Tara Revisited: Women, War & the Plantation Legend by Catherine Clinton

I originally wanted to read this ARC from Abbeville Press and Netgalley (in exchange for an honest review) because of the title Tara Revisited. I thought it would focus on the movie Gone With the Wind and other southern based films about the Civil War era and be full of illustrations. While the author does touch upon such topics and has numerous photographs, this book is actually about the southern myth surrounding plantation life and delves into the reality of life behind the Mason Dixon line before, during, and after the war, with an extra focus on the role of women during this time. I must admit, since the focus was different from my expectation, I set this book aside.

In the meantime, I had picked up another nonfiction Civil War book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott describing the lives of four women, 2 northerners, 2 southerners, who valiantly used their talents to assist the war efforts. Since I was listening to this book on tape, I decided that I wanted to fill in some of the gaps in my knowledge and found that Tara Revisited was a treasure trove of information.

It just goes to show that there is a right place and a right time to read certain books.

The premise of Tara Revisited: Women, War & the Plantation Legend by Catherine Clinton is that the legends of the old south perpetuate a revisionist, mythical version of life on the plantation. There is no such thing as Tara – either literally or figuratively. Life was tough for those supposedly pampered Southern belles who married young and then were expected to take over the domestic running of the plantation including the welfare of the slaves. During the Civil War they had to take on even more responsibilities as their husbands went off to war and often didn’t return. When the Northern forces invaded their homeland, the brutality of war forced many from their homes. During reconstruction, the southern way of life drastically changed and the past became romanticized, reflected in the song Dixie (old times past and not forgotten) and sentimentalized in folklore, literature, and films which often were derogatory to African Americans. The symbols of the southern belle and her mammy continue to be glamorized in American culture, ignoring reality and the issue of civil rights.

This is the perfect time for the examination of the mindset of the South, especially with the current spate of racial atrocities being committed in various locations throughout the country, with minorities being targeted and even killed for minor or nonexistent infractions. The recent hate crime where a bible study group in a landmark black church in Charleston, South Carolina was gunned down, is just one example of the violence which comes from misinformation and the teaching of hatred towards minorities, especially African Americans.

When myths are accepted without question by mainstream society, misconceptions can easily lead to false conclusions. Tara Revisited attempts to explain the whys and wherefores and set the record straight. For example, Catherine Clinton provides some insight into the mystique which fuels the love of the Confederate Flag. The current call to remove this Flag from the SC State Capital building, because it is being used as a symbol of racism, not a tribute to the old south, is a step which is sure to be fought against tooth and nail. There is a multitude of research supporting the author who highlights the role of women with a focus on the details of their importance to the War effort. The concept of slavery, glamorized as a loving environment with the participants loyal to their “masters”, is exposed.

This is a book chock full of information which is sure to delight the Civil War buff and enlighten the casual reader as well. Along with the citations is a long list of resources for those who want to do their own research. This book will force you to reexamine your views on American History. Four stars.

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