Why We Should Forget the Civil War

Why We Should Forget the Civil War

Nearly twenty years ago, now, in a 2002 review essay on women in the Civil War, Thavolia Glymph concluded that “the period of the Civil War and Reconstruction remains the most racially gendered and regionally segregated historiographical space in US history.”  Surveying the first wave of literature on the period that had followed Maris Vinovskis’ call to social historians to remember the war, Glymph concluded that, after twenty years, “the ‘woman’s war’ as traditionally written and understood was the history of white women, and more particularly, the history of middle and upper class white women.”  “From any perspective, women’s history remains the least studied and analytically sophisticated aspect of the Civil War and Reconstruction.  For a period that witnessed the most voluminous outpouring of writing by and about women of any in American history…this seems on the surface an odd result.”[1]

It seems appropriate, twenty years later, to see where we are.  What has changed and what has not.

In regard to Glymph’s last point, that’s easy.  Women’s history of the Civil War is undergoing rigorous study and that work is analytically sophisticated.  One has only to look at the work of the members of this panel.  Fay Yarbrough’s work shows how Cherokee women sought to assert their rights as citizens and as women within the nation’s restrictive postwar marriage laws.  Stephanie Jones-Rogers reminds us how very invested white women were in slave ownership and how, in it, white women found their freedom.  Stephanie McCurry shows how the patriarchal family served as an elemental form of governance and how, despite Union war policy written by Francis Lieber, Henry Halleck, and others, patriarchy survived the Civil War.  Not on this panel but whose hard work is evident everywhere in this conference–Amy Taylor’s Embattled Freedom, reflects the analytical sophistication of women’s history in its sensitive treatment of female refugees. Thavolia Glymph’s Women’s Fight stakes out a lot of important new ground, and it makes the point that Black women’s labor—overlooked, coerced, dangerous, and often unremunerated—was central to the U.S. Army’s success in the field.[2]

These works have received well-deserved critical acclaim and made clean sweeps of the book awards.  By my count, these books have won 26 major prizes—including the Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Avery O. Craven, Darlene Clark Hine, John Nau, and the Tom Watson Brown Prize of this society.

Women’s Civil War history is no longer exclusively “the history of white women,” and to the extent that it is, white women’s motivations are not as pure and “virginal,” as Glymph put it, as they once were.  Women’s Fight should force a far-reaching reconsideration of elite white women’s war work, in how it links their work on such efforts like the Sanitary Commission to their families’ investments in slavery and exposes the shocking “plantation fantasies” of freedmen’s teachers.  For that matter, Tom Brown’s  damning assessment of the late effort to commemorate middle class northern white women through statuary should stop all of us who have bemoaned the absence of such statues fast in our tracks.[3]  Is anyone disappointed that there are so few statues of white women being torn down now?

The experiences of indigenous, enslaved, freedom-seeking, and free Black women are central to much of the scholarship.  As a result, it is increasingly difficult for scholars operating in the field to defend the remnants of “racial gendering” that still remain—no one would dare assume, for example, that the experiences of a Mary Chesnut or a Louisa May Alcott was “representative.” Regional segregation lives on, to some extent.  In general, though, one happy result of having brought the motivations of northern middle-class white women decidedly into question, is that the moral high ground on which this regional segregation once stood is cracking.

So, on that front, too, we can report considerable progress in the past twenty years.

With all this, though, I do wonder if it isn’t time to ask how this work has mattered to the field?  One would expect that these highly regarded studies would have gone a long way toward rewriting the war’s master narrative. But this seems to not be the case.  Recent narratives or syntheses show more inclusion but little in the way of a substantive rewriting of the narrative. Elizabeth Varon’s 2019 Armies of Deliverance is rich with stories of individual women—Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Van Lew, Charlotte Forten, Susie King Taylor, and many others—but, with the exception of Tubman, they are not part of the delivering army.  Women’s wartime conflicts with various authorities—Ben Butler, for instance, but also Union male medical authorities—is about accountability and authority, but not politics.[4]  Louis Masur’s ambitious but slim 2011 narrative of the war shows how the war “wrought so profoundly upon the entire national character that the influence cannot be measured short of two or three generations,” but NONE of this seemed to concern women or gender.[5]  In The American War, Gary Gallagher and Joan Waugh dedicate a robust chapter to women’s wartime experiences.  Focusing primarily on middle class and elite white women, northern and southern, who experienced the war “in a domestic setting,” though, these women are not centrally connected to the narrative that focuses on reestablishing the centrality of the Union Cause over the competing Lost and Emancipationist Cause interpretations of the war that continue to today.[6]  The same is true in Paul Anderson’s 2019 narrative where a few women are named—including Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Mary Todd Lincoln & Julia Ward Howe—but their experiences do not matter in Anderson’s portrait of “an experience in shared pain, suffering, struggle, and division…that fulfilled America.”[7]

So, what gives?  For at least forty years, scholars have painted a rich and textured history of women’s wartime experiences; how their loyalty, disloyalty, dissent, and work mattered to the war’s outcome.  This work has undergone ambitious revision and expansion in response to critique.  In fact, I would argue, this scholarship is now among the most “analytically sophisticated aspect(s) of the Civil War and Reconstruction.” Yet the larger narrative of the war has remained largely and stubbornly immune to intervention.  Women’s and gender historians have not forgotten the Civil War, but the question I pose for this plenary, is rather, when it comes to rewriting the war narrative, why have so many talented scholars continued to find this work forgettable?


Civil War Book Awards List

Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom

  • 2019 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition
  • 2019 Tom Watson Brown Book Award, Society of Civil War Historians
  • 2019 John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia
  • 2019 Avery O. Craven Award, Organization of American Historians
  • 2019 Merle Curti Social History Award, Organization of American Historians
  • 2019Choice Outstanding Academic Title
  • 2019 Governor’s Book Award, Kentucky Historical Society and the Office of the Governor
  • 2019 Theodore A. Hallam Book Award, University of Kentucky Department of History
  • 2019 Museum of African American History Stone Book Award (shortlisted)

Stephanie E. Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property

  • 2020 Harriet Tubman Prize, Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery
  • 2020 Best Book Prize, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic
  • 2020 Merle Curti Social History Award, Organization of American Historians
  • 2020 Julia Cherry Spruill Prize, Southern Association for Women’s Historians (co-winner)
  • 2020 Charles S. Sydnor Award, Southern Historical Association (co-winner)
  • 2020 Frederick Douglass Prize (finalist)
  • 2020 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize (finalist)
  • 2019 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in History
  • 2019 Stone Book Award, Museum of African American History
  • 2019 Choice Outstanding Academic Title

Thavolia Glymph, Women’s Fight

  • 2021 Civil War and Reconstruction Book Award, Organization of American Historians
  • 2021 Darlene Clark Hine Award, Organization of American Historians
  • 2021 Mary Nickliss Prize, Organization of American Historians
  • 2021 Tom Watson Brown Book Award, Society of Civil War Historians
  • 2021 John Nau Book Prize in American Civil War Era History, John L. Nau III Center for Civil War History at the University of Virginia
  • 2021 Gilder Lehrman Lincoln Prize (finalist)

Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning

  • 2011 Frederick Douglass Book Prize, Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
  • 2011 Avery O. Craven Award, Organization of American Historians
  • 2011 Willie Lee Rose Prize, Southern Association for Women Historians
  • 2011 Merle Curti Award, Organization of American Historians (co-winner)
  • 2011 Pulitzer Prize for History (finalist)


[1] Thavolia Glymph, “The Civil War Era,” in ed. Nancy A. Hewitt, A Companion to American Women’s History (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2005).

[2] Thavolia Glymph, The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation (Chapel Hill:  University of North Carolina Press, 2020); Stephanie Jones-Rogers, They Were Her Property: White Women as Slave Owners in the American South (New Haven, CT:  Yale University Press, 2019); Stephanie McCurry, Women’s War: Fighting and Surviving the American Civil War(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019); Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom:  Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018); Fay A. Yarbrough, Race and the Cherokee Nation: Sovereignty in the Nineteenth Century (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

[3] Thomas J. Brown, Civil War Monuments and the Militarization of America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019).

[4] Elizabeth R. Varon, Armies of Deliverance: A New History of the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 127.

[5] Louis P. Masur, The Civil War: A Concise History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), xii.

[6] Gary W. Gallagher and Joan Waugh, The American War: A History of the Civil War Era (Flip Learning, 2015), 146.

[7] Paul Christopher Anderson, A Short History of the American Civil War (London: Bloomsbury, 2020), 243.

Judy Giesberg

Judith Giesberg holds the Robert M. Birmingham Chair in the Humanities and is Professor of History at Villanova University. Giesberg directs a digital project, Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery, that is collecting, digitizing, and transcribing information wanted ads taken out by formerly enslaved people looking for family members lost to the domestic slave trade.

2 Replies to “Why We Should Forget the Civil War”

  1. I am 72, and am reading this column with excitement that gives me goosebumps! Where was this when I was 18? “I coulda been a contender.” Nevertheless, it is exciting to see/read/hear about all this wonderful work. You are all so inspiring. When I read Confederate Reckoning, I spent half my time walking around the block trying to calm down from the excitement of such good, eye-epening work. You go, girls!

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