Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas (1834-1907)
An invaluable resource for historians of the era and a reflection of the roles played by elite, educated southern women, Thomas's journal spans forty-one years, chronicling the period between 1848 and 1889. In it she recorded her experiences, reminiscences, opinions, and intellectual insights during her transitions from pampered southern belle to ardent southern nationalist to disheartened Confederate supporter to poverty-stricken wife and mother. In the last years of her life Thomas assumed leading roles in several civic and social organizations and described herself as a feminist and suffragist.
Ella Gertrude Clanton, known as Gertrude, was born in 1834 just outside Augusta in Columbia County to Mary Luke and Turner Clanton. Her father, a Virginia transplant, had established a new life in Georgia as a prominent planter and member of the state legislature. As one of the wealthiest planters in the state (his estate in 1864 was valued at an impressive 2.5 million Confederate dollars), he was able to offer his seven children lives of luxury and privilege. In her journal, Thomas describes a youth spent attending parties in the latest fashions, visiting friends and family across the region, and reading and writing.
At about age fourteen Clanton left home to attend Wesleyan Female College (later Wesleyan College) in Macon. She completed her undergraduate studies in 1851, a rare accomplishment for a woman of that time, even among the southern elite. That same year she met her future husband, James Jefferson Thomas, through his sister Julia Thomas, a close friend at Wesleyan. The couple married in 1852 and settled near Augusta.
A graduate of Princeton University, in Princeton, New Jersey, who had abandoned his studies at the Medical College of Georgia (later Georgia Health Sciences University) in Augusta, Thomas's new husband established himself as a planter, thanks to substantial ongoing financial support from his father-in-law. Throughout the 1850s Thomas led a typical life for a woman of her time, place, and class. She performed little physical labor as the mistress of a large plantation supported by numerous slaves. She had ten children, only seven of whom survived past age five; her last child was born in 1875, when she was forty-one years old.
Civil War and Reconstruction
Thomas was still a young woman in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War, which permanently erased privilege and comfort from her life. Although she was a passionate Confederate nationalist at the onset of the war, she soon concluded that the South did not have a viable chance of victory. Nonetheless, she remained loyal to the Confederacy. She directed the Augusta Ladies' Aid Society, worked in military hospitals, sewed Confederate uniforms, and made cartridges for military use. By the war's end, however, Thomas had adopted a defeatist attitude, reluctantly beginning to accept what a southern defeat would mean for her and her region.
As was the case for virtually all planter-class families of the South, defeat meant the collapse not only of the Thomas family's way of life but also of the southern class structure. Thomas and her family experienced economic hardship during Reconstruction; the family declared bankruptcy and suffered multiple foreclosures, a source of great humiliation for Thomas. The family's financial plight forced her to seek employment as an elementary school teacher, something that women of her class would have never considered before the war.
Thomas taught from 1878 to 1884, but her husband's alcoholism and poor management of money prevented the family from recovering economically to the extent that many other planters had by the 1880s. As a result of their continuing economic plight, Thomas and her husband moved in 1893 from Augusta to Atlanta, where they lived with their son Julian.
Despite the downturn in her economic status, Thomas spent the latter years of her life involved in numerous civic and social organizations. Beginning in the mid-1880s and continuing until her death, Thomas undertook leadership positions in the Ladies' Missionary Society of St. John's Methodist Church in Augusta, the Hayne Circle literary society, the Ladies' [Confederate] Memorial Association of Augusta, the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association. In 1899 Thomas was elected president of the Georgia Woman Suffrage Association, and she spent her last years speaking at various women's suffrage conventions across the nation. In 1903 she was publicly commended by Susan B. Anthony and made a life member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Thomas died on May 11, 1907, after suffering a stroke. Her descendents proudly retained her voluminous collection of personal journals for three generations. In 1957 Duke University Library in Durham, North Carolina, purchased the journals from Thomas's family. An edited selection of her writings was published in 1990 as The Secret Eye: The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1848-1889.
Edward J. Cashin, The Story of Augusta (Augusta, Ga.: Richmond County Board of Education, 1980).
George C. Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989).
Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, The Secret Eye: The Journal of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1848-1889, ed. Virginia Ingraham Burr (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
LeeAnn Whites, Gender Matters: Civil War, Reconstruction, and the Making of the New South (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
Katherine E. Rohrer, University of Georgia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.