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Women and the American Civil War (December 2015): African American and Native American Women

by Elizabeth A. Novara

African American and Native American Women

Native American women are mentioned in a few of the encyclopedias identified in the General Works section of this essay, but there are not yet any book-length studies of Native American women’s experiences in the Civil War.  Carolyn Ross Johnston, however, moves toward such an in-depth exploration with her book Cherokee Women in Crisis: Trail of Tears, Civil War, and Allotment, 1838–1907.  Johnston’s book, which has a much broader periodization than just the war, describes how three crises within Cherokee history, including the Civil War, initiated changes in gender roles and responsibilities for Cherokee women.

Detailed information about the experiences of African American women, however, are featured in several of the monographs mentioned elsewhere in this essay, and there are some recent historical works that are much more focused on African American women and should be considered for academic libraries.  The following studies concentrate on black women and their experiences, including their resistance, emancipation, and sustained hardships during the war.  While most of these works emphasize the South, enslaved, emancipated, and free black women in all regions experienced the war very differently from privileged white women.

Many studies of African American women in the nineteenth century do not necessarily focus exclusively on the Civil War time period, but integrate the war with antebellum and emancipation experiences.  Two of the first books to address black women’s wartime experiences were Jacqueline Jones’s Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow: Black Women, Work, and the Family, from Slavery to the Present and editor Dorothy Sterling’s We Are Your Sisters: Black Women in the Nineteenth Century.  Jones’s Labor of Love, while an overview of black women’s labor and economic struggles, contains one important chapter on the Civil War and Reconstruction and the transition from slavery to freedom.  We Are Your Sisters is filled with accounts of African American women, both North and South, and contains a few chapters related to the Civil War time period, including those of free black schoolteachers in the South.  Tera W. Hunter also writes about black women’s labor in To ‘Joy My Freedom: Southern Black Women’s Lives and Labors after the Civil War.  While her main focus is postemancipation black women’s experiences in Atlanta, Georgia, she devotes one chapter to the Civil War and reminds readers of the legacy of slavery and the war throughout her book.

Leslie A. Schwalm looks at black women on the rice plantations of Lowcountry South Carolina in A Hard Fight for We: Women’s Transition from Slavery to Freedom in South Carolina.  In particular, she demonstrates that African American women did not necessarily experience freedom the way that African American men did, especially if their male relatives were drafted into the Union army.  Stephanie M. Camp delves into slave women’s participation in resistance to slave owners with Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, which has one chapter on the Civil War.  Camp’s study is noteworthy in that it looks at the power structures inherent within geographies of movement—moving information, smuggling objects, or hiding people—and how women took part in this type of defiance.

African American Women during the Civil War, by Ella Forbes, is one study that focuses solely on African American women in the Civil War time period, and is a must-have for any academic library that can still find it.  Forbes presents a wonderful overview, situates the text in an “African-centered” philosophy, and includes Northern and Southern perspectives.  Noralee Frankel sharpens her focus to black women and families in Freedom’s Women: Black Women and Families in Civil War Era Mississippi.  Frankel’s clear and descriptive study looks at how definitions of marriage, especially the introduction of legalized marriage during the war, affected women’s familial and community ties.  Frankel also looks at women’s experiences in contraband camps, and attempts by the military to restrain African American women’s sexuality and control wage labor.  In Sick from Freedom: African-American Illness and Suffering during the Civil War and Reconstruction, Jim Downs interrogates the intense consequences of emancipation during the war and shows the extent of the resulting humanitarian crisis, which especially caused suffering for former slaves, including women and children.  Freedom during the war did not necessarily equate to jubilation but more often meant disease and death.

While the South has typically been the focus of most Civil War histories of African American women, the recent discovery of the diaries of Emilie Davis, a free black woman living in Philadelphia during the war, has inspired new research.  Emilie Davis’s diaries, transcribed in full in Judith Giesberg’s Emilie Davis’s Civil War: The Diaries of a Free Black Woman in Philadelphia, 1863–1865, provide a glimpse of what the war looked like through the everyday life of a mulatto woman.  Karsonya Wise Whitehead provides a more detailed biographical and historical interpretation of the diaries in her Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis.  Because sources written by black women from the time period are such a rare find, both of these studies offer insights not only into Davis’s life, but into black women’s lives more generally.  Images of the original diary pages and transcriptions are also available on Villanova University’s website Memorable Days: The Emilie Davis Diaries.  Finally, Martha S. Jones’s compelling book All Bound Up Together: The Woman Question in African American Public Culture, 1830–1900 looks at three generations of African American women activists, including women who were transformed by the Civil War and emancipation.  She shows how African American women, primarily from the North, helped shape public discourse about gender roles and citizenship for themselves and for all African Americans.

Works Cited