Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas – New Georgia Encyclopedia
Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, daughter and wife of the Augusta planters, is best known for her detailed journal of her life before, during and after the Civil War (1861-1865).
An invaluable resource for historians of the time and a reflection of the roles played by the elite of educated women in the South, Thomas’ diary spans forty-one years, tracing the period between 1848 and 1889. In it she records her experiences , her memories, opinions and intellectual insights during her transitions from pampered Southern belle to ardent Southern nationalist to discouraged Confederate partisan to impoverished wife and mother. During the last years of her life, Thomas took on prominent 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 of Augusta in Columbia County to Mary Luke and Turner Clanton. His father, a transplant from Virginia, 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 2.5 million Confederate dollars), he was able to provide his seven children with a life of luxury and privilege. In his diary, Thomas describes a youth spent attending fashionable parties, visiting friends and family throughout the region, reading and writing.
Around the age of 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 her sister Julia Thomas, a close Wesleyan friend. The couple married in 1852 and settled near Augusta.
A graduate of Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, who had dropped out of the Medical College of Georgia (later Georgia Health Sciences University) in Augusta, Thomas’ new husband established himself as a planter, thanks to a significant 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 many bonded laborers. She had ten children, only seven of whom survived after five years; her last child was born in 1875, when she was forty-one.
Civil War and Reconstruction
Thomas was still a young woman in 1861 at the start of the Civil War, which permanently erased privilege and comfort from her life. Although she was a passionate Confederate nationalist at the start of the war, she quickly concluded that the South had no chance of victory. Nonetheless, she remained loyal to the Confederacy. She ran the Augusta Ladies’ Aid Society, worked in military hospitals, sewed Confederate uniforms, and made cartridges for military use. By the end of the war, 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 with virtually all planter-class families in the South, defeat meant the collapse not only of the Thomas family way of life but also of the class structure of the South. Thomas and his family experienced economic difficulties during the reconstruction; the family declared bankruptcy and suffered multiple foreclosures, a source of great humiliation for Thomas. The family’s difficult financial situation forced her to seek employment as a schoolteacher, something women of her class would never have considered before the war.
Thomas taught from 1878 to 1884, but her husband’s alcoholism and poor money management prevented the family from recovering economically to the extent that many other planters had by the 1880s. of their continuing economic situation, Thomas and her husband moved in 1893 from Augusta to Atlanta, where they lived with their son Julian.
Despite the downturn in his economic situation, Thomas spent the last years of his life involved in numerous civic and social organizations. From the mid-1880s until his death, Thomas held leadership positions with 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 later years speaking at various women’s suffrage conventions around the country. In 1903, she was publicly congratulated by Susan B. Anthony and became a life member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Thomas died on May 11, 1907, from a stroke. His descendants proudly preserved his voluminous collection of diaries for three generations. In 1957, the Duke University Library in Durham, North Carolina purchased the journals from Thomas’s family. An edited selection of his writings was published in 1990 under the title The secret eye: The Diary of Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas, 1848-1889.
In 2014 Thomas was inducted into the Georgia Women of Achievement.