on 7 April 2003
This account of female combatants in the War Between the States is quite fascinating. The notion of women fighting for the Rebs and Yanks was something I had never even thought about, so reading this book served as a significant learning experience for me. Clearly, a great deal of research went into this monograph, and the authors do an excellent job of describing the significant limitations imposed upon the researcher into this topic. Military records are incomplete, especially in the case of the Confederate Army, and some women served without ever being discovered at all. In the case of many, there is no record of their real names. The best substantive evidence comes from those whose actual gender was ascertained while being treated for serious wounds or who really let the cat out of the bag by giving birth. It is quite amazing to me to learn that women in the late stage of pregnancy not only kept their gender a secret but actually fought fiercely in battle at the same time. Women soldiers were also captured and imprisoned along with men, many of them refusing to divulge their secret despite the fact it might well win them release from the terrible conditions of prison camps.
Clearly, one must ask why women chose to fight. The authors devote a lot of attention to this important question. Many women took up arms in order to remain close to a loved one, be it a husband, fiancé, father, or brother; many fought for truly patriotic reasons, fuelled by the same motivations as men to defend their land and way of life. Some fought for economic reasons, knowing they could earn much more money as a soldier than they ever could as females at home; some loved the independence and removal of Victorian restrictions that a soldier's life offered them. Indeed, a small number of women had assumed male identities before the war began as a means of enjoying a better life for themselves, and some continued to live as men after the war ended for the same reasons.
The aspect of this story that I found most interesting was the reaction of male soldiers and the citizenry to the role women played in fighting. To my surprise, contemporary men and women often celebrated these brave women who took up arms. The revelation of discovery often came as a shock to the female soldier's comrades in arms, but by and large they were very supportive of those who were unmasked; even years after the war ended, they lent a lot of support to female soldiers who sought the pension they truly deserved for their service. There was no shortage of newspaper stories about women soldiers during the war, and Victorian society was surprisingly supportive and proud of those women who were motivated to serve out of romantic or familial love or true patriotism. These idealized motivations appealed strongly to the romantic notions of Victorian society. Women who joined up for selfish, economic reasons, on the other hand, were often reviled. The well-known lore and widespread respect for female soldiers continued up until the days of World War I, after which society and historians in particular either ignored, ridiculed, or cast aspersions on the internecine women warriors, and it is for this reason that the history of these unique soldiers was largely forgotten over the course of the twentieth century, only reemerging as a substantive topic in the final decade before the millennium.
There is much of interest in these pages: the means by which women soldiers managed to keep their real identities a secret, accounts of women in battle and the ranks several women attained as a result of their bravery and skill, stories of discovery and reenlistment(s), accounts of women captives in the worst of the prison camps, reports of children born on the front lines, information on the lives of several of these individuals in the years and decades following the war, etc. Numerous anecdotes are as informative as they are extraordinary. One of the slight issues I have with the monograph is the way in which information on each known female soldier was presented in piecemeal fashion-motivations, experiences, discovery, and the like are treated in separate chapters; I would have liked a continuous discussion of at least one prominent individual. As things stand, it is difficult to achieve deep insight into any one such person's motivations, experiences, and thoughts as a whole. This is a small criticism, however, because this book really is excellent. Featuring voluminous footnotes and an impressive bibliography, They Fought Like Demons is a landmark achievement in women's history as well as the history of the War Between the States.