Author Interview--Thomas F. Curran (Women Making War) Part 2

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar Readers:

Today we continue our interview with 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.

Part 1

Let me follow up quickly on the Southern women's role not being remembered. It seems ironic since women, like the United Daughters of the Confederacy played such an important role in the shaping of Lost Cause memory. Did they ignore the plight of women because it did not fit the assumed gender roles or their narrative?

TFC: In the war of words that emerged after Appomattox concerning how the conflict was to be remembered, the arrest and imprisonment of Southern women would have made great fodder for painting the Union army as vicious and uncivilized invaders. It also would have been a way to highlight the extent to which some women contributed to the fight. Yet the United Daughters of the Confederacy did not go there. When the Missouri chapter of the UDC published Reminiscences of the Women of Missouri during the Sixties a half a century after the war, the volume contained a few essays that related to some of these women, but they focus mostly on women who were banished rather than imprisoned, and rarely do they acknowledged that the women actually had been aiding the Confederacy. The Arkansas branch published a similar volume, but it made no mention of arrested women. Portraying women as victims rather than combatants fit the gendered interpretation of the war that the UDC promoted.

I have noticed that recently we had a slew of new scholarship on St. Louis during the Civil War. Why did you specifically focus on St. Louis and not another city like maybe Alexandria or Washington?

TFC: You’re right. In recent years, scholars such as Louis Gerteis, LeeAnn Whites, Adam Arenson, Dennis Boman, Christopher Phillips, Joseph Beilein and others have expanded our knowledge of Civil War St. Louis and Missouri and also enhanced our understanding of the significance of St. Louis for the Western Theater. Their research certainly has informed mine. As I suggest above, part of my reason for the focus on St. Louis comes from the fact that I was (and still am) living in St. Louis and while conducting other research related to Missouri, I began finding a significant amount of documentation on arrested women. I did find records of women arrested and imprisoned elsewhere, for instance Washington, Wheeling, West Virginia, and Louisville, Kentucky, but not to the same extent of that which I found for St. Louis. I suspect that more records relating to other women are somewhere in Record Group 109, and I hope some scholar finds them. 

Beyond the records, St. Louis’s significance as a training and supply hub in the West and its location on the Mississippi River made it ripe for smuggling and spying activities. Add to that a divided population in the city and state, and the guerrilla warfare that plagued Missouri throughout the war, and a perfect storm existed for Confederate women to step into the fray in ways that they could support the war effort. While Confederate women’s demonstrations of disloyalty elsewhere caused Federal officials to respond—most famously, or infamously, Benjamin Butler in New Orleans—it was Henry Halleck’s first-hand experience with pro-Southern women while in the Department of the Missouri that provoked him to push for the explicit inclusion of women as liable for punishment in General Orders, No. 100, Lieber’s Code. So, St. Louis played an important role in the shaping of this policy, the influence of which extended throughout the entire Union army.

You mention the Lieber Code, but one part that strikes me as similarly interesting about Missouri is that it remained a loyal state, yet we have an incredible degree of violence and fighting in the state, how does that complicate matters for the U.S. authorities?

TFC: At first, Union soldiers in Missouri and elsewhere were not prepared to deal with hostile civilians, male or female. As commander of the Department of the Missouri in 1862, Henry Halleck regularly received communications from officers in the state seeking instructions on how to handle troublesome civilians and guerrilla fighters. This experience prompted Halleck to ask international law scholar Francis Lieber his advice on how to handle guerilla warfare, and then to consent to Lieber’s request to prepare a set of rules for the operation of soldiers in the field during time of war or rebellion. The finished product, Lieber’s Code, provided much-needed guidelines for dealing with disloyal activities, but it allowed officers much latitude in their responses and it definitely did not stop the disloyalty. The chaotic nature of Missouri led to an abundance of accusations of disloyalty against civilians. What surprised me was the extent to which the various provost marshal generals and their subordinates in the department went to investigate these cases and determine the facts. The Union army might have been quick to arrest, and the wheels of military justice often moved slowly, but military officials tried to separate the innocent from the guilty as best they could.

In the book, you explain in some details the prison conditions for women and it seemed that the authorities did initially not guard them very vigilantly. How seriously did the U.S. authorities take the threat posed by these women and were they more relaxed in their treatment because the prisoners were women?

TFC: At the war’s outset the Union army was not prepared to handle male prisoners, never mind females. Imprisoning women in 1862 and into 1863 proved to be a patchwork effort as the need arose with civilians helping to supervise. It was not until the second half of 1863 that a series of specific location in St. Louis were designated as female military prisons, but they operated differently and a bit laxer than the prisons used for men. These conditions added to the circumstances that allowed several women to escape from one of the prisons in 1864. The Alton Military Prison, the former Illinois State Penitentiary, had a different set of circumstances that made holding women easier, but when the prison received its first female prisoner in 1863, officials there experienced a variety of unexpected issues related to feeding and housing the woman and providing for necessities like clothing. Through experience, Union officials improved their ability to handle female prisoners in their charge, which continued right to the end of the Civil War, but it was not an easy task.

As a quick follow-up regarding prisons, it is well known that anybody held for a prolonged period in an Antebellum prison suffered usually significant health issues in the future. Do you know if that was also true for any of the women here?

TLC: True, prisons in general were unhealthy places, and Civil War prisoner of war camps were even worse because of a lack of preparedness, overcrowding, supply shortages, and more. In the St. Louis area, prison inspectors in 1863 were critical of, indeed appalled by, the conditions in which they discovered a few women confined in the Gratiot Street Prison in the city and in Alton Prison across the river. Improvements found in follow up visits met with the inspectors’ satisfaction. Both those locations housed primarily men. The various residential homes that the army commandeered to serve as prisons for women proved to be cleaner and healthier places. At least the record does not show complaints. Still, six women did die in Union army custody, but at least four were ill before they arrived, and another was an elderly woman who died from natural causes. A few women gained release from prison due to health concerns, but none of the illnesses seem to have been attributed to bad conditions in the prisons. Even Alton Prison authorities arranged for better accommodations for women as their numbers escalated within the former penitentiary in 1864. Once army officials came to terms with the reality that they would be holding women as prisoners for long periods of time, they did their best to provide space for these prisoners considered appropriate for their gender. 

We have these different incarcerations and you mention quite the diligence to collect evidence, how did the court cases against these women work out? Were these women actually taken to court? Considering their social status was it more likely they simply got a slap on the wrist? 

TLC: Civilians arrested by the army were not brought before regular courts in St. Louis or elsewhere, thus the Ex parte Milligan decision. By the time that decision was rendered in 1866, it was irrelevant. Instead, some faced military tribunals that heard cases against both civilians and soldiers alike. In other instances, the provost marshal general rendered summary judgement in the case. Lieber’s Code gave provost marshal generals latitude in making such decisions on their own based on the evidence. When provost marshal generals made the decisions, there is more likely to be some explanation in the records. As for social status, the army did not shy away from confronting disloyal wealthy and influential women, but the army was much more likely to banish them to the South rather than keep them in prison, where they were likely to gain public attention and become martyrs. 

I want to shift gears a little since you teach high schoolers, do you talk about your research in class and if so how do you illustrate to your students the role of women and loyalty during the Civil War? Do you go on field trips with them to show where the events you talk about took place?

TLC: Informally, I often talk about my research with my students if only to demonstrate that the study of history is not static, that historians are constantly examining new issues and reexamining old ones. Within the course material, I contrast the serious response given the women’s activities with the nineteenth-century notions of coverture and separate spheres, and how the army held the women accountable for their actions. I also stress that these women, whether simply expressing support for the Confederacy or doing something more serious like spying or smuggling, acted politically to advance the Southern cause. The Union army, in turn, saw in their offences the most serious political crime of all, treason. Considering that I teach at an all-girls school, my students have been pretty receptive to learning about this project. Since the book came out I’ve heard from many former students, and a few have even bought copies. 

Unfortunately, none of the locations related to this story still stand, so there’s not much to see on a field trip. I do describe where some of the women were incarcerated in relation to contemporary landmarks in St. Louis, but that only goes so far. I wish that the sites used as prisons were still around for my own understanding of space. Even the memorial for the Alton Prison, made from stones that had been part of the facility, is several blocks away from where the prison actually stood.

Considering we have spent the last years with constant questions about loyalty and voicing political opposition against the previous president had brought claims that one would hate America for not supporting the president, how does your work help us understand the constant issue with questions of loyalty and the importance of upholding Constitutional law?

TLC: One thing that is different between recent years and the Civil War era is that clear issues divided Americans back then, but the current division has been caused, or greatly exacerbated, by a cult of personality, in which issues are a means to an end instead of the ends themselves. Thus, we have accusations not only of disloyalty, but of treason leveled against those who disagreed with or criticized Donald Trump, with accusations coming from the former president himself. Every year, I teach a unit on the Constitution, giving students a list of questions concerning what’s in the document. One question I ask is “What is the only crime defined in the Constitution?” I’ve done this not just to teach what that single crime is—treason—but specifically to teach what treason is in our political system. This one part of the lesson has become more important in the last few years. Treason is not disagreeing or criticizing, and treating it as such debases the meaning of the word. Treason is only waging actual war against the United States. As my title suggests, that’s what the women I investigate were doing, in the context of a broader war being waged against the United States government.

I know you teach high school and thus you do not have the pressure of publishing, but do you think that you will write another book? Do you have any project you want to tackle in the future?

TLC: Actually, the next book is well underway, and it’s a real departure from Women Making War. It’s about how humor and satire have been used to portray the Civil War, and at times, how the Civil War has been used as a backdrop for humor and satire. I start with the usual suspects one might find from the war years, Petroleum Nasby, Artemus Ward and the like, but I go beyond the war to include postwar memoirs and fiction, some works well known, others, not. Then into the twentieth century, where I include depictions from the big and small screens along with a wealth of written material. I look at works that were intended to be funny, but I also include others that were not, but are funny to read now, at least according to me. So, I include Mark Twain and Karl Marx, Ambrose Bierce and The Beverley Hillbillies, graphic novels and Warner Brothers cartoons. There are sections on bad Civil War poetry (really bad), Gone with the Wind parodies, the centennial celebration, and more recent works like Lincoln in the Bardo and The Good Lord Bird. And don’t forget the Civil War zombie comedies (or “zom coms”). While I approach the subject with a sense of humor, I do address serious issues such as memory and race. There’s an advantage to having no publication expectations to meet. I’m free to write about what I want.