Washington’s Confederate Belle

Posted February 1, 2010 at 3:38pm

Most of us, when waxing historical, usually invoke only big names: Benjamin Franklin or Presidents Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. The average people who years ago trudged the same unpaved streets in the nation’s capital seem long forgotten.

It may be with that in mind that James H. Johnston undertook his latest project, “The Recollections of Margaret Cabell Brown Loughborough: A Southern Woman’s Memories of Richmond, Va., and Washington, D.C., in the Civil War.—

The book centers on an autobiographical memoir written in 1911 by Margaret Loughborough, a true Southern belle and Daughter of the Confederacy. In her later years, she penned the brief recollection of her experiences living in Richmond and Washington during the Civil War. Johnston, a D.C. lawyer and writer, seized on the work, which he calls a “real-life ‘Gone With the Wind.’— His book succinctly yet meticulously reconstructs the world in which Loughborough lived as she experienced wartime in both capitals.

“To her, the war was not about maneuver and clash of arms. It was about an absent husband, office work, a make-shift party dress, rampant inflation, food shortages, malnutrition, a baby still-born, typhoid, death, privation, loss, and pride,— Johnston writes in the introduction.

Loughborough wasn’t rich, but she occasionally rubbed elbows with top Confederate brass. She moved to Richmond during the war to be closer to her husband, Henry, a Confederate soldier. There, she stitched his uniform by hand but accidentally put the buttons on the wrong side. She worked for the Confederate bureaucracy to make ends meet and recounted poverty and inflation as the Union army surrounded and eventually squeezed the life out of the Confederacy. They had to smelt town bells to make canons. As the Lost Cause became truly lost, Loughborough fled to Washington, but not before taking an oath of secrecy — not to protect military secrets, but to keep mum on the South’s destitution.

The book is short, less than 100 pages long. The actual recollections are even briefer, taking up only some 20 pages. Johnston prefaces the memoir with two chapters. The first presents Loughborough, her husband, and their lineage, kin and neighbors. The second chapter is a commentary on the memoir, explaining the historical references therein — the Battle of Bull Run, Jubal Early’s insurrection and Union Gen. David Hunter’s inexorable campaign through the Shenandoah Valley, to name a few.

The result is a delightful and well-constructed snapshot of not simply the Loughborough family, but the cities of Richmond and Washington, too. Nathan Loughborough, the family patriarch, was a sort of opposite Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) — he argued in a Supreme Court case that District residents should forgo the right to vote but also not pay taxes. Today, the Department of Homeland Security site at Nebraska and Massachusetts avenues sits atop the old Loughborough family estate.

Margaret Loughborough was an unabashed Confederate sympathizer. She worshipped Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson and barely flinched when Lincoln was assassinated. She never laid eyes on a free African-American until she was 26 years old, ardently supported slavery and referred to a local merchant’s shop as the “Jew’s store.— But it’s exactly these outmoded qualities that make her story so compelling.

Johnston’s book, like Loughborough herself, likely won’t achieve mass appeal. But his passionate renovation of this forgotten history can help us understand how the people of the South viewed their cause. It also shows that a modest, middle-class woman, absent fame or fortune, can be immortalized.