- Never Just Witnesses:Reassessing Southern Women's History in the United States
Stephanie McCurry's 2010 prizewinning study of the Confederacy's destruction from within brought to the fore the work of the state's enemies. Enslaved people, women, and non-slaveholders, she argued, exposed the hollowness of the Confederacy's vision and, in so doing, eroded the proslavery and antidemocratic republic that its architects had hoped to establish. "Given its goal of preserving a highly restrictive body politic," McCurry concluded, "it was a fitting judgment on the slaveholders' state." The Civil War, she continued, transformed precisely those "social and political relations it was designed to preserve." By 1865, the Confederacy was forced to face its reckoning, one that was of its own doing. There are powerful lessons to be learned here, McCurry argued, perhaps most obviously about the nature of power, the "workings of politics," and "the possibilities of change." But the Confederacy's downfall offers another equally powerful [End Page 154] lesson, one on "the writing of history." Afterall, the dismantling of the "single most powerful slave regime in the Western world" was wrought precisely by the people who do not "make history."1
At some level, each of the works under consideration in this essay strives to write a history of those who do not make history: non-married women in the antebellum South; slaveholding women who, when present in accounts of slavery, almost always appear as the wives of enslavers, never enslavers in their own right; elite Confederate women who show up in grand syntheses of the war only to offer color commentary; enslaved women whom the Union army considered fugitives rather than "slaves in rebellion"; and the women who suffered defeat but are rarely seen as shaping the peace that followed. Historians, it seems, have their own reckoning to face.
McCurry's most recent study, Women's War: Fighting and Surviving the American Civil War is a fitting follow-up to Confederate Reckoning. She begins with the premise that women "are never just witnesses to war." They, like men, are forced to fight "if only to survive." What is more, they have vested interests in war's causes and outcomes. And those interests were all the more acute during the American Civil War, when "there was no place of refuge and little neutrality" (2). The failure to recognize women as agents, political actors, and military threats confronted wartime governments at every turn. And it has distorted our writing of history ever since.
Three compelling and powerful chapters, each focusing on one issue and moment in time during the conflict, model what a familiar story looks like when women are acknowledged "actors and makers of history" (3). A Union army that clung to the idea of "innocence and civilian immunity in war" soon found itself challenged by enemy women and was thus forced to grapple with a question that could not be answered by existing law: what can an army legitimately do "to noncombatants or civilians in war" (17–18)? By 1863, gender alone could no longer distinguish combatant from civilian. That distinction crumbled, McCurry notes, because of the...