Women in Civil War Texas: Diversity and Dissidence in the Trans-Mississippi, by Deborah M. Liles and Angela Boswell, editors
Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2016. Pp. xiv, 300. Illus., maps, notes, index. $29.95. ISBN: 1574416510.
Women, Texas, and the Civil War
With this indispensable anthology editors Liles and Boswell enhance the literature of several academic fields. The eleven excellent essays explore the difficult and dark wartime experiences of Tejanas, slaves, German and Mexican immigrants, free women, refugees from neighboring states, women on the Texas frontier, Unionist women, and women seen throughout the Texas legal archives.
This unique book – enriched by detailed maps, rarely-seen photos of the women of the era, and memorable artwork – speaks to both the general and professional reader, confidently leads Civil War, Southern, and women’s studies into new, invaluable but understudied landscapes of history, and challenges scholars and students to build on the impressive symphony of scholarship Liles and Bowell conducted in this work.
The Civil War brought severe hardships to the Confederate home front, and those hardships – soaring prices for essential goods, scarcities of even the most fundamental products for daily life, Union attacks and invasions, loneliness, sickness, and death – were uniquely felt in Texas, and they were almost-entirely shouldered by Texas women.
Vicki Betts, Dorothy Ewing, and Brittany Bounds explore how women patriotically supported their men marching off to war, pushing – at times shaming— the hesitant few to join the Confederate ranks. They sewed flags and clothing for the soldiers, organized fundraising events, and took charge of plantations and farms. These were their contributions to the war, fighting to sustain the homes their men waged war to defend, expressing patriotism from within gender-specific boundaries, but expanding those boundaries when necessary.
Words connected the women at home and the men on the front. Beverly Rowe’s examination of the crucial importance of letters between spouses and relatives is one of the book’s best pieces. At the war’s start, men described in letters their frontline experiences and the comrades training and fighting alongside them. Some men sent home instructions on crop rotations, finances, or other advice. As the war intensified, many women made the letters into modulated vessels of domestic comfort for soldiers longing to return home, filling them only with the ephemera of daily life, and leaving out their realities of malnutrition, invasion, destitution, and sadness. As the end loomed, women’s letters could be effective weapons, detonating the remaining shards of a soldier’s stubborn determination to keep fighting a lost cause.
Bruce A. Glasrud’s piece on enslaved Texas women highlights the multitude of dilemmas they faced throughout the “Freedom War.” Enslaved women shouldered heavier-than-ever domestic burdens, especially if a male slave accompanied his white owner into military service. They were often easy targets onto whom abusive white women could unleash their frustrations over wartime social and economic disruptions (or the slaves’ sexual relationships their forced upon them by masters). Enslaved women also saw their families shattered as Union invasions of the South sent thousands of black and white Southerners fleeing from Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Missouri into Texas, including 25,000 enslaved black women. Free black women were hardly better off as they endured the hostile the state’s legal limitations on their lives, though the stories of those few who prospered are simply fascinating.
Linda S. Hudson’s solid legal and historical scholarship explores Texas Supreme Court cases involving black Texas women, highlighting the historical value of the legal proceedings as grim insights into how the slave’s mind, body, and persona were sliced between civil and criminal laws. Together with Glasrud, the two pieces illuminate the unforgettable realities of black women’s experiences in Texas society.
Jerry Thompson and Elizabeth Mata examine Tejanas’ experience of the war, particularly in South Texas, where Union forces made the most inroads. Determined to prove their loyalty or improve their financial situations, thousands of their men enlisted. The women left behind followed paths similar to those of the Anglo women – enduring wartime shortages, taking over farms and ranches, and enduring emotional turmoil as deep as any other. Others joined the army as cooks and washerwomen. All endured some degree of discrimination, and many women found ways to honorably and productively contribute to their communities.
Many white Texans doubted the loyalty of women from the state’s German communities. Unionist sentiment among Germans naturally deepened as the war began, requiring every household to make a public stand on one side or another. Essays by Judith Dykes-Hoffman and Rebecca Sharpless make clear that for many families, that binary dilemma brought a multitude of consequences or benefits.
As the Union anaconda tightened its coils around the Confederacy, from Virginia to Louisiana, approximately 250,000 Southerners poured into Texas to protect themselves, their property, or both. Candice N. Shockley tells the story of Kate Stone and her upper-class family, who fled their Louisiana plantation, Brokenburn, and eventually settled in Tyler, in east Texas. Stone recorded her experiences in her diary Brokenburn. Her time in Texas, amongst tense communities flooded with refugees and exiles like her, was bittersweet.
Shockley explains how Texans sympathized with displaced Southerners – lower- and middle-class people fleeing Union incursions. But they displayed little affection for those from the elite planter class like Stone’s family, who moved to Texas with their property and legions of slaves, having expectations to rule over Texan society as they had in Louisiana and other regions. The war shattered, especially for women like Stone, the social structures that held them in the upper echelons of Southern society, requiring each woman from the upper classes to formulate a new identity for herself as Southern women in the wartime and post-war South.
Deborah M. Liles explains how new identities were also recast on the Texas frontier, as men left for war (often taking with them the family’s only weapons), leaving women behind to assume to responsibility for the defense of the home front – less from Union invasion and more from attacks by old Native American enemies. These women on the frontier experienced difficulties few other Texan women encountered, applied practical solutions to desperate situations, and worked together in creative ways women in class-conscious Southern societies could never imagine.
Shockley’s and Liles’ final pieces, both exploring the evolution of women’s identity in wartime, are excellent bookends to the opening chapters, and they complete an incredible array of scholarship that surely will inspire countless students and scholars to dig deeper into archives, diaries, and other primary sources to recover the stories, voices, and lives of Texas women who experienced and endured the Civil War.
Note: Women in Civil War Texas, which received the Liz Carpenter Award for Research in the History of Women, Texas State Historical Association, 2017 is also available as an e-book, $23.95, ISBN 978-1-57441-660-2.
Our Reviewer: Fernando Ortiz, Jr., is an adjunct professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio, specializing in U.S. and Texas social history and the Civil War on the home front. A participatant in the Voces Oral History Project, which seeks to preserve the recollections of Hispanic veterans of America’s wars, he maintains the Stillness of Heart website, which explores U.S. history, analyzes current events, comments on culture, arts, and film, celebrates great books, shares beautiful photography, and recommends fascinating articles and multimedia to his readers. At the 2011 NYMAS Conference “Civil Warriors: Profiles of Ordinary Americans and the Great National Crisis, 1860-1865”, he presented a paper on “Three Lives Grappling with a New Reality: Joseph de la Garza, Manuel Yturri, Kate Stone and Their Civil War”. In addition continuing his work on Civil War Texas diarist Kate Stone, his current projects include a biography Texas brewer Emma Koehler and the long term economic and social effects of Hurricane Beulah in 1967.
Reviewer: Fernando Ortiz, Jr.
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