- Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War
While Southern women have often been celebrated in Civil War scholarship, Northern women have been seriously neglected. Nina Silber's Daughters of the Union ends that neglect in impressive fashion. Previous works on Northern women, such as Elizabeth Leonard's Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War (1994) and All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies (1999) and Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber's Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War (1992), have either focused on specialized groups (women soldiers, nurses, etc.) or concentrated more on gender battles. Silber expands the topic to include the vast majority of women. Discussing women from different ethnic, racial, and economic groups, Silber successfully shows that while the Civil War propelled women into new, more independent roles, it also forced them to recognize the ultimate authority of men and the state in all aspects of their lives.
The book is organized topically with each chapter discussing a different war experience for women. Within each chapter, Silber discusses women from a variety of backgrounds. She begins with a discussion of the "conflicting loyalties" that many Northern women felt. While they were worried about their husbands going to war, they also were proud not only of the patriotism of the soldiers but also of their own sacrifices. The impact of the Civil War on women is analyzed through economics, political battles, and the changes in the home itself. Silber [End Page 75] successfully illustrates just how completely the lives of Northern women were changed by the war, even if they were far from the actual battlefields.
While female nurses have been the topic of much scholarship, Silber digs much deeper in her chapter "Saving the Sick, Healing the Nation" and analyzes the disputes that nurses had with male authority. She shows that women (even powerful ones such as Dorothea Dix) quickly came to the realization that male authority would always win. Even more impressively, she discusses the different experience of African American women in hospitals, where they dealt with racism from their white female peers and sexist attitudes of their male bosses. One of the book's most fascinating chapters, "Wartime Emancipation," explores the attitudes of white women toward the newly freed slaves during the war. Libby Bowland requested of her soldier husband, "When you come home . . . try to get a nice negrow boy to bring with you" (231). Many of these women who asked their husbands to bring African Americans home as domestic labor had worked hard for the abolition of slavery. In fact, they had pushed for Lincoln to declare abolition one of the aims of the war.
Silber's overriding theme is the relation between women and the expanding power of the nation-state. At the same time that women became more independent by accepting jobs outside the home or raising money for wartime causes, they also became more dependent on the state itself. This dependency was institutionalized in the pension system for widows, where the state could and did examine domestic affairs (and determined what constituted marriage) to decide a woman's worthiness for government assistance, a decision that could mean the difference between economic survival and collapse. In this book Silber has done for Northern women what Drew Faust did for Southern women in Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (1996): she has given them a voice. The great variety of experiences from wealthy white women holding fund-raising fairs, to poor immigrant women sewing for their soldier-husbands, to African American women working as servants to try and survive financially while their husbands received less pay than their white counterparts, Silber brings them all to life. The book is beautifully written and draws the reader in each step of the way. The combination of secondary sources on each major topic with diaries of letters from the women themselves makes their experience come alive and makes the book invaluable for anyone...