- Stepdaughters of History: Southern Women and the American Civil War by Catherine Clinton
Catherine Clinton may be new to Texas, having recently taken a position in the history department of the University of Texas at San Antonio, but for more than thirty-five years, foremost among scholars of southern and Civil War history, she has been asking the crucial and game-changing question: Where are the women? Since The Plantation Mistress appeared in 1982, Clinton has published more than a dozen volumes on southern women and the American Civil War. In 2012 she delivered the annual Fleming Lectures at Louisiana State University, edited and expanded in this fine volume.
Clinton demonstrates the complexity of gender and gendered norms in wartime and its aftermath by focusing her remarks on three groups of southern women: white women who struggled to ensure that the Lost Cause was enshrined in public memory; white women who engaged in unfeminine activities as soldiers, spies, and smugglers; and enslaved and free African American women who worked for freedom in a variety of ways.
The first group primarily concentrated on controlling the narrative of the war, "providing whitewashed pageantry for audiences hungry for tantalizing tales substituting glory for truth" (2). They included authors such as Augusta Jane Evans, family members of heroes such as Sallie Pickett and Winnie Davis, diarists such as Sarah Morgan and Kate Stone, and Mary Boykin Chesnut, who so successfully blurred the lines between fact and fiction that she challenges readers 150 years later. Try as they might, this "band of sisters," as Clinton dubs them, could not whitewash "the blood of the lash . . . yet [they] would die trying" (39).
The second group, "Impermissible Patriots," were white women who acted "beyond the bounds of female propriety" (41) and hence were ignored by polite southern society and historians alike. Loreta Janeta Velázquez served as a soldier and then had the temerity to write a memoir, The Woman in Battle, [End Page 233] published in 1876. Ever since, critics have tried to discredit Velázquez as a camp follower, and Clinton calls them out for feeling "quite confident in taking this tactic to undermine a woman who was so audacious as to take a defiant position and then to advertise her perversion" (50). Confederate spy Rose O'Neal Greenhow received similar criticism for her activities. Polite society whispered that she had "compromised her gender and her class" in coaxing secrets out of Yankees (62). Belle Boyd also used her "feminine wiles" to carry out what she regarded as a military mission as a spy. Women such as these, and the crowds of females in New Orleans whom the Union general Butler Benjamin ordered to behave or be treated as prostitutes, show the bounds of gender propriety and social costs for ignoring them.
The third lecture examined African American women, enslaved and free. Harriet Tubman first helped escaping slaves and then spied for the Union army. Susie King Taylor served as a nurse with the Union army and wrote a memoir reminding readers that women as well as men sacrificed for freedom. Clinton muses on the myth of Mammy, resistance to that myth, and the tangled historiography of its study. The stories of real African American women are emerging from the shadows, "reconstructed by sharp-eyed scholars rather than misty-eyed memoirists" (111).
These essays are extraordinarily well written. While theoretically and historiographically sophisticated, they are accessible to a general audience and also worthwhile for readers more familiar with the material. Readers looking for specifics on the Lone Star State should consult Women in Civil War Texas: Diversity and Dissidence in the Trans-Mississippi West, edited by Deborah Liles and Angela Boswell (University of North Texas Press, 2016).