Author ORCID Identifier

Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Amy Murrell Taylor


This dissertation explores the ways the Charleston Orphan House, a nineteenth-century whites-only benevolent institution, promoted white unity in South Carolina between 1860 and 1870. Just as it had during the antebellum era, the Orphan Home knit together white society by providing poor white families a source of social security, middling white families a source for cheap labor in the form of indentured service, and elite whites an opportunity to display social prominence. Yet, maintaining this delicate balance throughout the siege of Charleston and the Home’s eventual evacuation to Orangeburg, South Carolina was no easy feat. The Chairman of the Board of Commissioners Henry Alexander DeSaussure and the Principal of the Home’s School Agnes K. Irving played crucial roles in maintaining daily operations.

After the war, the institution returned to Charleston, but re-establishing its central role in white society only became more important. In a state where Black freedmen and women far outnumbered white South Carolinians, political and social control of the state and of the city was in flux. Indeed, the U.S. Army, including Black soldiers of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts had even maintained camps on the Orphan House grounds until the children returned to the city. In this climate, as historians have shown, overt violence against Black people, political tampering, and maintaining white unity became crucial tools in the fight to preserve white supremacy. The last of these tools, white unity, has not been fully explored, and yet this is one of the reasons that the Orphan House commissioners admitted their peak numbers of children in the years immediately following the Civil War.

Ironically, however, just as the Charleston Orphan House played a pivotal role in maintaining white hegemony, its staff and children sometimes upended the social order within the institution. Most notably, New York-born Principal Agnes K. Irving increasingly took over managing all aspects of daily life within the Home, including the duties of the steward and matron. In this way, a northern woman became the single-most important person in a southern patriarchal institution, although her position did sometimes lead to conflict with other female staff members. Then, the children themselves had a surprising level of agency, able to negotiate how they left the institution and in what indentureships they entered. Some orphans eventually became respected members of society, and, just as the Orphan House commissioners had hoped, most of them seemed devoted to white supremacy, although some were embittered by the Confederacy.

In this way, the Charleston Orphan House offers a unique window into nineteenth-century white society. The board of commissioners kept detailed minutes of their meetings, and they engaged in thorough written investigations of in-house conflicts. They also maintained files on the children admitted into the institution, including applications and letters requesting admission and requests for children to be released or indentured. Commissioners who visited the applicants’ homes also left notes about their observations, which combined with the application letters offer an opportunity to study poor whites in this period. Some letters even came from former Orphan House wards. Equally important, the Home’s physician Dr. William Harleston Huger, left a journal that includes weekly notes on the general health of the institution and of special cases under his care. Other sources used in this study include nineteenth-century newspapers and records of the Charleston City Council.

In exploring the perspectives of the three groups most directly connected to the Orphan Home – the commissioners and staff, mothers of institutionalized orphans, and the Home’s children, this dissertation makes three arguments. First, just as it had during the antebellum era, the Charleston Orphan House helped forge white unity, by actively suppressing cross-racial connections and by encouraging poor white allegiance to their elites. Secondly, most of the poor white mothers who applied for their children to enter the Home were committed to traditional patriarchal values and used the Home as one method for regaining the promises of patriarchal protection. Finally, despite the expectations of their parents and of the commissioners and staff of the Orphan House, orphans used the resources at their disposal to shape their lives, especially during the Civil War. In the midst of the deadliest war in American History, the end of slavery, overt racial violence, and Reconstruction-era politics, my dissertation explores the ways elite white Charlestonians saw benevolence, poor whites, and white children and how those views fit into the greater struggle for white supremacy.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)

Funding Information

Lipman Fellowship, 2022, University of Kentucky History Department

Bryan Chair Fellowship, 2022, University of Kentucky History Department

Clifford and Jane Roy History Scholarship, 2021, University of Kentucky History Department

Robert Lipman Award, 2014 and 2015, University of Kentucky History Department