Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review of Liles & Boswell, eds. - "WOMEN IN CIVIL WAR TEXAS: Diversity and Dissidence in the Trans-Mississippi"

[Women in Civil War Texas: Diversity and Dissidence in the Trans-Mississippi edited by Deborah S. Liles and Angela Boswell (University of North Texas Press, 2016). Hardcover, maps, photos, notes, index. 311 pp. ISBN:9781574416510. $29.95]

Women in Civil War Texas
, edited by historians Deborah Liles and Angela Boswell, explores in eleven essays (plus Boswell's introduction) a more than suitably broad range of the adult female experience of the war on the state's turbulent home front. Women of several major ethnic groups as well as those of differing social classes, political affiliations, and geographical locations are represented in this impressive collection.

It has become a common refrain in the Civil War literature that Confederate women as a whole comprised one of the breakaway republic's most outspoken support groups, and the opening chapter by Vicki Betts finds widespread confirmation of this. Another common theme involves expansion of existing gender roles during wartime, with absent men leaving farm, labor, and business management to their wives. Along this line, Dorothy Ewing's contribution makes an illustrative case study out of the situation of Caroline Sedberry, who competently managed the family's large farm well enough that it survived her husband's death and remained prosperous well into the difficult years of post-war recovery and Reconstruction.

It is self evident to say that letters served as a vital link between women on the home front and their men on the fighting front, but Beverly Rowe's essay looks at the differing things men and women wrote about and how they changed over time, as feelings about the war gradually transformed from early ebullience to late war exhaustion, privation, and despair. Another chapter on Confederate women, by Brittany Bounds, discusses how they supported the war effort (through fundraisers, aid societies, home industry, nursing care, church activities, and more) while also preserving some semblance of normality (even entertainment) in their increasingly stressful existence, as inflation soared and all necessaries were in short supply.

Obviously the lives of slave women were the most difficult of any group, with fewer coping mechanisms available to them to help mitigate the many hardships caused by the war. Bruce Glasrud uses government statistics and WPA slave narratives to discuss both the scale of slavery in Texas as well as the wartime experiences of slave women, who numbered perhaps 100,000 in 1861 (rising to more than 125,000 through the massive influx of owners "refugeeing" their slaves to Texas to escape the emancipating march of Union forces). During the war, slave duties expanded as other sources of labor dried up, leisure time fell, and punishments increased in severity. Texas society as a whole suffered from from all manner of food and material shortages, and those that occupied the bottom rung of society would be last in line to benefit from any surplus bounty. Another chapter looks at Texas Supreme Court appeal decisions related to black women before, during, and after the Civil War.

Other ethnic groups significant to Texas society are also covered in the volume. Jerry Thompson and Elizabeth Mata's contribution looks at the Tejana experience of Civil War Texas through the eyes of a number of individuals, both Unionist and Confederate. Judith Dykes-Hoffman's essay recognizes that there were central Texas women of German descent supportive of both sides during the conflict, but her own emphasis is placed mostly on the travails of dissident Unionists. While spared the arrests and executions often meted out to their menfolk, these women and their children were often forced to witness the violence firsthand and live in constant fear under the hostile rule of their Confederate neighbors. The pro-Union women of North Texas are the subject of Rebecca Sharpless's chapter, which explores their available responses (endurance or flight) to Confederate threats and intimidation.

A particularly fine article analyzes the social dissonance created by the massive influx of Confederate refugees into East Texas. In particular, Candice Shockley looks at the treatment of arriving planter class women, who were often locally scorned for their prior opulence, frequent haughty behavior, and for their perceived selfishness in abandoning their rich plantations and imposing themselves upon the suffering Texas population. While the refugees may have been paragons of the "Southern Lady" ideal before the war, the perception among many Texans was that most of these women signally failed at living up to the new ideal of the "Confederate Woman" willing to suffer all manner of privation and loss. Contrasted with this cold treatment was the kindness and generosity Texas society extended to more acceptable "displaced" persons, such as soldier wives and families.

As demonstrated by the book's final chapter, written by volume co-editor Deborah Liles, ranch women making a living on the far western fringes of settled Texas had a different host of problems, not the least of which were raiding Indians, army deserters, and outlaws. In order to survive, these frontier women banded together for protection.

The essays in Women in Civil War Texas are uniformly well researched in that they skillfully combine original manuscript research with astute synthesis of the current literature. Ably integrated into the fabric of every chapter are the stories of individual women (some well known and many others not) and how they coped with the absence of male family members, scarcities of all kinds, the need to maintain farms and businesses, and the very real threats of violence on their own doorsteps. Inclusive of various sub-groups and fairly evenly balanced between Confederate and pro-Union dissident women, this fine anthology should serve as a highly useful survey history of how Texas women were affected by and contributed to the Civil War.

Links to more CWBA reviews of UNT Press titles:
* Riding for the Lone Star: Frontier Cavalry and the Texas Way of War, 1822-1865
* Civil War General and Indian Fighter James M. Williams: Leader of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry and the 8th U.S. Cavalry
* Antebellum Jefferson, Texas: Everyday Life in an East Texas Town
* Andersonvilles of the North: The Myths and Realities of Northern Treatment of Civil War Confederate Prisoners
* The Seventh Star of the Confederacy: Texas During the Civil War
* Texas Civil War Artifacts: A Photographic Guide to the Physical Culture of Texas Civil War Soldiers
* Spartan Band: Burnett’s 13th Texas Cavalry in the Civil War

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