The loss of the American Civil War and the consequence of Reconstruction literally turned the South on its head, profoundly altering the dynamics of race, class, and gender that previously defined antebellum Southern society. The letters of Harriet Rutledge Elliott Gonzales reveal one formerly elite South Carolina family’s struggle as they faced a new social landscape that forced them to adapt to new challenges, particularly surrounding emancipation and the drastic reversal of the norms that previously characterized Southern society that development entailed. Harriet Rutledge Elliot Gonzales never abandoned a sense of her “aristocratic” origins and “good blood,” despite the hardships and poverty the family experienced that was so earth shattering to her sense of identity within a Southern social hierarchy defined by white supremacy and strict notions of “proper” race relations. Her perceptions of this new situation reveal the way that elite Southerners, particularly elite Southern women, viewed and interpreted the myriad changes their world was undergoing. Hers is a story of the way one woman and her family personally responded to these changes, ultimately leading them to abandon the South completely as they sought to reaffirm their status and identity in a place that seemed to still conform to their preconceived notions of the natural order of things – Cuba.
With much of their property destroyed in the war, stripped of the slave labor that previously provided the basis for their material support, the Gonzales’ found themselves face to face with physical and material woes that they never imagined having to suffer. Married to a former Cuban insurgent and Confederate colonel, Ambrosio Jose Gonzales, Harriet Rutledge Elliot Gonzales was accustomed to a life of relative leisure, comfort, and status. After several years of struggling to rebuild a life in a South Carolina that was anything but the place she grew up in, the Gonzales’ set out for Ambrosio’s homeland, Cuba. There, in a society alien yet strangely familiar, Harriet Rutledge Elliott Gonzales found renewed hope. Still a slaveholding society at the time, the social, racial, and gendered norms were akin to that of the antebellum South and Cuba represented for her a return to a social hierarchy she understood, a reestablishment of the status quo, and an opportunity for her family to start again in a world more like the one she remembered in her youth than the one it had become.
"Carolina Sunset, Cuban Sunrise: A Comparative Study of Race, Class, and Gender in the Reconstructed South and Colonial Cuba, 1867-1869,"
Madison Historical Review: Vol. 17
, Article 6.
Available at: https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/mhr/vol17/iss1/6