The Georgia division of the United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) was formed on November 8, 1895.
Initially, the UDC worked both to maintain the beliefs of the Lost Cause, a heroic interpretation of the Civil War (1861-65) that allowed southerners to maintain their sense of honor, and to build monuments in honor of Confederate heroes. Its members also aimed to preserve southern culture. The organization rapidly grew to include chapters in almost every town across the state, and it connected many middle- and upper-class white women across the South with one another.
On September 10, 1894, Caroline Meriwether Goodlett, from Nashville, Tennessee, and Anna Davenport Raines, from Savannah, founded the National Association of the Daughters of the Confederacy. As a national federation of Confederate women’s organizations, the group brought together numerous women’s associations working to memorialize the Confederacy. At its second meeting, held in Atlanta, the group renamed itself the United Daughters of the Confederacy and revised its constitution. In 1895 the four chapters of Savannah, Augusta, Atlanta, and Covington united to form the Georgia Division of the UDC.
Positions within the national organization of the UDC included a president general, vice president general, recording secretary general, and historian general and were filled with women from various states. With its tight connections to powerful southern politicians, the UDC attracted a sizable and influential membership. Women who could prove they were blood descendants of those who honorably served the Confederacy were eligible to join.
The UDC established five objectives delineating their memorial, historical, educational, benevolent, and patriotic responsibilities. Among other goals, UDC members strove to present what they considered to be a truthful history of the Civil War, to honor the Confederate dead, and to preserve historic Confederate sites.
Georgia’s UDC in Action
Prominent women have been affiliated with the Georgia Division of the UDC since its founding. Although Lizzie Rutherford did not live long enough to be part of the UDC, she is nonetheless closely associated with the organization. In 1898 the Lizzie Rutherford Chapter of Columbus took the name of the local citizen who had pioneered the practice of decorating Confederate soldiers’ graves in the years immediately after the war. This annual event became known as Confederate Memorial Day, and UDC members joined thousands of people all across the South to visit graves, decorate headstones with flowers, and hold eulogy services.
Rebecca Latimer Felton, from Cartersville, spoke to UDC chapters throughout Georgia on a crusade to educate farm women in 1897. Aiming to empower poor whites as well as sustain notions of white supremacy, Felton argued that although farm women were not cultured like members of the UDC, they too were the descendents of Confederate veterans. She believed that rural girls, as future mothers of the white race, needed assistance and education.
In 1898 another influential UDC member, Mary Ann Lamar Cobb Erwin of Athens, the daughter of Howell Cobb, envisioned a way to honor Confederate veterans. She combined her efforts with those of Atlanta’s Sarah Gabbett to design the Cross of Honor medal, which was first bestowed by the Athens chapter of the UDC on Erwin’s husband, Captain Alexander S. Erwin, in 1900. Nationally, the UDC bestowed thousands of crosses to veterans for honorable service. They continue to present medals to libraries for display today.
Athens native Mildred Lewis Rutherford was probably the most prominent member of the UDC. Rutherford led a crusade for what she believed to be the true history of the Confederacy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Strongly opposed to woman suffrage, Rutherford argued that the ideal woman should be deferential to men and remain in the home. She believed that all women should hold the plantation mistress as a role model. In addition to defending secession, Rutherford glorified both the plantation system and slavery in antebellum Georgia. The textbooks she wrote, as well as her choice of which ones to censor, serve as a testament to a Confederate history that attempted to legitimize the control of southern elites. From 1899 to 1902 Rutherford served as the Georgia Division’s president, and from 1911 to 1916 she served as historian general of the national organization.
Around 1915 Caroline Helen Jemison Plane, the president of the UDC Atlanta chapter, began the project that would culminate in the Confederate memorial carving on Stone Mountain. As leader of the Stone Mountain Memorial Association (incorporated in 1916 as the Stone Mountain Confederate Monumental Association), she solicited the support of the sculptor Gutzon Borglum and convinced the owners of the mountain to give the UDC access to the property. In addition to the carving of Confederate heroes, Plane wanted Ku Klux Klan members to appear in the design. Controversies, sculptor changes, funding problems, and the outbreaks of World War I (1917-18) and World War II (1941-45) forced the construction project to spread across decades.
From 1953 to 1955 Mabel Sessions Dennis served as president general of the national UDC. Born in De Soto, in Sumter County, she held many positions in the group before leading the national organization. During her administration she organized the national [General] Children of the Confederacy. Comprising thousands of members today, the organization inducts children under the age of eighteen who can provide proof that they are descendants of honorable Confederate soldiers. The membership creed states a “desire to perpetuate, in love and honor, the heroic deeds of those who enlisted in the Confederate Services” and “teach the truths of history (one of the most important of which is, that the War Between the States was not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery).”
By the 100th birthday of the UDC in 1995, the national organization had elected seven Georgia women to serve as president general. In 2009 more than sixty-five Georgia divisions of the UDC existed. Although membership and activism have slightly waned in the twenty-first century, the ideals, activities, and purposes of the UDC remain the same. The organization continues to erect monuments, to oversee the Children of the Confederacy organization, and to hold memorial events. Some critics, such as historian James M. McPherson, have accused the UDC of being an organization of white supremacists and neo-Confederates. Other people champion the organization for its memorial activities and college scholarship programs.