Southern Women & the Civil War: A Chat with Giselle Roberts

Dr Giselle Roberts, with permission.

Dr Giselle Roberts, with permission.

No history of a war is complete if it focuses solely on men. Women’s experiences, at home and on the battlefield, shaped the postbellum world. Women, perhaps more than men, held society together during the war and rebuilt it afterwards.

Giselle Roberts uses diaries and letters to tell documentary stories about women of the American South. She joins us for an interview.

Giselle Roberts is an Honorary Research Associate in American History at La Trobe University (Melbourne, Australia), and co-editor, with Melissa Walker (Converse College), of the Women’s Diaries and Letters of the South series by the University of South Carolina Press.

You can read more about her biography below, or visit her website here. I’ve added some quotes by American women.

You live in Australia, Dr. Roberts. What got you interested in the American Civil War?

I was nineteen when I read the Civil War diary of Sarah Morgan. I discovered it in my local bookshop one Friday afternoon. For weeks I picked up the book, and put it back on the shelf. I was intrigued, but not entirely convinced it was a story for me. Sarah was a young, white, upper-middle-class woman from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her family were slaveholders and she was a loyal Confederate. I wasn’t a historian, and the story didn’t resonate with me as a reader. I hesitated. Then one day, I bought it.

The book was Charles East’s edition of the diary; the first time Morgan’s account had been edited and published in its entirety. I read the first few pages, and I was hooked. I finished the book that weekend.

I was in my first year of an Arts degree, studying Australian politics and reading book after book on the American Civil War. I discovered that La Trobe University’s American history faculty was ranked in the top three in the southern hemisphere, changed my major, and studied under Pulitzer Prize winner Rhys Isaac and acclaimed labor historian, John Salmond. I received my PhD in 2000. I have published three books since then, including the courtship correspondence of Sarah Morgan and Francis Warrington Dawson. After reading Sarah’s Civil War diary, I wanted to know more!

“I only wish that the doctors would let us try and see what we can do!” – Kate Cumming, Confederate nurse

Sarah Morgan

Courtesy of Giselle Roberts.

How is a documentary edition different from a monograph?

Documentary historians edit and annotate primary source material to tell a story. Editors can, and do, work with professional sources such as account books or government documents. Others, like myself, work with first person accounts such as diaries, correspondence, editorials, oral history interviews, speeches, or memoirs. Historians studying the twentieth century have a new frontier at their disposal, including email and blogs. Whatever the source, it’s the editor’s job to provide the narrative structure, the genealogical and historical context, and the interpretive framework to allow the reader to navigate, and appreciate, the story.

“We hear nothing, can listen to nothing; boom, boom goes the cannon all the time. The nervous strain is awful, alone in this darkened room.” – Mary Chestnut, southern diarist during the Civil War

 What kind of books are in the Women’s Diaries and Letters of the South series by the University of South Carolina Press?

The Women’s Diaries and Letters of the South (WDLS) series publishes documentary editions of letters, diaries, memoirs, editorials, and oral history interviews created by women residing in the American South from the colonial era to the present day.

The series has a strong Civil War collection. We have published the diaries and letters of doctors, plantation mistresses, and young women. One of my favorite books in the series is A Northern Woman in the Plantation South: Letters of Tryphena Blanche Holder Fox, 1856-1876. Tryphena was a teacher from Massachusetts who married a doctor from Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. Her correspondence provides a middle-class portrait of life in the South from the late antebellum period through Reconstruction. It is fascinating indeed.

We have also published several books on twentieth-century women, most notably Melissa Walker’s Country Women Cope with Hard Times, a wonderful collection of oral history interviews with women from eastern Tennessee and western South Carolina. As daughters and wives, they milked cows, raised livestock, planted and harvested crops, worked in textile mills, sold butter and eggs, and practiced remarkable resourcefulness.

We have several exciting book projects in production, including an anthology on the Progressive Era featuring the documentary stories of nine remarkable women.

“Oh mother! you northern people know nothing of the horrors of war…” — Tryphena Blanche Holder Fox, teacher from Massachusetts who married a doctor from Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana

Courtesy of Giselle Roberts.

Courtesy of Giselle Roberts.

History, especially, military history, is so often a man’s world. How do women’s diaries and letters contribute to our understanding of Civil War history?

Women’s letters and diaries of the Civil War era mostly provide us with a privileged white view of the home front. In the South, which is my area of specialization, white women wrote about their struggles to maintain domestic life in the face of mounting Confederate defeats, Union occupation, the loss of slaves, and a crippling economy of scarcity.

But it’s not the only view we have: there were women on both sides who were spies, soldiers, and nurses. Some women lived with their husbands in military camps, and wrote home about their experiences.

Documentary stories allow us to peek through a window into the random, messy complexity of human experience in another time and place. It’s wonderful to know what women thought about the war effort and nationalism, but I also find the glimpse into their everyday lives most intriguing.

“A woman is like a tea bag – you never know how strong she is until she gets in hot water.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

What are you researching now?

 At the moment, my research has moved into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Melissa Walker and I are currently editing a book on the Progressive Era. The thing I enjoy most about this period is the documentary diversity. In the nineteenth century, diaries and letters were overwhelmingly written by privileged white women. By the early twentieth century, we find a growing body of material by African American women, for example. Our new book will feature a range of women from different backgrounds, and that is very exciting. We are working with several contributors who have identified some remarkable documentary stories.

“But alas! nothing that I had ever heard or read had given me the faintest idea of the horrors witnessed [in the hospital ward].” – Kate Cumming, Confederate nurse

How often to you make it to the United States?

At least once a year. Since I took up the position as co-editor of the WDLS series, I have travelled annually to South Carolina. I love “talking shop” with Melissa and Alex Moore, our wonderful acquisitions editor at USC Press. Of course, no trip to South Carolina would be complete without some time in Charleston, my favorite city in the United States. The Lowcountry is magical – Charleston, Beaufort, and Bluffton make a delightful road trip. Then there is the food. After a day of exploring, I always look forward to sampling the local dishes such as shrimp and grits, and a slice of coconut cake, of course!

Woman during the Civil War, possibly a nurse.

Woman during the Civil War, possibly a nurse. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, public domain.

What’s your favorite book on the Civil War Era?

There are so many wonderful books! Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by Laura Edwards examines the lives of slaves, free blacks, poor whites, and the white elite, and is a comprehensive introduction for those wanting to learn more about women of the South. Nina Silber’s Daughters of the Union provides a wonderful overview of the different struggles that confronted northern women during the war.

Anne Sarah Rubin’s A Shattered Nation is a brilliant examination of Confederate nationalism, and Stephen Ash’s A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865 is an important book and a joy to read.

My favorite documentary editions include Sarah Morgan’s diary, A Southern Woman of Letters: The Correspondence of Augusta Jane Evans, and Lisa Grunwal’s and Stephen Adler’s epic collection, Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present. To make sense of it all, Kimberly Harrison’s The Rhetoric of Rebel Women examines the ways in which the everyday speech of privileged white southern women contributed to the culture of the Confederate home front. It’s a great book.

And, of course, I am looking forward to PBS’s Mercy Street. Anya Jabour, author of Scarlett’s Sisters, worked as a consultant on the series, so we are assured of its historical accuracy.

“Oh! what a luxury it is to weep…” – Augusta Jane Evans, southern author

Courtesy of Giselle Roberts

Courtesy of Giselle Roberts

Giselle Roberts is author of The Confederate Belle (University of Missouri Press, 2003), and editor of The Correspondence of Sarah Morgan and Francis Warrington Dawson (University of Georgia Press, 2004) and A New Southern Woman: The Correspondence of Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson, 1871-1883 (University of South Carolina Press, 2012).

Her articles on Sarah Morgan Dawson have appeared in Lives Full of Struggle and Triumph: Southern Women, Their Institutions, and Their Communities (University Press of Florida, 2003), and the South Carolina and Louisiana editions of Southern Women Lives and Times (University of Georgia Press, 2010 and 2016).

Giselle Roberts has published over 60 book reviews in scholarly journals including the Journal of American History, Journal of Southern History, Journal of Women’s History, South Carolina Historical Magazine, and Civil War Book Review.

Which women do you admire for the roles they played during a war?

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Poe Toaster: Might a Bavarian Group be Responsible?

The Poe Toaster left cognac and roses

The Poe Toaster left cognac and roses. These were probably left by an imitation toaster. By Midnightdreary (Own work) [GFDL  or CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Mystery of the Poe Toaster

A man wearing a black coat, wide-brimmed hat, and scarf around his face stepped out of Baltimore’s midnight shadows. He passed into Westminster Cemetery, approached Edgar Allan Poe’s grave, and set three red roses and a half-full bottle of cognac at the base, only to vanish into the shadows again. A Baltimore newspaper carried an article about the gifts at the grave, but no one knew who the man was.

That is how the tradition of the Poe Toaster started. Every year since 1949, the mysterious mourner appeared in the post-midnight hours of Edgar Allan Poe’s birthday on January 19 to leave his tribute of cognac and roses. In the 1990s, he left a note to say he would pass the torch, and the following year, a younger man appeared. In 2010, the Poe Toaster stopped coming. There have been imitators, but the curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum had worked out a signal with the real Poe Toaster, a signal that never came. By 2012, the curator declared the tradition dead.


Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar Allan Poe. Public domain.

But the riddle of the Poe Toaster’s identity remains. Some say it was a father and son team. Others suspected an author who died in 2010. One Poe historian claimed to be the toaster, but the curator found information contradicting his claim.

As far as I know, no one in America has looked to Bavaria for an answer, even though it has sounded a couple of hints as resonant as echoing alphorns. One group, the Guglmänner (hooded men), well known in Bavaria but less so in the United States, posted interesting comments on its Facebook page. One is in German and the other in English, but they are slightly different.

Der Poe Toaster ein Guglmann?Edgar Allen Poe prägte bekanntlich die Geisteswelt Ludwig II. Er sei “einer der größten…

Posted by Guglmänner on Wednesday, June 22, 2011

As the bavarian King Ludwig II. was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, the mysterious “Poe Toaster” seems to be similar to Ludwig…

Posted by Guglmänner on Sunday, June 26, 2011


The title of the German post asks if the Poe Toaster was a Guglmann. The post mentions King Ludwig’s admiration for Poe and points out two similarities: Both the Guglmänner and the Poe Toaster pay respects to the dead dressed in black. If the Poe Toaster wasn’t a Guglmann himself, the English post suggests, it might have been a Guglmann imitator.

Are the Guglmänner trying to give the Americans a hint?

Who are the Guglmänner?

The Guglmänner post at the place where Ludwig II died.

Members of the secret society of the Guglmänner pose at the place where King Ludwig II died in Lake Starnberg, near Berg, with torches in their hands and three shields, on which it states, “Es war Mord” (It was murder).
Photo: Sebastian Widmann; courtesy of ddp images.

And why would they care about the Poe Toaster? The answer lies in the group’s history and devotion to King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the builder of fairytale castles and patron of Richard Wagner. It traces its history back to a medieval knighthood tasked with carrying Plague victims to their graves and with a tradition of dressing in black robes and hoods. Guglmänner have participated in funerals of Bavarian monarchs since 1190. They march in front of the casket carrying two crossed torches and shields with the royal coat of arms. Their motto is: Media in vita in morte sumus. “In the midst of life, we are surrounded by death.”

Today the Guglmänner have shifted their focus to clarifying the mysterious circumstances of a King Ludwig’s death, which they believe was murder. They collect evidence about his death, fight for further investigation, and gather, shrouded in black, at his grave and the site of his death, to pay their respects. You can read more about Ludwig’s death here.

King Ludwig was a devoted admirer of Edgar Allan Poe. That hasn’t escaped the Bavarians’ notice. And it could be the key to the Poe Toaster’s motivation.

I would sacrifice my right to my royal crown to have him on earth for a single hour….

Edgar Allan Poe and King Ludwig II

Ludwig II

Ludwig II portrait by Carl Theodor von Piloty, public domain

American author Lew Vanderpoole had an audience with King Ludwig around 1878, in which Ludwig spoke at length about Poe. “To me he was the greatest man ever born,” Vanderpoole reported the king saying. “You will better understand my enthusiasm when I tell you that I would sacrifice my right to my royal crown to have him on earth for a single hour, if in that hour he would unbosom to me those rare and exquisite thoughts and feelings which so manifestly were the major part of his life.”

King Ludwig went on to explain there was “a distinct parallel between Poe’s nature and mine.” A large part of that had to do with their sensitivity and inability to fit in with society.

The Bavarian author Alfons Schweiggert published a book about Poe and King Ludwig in 2008, exploring how Ludwig might have found a kindred spirit in Edgar Allan Poe. Schweiggert lists a surprising number of similarities between the two men.

  • Both were devoted to the arts
  • Both lost their fathers at the age of 18, one to death and the other to rejection
  • Both were accused of being mad
  • Both are symbolized by birds; King Ludwig by the swan and Poe by the raven
  • Both died mysterious, unexplained deaths
  • Both died at age 40

King Ludwig’s reverence for Edgar Allan Poe has pulled Poe into the circle of Ludwig admiration. The Guglmänner have members in the USA. Is it possible that an American member, living too far away from Bavaria to participate in the group’s usual ceremony focused on King Ludwig, decided to focus on the American object of Ludwig’s admiration instead? Or that a King Ludwig fan in America decided to imitate the Guglmänner?

Perhaps the Americans who have puzzled over the Poe Toaster’s identity should take a harder look at Bavaria. In the meantime, the Toaster remains a mystery. And that’s something Edgar Allan Poe would have loved.

The raven symbolizes Poe just as the swan symbolizes King Ludwig.

The raven symbolizes Poe just as the swan symbolizes King Ludwig.

What do you think might have motivated the Poe Toaster?

Literature on point:

Alfons Schweigert, Edgar Allan Poe und König Ludwig II: Anatomie einer Geistesfreundschaft (St. Ottilien, Germany: EOS Verlag, 2008)

Lew Vanderpoole, “King Ludwig of Bavaria: A Personal Reminiscence,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1886) 38:536.

William Wan, “Never More Doubt,” Washington Post (August 18, 2007)

Guglmänner website

Rosemarie Frühauf, “Im Geheimdienst Seiner Majestät: 125. Todestag König Ludwigs II.,” Epoch Times (21 May 2011)

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No-Body Murder Cases: Proof Bristling with Pitfalls

No-body murder cases are the toughest to prosecute.

Blood is a common piece of forensic evidence in a no-body murder case. Photo from Pixabay.

Anatomy of a No-Body Murder Case

This was a prosecutor’s nightmare.

Jessica O’Grady’s made her last cell phone call to her friend Keri Peterson at 11:29 pm on May 10, 2006 in Omaha, Nebraska. The 19-year old was near her boyfriend’s home. At 11:48 pm, she called her boyfriend, and 45 minutes later texted Keri.

No one ever heard from Jessica again.

When Jessica didn’t return home to her roommates and pet cat, her friends consulted with each other and bombarded her cell phones with messages. Jessica never answered. Two days later, Jessica’s aunt checked in with Jessica’s mother, who had no explanation for the girl’s disappearance. Jessica’s uncle called the police. Concern mounted when she failed to show up for work, pick up her paycheck, and didn’t show for a softball game.

In the course of questioning all the people who’d recently been in contact with Jessica, the police paid a visit to the boyfriend. He allowed them to search his bedroom, and when the police flipped his mattress over, they found it drenched with damp blood. There was so much blood the police were certain someone had either died or was in critical medical condition. Luminol showed blood splatters around the room. Further examination showed the boyfriend had tried to cover them up with white paint. DNA testing later proved it was Jessica’s blood in the mattress and splattered around the room. And the boyfriend’s browsing history showed he was studying human arteries the day before Jessica disappeared.

The boyfriend, Chris Edwards, never admitted to doing anything to Jessica. He insisted the blood had a simple explanation: Jessica had her period. You can view a photo of the mattress by clicking here and scrolling down to March 28, 2008.

What do you think? Crime or natural causes?

But where was Jessica? Intensive search efforts failed to recover a body and Edwards remained tight-lipped. Identification of a murder weapon was uncertain.

The prosecutor had a tough decision to make. A no-body murder case is the hardest to prove. And the prosecutor has only one chance. The constitutional double jeopardy clause protects defendants from being tried more than once for the same crime, even if a body is found later. For that reason, many prosecutors prefer to wait for the discovery of a body.

Jessica’s case was once of those rare instances in which a prosecutor went forward with a no-body murder prosecution and secured a conviction. John Ferak’s recent book, Body of Proof, provides excellent background into Jessica’s case if you want to read more. The case became more complicated after the conviction because a detective was convicted of planting evidence in other cases.

Expert testimony can be crucial in a no-body murder case.

Expert testimony can be crucial. Photo from Pixabay.

Trying No-Body Murder Cases

I still remember learning about no-body murder cases in law school. The hard part is proving someone died without a body. A killing is an element of the crime of murder, and the best way to prove a killing is with a dead body. Without the body, there is always a chance the victim could turn up somewhere, alive.

Blood – lots of it – is the usual cornerstone of proof in a no-body murder case, our professor told us. You can couple that with expert medical testimony on how much blood loss would cause a death.

But how do you prove how much blood is in a mattress? Do you have to bore samples throughout the material to see how deep the material is saturated? In Jessica’s case, the defense tried pouring pig’s blood onto the same type of mattress to test how much blood the original mattress had, but getting the blood to saturate in the same pattern and to the same depth is an inexact science.

According to a new book on prosecuting no body murder cases, most evidence of the death fall into one or more of three categories: (1) forensic evidence, like blood loss, (2) a confession to a friend who snitches, and (3) confession to the police. And if it can pull together enough evidence, the prosecution often succeeds in obtaining a conviction. Prosecutor and author Ted DiBiase maintains a website listing 444 non-body murder trials in the USA as of June, 2015, and 80% of them were successful.

Abraham Lincoln successfully tried a no-body murder case.

Abraham Lincoln successfully tried a no-body murder case. Photo from Pixabay.

Abraham Lincoln Tried a No-Body Murder Case

Abraham Lincoln was without a doubt the most famous lawyer to have ever tried a no-body murder case. He and two other lawyers represented Archibald and William Taylor. They were charged with murdering another man.

Like Jessica, the victim had disappeared, and despite an intensive search, no body was found. The attorney general interrogated and plied the defendants’ brother for two days, who denied everything. But finally he gave in under pressure and said the defendants had confessed to the murder. He also offered a fourth category of evidence: eye witness testimony. He said he’d seen the defendants with a dead body. The prosecution thought it had an airtight case, even without a body.

But what Lincoln did next not only proved the pitfalls of any no-body murder case, it also showed the danger of an over-enthusiastic police interrogation leading to a false confession. Lincoln found the victim alive. A man named Myers arrived in Springfield, bringing the victim “in full life and proper person.” The victim suffered from amnesia and could not explain why he had left the defendants and disappeared. But dead he was not, and the judge dismissed the case.

Lincoln later published a short story about his no-body murder case, which might have made him the first true crime author in U.S. history. You can read his story here.

If you were sitting on a jury, what kind of evidence would convince you of a murder even if no body had been found?

Literature on point:

Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life, vol. 1 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008)

Tad DiBiase, No-Body Homicide Cases (CRC Press, 2014)

John Ferak, Body of Proof: Tainted Evidence in the Murder of Jessica O’Grady? (Evergreen, CO: Wildblue Press, 2015)

Abraham Lincoln, The Trailor Murder Mystery (public domain)

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