A collection of letters portraying the impact of the Civil War on the Irion family and postwar life as a white southern woman. 

From 1871 to 1883, Eliza Lucy Irion Neilson (1843-1913) composed and saved more than 130 letters documenting family and domestic life in Columbus, Mississippi. A New Southern Woman features 80 letters from Neilson’s correspondence, providing readers with a rare glimpse into the recovery of domestic culture in postwar Mississippi, the impact of the war on marriage and education, and a reflection on family relationships, race relations, and the agrarian economy.

Lucy Irion married farmer John Abert Neilson (1842-1922) in April 1871, and the couple built a life together at Wildwood, a modest farm nine miles northeast of Columbus, Mississippi. “What a crowd of thoughts & emotions have whirled thro’ my heart & brain,” Lucy remarked on her first six weeks of marriage. “I have lived more than in any previous six months of my life.”

In the years that followed, Lucy invested in a companionate marriage and an agricultural partnership that rested on the strength of hard work, not the laurels of times passed. Her letters to her sisters and niece relayed news about everything from Reconstruction politics and servant arrangements to housekeeping, pregnancy, motherhood, and child mortality.

As Lucy built her life around home and family, she also watched her widowed sister, Lizzie, her single sister, Cordele, and her schoolgirl niece, Bess, search for their own ways of becoming women of the New South.


“A New Southern Woman provides new insights into the effects of the Civil War on the lives of elite white southern women, as they sought to remake themselves in a New South. Lucy’s effervescent and dramatic letters, brilliantly edited by Roberts, reveal her relationships with her husband, sisters, niece, and the freed people who worked for her family. Each southern woman, Lucy shows us, had to negotiate her own path in a changing society in which marriage, family, and community remained priorities even as some women sought wage work, education, and activism in memorial work.”— Joan Marie Johnson, author of Southern Women at the Seven Sister Colleges: Feminist Values and Social Activism, 1875-1915. 

“Meticulously annotated and thoughtfully organized, Roberts’s volume adds to the growing body of firsthand accounts of those who sought to create a female identity in the New South.”—Virginia E. Ott, author of Confederate Daughters: Coming of Age during the Civil War.