I was never personally interested in the American Civil War until I joined a reenactment unit and started going out to events. Even then, I was fine with just talking about the home front and staying far, far away from the intricacies of the military and battle histories that so many of my male compatriots spent their time on. However, the more I learned in the hobby, the more I realized my disinterest in most things about the Civil War was because the focus was men doing men things. Don’t get me wrong, the men were important and their stories are harrowing and necessary to keep alive. But for me, the key to opening Pandora’s box of interest was learning about how much women were doing during those five years. After being inspired by Liar Temptress Solider Spy, I’ve made it my personal mission to bring women’s history to this very male hobby in an accessible way that will help the (mostly white/male/cis/over 50) patrons take an interest in more than “Gen. So-&-So marched his troops…..”
I’ve begun putting together some research on the facets of female contribution and started with women soldiers. They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War was a good basic book to start with. It wasn’t the deep dive I was hoping for after reading Karen Abbott, but it does a decent job of giving an overview of just how common women soldiers were. Published in 2002, some of this information is probably already outdated, but Blanton and Cook rely heavily on primary source documentation, era newspapers, and corroborated research. Their bibliography and notes pages are an astounding collection that I’ll definitely be looking into for further reading.
The language of the book itself feels a bit rushed, like they’re trying to pack as much information as possible into a short space, and while it does its job in giving a decent view of the many different ways that female soldiers contributed to the war effort, I would have liked this book to have been a little more focused. I get that most of their research involves a line or two about a woman in this regiment or that regiment, but the thesis of the book isn’t as clear as it could be. It felt more like a general survey, and much of their information is repeated from chapter to chapter. They do spend quite a bit of time on Emma Edmonds, who Karen Abbott does a deep dive on, and southerner, Loreta Velazquez, who reminds me of an older Belle Boyd. But Albert Cashier – a woman who lived as a man most of her adult life and wasn’t discovered to be female until she was well into her 70s, was the most interesting thing about this book. Through Cashier’s story, Blanton and Cook scratch the surface of the gender spectrum and begin to question whether or not Cashier was trans. Most of Cashier’s own memoirs are jumbled and the stories are at odds depending on who she told them to, but in the time she was living, there wasn’t anything definitive. However, I was happy to find Cashier’s story was included most deeply of all the people discussed in the book, and I’ll be looking to see what else can be found about 19th century gender in this time period.
If you’re looking for a general survey or intro to women in the Civil War, They Fought Like Demons isn’t a bad start, but it’s definitely not much more than an open door and other books will need to be found to get the deep dive.