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Women and the American Civil War (December 2015): Soldiers, Spies, and Military Wives

by Elizabeth A. Novara

Soldiers, Spies, and Military Wives

Although there is much general interest in women who served as soldiers and spies in the war, there have not been an overwhelming number of scholarly works published on this topic.  Elizabeth D. Leonard’s All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies discusses some of the best-known soldiers and spies, such as Belle Boyd and Sarah Emma Edmonds.  DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook provide an overall view of women soldiers in both the Union and the Confederacy in They Fought like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War.  Based on information gleaned from a large set of military records at the National Archives, this is the first book to look so comprehensively at women disguised as men in the military.

Two works related to spies that are more biographical in nature include Elizabeth R. Varon’s Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy and Wild Rose: Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Civil War Spy, by Ann Blackman.  Varon seeks to place Van Lew in a broader context, counter past interpretations of Van Lew as a lunatic or an eccentric, and instead show her as an American heroine.  Blackman, a journalist, looks at the life of Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a spy for the Confederacy, in her well-researched biography.

In Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and Their Wives, editors Carol K. Bleser and Lesley J. Gordon present a collection of essays about twelve Victorian-era military marriages heavily influenced by the national conflict.  The authors look at gender roles within marriage and how both women and men crossed the line between their separate spheres to defy the typical roles of the time period.  A similar work, but one in which not all the husbands are military commanders, is Carol Berkin’s Civil War Wives: The Lives and Times of Angelina Grimké Weld, Varina Howell Davis, and Julia Dent Grant.  This work also demonstrates how marriage gave women access to power structures traditionally reserved for men.

Works Cited