Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Review - "Lady Rebels of Civil War Missouri" by Larry Wood

[Lady Rebels of Civil War Missouri by Larry Wood (Arcadia Pub and The Hist Press, 2022). Softcover, photos, illustrations, endnotes, bibliography, index. Pages main/total:129/154. ISBN:978-1-4671-5009-5. $23.99]

A number of recent publications have insightfully illuminated what's come to be known as the "household war" in Missouri, a key element of that scholarship being a study of the actions of local women in sheltering, clothing, feeding, and gathering information for pro-Confederate guerrillas. Amid that complicated melding of home and fighting fronts, Union authorities on both state and federal levels struggled over what to do about the guerrilla war's female supporters. The rather eye-opening scale of Missouri female incarceration during the Civil War was recently revealed in Thomas Curran's Women Making War: Female Confederate Prisoners and Union Military Justice (2020). Among its many fine features, Curran's book contains numerous case studies, and an entire chapter is devoted to one particularly notorious figure. Though it caters to a broader reading audience, Larry Wood's new book Lady Rebels of Civil War Missouri provides another collection of individual stories.

Compiled in seventeen highly engaging chapters, Wood's collection of female actors who ran afoul of the military justice system in Missouri is not intended to be representative of the full cross-section of participants or their alleged crimes. Wood's earlier book Bushwhacker Belles focuses on women "motivated by family ties as much as or more than by devotion to the Southern cause" (pg. 8). On the other hand, Lady Rebels of Civil War Missouri directs attention toward more urban middle-class women who didn't necessarily have kinship ties to active rebels but nevertheless engaged in a host of behaviors frowned upon by Union authorities. Being a mail courier, contraband smuggler, or just an outspoken critic of the Union war effort were all activities that exposed these women to arrest by agents of the provost marshal system in Missouri.

Each chapter explores its subject's social background, illicit wartime activities, prosecution, punishment, and postwar life. Though written in a popular style of historical narrative, the text is fully annotated, and the bibliography exhibits a solid range of primary and secondary sources. In-depth scholarly analysis is intentionally left to other works, but Wood's chapters do collectively offer some broader insights in addition to the individual human-interest stories that are their main focus. In reading these stories, one quickly gains a sense of the immense amount of human and material resources spent investigating, monitoring, and incarcerating these women. It is a testament to both the smothering nature of the provost marshal system in Missouri and the seriousness by which those authorities and those they reported to took the attitudes and activities of pro-Confederate women in the state. Consistent with Curran's findings, Wood's stories in aggregate demonstrate a clear acceleration of punishment as the middle part of the war approached. By that time, the initial social and institutional barriers to female confinement and punishment were nearly dissolved. All or nearly all of the women in Wood's sample were subjected at some point to banishment. Ironically, the one woman in the group actually sentenced to death was convicted through perhaps the flimsiest evidence of all the cases presented in the book. That ultimate punishment was fortunately blocked under review by a dismayed General Rosecrans. What is indicated of the postwar lives and attitudes of these Missouri women is also in line with Curran's findings that the political agency exhibited through their wartime activities and punishments was largely ignored during subsequent decades in favor of promoting twin narratives of feminine innocence and victimization.

As noted in the preface, it was not the author's intention to romanticize this particular aspect of Missouri's inner war, and he doesn't do so. Wood does succeed in his stated goal of providing "compelling stories" worthy of being documented and remembered for the reasons cited above. One might also hope that, with the steady output of books like this one and others, a more comprehensive study of the provost marshal system in Missouri will someday emerge.

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