Over the last few weeks I’ve listened to the audio book At the Forefront of Lee’s Invasion by Robert J. Wynstra on my longer drives. I’ve enjoyed all the primary source accounts and the soldier perspectives from the Confederate Second Crops. One thing that’s really standing out to me is the negative comments that Confederate soldiers had about Maryland and Pennsylvania women. Occasionally, they give a reason for their dislike, but most of the time it seems like kind-of random comments about how ugly the women are. Which is not a particularly nice thing to say, but when it’s a consistent theme in common soldiers’ writing it raises the question: why are they saying this?
(Union soldiers call Southern women plain, ugly, or unattractive, too. Maybe one of these days I’ll write a full-cited post about this and look at both sides.)
Finally, I had to pause the audiobook and give this some thought. It didn’t upset me, but it puzzled me. Why seemingly random comments about “ugly women”? Here are a few ideas that I pondered:
- Well, maybe the women actually were unattractive/ugly? This possibility looms rather unlikely, but should be mentioned. However, because the Confederate soldier criticism is wide-spread, it seems doubtful that every woman was actually unattractive.
- Different preferences of beauty? Some of the critical Confederates did compare these northern women to southern women, noting physical differences. The Pennsylvania women tended to taller, broader, more stout or at least more full-figured than the “ideal little Southern woman” that the Confederate critics praised. Perhaps the adjectives came from difference cultural preferences or ideals when it came to female appearance and “beauty.”
- Is it actually ethnic criticism? Many of the comments about ugliness include references to “Dutch women” which was 19th Century slang for German-American. Could there be some vestiges of Anglo-Saxon preference or political Know-Nothingism influencing the remarks about the northern women? In several quoted passage in the book, soldiers actually ranked appearance and intelligence of the “Dutch” farmers and the women below enslaved African Americans, strongly suggesting that there was a racial and/or ethnic component to at least some of the criticism.
- Is the Confederate soldier feeling threatened? Some of the invading soldiers noted that some women of all ages gave angry replies or attempted to verbally intimidate the Confederate soldiers as they stole (or bought with Confederate money) supplies and food. Could it have been an uncomfortable and conscience-pricking experience with an “outspoken” woman that prompted the soldier to respond with a complaint “she’s ugly”? In the modern era, it has been reported that when some men feel threatened they will often respond with a criticism of a woman’s appearance. Could the same thing have been happening in 1863?
- Is it a written tactic to reassure the homefront? Many of the “ugly Northern women” comments are found in letters to wives, sweethearts, or other female family members. Could it be a way that soldiers were intentionally trying to overly assure their relatives that there was no temptation to an affair or be unfaithful to their marriage?
I’m sure there could be other reasons that soldiers wrote about “ugly women,” but these were the five that I thought of rather quickly. Probably each critical soldier had his own reasons or combination of reasons. I suspect much of it was cultural differences and an exaggerated protest about how awful things were in the North, including the beauty and speech of the women.
However, the side of my brain that loves irony wonders how wounded Confederate soldiers left behind after the battle of Gettysburg thought about the “Pennsylvania-Dutch” women who cared for them? Did the “ugly women” suddenly become “angels of mercy”?