“There is a word sweeter than mother, home, or heaven, and that word is liberty.” These are the words of a Southern Lady and Louisiana Woman, Caroline E. Merrick.
The nineteenth century changed the lives of a nation, a century which experienced industrialization, slavery, the Civil War and women’s suffrage. It is through the eyes of Caroline Merrick that we may bring to life this period of history. Caroline Elizabeth Thomas Merrick was born Caroline Elizabeth Thomas November 24, 1825.
During the 1830’s, industrialization had been changing the role of women. However, the experiences of women in the South differed from their northern counterparts. According to Samantha LaDart in her article, “Caroline Merrick and Women’s Rights in Louisiana,” the Southern woman was expected to be a model of virtue and a guardian of youth. The ideal, LaDart writes, was not connected to any gain of female power in the home, nor was it dependent on industrialization. Another author, Drew G. Faust in her book, Mothers of Invention, explains further what it meant to be a Southern woman. She writes that the Antebellum South had defined and therefore understood themselves in relation to categories: race, gender, and class. These differences became hidden in society to provide distinction of wealth, power and education in order to lay claim to honor and gentility.
Conversely, many women in the North were not so fortunate during the 1830s. Many young women left their small farm towns for rural settings to work in cotton mills to earn wages to help support their family and build a dowry. The irony is the North was opposed to slavery but the cotton grown and harvested by slaves in the South was shipped to the North to feed cotton to the mills where the Northern woman would earn her living. Marriage was the hope for many Northern women so as to escape the labor of the cotton mills through the support of the higher wages her husband could earn.
As discussed earlier in the blog, chores such as doing laundry would be one such way to earn a living. The arduousness of it is hard to imagine today. But for Southern women, such as Caroline, many had slaves to do their daily menial chores; however, the burden of overseeing the slaves often fell on the mistress of the plantation.
When Caroline was married at age fifteen to Edwin Thomas Merrick, Esq., they moved to Bouligny, Jefferson City. At what is present day Washington Avenue and Prytania Street in the Garden District of New Orleans, Caroline and Edwin had four children, Laura, Clara, David and Edwin, Jr. In order to enjoy all the finer amenities of a nineteenth century home, the couple came to set up house in a large, spacious square with an old-fashioned, double cottage at 1404 Napoleon Avenue.
Slavery has been the stigma of mankind from the beginning. As far back as the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt man has been enslaved. The New America was no different. Slavery is a terrible scourge on history. Nevertheless, it was embedded in the fabric of society.
As opposition to slavery began to surface, rumors of war started. Caroline in her memoirs does not justify or condemn the Civil War, but her recollections of her life would not be complete. Caroline stated that, “personal records are the side-lights of history and in their measure the truest pictures of the time.”
It was a time of great anxiety and Caroline said no woman wavered in her allegiance to the Southern cause. Her son David, at age seventeen enlisted in the war, and though he ultimately survived, suffered grievous injuries including the loss of the sight of one eye, his hearing and the paralysis of his face due to a damaged nerve. As may be the case with most memoirs, we can see only through the prism given to us by the author as in Caroline’s case. I do believe her character and strength is as strong as presented but, for instance, during the war it became very complex especially as the women left behind were transformed as a result of the multitude of complexities caused by the Civil War.
In Faust’s book, Mothers of Invention, she writes about how the Civil War changed the traits of the Southern Woman slowly at first and completely by the end of the War, some of which were mentioned in earlier blogs.
When the war was over, the Merrick family moved back to their home in New Orleans and Caroline devoted herself to her family and domestic affairs. As mentioned previously, she would lose her daughter Laura to Yellow Fever. Yellow Fever assaulted New Orleans for sixty-seven summers. Before the cure was discovered thousands of people would succumb to this dreaded disease.
Caroline was encouraged by her husband after Laura’s death to pursue her passion for Women’s Rights. She was further encouraged by Mrs. Elizabeth Saxon, a suffragist, to speak out and help other women to help Caroline work through her grief. When the World’s Industrial Cotton Exposition came to New Orleans, she would met with other noted women dedicated to Women’s Suffrage. She spent her sunset days fighting for Women’s Rights.
I am tempted to imagine leaving her now, as she goes back to her own time, disappearing beneath the southern oaks that have become a symbol of the nineteenth-century South. As Merrick’s life reminds us, though, contrary to romantic visions of this era, hers was a time not of serenity but of tumultuousness–still, she lived it well.
This has been a preview of the journey through the nineteenth century as witnessed through the eyes of one Louisiana Woman – Caroline Merrick who I believed lived up to the love of a word sweeter than ‘mother, home, or heaven,’ and that word is liberty.
Sources: Merrick, Caroline E. Old Times in Dixie Land A Southern Matron’s Memories. New York: The Grafton Press, 1901
Faust, Drew G. Mothers of Invention. Chapel Hill & London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
LaDart, Samantha. “Caroline Merrick and Women’s Rights in Louisiana.” http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1990-1ladart.htm.
Photo Source: Maarquette, Bonnie. “The Greenwood Plantation’s Oak Alley on a Misty Morning.” L’Amore E Forte Come La Morte. http://sonocarina.wordpress.com/category/life/.