Over the last 25 years or so Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas’ life has been the subject of study among scholars of Southern history, particularly as it relates to the Civil War and women’s history. Like many women born into the planter aristocracy of the antebellum South, Gertrude kept a diary, but unlike other known diaries kept by women during the Civil War era, she maintained her journals on and off for forty-one years, a time-span remarkable for the upheavals and shifts in Southern culture and society. In those forty-one years we see the continued rise and inevitable collapse of an entire social system. It is no wonder historians have taken such interest.
Carolyn Newton Curry’s fascination with Gertrude’s Clanton Thomas’ life began when she was first introduced to the diaries in the Manuscript Department of the William R. Perkins Library at Duke University. In the 30 years since, Curry has written a doctoral dissertation based on Gertrude’s life, given countless lectures, and now finally, has written her biography, Suffer & Grow Strong: The Life of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas.
Born in 1834, the daughter of gentleman planter and Augusta businessman Turner Clanton, Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas viewed the world through a lens of wealth and privilege, and similar to most girls born of her class, she was attended to by a household of slaves, leaving her with virtually no real responsibility. The summers were spent languidly at one of her father’s vast plantations outside of Augusta, and winters at the Clanton mansion on Greene Street, where the present day 500 Building stands. Through Curry’s telling of the story we get a sense that Gertrude was very intelligent and fiercely independent, identifying strongly with her father, who was known for his managerial acumen, business savvy, and an accumulated wealth that was staggering even by antebellum standards. Turner Clanton helped build Augusta, owning vast expanses of land, and buildings all over the cotton-rich city. Passages written on her father appear over and over in the diaries, but very little mention is given to her mother, until later in her life. Gertrude spent much of her time reading and writing, and showed minimal interest in learning the domestic skills expected of a woman living in the nineteenth century, such as cooking and sewing. This would become a problem for her during the war years when slaves were no longer available to perform these domestic duties.
Turner Clanton, recognizing his daughter’s intelligence and desire to learn, gave her an opportunity very few women, even those of the planter elite, were allowed; a formal education. Gertrude was among the first to attend Wesleyan Female College, and graduated in 1851, was married shortly thereafter to Princeton-graduate, Jefferson Thomas. According to Curry, it is in the intervening years, after her marriage, the loss of children, the death of her father, the horrors of the Civil War, the dissolution of her wealth and the bankruptcy which followed that the tone of Gertrude’s diaries change.
Women of the nineteenth century, of all races, and across all class lines, suffered greatly during their childbearing years due to frequent miscarriages and child loss. The high birthrate coupled with the mistreatment of poorly understood maladies and diseases led to rampant infant death. Curry suggests that through this commonality of shared female suffering, Gertrude was able to cross class lines and begin to empathize and identify with all women regardless of race or class. And this, Curry contends, ultimately led to Gertrude’s questioning of slavery itself, albeit mediated by the strictures of her own class status. By experiencing and being witness to the trauma of ever-present child loss, Gertrude wrote more critically of what at the time was a considerably taboo subject; the practice of slave owners fathering children with female slaves. Never directly indicting the men of her family, Gertrude attacks the practice as abhorrent, placing full blame on the men of her class.
Unlike most books written by historians who seem to be at times writing for other historians, Curry’s book reads like popular history, and while this makes for a very compelling story which is more accessible to a wider audience, Curry at times glosses over larger themes other historians have pointed out about Gertrude’s life. Gender historian LeeAnn Whites, who also studied the diaries suggests that Gertrude’s criticisms of slavery were not based on any radical anti-slavery sentiment but rather she found distasteful the mixing of races. Indeed, as most Southerners of the time believed, particularly those of the planter class, slavery was condoned by Christianity, and Gertrude as a member of the dominant class embraced this belief as evidenced in her diaries.
Regardless of its perceived faults, Suffer & Grow Strong offers those of us interested in Augusta’s long and storied past a glimpse into the city during a time of great social and economic upheaval, when its location–being surrounded by some of the most fertile land for growing cotton in the South—allowed it to become the second largest inland cotton market in the world and one of the wealthiest cities below the Mason-Dixon line. Curry paints a fascinating landscape of the city, at a time when it found itself a favored destination for European travelers. The biography also adds to the growing field of women’s studies as it explores the life of a woman, born to wealth and privilege, who would ultimately use the strength she gained through her suffering and loss during the Civil War and postbellum era, as well as her class status, to become an outspoken advocate of women’s rights in such national organizations as the WCTU and later the Women’s Suffrage Movement.
Included on the 2015 list of books all Georgians should read by Georgia Center for the Book, Suffer & Grow Strong: The Life of Emma Gertrude Clanton Thomas will be of particular interest to Augustans who want to learn more about the fascinating history of our city.
This begins the Georgia Heritage Room’s monthly book review contribution to our Augusta Genealogy Blog. Please feel free to comment on our reviews.