- Women on the Civil War Battlefront
The idea of women serving in combat has both inspired and repelled many American citizens. Since the 1970s, the public has debated whether women should assume combat roles, with both sides of the debate typically assuming that U.S. women have never taken part in battle. Yet this is not an accurate summary of the history of warfare. As Richard H. Hall and other writers have demonstrated, U.S. women have already served in combat, in the Civil War.
Hall's previous work, Patriots in Disguise (1993) described those women, and in this book, he presents more evidence on the topic and related subjects. The author, a freelance writer, discusses women who participated in the Civil War as nurses, spies, smugglers, Daughters of the Regiment, and, in the South, as Unionists who assisted federal prisoners or warned Yankee soldiers of danger. Hall has examined many sources, including government records, correspondence, unit rosters, newspapers, the Southern Claims Commission, and memoirs. Throughout the text, he takes a biographical approach, sketching the lives of individual women. The documentation and case studies appear in the appendices.
Much of the book focuses on women who served in combat disguised as men. Females white and black, from all social classes and educational backgrounds, served in battle. Hall estimates that at least one thousand women, maybe several thousand total, served in both armies. This estimate is the result of meticulous detective work. The author carefully matches legend against historical evidence for a number of figures, such as Loreta J. Velazquez, and he debunks some false claims. Frances Clalin/Clayton, whose androgynous photograph has been reproduced in many books, was probably not a veteran after all. Hall presents brand-new information, such as three accounts of women who served as Confederate officers, although he does not explain how they got away with it.
In the process of separating fact from legend, which can be very difficult when historical figures are trying to conceal their identities, there are a few missteps. Ellen Bond, who allegedly worked as a spy in the Confederate [End Page 1245] White House, was almost certainly Ellen Barnes, whose name was garbled in newspaper accounts. Scholars may not agree with some of Hall's arguments about causation. He states that reform movements "laid the groundwork" for women to depart from conventional gender roles during the Civil War (p. 221), but while the women's movement began in the antebellum North and had few adherents in the South, females from both regions served in the armies. The author has nevertheless discovered a great deal of fresh, compelling, and fascinating material. Women on the Civil War Battlefront is a gold mine of information for military historians and historians of gender.