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Epic Sisterhoods

By Patrick Collins

Southern Women in the Civil War

In the Fall of 2009 Dr. Catherine Clinton, now Denman Endowed Professor in American History at UTSA, was invited to deliver a series of lectures on Southern history at Louisiana State University as part of the prestigious Fleming Lecture Series. Her talks centered on Southern women in the Civil War, a scholarly territory she had traversed at many points in her career, including in her first book – The Plantation Mistress – in 1982 and in her subsequent work on more than two dozen books, many of which touched on issues of gender and race in the Civil War era.

Despite Clinton’s deep familiarity with the topic, in preparing original material for the LSU lectures she found herself looking at questions of womanhood, the South, and the Civil War from new and invigorating perspectives. Her explorations encompassed the stories and experiences of Southern women across all spectrums of society, from those who ran plantations in the wake of the male exodus to war to those who liberated themselves from the yoke of slavery to become central figures in the struggle for black freedom. Her research will result in publication of her lectures in 2016 to coincide with Clinton’s appointment as the president of the Southern Historical Association, in a book titled Stepdaughters of History: Southern Women and the Civil War.

“Women in the South have always been viewed monolithically and mythically as one model, which of course is very untrue,” Clinton said. “There were rich women and poor women, white women and black women, enslaved women and free women, all rolled up into the Confederacy. I’m trying to look at what the impact of the overwhelming drive for Confederate independence was on those women, and to talk about women who struggled not only to support men’s efforts but who actually took on men’s roles in many forms.”

African American women were doubly marginalized and in some ways doubly invisible

One of the realities that struck Clinton during her research was the fact that in their postwar memoir literature, white women provided a unique picture of the war very different from that portrayed by men. They wrote narratives of their experiences that were emotionally moving and powerful, creating in the process a subconscious identity of wartime womanhood. “Confederate women in particular were very adept at spinning their personal narratives into ideological tales gilded with emotionalism,” said Clinton. The narratives show that, though the stories seldom form part of popular history, women in the Civil War era forged epic sisterhoods and accomplished feats in the face of extreme challenge every bit as brave as their male counterparts.

Battle-Born Bonds

While militaries may have clashed on the battlefields, those at home were affected just as strongly by the conflict. “The home front in the Confederacy was as complex and interesting and worth investigating as was the battlefront,” said Clinton. “A lot of my work has involved concentrating on what was going on at home during the war. What were the divisions? What were the conflicts and challenges? How did women cope with the great burden of war that fell on their shoulders?” Coping on the home front was no trivial task. Wives of plantation owners, for example, were accustomed to acting as agents of their husbands capable of carrying out intricate business activities while their spouses traveled to the statehouse or took jobs as surveyors or lawyers. But it was an entirely different proposition to take on that type of responsibility knowing that their husbands might never return.

“Wartime layers over such extreme emotions that I think white women felt very much beleaguered, and they often got a lot of comfort from one another. Particularly in the period after the war, when legions of white men came home and declared they’d been defeated, it was very difficult for these women to cope with the period of limbo and decline.” These extreme challenges forced women to turn to one another for support, and the communities they created proved capable not only of carrying them through the war but also of providing them with an enduring sense of kinship and unity.

Against All Obstacles

The scope of women’s influence on the Civil War also extended beyond the home front. Clinton’s research identified a class of women who were so devoted to their cause that they transgressed traditional gender roles (a far from trivial undertaking in nineteenthcentury America) and risked their lives to defend their ideals in the face of the enemy. Many became spies, and nearly 200 women were documented to have gone so far as to disguise themselves as men to fight on the battlefield itself.

Clinton recently worked as a consultant on a documentary that tells one of these extraordinary and little-known stories. The award-winning film, Rebel, features the tale of Loreta Janeta Velazquez, a Cuban-born New Orleans woman who by the age of 21 was widowed and had suffered the death of her children. Rather than sink under the weight of her loss, Velazquez went into military service, according to her autobiography, and disguised herself to serve as a soldier in the Confederate army, spying for both sides before the war was over. Another notable example is Rose Greenhow, a well-known society widow in Washington, D.C. who was so feared by the Union that she was placed under house arrest and declared a spy when the war broke out. Greenhow died at sea while returning from Europe on a mission to smuggle gold and sensitive documents into the blockaded Confederacy.

“Women like Loreta Velazquez and Rose Greenhow deserve our attention,” said Clinton. “They were belittled in their own time because they didn’t conform to traditional gender norms, and because they weren’t seen as ladies they were pushed outside of the narrative frame. They were ostracized and labeled as outsiders, and they’ve since been marginalized and treated as not worthy of our time and attention.”

Untold Heroism

Of all the women in the South during the Civil War era, enslaved women endured the greatest hardship and underwent the most profound transformation, and yet they have only recently begun to receive their due in the historical narrative. “African American women were doubly marginalized and in some ways doubly invisible,” said Dr. Clinton. “They could hear things and pass on information.” One such example is Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a highly educated former slave with a photographic memory who was placed as a spy in the Confederate White House by Richmond socialite Elizabeth Van Lew (herself a spy and philanthropic abolitionist). Taking on the pseudonym of Ellen Bond, Bowser blended into her surroundings as a soft-spoken servant with access to virtually the entire mansion, turning over a large and strategically priceless body of classified information to Union intelligence.

A better-known figure, Harriet Tubman is widely recognized for her extraordinary acts as an abolitionist and humanitarian. Less known, however, is her involvement in the Civil War as a Union spy. One of her crowning missions involved her role in the Combahee River Raid, which resulted in the freeing of 750 slaves in a single night. Tubman led three Union gunboats carrying 150 black soldiers up the Combahee River, helping them steer clear of Confederate mines thanks to information she had secured by going behind enemy lines, and giving the all-clear to slaves lying along the banks waiting to be rescued. It was Tubman’s work on the Underground Railroad that allowed her to effectively coordinate the major military operation. The raid dealt a powerful blow to Confederate morale, says Clinton, who drew on her award winning 2004 biography, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, to illuminate her role in Civil War history, a neglected chapter of Tubman’s long and productive career.

In publishing Stepdaughters of History, Clinton aims to strike just as deeply into the monolithic historical construct of womanhood during the Civil War. The stories she brings forth demonstrate that women’s wartime actions were central to the struggle in a way that may surprise those accustomed to conceiving of female social roles as merely supportive. Clinton aspires to elevate recognition of women’s contributions as much within her research as outside of it; her recent invitation by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to participate in a roundtable discussion on the decision to feature a woman on the redesigned $10 bill is just one example of her efforts to contribute to a more gender-inclusive cultural dialogue. “In many ways,” she said, “the book is a reflective series of essays on larger questions of gender and region” – issues that are just as relevant to mid-nineteenth-century America as they are in contemporary culture.