H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Women@h-net.msu.edu (December, 1999)
Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease. A Family of Women: The
Carolina Petigrus in Peace and War. Chapel Hill: The
University of North Carolina Press, 1999. xi + 328 pp. Maps,
photos, notes, bibliographical essay, and index. $29.95
(cloth), ISBN 0-8078-2505-0.
Reviewed for H-Women by Sidney Bland , James
Women and the Rise and Fall of the House of Petigru
Jane H. and William H. Pease are no strangers to those familiar
with the history of Charleston and the culture, values and
lifestyles of South Carolina's low country. This latest
collaborative effort builds on a thorough familiarity with the
Petigrus, a distinguished nineteenth century Charleston family.
Their most recent work was a biography of the head of the family
and Union supporter, James Louis Petigru, and they earlier
edited two novels by the most colorful member of the clan, Sue
Using a wealth of correspondence, diaries and writings from
three generations of Petigru women, the Peases weave and
interweave life stories against the backdrop of larger forces at
work in the state, region and nation. These are personal tales
of fortune and misfortune, triumph and defeat, childhood,
marriages (often troubled ones), pregnancies, management of
households, life and death. The story, as the Peases note, is
not a simple narrative. Through it all, however, including
scandal and intrigue, the family stays close.
The saga begins in humble circumstances on a farm called Badwell
in the upcountry around Abbeville where Louise Guy Gibert, a
South Carolina Huguenot and William Pettigrew, a "boisterous"
upstate Scotch-Irishman, settle. Louise's son, James Louis
Petigru, in changing the spelling of his family name, bestows a
distinction upon it and soon achieves a centrality. It is the
wife, sisters and sisters-in-law, daughters and nieces,
granddaughters and grandnieces of James L. Petrigru, known as
Brother to his siblings, who comprise the three generations of
women in peace and war. Each achieves meaning, in part, through
James's legal and political prestige.
Marrying above them moved the Petigru offspring beyond their
upcountry upbringing. Two of the three brothers married the
daughters of low country rice and cotton planters. Four of the
five sisters did likewise, with their husbands being
well-educated and frequently five to ten or more years older.
Prosperity accrued to the second generation of Petrigru women as
well, and a handy map of family plantations in the Carolinas
shows substantial wealth localized in and around Charleston,
Georgetown and eastern tidewater counties of North Carolina.
Chicora Wood consisted of over nine hundred acres of land, but
it was only one of five plantations and some six hundred slaves
owned by Robert Allston, a prestigious client of James Petigru
whom his sister Adele married in 1832.
Major challenges facing pre-Civil War Petrigru women included
coping with the hazards of pregnancy and childbearing, managing
complex households, supervision of servants, and enough
"miserable marriages" for the Peases to devote an entire chapter
to them. In addition, there was always the horrible summer
climate and the threat of disease. Every mother of the first
generation lost at least one child. Adele Allston had eleven
pregnancies; nine children lived. Circumstances moved many
Petigru women beyond a narrowly prescribed framework of serving
as domestic managers and emotional guardians. Steadily
increasing numbers of servants denoted increasing wealth but
also added supervisory responsibilities.
Least conventional of the Petigru women, Sue King (1824-1875)
coped with the dissatisfactions that wrecked her life by openly
criticizing the institution of marriage and fashioning a writing
career through frequent trips to the North and on the outer
fringes of Charleston intellectual life. Her thirty years of
scandalous behavior included two bigamy trials involving her
second husband, a Radical Republican congressman, and King's
successful entreaties that convinced President Grant to pardon
him following conviction in a second trial.
The Civil War was a turning point in Petigru fortunes. The War
wiped out family capital investments and left huge debts as a
result of land and slave purchase contracts. Five males who
went to war did not return, and those who did survive were
"mauled and damaged." When the women returned to their homes
following Sherman's invasion, most would do much of the domestic
work that slaves had formerly done. Some, like Adele Allston,
who in the immediate postwar years conducted her school in her
Charleston home, and Louise Porcher, who ran a boardinghouse in
her family's home on South Bay, would build on patterns of
individualism developed before the war.
For the third generation of Petigru women, however, the war
insured a marked decline in status, despite President Lincoln's
special protection order for Petigru property in recognition of
the unionism of the family head. Twelve of Louise Pettigrew's
great-granddaughters would "earn their own keep" for a
significant period. At least ten (more than half of the third
generation) never married, dramatically affecting the family's
continuity. Doubtless, at one time or another, all daughters
echoed the sentiments of Sue King's daughter Addy, who died in
childbirth at age forty-five in 1889, "indeed all our lives were
spoiled by the War" (p. 245).
A Family of Women is a richly interwoven social, cultural and
family history, constructed almost entirely from the vast trove
of Petigru women's writings. No better insights into the
trappings and rituals of the social world of Old South
lowcountry aristocracy exist than in the chapter "Reigning as
Belles." At times one wishes the Peases had integrated some
larger perspective from the solid list of secondary sources
contained in their bibliographical essay, for few are cited at
all. That, and a bit more user-friendly index, could only have
enhanced an exceptional work.
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