Newhall on Curran, 'Women Making War: Female Confederate Prisoners and Union Military Justice'

Thomas F. Curran
Caroline Newhall

Thomas F. Curran. Women Making War: Female Confederate Prisoners and Union Military Justice. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2020. 274 pp. $26.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8093-3803-0

Reviewed by Caroline Newhall (Virginia Tech University's Virginia Center for Civil War Studies) Published on H-CivWar (December, 2021) Commissioned by G. David Schieffler (Crowder College)

Printable Version:

Thomas Curran’s Women Making War is a necessary and welcome addition to Civil War prison and prisoner of war (POW) studies that have predominantly focused on male POWs and individual female POWs such as Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Elizabeth Van Lew. Curran has conducted exhaustive research on the US military’s incarceration of hundreds of pro-Confederate women in St. Louis, Missouri, and argues that these women were overtly political actors whom the United States treated as rebels and traitors in the same ways it treated pro-Confederate men. The US authorities in Missouri, Curran argues, came to recognize women’s impact at local and state levels and were forced to react to them. US military authorities, says Curran, thus held “rebellious women ... accountable for their disloyal actions” in this border state and took their activities as seriously as they did those of disloyal men (p. 8).

Curran examines a wide range of sources including the “records of the Union provost marshals, the military prisons involved, newspaper reports, military correspondence, and first-hand accounts from participants in the war,” all of which “document the numerous ways” that more than 440 “Southern women actively and with deadly earnest contributed to the war effort and the many new roles they willingly performed” (p. 2). Curran’s work is in good company with recent releases regarding women’s participation in and impact on the Civil War, including Thavolia Glymph’s The Women’s Fight (2019), Lisa Tendrich Franks and LeeAnn Whites’s edited volume, Household War (2020), as well as recent works on Civil War prisons and POWs, including Lorien Foote’s Yankee Plague (2016), Michael Gray’s edited volume Crossing the Deadlines (2018), Angela Zombek’s Prisons, Penitentiaries, and Punishments (2019), Evan Kuztler’s Living by Inches (2019), and Adam Domby and Chris Barr’s Useful Captives (2021).

The book is organized chronologically across ten concise chapters that highlight Curran’s argument regarding “the escalation of partisan women’s wartime activities” and the “evolution of the Union military response” to these women that developed over the course of the war (p. 12). Chapter 1 provides necessary context on wartime Missouri and early instances of ad hoc arrests but could have provided more in-depth context on antebellum considerations of gender, race, and war with respect to civil and martial law. Chapters 2 and 3, which cover General Henry W. Halleck’s role in commissioning Francis Lieber to draft General Order (G.O.) No. 100 and the resulting impact of its application to rebellious women, will prove particularly helpful in future analyses regarding how the United States applied (and violated) the laws of war when dealing with different groups of women. As Curran notes, G.O. No. 100 “made the punishment of Confederate partisan women a matter of policy” and held women accountable in the same ways as men for “violating its policies” (p. 39). In treating rebellious women as people to be punished rather than protected, Curran asserts, Halleck not only diverted from past precedent, but he effectively recognized pro-Confederate women as significant threats to the US war effort and treated them accordingly. These past precedents, however, are not discussed, leaving the reader wondering how women of diverse backgrounds navigated law and war throughout US history, and how the US military has historically treated different women depending upon their identity and status.

Whereas the first three chapters of the book emphasize the means by which these women entered written records, and therefore what happened to women and what was done to them, Curran begins to center women’s perspectives and stories beginning with the case of Clara Judd, an early female inmate at Alton prison, in chapter 4. Judd, whose statement to military authorities was “a bit convoluted,” revealed “the rather detailed and elaborate stories accused women wove when confronted by military authorities,” while several newspapers cast her as either a liar and a spy or a “defenceless [sic] woman” depending on the political leanings of the writer (pp. 79, 77). Curran thus lays out the gray areas between truth and deception, and ably considers these women’s motivations, backgrounds, and movements as he analyzes their activities and incarceration. Chapters 5 and 6 further examine some of the other women imprisoned at Alton prison and the fascinating case of Mary Ann Pitman. These three chapters are a fascinating examination of US officials’ records regarding these women and the women’s own claims regarding their innocence in conversation with the US officials’ interrogations and opinions. Chapters 7-9 examine issues surrounding women’s incarceration regarding social norms, limitations of space, and daily life, followed by these women’s return to private life in the waning months of the war. Chapter 10 presents an interesting addition to the scholarship of the Lost Cause and changing interpretations of Southern white women and their activities. Curran’s assessment of rebellious women’s place in constructions of Civil War memory will influence future considerations of Southern white women’s political activities, and Curran’s work fits in well with the works of Jane Turner Censer, LeeAnn Whites, Fitz Brundage, Caroline Janney, and Adam Domby, to name just a few.

Some historiographical absences are notable though understandable given the focus of the book on Confederate women imprisoned in St. Louis. Elizabeth Varon’s Southern Lady, Yankee Spy (2005) does not appear in the book, nor do James Gillespie’s Andersonvilles of the North (2008), Roger Pickenpaugh’s Captives in Gray (2009), Lorien Foote’s Yankee Plague (2016), Michael Gray’s edited work, Crossing the Deadlines (2018), or Tim Williams’s Prison Pens (2018). Though only a few of these titles deal primarily with women, these works’ gendered analyses of wartime imprisonment and citizenship are almost entirely absent in Women Making War. This lack, however, may be an issue of access to secondary works. The privilege of accessing a broad range of historical works through university and college libraries is often taken for granted, and Curran’s work is neither careless nor less valuable to the field simply because these works are absent.

This book will prove a significant source of research and has opened up avenues for further investigation into partisan, political women in the border states and beyond. Curran’s many compelling examples and anecdotes provide a clear demonstration of the breadth of his primary research and support his argument regarding the increased frequency and punishment of women’s partisan activity over the course of the war. Chapters 2-3, 6, and 10 are, in this writer’s opinion, the most compelling contributions to Civil War historiography in demonstrating how rebellious women defied simple categorization (and treatment) as combatants or noncombatants, domestic or public actors, citizens or rebels, and dependents or independents. However, Curran delves into so many different women’s stories and experiences that his arguments are at times buried in the narrative, and make this book perhaps less helpful for instructors of high school, undergraduate, and graduate-level students and more of interest for general readers, researchers, and scholars.

The merits of Curran’s exhaustive research and careful analysis are commendable and a welcome addition to Civil War prison and POW studies, citizenship studies, and gender studies. He has provided a thorough examination of a particular place, particular spaces, and a particular group of people that scholars will surely use as they further explore and create holistic studies on partisan Confederate women. I look forward to using this book for my own research and seeing what paths this book will open up for scholars researching gender, incarceration, war, and law.

Citation: Caroline Newhall. Review of Curran, Thomas F., Women Making War: Female Confederate Prisoners and Union Military Justice. H-CivWar, H-Net Reviews. December, 2021. URL:

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