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Women and the American Civil War (December 2015): General Works

by Elizabeth A. Novara

General Works

Before the field of inquiry on women and the Civil War began to grow in the 1970s and 1980s, Mary Elizabeth Massey wrote her groundbreaking work Bonnet Brigades: American Women in the Civil War (1966).  Massey gave the first overview of women’s contributions to the war and demonstrated how women gained a foothold in various professions.  The next scholarly work to provide an overview of women’s experiences, Marilyn Culpepper’s Trials and Triumphs: The Women of the American Civil War, did not appear until 1991.  While revealing the anxieties and hardships women experienced during the war, both Massey and Culpepper take an overwhelmingly positive view of women’s status at the end of war, arguing that women had established themselves in new careers and proven that they were ready to take on new responsibilities in society.  Other historians take issue with these celebratory histories and have moved toward different investigative paths.  For example, Joan Cashin’s edited collection of essays, The War Was You and Me: Civilians in the American Civil War, provides an excellent overview of the war from civilian perspectives, including those of Northern women teaching in the South, Virginia Civil War widows, Mary Surratt, and white children in the border state of Maryland.  Cashin and the authors of the essays contend that little has been written about the civilian experience of the war, and endeavor to turn the focus from military scholarship to previously underrepresented groups, without the celebratory tone.

The first encyclopedic work on women and the Civil War was editor Judith E. Harper’s Women during the Civil War: An Encyclopedia in 2004.  This work still provides a good entry point to the topic for undergraduate students, even though it has been over a decade since it was published.  ABC-CLIO has published three relevant and more recent reference works, all edited by historian Lisa Tendrich Frank, which provide coverage of women and the Civil War.  Civil War: People and Perspectives offers a look at underrepresented groups such as women, children, blacks, Native Americans, and immigrants, to name but a few.  Women in the American Civil War, a two-volume encyclopedia, is the most focused on women’s experiences during the Civil War and is a must-have for any reference collection.  The collection includes biographical sketches of women, important events, political issues, and primary sources, and situates the Civil War into the broader field of US women’s history.  Most recently, Frank edited An Encyclopedia of American Women at War: From the Home Front to the Battlefields.  This two-volume work provides yet another perspective on women and the Civil War by broadening the discussion to women’s contributions to the military throughout American history from the Colonial period to the present.  Civil War America: A Social and Cultural History, edited by Maggi M. Morehouse and Zoe Trodd, delivers a general overview of the Civil War with primary source documents; however, there are only two essays in the volume that focus on women.  This work would serve well as a companion textbook for undergraduate classes on social and cultural aspects of the war.

Works Cited