag (and that said image was representative of the overall spirit of Southern women), Southern women had varying impact on the men and it most certainly wasn’t always for the “Cause.” In fact, it appears that McCurry’s piece urges us to look more carefully at the instances in which Southern women voiced their distrust of the “Cause.” This is the reality of the CW era society in the South.

    Also, noting the effort made by women to organize resistance to the Confederate war effort, I have seen where some Confederate soldiers also took measures and deserted to the home county (the government having “failed” them in reassuring the safety of the families at home) to hide in the hills and hollows to act whenever necessary… no matter the “enemy.” The “enemy” was not always the Union soldier, however, and was sometimes other Confederate soldiers. I know of an incident in Page County where a women was killed by a drunk N.C. Confederate. The woman killed was actually a distant cousin of mine.

    Many realized that being in the Confederate army was not in the best interests of their wives and children at home, and being close to home made it easier to desert and tend to that which was more important. I think the book “More Damning than Slaughter” covers this rather well.

    Robert @ Cenantua’s Blog

    • Kevin Levin Jun 22, 2009 @ 16:52

      Hi Robert,

      The problem with the image of the woman stitching the Confederate flag is that it is much too static. Women may have stitched them, but as an emblematic image it overlooks the challenges that most women faced during the war and presents them as objects that work to satisfy our own need to remember the past in a certain way.

      You definitely need to read the article, though I am looking forward to the book, which is titled, _Confederate Crucible: The Political Transformation of the Civil War South_ and is to be published by Harvard. It’s definitely not an easy argument to make given that these women tended not to keep diaries or other records. That said, what is available seems to have been written in response to the continued encroachments of the Confederate government. Their words directly reflect their discontent and form part of the broader story of the steps they took to address these concerns. Overall, it’s a pretty good collection of essays if you decide to purchase it.

  • Dan Wright Jun 22, 2009 @ 8:31

    I think Kunstler’s work has a cartoon-like quality about it. But I also think he thoroughly understands his market. The Lost Cause/Southern Heritage/neo-Confederate segment of American society wants to remember the CW much as Kunstler depicts it – white males were top of the food chain and everyone else knew their place. They want mythology, not history.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 22, 2009 @ 8:34


      You may be right that we want our Civil War wrapped in mythology rather than history, but I suspect that the attraction to these prints extends way beyond “The Lost Cause/Southern Heritage/neo-Confederate segment of American society.”

  • Timothy Orr Jun 22, 2009 @ 8:02

    For what it’s worth, I’d like to make a quick comment or two about the incident depicted in the Kunstler painting.

    I assume that Kunstler’s painting is depicting an interview that occurred on July 22, 1863, in Front Royal, Virginia. Lee stopped at Bel Air, an opulent mansion owned by William Buck. Two of Buck’s daughters, Lucy and Nellie, came out gushing when they saw Lee ride up, and after playing piano for him, they asked for his autograph. All of this is described in detail in Lucy Buck’s diary, now published as, “Shadows on My Heart.”

    Now, what gets me about Kunstler’s depiction of the Buck sisters is not their apparent fawning over General Lee (which did happen according to Lucy’s own admission), but Kunstler’s intent to soften this moment in history. The previous evening, James Longstreet’s men had raided Bel Air for supplies, taking what they pleased. They even insulted the sisters for not keeping enough slaves to service the farm. (The Bucks’ slaves had run away in January.) Thousands of wounded men–casualties from the recent Battle of Gettysburg–lay strewn about the town of Front Royal. Lee’s men were about to fight another battle at Wapping Heights, one that could have severed them from their supply base at Culpeper. Nothing of this atmosphere of desperation–which would have permeated the moment–is depicted in this scene. The Bucks were not entirely happy with Lee’s men, and I have always guessed that Lee stopped by Bel Air simply to assuage the anger of the Bucks for the inconveniences placed upon them by his suffering army. (Incidentally, the daughters had wanted Longstreet to come by and sign autographs, but he refused.)

    Finally, the incident was creepier than Kunstler depicts. During Lee’s brief stay at Bel Air, Lucy took Lee into the house and offered him a seat on a wide divan. As she commenced to sit elsewhere, at a respectful distance, Lee interjected, “No, not there, but here close to me.” This command surprised Lucy (then twenty-years-old), for she could hardly imagine that the fifty-six-year-old general would be at all interested in her. Lucy snuggled next Lee, and he tried to flirt with her, attempting to hook up Lucy and her sister with some of his young aides, and he made comments such as, “ [don’t] let any of those fine young Yankee officers carry you off.” Lucy was obviously star-struck and she wrote, “Dear old General! how I’ve always admired and loved him[.] . . . What an air of dignity about his every moment.” But, she also admitted that Lee had embarrassed her and her sister and whole interview had passed uncomfortably.

    Now, I’m not a professional artist, but I wonder at times when modern day Civil War painters choose subjects with the unintended (or perhaps intentional) purpose of misinterpreting the historic moment depicted. Lee’s encounter with the Buck sisters at Bel Air was a strange moment for him at best, not an adorable little interview as the peaceful scene implies.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 22, 2009 @ 7:10


    It’s an excellent diary. Enjoy it.

    If you find this interesting you may want to check out Victoria Ott’s _Confederate Daughters: Coming of Age During the Civil War_ (Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), which explores the lives of teenage daughters of slaveholding, secessionist families.

  • Mike Jun 22, 2009 @ 6:41

    I have started reading Sarah Morgan The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman and she is so far a strong, educated opionated young lady. The one I got is edited by Charles East and published by UGA Press. Mort seems to be very Idealistic with his paintings instead of being strictly Historical.

  • Victoria Bynum Jun 22, 2009 @ 2:39

    Will Hickok’s remark that Frank Leslie’s lampooning of southern women rioters also “depicted the enemy’s women as starving, desperate clay-eaters…and in rebellion against the Southern Rebellion,” is right on the mark. That’s exactly what northern presses, in the guise of one G. Norton Galloway, did in 1886 with the literary image of Newt Knight of the “Free State of Jones.” Galloway presented the Knight band as a bunch of “blood-curdling” wild backwoodsmen who had fought against their own Confederate government during the war. Stripped of any semblence of ideology or class consciousness, they simply appear uncivilized. By using such images to ridicule the South’s rebellion, these northern critics turned southern dissenters into the earliest representations of what would become by the twentieth century the iconic hillbilly. Likewise, the female breadrioters depicted in Frank Leslie’s magazine anticipate stereotypes of the rawboned, pipesmoking hillbilly woman of the 20th century. (Anthony Harkin’s book, Hillbilly, provides a great history of this process.)

    Renegade South

  • Victoria Bynum Jun 21, 2009 @ 19:02

    Thank you, Vince Slaugh, for such interesting posts on the representation of women’s clothing, and for drawing on your wife’s expertise for us! I enjoyed it.

    renegade south

  • Will Hickox Jun 21, 2009 @ 18:12

    Vince: I would be hesitant to believe the Kunstler blurb about making sure the uniforms and gear are accurate. (This is a standard statement from film makers and artists, who are usually far more careless about such things than they’re willing to admit.) To my eyes it always looks as though he’s slimmed down a bunch of modern reenactors.

    Personally I think Don Troiani depicts the historical hardware more authentically than any other current artist (he owns an extensive collection of artifacts), but even in his work the glorious, sentimental side of war is all too apparent as opposed to the reality of bloody wounds, etc.

  • Will Hickox Jun 21, 2009 @ 18:02

    Regarding the less-than-flattering depiction of the women in the engraving from Leslie’s, it may also have been inspired by Union soldiers’ disparaging (and sometimes hilarious) descriptions of Southern women in their letters home. I don’t have access to the book now, but I believe many of these characterizations of “silly-looking damsels” (to quote one Federal) are featured in Bell Wiley’s “Life of Billy Yank.”

    Propagandists have always been quick to jump on dissention in the enemy’s ranks, and newspaper illustrations were often propagandistic editorial statements (just look at the subhuman Irish rioters in Harper’s Weekly: http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1863/august/draft-riots.htm ). Maybe Frank Leslie’s saw the Richmond rioters as just another pack of hatchet-faced suffragettes, but they certainly depicted the enemy’s women as starving, desperate clay-eaters…and in rebellion against the Southern Rebellion.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 21, 2009 @ 13:22


    I think even “The Burial of Latane” captures more complexity in women than anything coming out of the print market. Of course, part of it is that Kunstler and others are pretty much hacks. It’s second-rate art – assuming we can describe it as art.


    Seems to me the difference is that in Kunstler women are objects rather than subjects worthy of serious attention. I agree with you that the period paintings do indeed capture a bit more of the complexity. Perhaps it is because they are not in a position of memory, but are or have experienced the war in some manner.

  • Vince Slaugh Jun 21, 2009 @ 12:38

    Here’s an interesting comparison:

    An 1865 painting, “The Consecration, 1861”, by GC Lambdin

    Mort Kunstler’s copy:

    My wife’s interpretation:
    Period paintings of women – even when at the ball – show so much more complexity. The women show emotion, they think, they long for, they envy, etc. In Kunstler’s paintings they are just pretty items that are kissed or held on the arm of a gentleman. They do not contribute as people.

    My interpretation:
    Kunstler makes them into Barbie dolls (look at the faces, for goodness’ sake!).

  • Vince Slaugh Jun 21, 2009 @ 12:30

    Curious about the women’s dresses, I asked my wife–an expert on period clothes trained as a costume designer–what she thought of the painting. Without knowing about this post, her response was essentially, “Yeah, I hate how these painters often put women in pastel-colored dresses. They look so froofy and little girl-like. Although pastel-colored dresses did exist, the artist definitely fails to comprehend the aesthetic of the era. ”

    With as much effort goes into authenticity of uniforms (“he had to make sure that the right equipment and accoutrements are portrayed”–according to MK’s website), it seems to support your assertions about the artist’s gender views that women’s clothes are not authentic to the period but instead froofy and little girl-like.

  • victoria bynum Jun 21, 2009 @ 9:04

    I think it’s a graphic representation of women’s approval as a vital part of male honor. I’m reminded of an 1863 poem printed in the Greesnboro Patriot that proclaimed this about the war:

    Dear woman! Tis for you we fight–
    For you we bravely dare
    The piercing cold–the scorching heat
    The deadly shafts of war.

    Heroic behavior must have its audience and must always be benevolent in its goals. Grateful plantation belles, with their hothouse fragility and pious goodness, supply the perfect image of the beneficence of war and the bravery of men.

    Of course, when you also have farm wives literally starving to death and willing to make public war on local millers and militia, this beautiful image becomes tarnished. Hence the portrayal of rioters as aggressive “mannish” (i.e. out of place) women. In the process, however, as Stephanie McCurry points out in her essay, you have some women slowly beginning to redefine their relationship to the state–not as feminists in this crisis, but as individuals with a citizen’s voice.

    Renegade South

    • Kevin Levin Jun 21, 2009 @ 10:39


      In re: to the first part of your comment I can’t help but think of Stephen Berry’s _All That Makes a Man_ which explores the issue of honor as a motivation in fighting the war.

      The fact that McCurry’s essay is not overdone with a lot of feminist/gender theory is a major advantage in my mind. All too often I can’t help but think that historians who steep their interpretations in gender and cultural categories end up with essays that are top-down in theory and lose sight of the subject. The other problem is that I end up falling asleep. 🙂 No doubt, her focus on lower class women left her with a limited written record (for example, letters to the governor) as well as their actions which place women in the middle of ongoing debates and changing political fault lines. I am definitely looking forward to her book-length treatment.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 21, 2009 @ 7:56


    What I find so interesting (or perhaps disturbing is more like it) is that Lee isn’t the central focus of this print. It’s the two girls who are the viewer’s focus because all of the sex-starved men in the print are staring them down. Or are these men simply admiring the virtue and purity of the Southern belle?

  • victoria bynum Jun 21, 2009 @ 7:05

    Yes, that’s a very important point, Kevin. National assumptions about gender (as well as race) continually hindered the development of an egalitarian abolitionist movement. Also, the North’s antebellum women’s rights movement was viewed by most northerners as a heresy (led by unattractive, angry women, of course!).

    Renegade South

  • Kevin Levin Jun 21, 2009 @ 6:48


    Thanks for chiming in on this one. I would add that we should also keep in mind that the image was published in “Frank Leslie’s Illustrated” which, of course, was a northern publication. The depiction can only work if those same gender assumptions were at work throughout the nation.

  • victoria bynum Jun 21, 2009 @ 6:16

    Interesting post, Kevin. I’m glad you included the famous Richmond Bread Riot graphic, which offers stock stereotypes of women who were not content to “worship and serve at the altar of men.” Of course, the women are portrayed as physically unattractive and angry. “She’s so angry,” is regularly trotted out against women who dare offer critiques of society. “True women” are never “angry,” of course, and we’ve seen both Michelle Obama and Sonia Sotomayor slandered along these lines in the past year.

    Also revealing is the inclusion of the small black child who has seized his own loaf of bread. Particularly in the 19th century, linking female “deviancy” with interracial associations was a standard way to negate the actions of white women who dared challenge conventions of ladyhood.

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