Communication Studies’ Amy Heyse was in her favorite place in the world, the Library of Congress, when what would become the topic of her doctoral dissertation practically fell at her feet.
A 10-page catechism dated 1904 published by the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) popped out of materials she had checked out as part of her research into how 19th century women used rhetorical strategies to create a public voice for themselves. She browsed the document and discovered how women, who labored under so many rhetorical constraints that they would be “unsexed” if they spoke in public, learned to use 19th century mass media to build monuments and create an organization that still exists 113 years after its founding.
“Teachers of the Lost Cause: United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Rhetoric of their Catechism” eventually became the topic of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Maryland and the subject of years of research. “At first, I was disappointed that the members of the UDC weren’t suffragists or feminists but instead a very conservative organization that only wanted to honor the men who died for the Confederacy in the Civil War,” explained Heyse. “I discovered that perhaps the most significant impact of the UDC was on the children of Civil War veterans. They published and continued to publish a catechism of the Confederate point of view aimed at children from kindergarten through high school. The history was slanted toward the Southern point of view, including the roots of the war which they blamed on Northern ignorance of Southern rights.”
In the catechisms, she found herself reading questions that asked if the South had really lost the war. According to the UDC, they didn’t. Who fought a better war, they asked? The South did, they answered, and it challenged Heyse’s scholarly sensibilities. She was able to collect five of these texts after a national search. She presented her newfound artifacts to the UDC and received access to their archives. “I even got a certificate,” she said.
Young Southerners were encouraged to memorize the catechisms and were tested in a way that made Heyse remember her own catechism ritual at Catholic Sunday school. “The Children of the Confederacy were a subset of the UDC,” she explained. “The mothers attended the UDC meetings once a month and their kids went along to the Children of the Confederacy meetings. The highlight of every meeting was the catechism quiz.
“The Children of the Confederacy instructor would pose a question from the catechism to the children. The first to raise a hand was asked to stand and recite the answer, and earned three points if correct. If nobody could answer from memory, the instructor asked them to open their books and the first to rise and deliver the answer from the catechism received one point," she said. “The question and answer sessions had a serious purpose in teaching children to perform Confederate subjectivity before their peers and instructors.”
She studied how the UDC tapped into the South’s collective memory. “The UDC played a role in creating the collective memory,” she said. “They decided what statues were seen in public. They decided what the Confederacy’s children knew and what they would remember. More importantly, they decided what the Children of the Confederacy would not remember. Collective memory is composed of rhetorical constructions of past events that serve political purposes. I looked at the UDC’s strategies of amplification, oversimplification and forgetting as ways of creating memory. Those memories spread through the collective consciousness.”
One of their rhetorical strategies was to amplify Southern successes. “Robert E. Lee was endowed with godlike qualities and there was rhetoric of martyrdom which extended to Jefferson Davis,” she explained. “There also was a strategy of forgetting where blame for lost battles was placed on incompetent generals.”
By doing this, the UDC invested themselves with rhetorical power that they were denied as Southern belles. “The whole Southern belle ideology was very constricting,” she said. “To do it, they needed to stay at home. But to participate in the UDC required them to discuss politics and war but in a non-threatening way.”
The UDC’s high point was an eight-year effort to build a landmark to Confederate President Jefferson Davis which still exists today in the Virginia capital of Richmond’s monument row. “They spent eight years raising funds and eventually succeeded. Their names are on the monuments,” she said.
Where men failed to fund the monument in the 10 years prior to the UDC’s takeover, women used fundraising strategies such as bake sales and pledging Southern residents. Confederate veterans donated uniforms which were sold button by button. They hosted parades and carnivals. “And they did it while keeping very much in touch with what they perceived as the feminine ideal. They even capitalized on it,” she said. “The organizational strategies came from observing men’s organizations but their own development strategies were very much in the spirit of what was then the feminine ideal. Sometimes the women wore period costumes like hoop skirts and wide hats.”
Heyse received her B.A. from the University of Rhode Island as well as her M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Maryland. She joined CSULB as a lecturer in 2003 and was promoted to assistant professor in 2006.
Studying the UDC taught Heyse that people have a habit of reacting the same way to the same challenges over and over. “They use the same rhetoric. That often leads to making the same mistakes,” she said. “Why aren’t we learning from this? History has so much to teach us. Why don’t we get it?”