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"My Highly Valued Friend" and "Darling Husband":
The Civil War Courtship of Mary E. Burton & Giles W. Shurtleff

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Mary Burton Shurtleff with daughter Laura, c. 1868       Giles Waldo Shurtleff, 1861

30/32 Giles Waldo and Mary E. Burton Shurtleff Papers

Yvette Chen, Louise Edwards, Rebekkah Rubin



This archival collection is comprised of letters exchanged between Mary Burton Shurtleff and General Giles Waldo Shurtleff during the Civil War, from 1861 to 1866. The letters follow their relationship through their courtship and marriage.1 Born on December 23, 1836 in Austinburg, Ohio, Mary E. Burton attended Mount Holyoke Seminary in Massachusetts from 1858 to 1859 and finished her education at Lake Erie Seminary in Painesville, Ohio.2 After graduating in 1860, Mary Burton remained at Lake Erie Seminary as a teacher, a post she held throughout the Civil War.3 Her husband, Giles Waldo Shurtleff, was born on September 8, 1831 in the Canadian territory. He journeyed to Oberlin, Ohio, for his college education in 1853, and graduated with honors in 1859. Moved to action by the abolitionist zeal of his college town, Shurtleff joined the Union army and was elected the captain of Oberlin-based Company C of the 7th Regiment Ohio Volunteer Infantry known as "Monroe Rifles" after antislavery politician and Oberlin College professor James Monroe. Later, after a period of imprisonment in enemy camps, Shurtleff was put in command of the 5th United States Colored Troops, a regiment of African-American troops from Ohio. He was wounded in action in 1864 and returned home to marry his sweetheart, Mary Burton, in Austinburg on November 23, 1864.4

Following Giles Shurtleff's honorable discharge at the end of the Civil War in 1865, the couple moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where he became a professor of Latin and Greek at Oberlin College, as well as holding other positions at the College. During this time, the Shurtleffs had two daughters, Laura and Mary, who both attended Oberlin College.5 Mary Burton Shurtleff cemented her reputation as part of a "remarkable group of strong and clear-sighted women who shaped and influence[d] the early Oberlin."6 Giles Waldo Shurtleff died in 1904; Mary Burton Shurtleff lived until 1924.

The letters presented here were written during the early years of the couple's relationship, while Giles Shurtleff fought in the Civil War and Mary Burton Shurtleff remained close to home. These letters provide a window on conceptions of romantic love, as well as growing tensions between female education and domesticity. In addition to her courtship letters, biographical information about Mary Burton Shurtleff's later life helps to inform our understanding of the challenges she faced in reconciling her personal values with the conventions of society.

Mary Burton Shurtleff's letters reflect the paradox that many women faced in the latter half of the nineteenth century. While the letters written before her marriage suggest her strength and capability as an independent woman, she simultaneously performed cultural conventions of femininity. These letters also emphasize the importance of "romantic love," an emerging ideal in this period. As explained by historian Karen Lystra, "romantic love" served to strengthen the ties of men and women, while "companionate marriage" remained dependent on gendered divisions of labor.7 The result was a dialog of ambiguity, as illustrated throughout the Shurtleffs' correspondence, both in courtship and after marriage. In Mary Burton's premarital letters, her language referring to their budding relationship represented what Lystra calls a "courtship test," which was typically employed by women as a means of strengthening men's affection.8 "To be sure," Mary Burton wrote to her suitor in 1862, "your words awakened in my heart emotions new and difficult to analyze, but was that once evidence of love?"9 Although Mary Burton clearly esteemed Giles Shurtleff, her letters nevertheless impressed upon him declarations rife with contradictions. Under the guise of questioning her own feelings, Mary Burton's assertions also served as a test of her future husband's sincerity, emphasizing the importance of romantic love preceding marriage.

After their marriage, Mary Burton Shurtleff attempted to embody the tenets of domesticity dictated by society. She wrote to her husband in 1865 that she would be a "devoted housekeeper, as well as a loving wife."10 However, this desire to please him did not exist without tension. In the same letter, she also inquired whether or not she should continue teaching while waiting for his return from the army, noting that "it costs me a good deal to live, and I do not like to become dependent upon you, while I am doing nothing for you, besides I love teaching for its own sake."11 With their male relatives away at war, many women faced similar dilemmas. Necessity and education had made them independent, at the same time that convention and marriage advised their dependence. Thus, even in asserting her own desire to be independent, Mary Burton Shurtleff nevertheless deferred to her husband for advice on the matter, ultimately fulfilling the conventional gender roles existing within a Victorian marriage.

Mary Burton Shurtleff's life similarly exemplifies the idea of "radical respectability," which speaks to the use of conservative means to achieve progressive action and is widely evident in the female education of Mary Shurtleff's generation.12 Due to societal pressure, many women did not use their education to embrace new occupations or roles in society. Although revolutionary in its acceptance of women, Oberlin College provided female students an education grounded in ensuring women's domestic place in the household. As described in the Oberlin Prospectus, the Oberlin Collegiate Institute's "Female Department" included housekeeping and gardening to ensure "employment suited to their sex, and conducive to their health, good habits, and support."13 This tension between women's education and women's confinement to conservative gender roles is clearly evident in Mary Burton Shurtleff's life.

At Mount Holyoke and Lake Erie Seminaries, Mary Burton was educated in Latin and higher mathematics, considered more "masculine" subjects at the time.14 Yet, she returned to a more conventional, domestic role after her marriage. She still continued to value her education, writing to Giles Shurtleff on March 4, 1865, "I'm glad I was educated at a female Sem. I think I enjoy society with a keener relish."15 However, two months later, she wrote to him that she "long[ed] for the time to come when your comfort and happiness will be my only care. I am sure that domestic employments will never be distasteful to me."16 These excerpts reflect tensions present in the lives of other educated women as well. Like many of her peers, Mary Burton Shurtleff sought to reconcile these conflicts after her marriage by employing her education in socially acceptable reform groups.

Through active involvement in female reform groups, Mary Burton Shurtleff cultivated an acceptable public identity in conjunction with her private, married life. She was a member of the Oberlin Temperance Alliance, the Non-Partisan Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Woman's Board of Missions of the Interior, and the Daughters of the American Revolution.17 Like many middle-class white women of the time, she was able to justify her participation in these public reform groups on the basis of her duty as a moral Christian to uplift the downtrodden.18 These organizations allowed her to have a public outlet for her voice and affect social change while maintaining deference to male authority. In this way, Mary Burton Shurtleff's participation in reform societies did not distance her from her domestic role, but instead reinforced the idea that she was a virtuous wife and mother. Similarly, her role as a wife and mother authenticated her role as a promoter of high moral standards. Therefore, Mary Burton Shurtleff's public and private lives were not separate spheres, but inextricably intertwined.19

The archival collection consisting of letters from Mary Burton Shurtleff to Giles Shurtleff illuminates the role of educated women in the 19th century. These letters provide insight into how women struggled to overcome obstacles, and how they worked within the societal framework to maintain respectability. Although Mary Burton Shurtleff is not a prominent name in the studies of First Wave American feminism, her life reflects the experiences of the multitudes of nineteenth-century women whose voices have been lost in history. ♦

[1] John Mercer, "Giles Waldo Shurtleff: Leadership in the Cause of Freedom," accessed 16 March 2013, http://www.oberlin.edu/external/EOG/ShurtleffBio-Mercer.htm.

[2] "News Letter," 20 April 1925, Student File (Shurtleff, Mrs. Mary E. Burton), Box 941, Alumni & Development Records, Oberlin College Archives (hereafter O.C.A.)

[3] Mercer, "Giles Waldo Shurtleff."

[4] Ibid.

[5] "News Letter," 20 April 1925.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Karen Lystra, Searching the Heart: Women, Men and Romantic Love in Nineteenth-Century America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), 158.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mary Shurtleff to Giles Shurtleff, 27 September 1862, in Giles Waldo and Mary E. Burton Shurtleff Papers (hereafter Shurtleff Papers), Series 2, Box 1, O.C.A.

[10] Mary Shurtleff to Giles Shurtleff, 2 April 1865, Shurtleff Papers, Series 2, Box 1, O.C.A.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Carol Lasser, "Radical Respectability: Women, Gender, and the Founding of Early Oberlin College" Lecture for History 213, Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH, March 12, 2013.

[13] Prospectus for the Oberlin Collegiate Institute, 1883, accessed 12 March 2013, http://www.oberlin.edu/external/EOG/Documents/OberlinProspectus.html.

[14] Lake Erie College, Twenty-fifth anniversary of Lake Erie Female Seminary, Painesville, Ohio, June 23d to 26th, 1884. [1859-1884] (Cleveland: J.B. Savage, 1884), 47.

[15] Mary Shurtleff to Giles Shurtleff, 4 March 1875, in Correspondence of Mary E. Burton Shurtleff, Series 2, Box 1, O.C.A.

[16] Mary Shurtleff to Giles Shurtleff, 3 May 1875, in Correspondence of Mary E. Burton Shurtleff, Series 2, Box 1, O.C.A.

[17] "News Letter," 20 April 1925, Student File (Shurtleff, Mrs. Mary E. Burton), Box 941, Alumni & Development Records, O.C.A.

[18] Carol Lasser and Stacey Robertson, Antebellum Women: Private, Public, Partisan (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2010), 36-37.

[19] See: Lasser and Robertson, 1-78.