Saturday, April 30, 2011

Women soldiers in the Civil War

They Fought Like Demons, DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook

The subtitle of this book is "Women Soldiers in the Civil War."  I'm sure a lot of people would automatically say, "There were no women soldiers in the Civil War."  Women's traditional roles in the conflict have been well-documented. Nurses, yes, and aid workers, and even spies.  Everyone knows Clara Barton, and Belle Boyd, and maybe even Louisa May Alcott.  But not warriors.  Part of the story that Blanton and Cook have to tell is how the women soldiers have been erased from the history of the Civil War.  The troops fighting in the Union and Confederate armies knew about the women soldiers - and not as urban myths, that a woman "somewhere" was serving.  They wrote their families about their encounters with these women, living and dead (some discovered only among the corpses after a battle).  Stories about these women made it into the newspapers, both during the war and afterwards.  There are official records of women in both armies, including pension records.  At least one woman Union veteran became a member in good standing in the GAR veterans' organization after the war, as a woman.  It was only as the Civil War veterans died off that the memory of these women soldiers was lost.  In the 20th century, the historical evidence was dismissed or interpreted to show these women as deranged or prostitutes, or the stories as romantic fiction.

DeAnne Blanton is a senior military archivist with the National Archives. She and Lauren Cook spent ten years in painstaking, detailed research for this book.  They identified 250 women soldiers in both armies, but their research suggests there may have been many more who never revealed themselves or were discovered as women, who simply served until death or discharge.  The evidence they present is clear, compelling, and incontrovertible.

The book is organized thematically, with chapters on why women served (for the same reasons men did, but also for the freedom that men had); how they disguised themselves and how they experienced life in the ranks; the experiences of wounds and capture; how they fared on discovery; how they were perceived both by fellow soldiers and by the general public; and their post-war experiences.  The authors and the reader are left with a lot of unanswered questions, in part because the women's experiences are poorly documented compared with those of male soldiers.  Many of the women simply disappear from the record, especially in the post-war years.

The larger story is compelling, and the details are endlessly fascinating.  Women could easily pass a medical entrance exam that was primarily some questions and a quick visual once-over.   Women who were discovered and booted from the army often traveled to a different city or town and re-enlisted, which was easy in the days before national identity documents.  At least two women soldiers were discovered only when they gave birth in camp - one had fought in battles into her third trimester, one went into labor while on picket duty.  Women soldiers were most often discovered when wounded in an area that required disrobing; a head, hand or calf wound was usually safe.  Capture as a prisoner of war almost always meant discovery.  One woman soldier went with her husband as a prisoner to Andersonville, and she remained after his death, never revealing herself as a woman, though that would have brought release.  She died a prisoner, and her grave is the only one marked with a headstone.

Anyone interested in the Civil War, or 19th century American history, or women's history, needs to read this book.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!