Petition written by Elizabeth Jenkins after Civil War when divorce rights were given to women, 1869


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During the late antebellum period, changes in laws regarding slavery, divorce, married women’s property rights, child custody, and adoption revealed the contradictions beginning to surface in the southern domestic order. Bending to the dictates of a market-oriented worldview, southern legal change before the Civil War led to measurable improvements in the position of white women and children, and even slaves, within households. State intervention in domestic affairs, however, remained narrowly circumscribed despite these changes.

The persistence of the household as a social unit of production in the Old South was the fundamental factor that sustained the traditional system of domestic governance. In the antebellum North, urbanization, capitalism, and economic development did much to undermine the patriarchal ideal, but until the 1850s the South contained such forces only in weak forms. Although individualism and market relations penetrated the southern household before the Civil War, coming into conflict with the organic model, the ideological commitment prevailed. As one southern writer declared in 1855, northern reformers “divide the household into separate interests; the domestic hearth is no longer a common property to the family.” In contrast, “ a very different idea of government prevails” in “the slaveholding states.”

During the Civil War a number of things happened that changed the dynamics of the southern household for women. ‘Southern ladies’, who had lived their lives within strictly patrolled gender spheres, now found themselves challenged to take on tasks for which they had little preparation. Slave management, in particular, proved to be an especially crucial responsibility for Confederate women on the homefront.

Besides the changing character of gender dynamics in the Confederacy, wartime casualties had a powerful impact on southern families. Traditional ties remained strong amongst families, but the war left its mark on the composition of white families. A low birth rate, coupled with a high rate of infant and child-hood mortality, left many white families without children born during the war years. Moreover, the southern white male population experienced a devastating decline. Roughly 258,000 men were killed during the war out of a total white population of 5.5 million. In Edgefield, South Carolina, out of an enlistment of 2,137 white males, 613 died. Such losses led to a sharp increase in the number of widows with children and a noticeable reduction in the number of marriageable men. Although the numbers proved important to family, the marriage rates skyrocketed in the aftermath of the war, and by 1880 males too young to serve in the army had also married, restoring the traditional sex ratio of young adults to the country.

The collapse of the slave system and the uprooting of the economic order in the South as a result of the war proved to have much more lasting effects. As the southern countryside underwent an agricultural transformation, the spread of the factory system during the late nineteenth century, and the accompanying increase in the employment of women and children, brought about significant changes in family roles, as well as a separation of home and work previously unknown in the south. The sense of autonomy generated among women and children by earning a wage and the family’s dependence on these earnings would undercut the father’s ability to act as master of the household.

Confronted with these new challenges to patriarchal authority, southern elites developed new public policies in the late nineteenth century that reshaped relations not only between former masters and slaves, but also between husbands and wives, and parents and children. During Reconstruction, the law recognized the validity of slave unions, expanded the grounds for divorce, and strengthened the property rights of married women. For this document the focus will be on divorce rights.

Southern legislatures after the war expanded the grounds for both absolute divorce and legal separation, as well as bolstered the property rights of married women, reflecting the new reliance on the state to mediate domestic relations. Such reforms met with hostility from many conservatives, who saw them as indications of a corrupt society about to plunge into the abyss of anarchy and social disorder. Condemning the increasing availability of divorce, George F. Holmes insisted in 1867 that “if the closest links of family union are recklessly broken, it cannot be hoped that any other social tie will escape rupture.” Divorce, according to Holmes, “almost invariably connects itself with, if it does not spring directly from, a festering tendency to social disintegration, and penetrates all parts of the society, vitiating all forms of thought and felling.”



Court of Common Pleas, Spartanburg.  Divorce Proceedings 1869-1878. L42104. State Department of Archives and History, Columbia, South Carolina.


State of South Carolina          Petition for Divorce

Spartanburg County                a [    ]  Matrimonie

            To his Hon. L. O. P. Numble, Judge of the 7th Circuit:

The Petition of Jane Elizabeth Jenkins, humbly complaining showeth unto you Hon. That she was married, on the 26th day of March, A.D. 1864 to one Pleasant J. Jenkins, there residing in the County and State aforesaid—that the marriage ceremony was performed by J. H. Sloan, by an acting magistrate for the County aforesaid. That your petition was, at the time of the her marriage, eighteen years of age, and she said Pleasant J. Jenkins was then twenty-six years of age-that in the course of a month of time after the marriage of your petition, her said husband Pleasant J. Jenkins left the State to go to the army, and although they had been so short a time married, his treatment to her previous to his departure for the army was anything but what it should have been, amounting to cruelty as well as being guilty of acts of adultery. Your petitioner further shows that said Jenkins never wrote or communicated with your petitioner after he left, or took notice of her, or treated her as a wife: but-on the contrary, your petitioner received repeated messages through others from the said Jenkins, asking and telling your petitioner to get a divorce, and saying that he, Jenkins meant-to get a divorce as soon as he could legally do so; that he would not live with petitioner, and never intended to do so, and your petitioner further shows that after the close of the war, her said husband returned, and proposed to live with your petitioner and treat her properly, to which she accepted, and she vows that her desire and purpose was to live with him, and treat him as a wife should treat a husband! But in a very short while said husband, in his conduct and treatment of her became worse than ever, amounting to blows, for which your petitioner and he had no just-cause or provocation –And your petition to assess that the said Jenkins continued to live in adultery with women in the neighborhood, boasting of and taunting your petitioner with his dispoliteness and infidelity. And your petitioner assess that she always loved her said husband as a wife should, and gave him no provocation for the treatment she received at his hands. That the said husband struck her on several occasions, and she really believes it would be unsafe for your petitioner to live with said Jenkins even if he were willing.

            And your petitioner further shows that she said Pleasant J. Jenkins departed from this state about two years ago, saying that he was going to the State of Missouri, [    ]  which time your petitioner has not heard from said Jenkins, only the rumor that the said Jenkins has married since his arrival in Missouri. That it is impossible for your petitioner ever to live either in happiness or safety- with the said Jenkins.

            Your petitioner therefore prays in view of the premise, that your Honor will grant her a divorce.

Correlating SC Social Studies Academic Standards:

Standard 3-4: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the events that led to the Civil War, the course of the War and Reconstruction, and South Carolina’s role in these events.

Indicator 3-4.5 Summarize the effects of the Civil War on the daily lives of people of different classes in South Carolina, including the lack of food, clothing, and living essentials and the continuing racial tensions.

Indicator 3-4.6 Explain how the Civil War affected South Carolina’s economy, including destruction of plantations, towns, factories, and transportation systems.

Indicator 3-4.7 Summarize the effects of Reconstruction in South Carolina, including the development of public education, racial advancements and tensions, and economic changes.

Standard 5-1: The student will demonstrate an understanding of Reconstruction and its impact on racial relations in the United States.

Indicator 5-1.4 Compare the economic and social effects of Reconstruction on different   populations, including the move from farms to factories and the change from the plantation system to sharecropping.

Standard 8-4: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the impact of Reconstruction on the people and government of South Carolina.

Indicator 8-4.1 Explain the purposes of Reconstruction with attention to the economic, social, political, and geographic problems facing the South, including reconstruction of towns, factories, farms, and transportation systems; the effects of emancipation; racial tension; tension between social classes; and disagreement over voting rights.

Indicator 8-4.2 Summarize Reconstruction in South Carolina and its effects on daily life in South Carolina, including the experiences of plantation owners, small farmers, freedmen, women, and northern immigrants.

Indicator 8-4.3 Summarize the events and the process that led to the ratification of South Carolina’s constitution of 1868, including African American representation in the constitutional convention; the major provisions of the constitution; and the political and social changes that allowed African Americans, Northerners, “carpetbaggers,” and “scalawags” to play a part in South Carolina state government.