|This dissertation explores the life of Laura Beecher Comer (1817-1900), which spanned the tumultuous nineteenth century in America. For most of her adult life, Laura resided in what would be the heart of the Confederacy during the Civil War. She was a member of the prominent Beecher family of New England, yet she was a plantation mistress, a strong supporter of the Confederacy during the Civil War, and an ardent defender of the Lost Cause. There was no extant work about the life of Laura Beecher Comer except for a section of a 1947 book on the Comer family and some minor works done during the 1970s as part of a women’s history project in Columbus, Georgia. As revealed in Laura’s diaries and ancillary primary source materials, her life brings to light themes that were crucial to the period and provides the setting for an epic history: union and Southern independence, slavery and emancipation, war and peace, and reconstruction and race relations. It is a tale of the rich and famous of the Old South and the Confederacy. It is also an exploration of the lives of the African Americans who inhabit the shadow world of Laura’s diaries, yet provide a nuanced understanding of the contours of Southern society and the people, black and white, who were its actors.
Laura Beecher Hayes arrived in rural Russell County, Alabama, in 1846, a twenty-nine year old, eloquent, well-educated, petite widow with lustrous dark hair and calm dark eyes, who was engaged by the planter community to establish an academy for young women. By 1848, this young, Connecticut-born woman, who was a member of a branch of the famous, influential, but often controversial Beecher clan, was the wife of prosperous Alabama plantation owner and slave master James Comer. At first glance, Laura’s life, viewed through the prism of her diary, merely offers a picture of the day-to-day concerns of a Northern woman who married well in the planter aristocracy of the Old South. The odyssey of research and investigation integral to rendering a thoughtful account of her life reveals a life that was a great deal more than that of a wealthy Southern plantation mistress. Her diary, at times, becomes a page-turner couched in the inner circles and back stories of the Confederacy that compels the reader to return to discover what happens next. Understanding the chronicle of Laura’s life demands intellectual engagement, because, her saga is the story of the men and women who facilitated the Confederacy through their wealth and influence. Laura’s subtle diary entries challenge the researcher to explore the innermost reaches of elite white society in order to analyze and understand the record of those Southerners and ardent Confederates who worked behind the scenes during the antebellum and Civil War eras.