Author Interview--Thomas F. Curran (Women Making War) Part 1

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we feature Thomas F. Curran to talk about his new book Women Making War: Female Confederate Prisoners and Union Military Justice, published by Southern Illinois University Press in October 2020.

Tom Curran received his doctorate from the University of Notre Dame. He teaches in the department of social studies at Cor Jesu Academy in St. Louis. His previous works include Soldier of Peace: Civil War Pacifism and the Postwar Radical Peace Movement (2003).

Tom, to start, could you give our readers an idea of how you became interested in writing about women, especially in the St. Louis area, during the Civil War?

TFC: This project had a long germination process. As a young scholar I had been fascinated by stories of encounters between women, usually Confederate, and the military, women like Belle Boyd, Rose O’Neil Greenhow and some other lesser-known women I had come across serendipitously in my research. Moving to St. Louis set the stage for my discovery of the stories I tell in Women Making War. In my research of a different project, I utilized a portion of the records of the military prisons in St. Louis and the nearby Alton Military Prison. I was familiar with the names of a few women arrested in St. Louis, but in these prison records I began coming across names I had never seen before. I also uncovered stories, or portions of stories, suggesting a wide variety of activities that brought women under the scrutiny of the Union army. I thought there might be a bigger story here, but while I had identified a few dozen women who had spent time in custody in St. Louis and at Alton, I needed more information. That led me to a review of the pro-Union newspaper the Missouri Democrat, which regularly reported the arrests of civilians and the comings and goings of soldiers and civilians at the military prisons. With that, I began developing a database of women who spent time in custody in the region, which only grew with further research. I also began to see some of the issues raised by the women’s activities and the Union army’s evolving response to these partisan women. Delving into the National Archive’s records of the Provost Marshal General deepened the story. What I found did not correspond with what appeared in the historiography, which if it considered Confederate partisan women engaging in the war effort at all tended to focus on a few well-known instances like Boyd and Greenhow, and in St. Louis a group of well-established women banished to the South in May 1863, or otherwise treated such cases as anomalous and trivial. Many years later, this is the result.

What do you argue in Women Making War?

TFC: Women Making War argues that a significant number of Confederate women stepped out of their sphere and engaged in direct activities designed to further the Southern war effort. Much of what we know about these women comes from records generated when they were investigated and arrested by the Union army. The activities women who spent time in the custody of the provost marshal general in St. Louis participated in ranged from minor offenses like publicly expressing support for the Confederacy to more serious infractions like spying, smuggling, acting as conduits of the clandestine Confederate mail network, helping male prisoners escape, sabotage, and directly aiding the Confederate army and guerrilla fighters. 
Union army officials took these activities seriously, especially as the war progressed. They did not see these actions simply as transgressions of expected gendered behavior. These activities were of a treasonous nature. As a result, women’s partisan activities shaped Federal policy toward rebellious civilians, such as Lieber’s Code. Understanding these activities adds another layer of complexity to our understanding of the experience of Southern women during the war, the interaction between Union soldiers and hostile civilians, the additional challenges incarcerated women posed the military prison system, and how we remember the conflict and women’s roles. 

You also seem to have been encouraged by some rather problematic public views on the subject: How are you correcting popular views and notions about Confederate women's activities?

TLC: Beyond the gaps in scholarship that I hope Women Making War fills, I’ve tried to add complexity to the stereotypical image of innocent and defenseless Southern women abused by Union soldiers, a representation largely fostered by the myth of the Lost Cause, a myth cultivated in large part by women. That interpretation portrays gallant Southern men going off to defend home and family, especially the women folk, from Yankee invaders bent on destroying a Southern way of life. Though noble and brave, Southern soldiers lost the struggle only because the North had superior resources. By painting the war this way, Southern men could retain their manhood, even though they failed. But women participating in the war in ways that men did challenged the notion that the war was about men defending women. Furthermore, women imprisoned for their wartime activities in the same way that men were, and often boldly admitting to their actions, suggested that maybe women were not as vulnerable as the Lost Cause interpretation presents. Thus, as Southerners remembered their war, they collectively forgot the story of women arrested and imprisoned, with a few well-known exceptions. When the record did tell of arrested females, the women virtually always were seen as innocent and wrongly accused. 

This amnesia has had a long life, but even recent challenges to it in popular culture have had shortcomings. For example, Paulette Jiles’ 2002 best seller Enemy Women portrays its main character, a Missouri teenage girl named Adair, falsely accused of aiding the enemy and brought to St. Louis. There, Federal officers try to convince her to plead guilty to something, anything, to justify her arrest. While confined in the St. Charles Street Military Prison, Adair encounters other women who are also depicted as innocent. While Jiles wrote a compelling fictional story and did do background research on St. Louis during the war, this representation omits the serious business of aiding the Confederacy that many of the real arrested women perpetrated. 

I’ve given quite a few public presentations of my research and most people have been receptive to and surprised by what I’ve found. Not everyone has been so accepting of it, however, still holding to notions of innocent Southern belles assaulted by Yankee brutes.