The Ladies’ Memorial Association and the Civil War

By Nancy Gadzuk

Travis John Gilbert, manager of the Lower Cape Fear Historical Society’s Latimer House, spoke at the November 21, 2016 meeting of the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society. Travis talked about the Ladies’ Memorial Association and the role of women during and after the Civil War.

The notion of a so-called “good death” vanished with the realities of the Civil War and that change translated into women’s roles, particularly Southern women’s roles, changing dramatically as well.

While Southern women were supposed to be protected and taken care of, the war presented a new reality.

The unprecedented casualty rate of the Civil War meant that almost everyone was mourning loved ones who died alone and far from home rather than in the comfort of their families’ arms, in an honorable or good death.

In 1865, nearly every family plot in Wilmington’s Oakdale Cemetery had a fresh grave. War beckoned the ladies from their homes and they tried to mitigate the overwhelming death and destruction of war by leading the city’s mourning process.

The Ladies’ Memorial Association formed to take good care of Confederate graves. They held benefits and the 19th century equivalent of bake sales to make money for their efforts. May 8, 1868, marked Wilmington’s first Confederate Memorial Day, held outside Oakdale Cemetery with “graceful flowering offerings.”

By 1872, the Ladies’ Memorial Association had constructed the Confederate Soldiers Mound in Oakdale Cemetery as they shaped Wilmington’s post-war rebirth.

This plaque dedicated to the Confederate dead lies at the base of the mound:

THIS MONUMENT WAS DEDICATED MAY 10, 1872 / TO PERPETUATE DEEDS OF THE BRAVE AND IN GRATEFUL / TRIBUTE TO THE MEMORY OF 550 HONORED UNKNOWN / CONFEDERATE DEAD AT THE BATTLE OF FORT FISHER / WHO LIE BURIED HERE / SPONSORED BY THE LADIES MEMORIAL ASSOCIATION LATER MERGED WITH DAUGHTERS OF THE CONFEDERACY / SELF DENIAL – WORK – PRAYERS – TEARS – HEARTS BLOOD / ENTERED INTO ITS BUILDING

Under the auspices of flowers and community healing, the women of the confederacy became agents of local politics and power. Eventually this new gender strength and consciousness would find its way into the women’s suffrage movement, where these same elements would be crucial.

Self denial. Work. Prayers. Tears. Hearts blood.