Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Review - "Women Making War: Female Confederate Prisoners and Union Military Justice" by Thomas Curran

[Women Making War: Female Confederate Prisoners and Union Military Justice by Thomas F. Curran (Southern Illinois University Press, 2020). Paperback, photos, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:xi,194/269. ISBN:978-0-8093-3803-0. $26.50]

According to the historiographical overview contained in author Thomas Curran's introduction to his new book Women Making War, the Civil War literature as a whole continues to underestimate both the scale and significance of female incarceration. The result has been extended neglect of the topic of female civilian interactions with the Union Army's provost marshal, military justice, and military prison systems. On the other hand, Civil War guerrilla warfare scholars and readers have long been aware of the many direct and indirect contributions of female allies, those activities ranging from behind the scenes support roles (ex. providing fighters with food, shelter, and supplies) to more dangerous front line pursuits as spies, couriers, and smugglers. Seeing the guerrilla conflict as a "household war" has been most extensively formalized in more recent publications, among them Joseph Beilein's Bushwhackers: Guerrilla Warfare, Manhood, and the Household in Civil War Missouri (2016) and the 2020 essay anthology Household War: How Americans Lived and Fought the Civil War edited by Lisa Tendrich Frank and LeeAnn Whites. With its statewide guerrilla war and controversial St. Louis-area military prison system together providing a source-rich environment for scholarly work, Missouri is the focus of Curran's investigation.

The subject matter at hand could certainly fit well into either thematic or chronologically organized study, but Curran's decision to arrange the material in chronological order is most suitable in that it provides the best way for readers to comprehend and follow the conflict's escalation in both female partisan activities and their punishments. By way of several considerations (among them the typically cited desire among the authorities to comport with antebellum chivalric norms, uncertainties over social and legal issues related to female political autonomy, and the initially small scale of the problem), arrests were comparatively rare in 1861. However, as the irregular war ramped up and female involvement similarly expanded arrests soared. According to the author's research, numbers arrested at any given time were strongly linked to the personal attitude of the department commander, with General Henry Halleck pushing hard for eliminating considerations of sex from arrest and punishment and successors like Samuel Curtis continuing to express reluctance. Though the progression was not entirely linear, by 1863 women were becoming more commonly subjected to harsh punishments such as banishment and increasingly long prison terms.

Curran situates the aforementioned Henry Halleck, who was exasperated by the inner war in Missouri during his entire western command tenure and frustrated with the hand-tying constitutional definition of treason that hindered prosecution of guerrilla supporters, as the primary driving force behind the Union military justice system breaking down prosecutorial distinctions between male and female wartime offenders. In addition to being the chief military sponsor behind what would become known as the Lieber Code, Halleck also coined the term "war-traitor" (i.e. someone who was a "traitor under the law of war") in large part as a way to eliminate the barriers that existed in punishing the kinds of female activities referenced above.

Curran's original research uncovered more than 400 female inmates who passed through St. Louis military prisons (ex. the Gratiot and Myrtle street prisons), Alton Military Prison across the river in Illinois, and the Missouri State Penitentiary. That number won't surprise some, but it represents a scale (at least according to the author) that greatly surpasses estimates found in the more general literature of Civil War military justice and women's studies. The book houses a great multitude of these case studies, each describing the subject's background, wartime activities, prosecution, and imprisonment. An entire chapter is devoted to the story of one celebrated double agent, Mary Ann Pitman, who proved very helpful to Union authorities in identifying female Confederate agents and was richly rewarded after the war before abruptly disappearing from the historical record. As one might expect, the harshness of the female prison experience varied greatly. Several women died from illnesses, but the author discovered only two death sentences (neither of which was carried out).

The author's closing assessment suggests that popular historical memory of pro-Confederate female partisan activities (and their political nature) was generally suppressed after the war in favor of a more "Lost Cause"-appropriate narrative stressing the innocence of southern women and their victimhood at the hands of ruthless Union invaders. However, in pointing out the silence of Union partisans when it came to postwar public admission that federal military authorities imprisoned women both guilty and innocent in large numbers during the war, Curran also recognizes that postwar mythologizing was not the exclusive domain of the losing side. In richly documenting the cases of many of the more than 400 women imprisoned by the U.S. Army in and around St. Louis from 1861-65 and persuasively showing how female wartime activities not only were affected by Union military policy but helped shape those policies at an early date in the war, Thomas Curran's Women Making War makes strong contributions to Civil War women's studies, the guerrilla warfare scholarship, and the history of the Union Army's military justice system.


  1. Drew:

    Another interesting corner of the Civil War; thank you. For those of your readers who enjoy Civil War fiction, I would strongly recommend Enemy Women by Paulette Jiles. Her lead female character is imprisoned at the Gratiot Street Prison mentioned in your review. I read the novel this past summer. From your review, the author got the authenticity details right. Then a native of Missouri, the author did extensive research, which is reflected in the excerpts from primary and secondary sources (including ORs and Michael Fellman’s Inside War: The Guerilla Conflict in Missouri, 1861-1865) at the beginning of each chapter reflecting local and general conditions in Missouri during the war. The novel was very well received and is a great read. One of Jiles’ other excellent books, News of the World, is coming out on Christmas Day as a movie with Tom Hanks as a Civil War veteran on a 400-mile trek across post-war Texas. Unfortunately with COVID restrictions I will likely not be able to see it on the big screen.


    1. Hi John,
      I don't read CW fiction (maybe 3 books since Cold Mountain!), but thanks for the suggestion for those that do.


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