- Stepdaughters of History: Southern Women and the American Civil War by Catherine Clinton
Catherine Clinton has written a timely meditation on the ways in which antebellum and Civil War–era women—black, white, Hispanic, or otherwise—are remembered, or not. For more than a quarter century, scholars have tried to recover the voices of oppressed groups. Post-November 2016 election protests make Clinton's call especially urgent, though. As if waving her own sign, Clinton begins by pointing out how long the Confederate nation actually lasted: 1,458 days, but "who's counting"? (p. xi). And so it goes as she soon acknowledges she will never write the women's equivalent of James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom because "I am no Jim McPherson" (p. xiii). Instead, Clinton calls on her academic sisters (and, if she's lucky, brothers) to better integrate women's and military history and dispense with the myths that women were marginal war-time actors. This is a key aim of the conversationally written book that will serve academics and lay readers alike. Her biggest task, though, [End Page 132] is demonstrating the "possibilities of social change" being linked to "compelling and radical archival research" (p. 102).
Chapter one gives a bird's eye review of how the literature has addressed or failed to address women's roles in the antebellum period and the war (indeed, while she is interested in the war, she also addresses the antebellum period). The list of notable historians who have advanced the literature, including Drew Gilpin Faust, Stephanie Mc-Curry, and Deborah Gray White, among others, are mentioned, but she suggests more work needs to be done on several fronts including the war-time experiences of northern women and African American women, free and enslaved. The work of familiar names like Mary Chesnut might also be revisited. "Is it [indeed] a diary? A journal? A memoir? Reminiscence? Each rendition of the published work is a form of hybrid," Clinton writes. Chestnut is at best "one creator of one woman's life" (p. 37).
Throughout the book, Clinton is clearly interested in seeing the possibilities for greater attention to gender and racial war-time politics, which might be presented best when, whether she consciously says so or not, scholars also focus on space, and not just space as it relates to, say, civilian death on the warfront. Chapter two, for instance, introduces the reader to "impermissible patriots" like the Cuban-born, but New Orleans-bred Loreta Janeta Velazquez, a memoirist who saw combat at, among other spaces, Fort Donelson. That Clinton stumbled upon Velazquez's life after having seen the award-winning film Rebel by Maria Aqui Carter tells us how far she is willing to go—well beyond traditional monographs—to find new voices. Clinton even boldly engages contemporary debates. For example, she tells us that Velazquez "might fall within the category transgender, but to label her thus would be highly speculative" (p. 43).
That said, Clinton is unafraid to show how marginalized historical actors should not be merely saved or celebrated but examined in all their messy complexity, an approach that has rightly gained considerable traction both in and outside academic circles. Showing Velazquez's warts, Clinton mentions this woman's attempts to [End Page 133] maintain her cover. She poses as a Confederate officer by purchasing an enslaved man only to watch Bob escape after the Battle of Shiloh. She did not seek to recapture him. Before we cheer, Clinton says this writer likely embellished her story as much as Chesnut or others did in their day. Perhaps unintentionally and certainly contradicting her task of scrutinizing the multi-layered "stepdaughters," Clinton writes that Velazquez's ultimate worth to modern readers is "as an author [rather] than as a soldier" (p. 47). Perhaps she is actually worthy of study as both author and soldier.
Still, Clinton should be commended for going places many scholars avoid. In chapter three, arguably her strongest chapter, she explores how academics recover...