Disorderly City: Race, Gender, and Social Transformation in Civil War-Era New Orleans
Cities like New Orleans occupy an ambiguous place in southern history. As Nancy Hewitt wrote in Southern Discomfort fifteen years ago, urban society’s “disruptions of fixed identities, biracial categories, regional boundaries, and gender ideals converged to define” southern cities “as in, but not of, the South.” At the same time, however, as Kate Masur’s recent work on Washington, D.C. has shown, urban areas could become harbingers and laboratories of social change for the South as a whole, particularly in the Civil War era. Using New Orleans as an example, this panel engages with both sides of the city’s contradictory place in the southern social order. In the first instance, the papers in this panel both examine the “disruptive” qualities of life in Civil War-era New Orleans. Each paper looks at ways in which the urban environment allowed its female residents to act in ways that seemed to challenge the prevailing social order. Dr. Elizabeth Smith’s paper shows how the quotidian public violence of women in Reconstruction-era New Orleans raised questions about the authority and effectiveness of the police, while simultaneously revealing a world of interracial sociability that defied the norms of the nineteenth-century South. James Illingworth’s paper shows how, during the Civil War, black women leveraged their place in the urban workforce of New Orleans to make themselves indispensable allies of occupying northern troops and, in so doing, hastened the end of slavery in the city and its hinterland. As the same time, both of these papers also demonstrate the significance of urban history for the Civil War-era South as a whole. Elizabeth Smith’s paper suggests that the everyday interpersonal conflicts between poor and working-class women of New Orleans illuminate some of the broader conflicts wracking the South and the nation in this period. Similarly, James Illingworth’s paper argues that the alliance between black working women and the Union army in New Orleans helped make the city into a crucible for federal policy regarding emancipation and African American military service. Comments from Dr. Nicole Ribianszky, who specializes in the history of free women of color in antebellum Natchez, will bring insights from another important southern city to bear on the case study of New Orleans. This panel therefore aims to generate a conversation about southern cities and social transformation that draws on, but ultimately transcends, the particular example of New Orleans in the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction.