Sarah Morgan Dawson: A Unique Case Study in Southern Nationalism

Today, we are pleased to welcome back guest author Ashley Webb.

Mrs. Ridgley posed with the Confederate flag in this photograph, c. 1861-1865. It is much like the one Sarah Dawson would have made and worn in May, 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Mrs. Ridgley posed with the Confederate flag in this photograph, c. 1861-1865. It is much like the one Sarah Dawson would have made and worn in May, 1862. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

As a social historian, I love reading detailed diary entries that capture a single moment in time. Diaries provide an intimate glimpse into an author’s thoughts and feelings, as well as provide an accurate account of day to day happenings.  For many Southern women during the Civil War, keeping a diary was a way to record the hardships of everyday life, and if not as a record, then as a way to pass the time when travel was difficult and social visits were non-existent.   While many women’s diaries focus on the mundane aspects of everyday life, they highlight social status, as well as a woman’s ongoing role with the war.  Many Southern women wrote as a means of defying Union sentiments, as well as a way to reinforce their views quietly when verbalizing their thoughts and opinions had repercussions.  The diary of Sarah Morgan Dawson is no exception to this.

An eloquent yet outspoken 19 year old at the outbreak of the war, her entries create vivid scenes of the tumultuous events that transpired in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  While almost all of her entries illustrate an eye for detail and a knack for storytelling, one passage in particular really stuck with me.  On May 10, 1862, Sarah discussed her patriotism and sense of nationalism in the Confederate States of America as the U.S.S. Brooklyn, a Union sloop, descended upon Baton Rouge after the battle at New Orleans:

Early in the evening, four more gunboats sailed up here. We saw them from the corner, three squares off, crowded with men even up in the riggings. The American flag was flying from every peak. It was received in profound silence, by the hundreds gathered on the banks. I could hardly refrain from a groan. Much as I once loved that flag, I hate it now! I came back and made myself a Confederate flag about five inches long, slipped the staff in my belt, pinned the flag to my shoulder, and walked downtown, to the consternation of women and children, who expected something awful to follow. An old negro cried, “My young missus got her flag flyin’, anyhow!” Nettie made one and hid it in the folds of her dress. But we were the only two who ventured. We went to the State House terrace, and took a good look at the Brooklyn which was crowded with people who took a good look at us, likewise….[i]

Sarah’s loyalty and her willingness to show it is not uncommon at this time in the south. However, Sarah’s fierce determination to show her support for her country met headfirst with her fortitude to uphold Southern ideals, and the following day she writes:

I – I am disgusted with myself. No unusual thing, but I am peculiarly disgusted this time. Last evening, I went to Mrs. Brunot’s, without an idea of going beyond, with my flag flying again. They were all going to the State House, so I went with them; to my great distress, some fifteen or twenty Federal officers were standing on the first terrace, stared at like wild beasts by the curious crowd. I had not expected to meet them, and felt a painful conviction that I was unnecessarily attracting attention, by an unladylike display of defiance, from the crowd gathered there. But what was I to do? I felt humiliated, conspicuous, everything that is painful and disagreeable; but – strike my colors in the face of the enemy? Never! Nettie and Sophie had them, too, but that was no consolation for the shame I suffered by such a display so totally distasteful to me. How I wished myself away, and chafed at my folly, and hated myself for being there, and every one for seeing me. I hope it will be a lesson to me always to remember a lady can gain nothing by such display.[ii]

Acting as a lady and following correct etiquette in any situation was one of the most important ideals an upper class antebellum southern woman could uphold. Sarah’s rebellious nature, utilizing the Confederate States’ flag to show her disfavor for the Union, not only stands out in her dress, but it creates an awkward avoidance of conversation from everyone involved.  Both of these were profusely looked down upon, and are highlighted in various forms in every etiquette book of the time.  Florence Hartley published one such book in 1860, and dedicated an entire introduction to polite conduct.  Hartley wrote, “to be truly a lady, one must carry the principles [of politeness] into every circumstance of life, into the family circle, the most intimate friendship, and never forget to extend the gentle courtesies of life to every one.”[iii]  She continued, “Politeness forbids any display of resentment…. To be truly polite, remember you must be polite at all times, and under all circumstances.”[iv] Sarah’s intentions with her flag started out as an outward illustration of nationalism, thereby defying the conduct of a lady.  While Sarah shows regret for her actions, the following passage describes the disgust with herself in detail:

I was not ashamed of the flag of my country, – I proved that by never attempting to remove it in spite of my mortification, – but I was ashamed of my position; for these are evidently gentlemen, not the Billy Wilson’s crew [6th NY Infantry Regiment] we were threatened with. Fine, noble-looking men they were, showing refinement and gentlemanly bearing in every motion. One cannot help but admire such foes! They set us an example worthy of our imitation, and one we would be benefited by following. They come as visitors without either pretensions to superiority, or the insolence of conquerors; they walk quietly their way, offering no annoyance to the citizens, though they themselves are stared at most unmercifully, and pursued by crowds of ragged little boys, while even men gape at them with open mouths. They prove themselves gentlemen, while many of our citizens have proved themselves boors, and I admire them for their conduct. With a conviction that I had allowed myself to be influenced by bigoted, narrow minded people, in believing them to be unworthy of respect or regard, I came home wonderfully changed in all my newly acquired sentiments, resolved never more to wound their feelings, who were so careful of ours, by such unnecessary display. And I hung my flag on the parlor mantel, there to wave, if it will, in the shades of private life; but to make a show, make me conspicuous and ill at ease, as I was yesterday, – never again ![v]

Sarah’s change in feelings for the Federals is quite unique. The majority of Southern sympathizers did not have the same compassion toward Union officers and soldiers, especially as Union troops continued to push through the south.  Many families were forced to flee their homes or were left starving and penniless as Union troops ransacked and burned cities and plantations on their march south.  Diaries and letters are riddled with accounts of Union atrocities.  Perhaps Sarah realized the weak and unfounded principles on which the war continued, or that the Federals, despite the exaggerations of their character from Southern rumors, were much like the supposed gentlemen of the antebellum South, if not more gentlemanly than those currently surrounding her.

The change in her outlook based on her experience is clarified a few days later, on May 14, 1862:

I was never a Secessionist, for I quietly adopted father’s views on political subjects without meddling with them. But even father went over with his State, and when so many outrages were committed by the fanatical leaders of the North, though he regretted the Union, said, “Fight to the death for our liberty.” I say so, too. I want to fight until we win the cause so many have died for. I don’t believe in Secession, but I do in Liberty. I want the South to conquer, dictate its own terms, and go back to the Union, for I believe that, apart, inevitable ruin awaits both.[vi]

Although Sarah Dawson didn’t necessarily consider herself a ‘secessionist,’ she still had fervent patriotism for the southern states. Her antebellum upbringing and desire to uphold correct etiquette altered her opinions and highlighted the flaws of those around her. Despite her embarrassment and the alteration of her preconceptions, Sarah remained loyal to the Confederate states.  In this, Sarah is unique from other Confederate diarists.  She admits her shortcomings and overcomes prejudices while still being true to herself, her family, and her country.



Dawson, Sarah Morgan. A Confederate Girl’s Diary.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913.


Hartley, Florence. The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness: A Complete Hand Book for the Use of the Lady in Polite Society.  Boston: G.W. Cottrell, 1860.


Mrs. Ridgley Brown. Albumen on card, c. 1861-1865. Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (accessed 5 November 2014)

[i] Dawson, Sarah Morgan, A Confederate Girl’s Diary (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913), 27-28. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

[ii] Ibid., 28-29.

[iii] Hartley, Florence, The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette and Manual of Politeness: A Complete Hand Book for the Use of the Lady in Polite Society, (Boston: G.W. Cottrell, 1860), 4.

[iv] Ibid., 5.

[v] Dawson, 29-30.

[vi] Ibid., 32.

1 Response to Sarah Morgan Dawson: A Unique Case Study in Southern Nationalism

  1. As a teacher of “‘tweens,” I laughed out loud at the comment, “My young missus got her flag flyin’ anyhow!” Does it matter the day or year? Nope–even the best, most gently-reared young missus will fly her flag–and then feel terrible about it! A”young missus” will always lead with her heart.

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