During the Civil War, Mississippians experienced destruction, deprivation, and defeat. The loss of life was compounded by the moral devastation of men who sought to defend their homeland and failed. In the years immediately following the war, many of Mississippi’s white women sought to ease this emotional suffering by joining the movement to preserve the memory of Confederate veterans, most specifically through their involvement in ladies’ memorial associations. Each 26 April, in towns across the state, these women engaged in a spring ritual of decorating the graves of their fallen heroes with flowers and Confederate flags. Beginning in the 1890s, however, the ways in which women commemorated the Confederacy expanded dramatically.
The Daughters of the Confederacy organized in Mississippi as early as 1893, one year prior to the founding of the general organization. What became the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC), which brought together in one body all southern women’s Confederate organizations, was founded in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1894. UDC affiliate chapters formed almost immediately in Vicksburg, Meridian, and Baldwyn. On 26 April 1897 members of the three chapters met at the Meridian Public Library to create the UDC’s Mississippi Division, making it one of the earliest state branches.
Mississippi women who joined the UDC in the first few decades of its existence continued the tradition of commemorating the Confederacy and its heroes, memorializations that were integral to the regional effort to preserve the values of the Old South that many white southerners believed had made it a superior civilization. Chief among those values was their commitment to the constitutional principle of states’ rights. UDC members sought to honor these values as well as those who had fought for them during the Civil War. This commemorative tradition, known to contemporaries and later historians as the Lost Cause, already included decorating graves and monument building and played a vital part in what historian Charles Reagan Wilson has called the South’s civil religion. Accordingly, the Daughters regarded both the southern past and the Confederate generation as sacred. Like other UDC members throughout the South, Mississippi’s Daughters were also determined to perpetuate what they claimed were Confederate values and the “southern way of life” into the future. They built monuments, founded museums, wrote “true” histories of the war and its aftermath, and monitored textbooks used by children in the public schools. UDC histories rejected any idea that slavery was the cause of the Civil War, celebrated the bravery of Confederates both in battle and on the home front, critiqued Radical Reconstruction as the rule of corrupt northern Republicans and incompetent African Americans, and interpreted the end of Reconstruction as the restoration of legitimate (and all-white) political leadership.
The Mississippi Division grew rapidly, reaching 48 chapters and 1,627 members by 1903 and 65 chapters and 2,347 members two years later. By World War I, the UDC had 124 Mississippi chapters with a membership of almost 4,300. Margaret Kinkhead Thompson, president of Yazoo City’s Jefferson Davis Chapter, credited her chapter’s success to the fact that its “officers [were] women of unusual executive ability.” UDC members in Mississippi, like their sisters across the South, had a strong sense of mission and a quasi-religious zeal: Lizzie George Henderson of Greenwood argued that the organization had grown quickly because God wanted the Daughters to “do great things” for their country.
The organization attracted a variety of women, primarily upper-class, from all regions of the state. Some had experienced the Civil War firsthand, while others grew up in its aftermath, but they were literally daughters of the Confederate generation. Membership required blood descent from “men and women who served honorably in the Army, Navy, or Civil Service of the Confederate States of America, or who gave Material Aid to the Cause” or from former UDC members; however, “No Confederate ancestor who took the Oath of Allegiance before April 9, 1865, shall be eligible to be used for application for membership.”
Mississippi’s women were drawn to the UDC by a set of common goals—honoring the men and women who had made personal sacrifices for the region; controlling how the Civil War was remembered; and most important, ensuring that future generations of southerners continued to respect their Confederate ancestors.
The Mississippi UDC reached its zenith during World War I. The organization continued to exert influence in the state through its activities in the public school system and through the publication of its newsletter, Our Heritage. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the organization’s influence had waned as membership declined to about six hundred. In addition to gathering at an annual statewide convention, many of the state’s twenty-eight chapters continued to host services commemorating Confederate Memorial Day.
- Karen L. Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (2003)
- Gaines M. Foster, Ghosts of the Confederacy: Defeat, the Lost Cause, and the Emergence of the New South, 1865–1913 (1987)
- Caroline E. Janney, Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause (2007)
- Mississippi Division, United Daughters of the Confederacy website, mississippiudc.homestead.com
- Martha H. Swain, Elizabeth Anne Payne, Marjorie Julian Spruill, and Susan Ditto, eds., Mississippi Women: Their Histories, Their Lives (2003)
- United Daughters of the Confederacy website, www.hqudc.org