All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, by Elizabeth D. Leonard, W.W. Norton, New York, 212-354-5500, 359 pages, $27.95.
During the past quarter of a century or so, historians have striven to retrieve lives from the shadows of history. These studies have ranged from the world of medieval European peasants to that of American coal miners. They have enriched our understanding of the past and have reminded us of its textured complexity.
An aspect of this recent history has been American scholars’ efforts to focus on minority groups or individuals. Fine studies have reexamined, for instance, the lives of antebellum Southern plantation mistresses and the lives of their chattel servants. Simplistic notions about slaveholders and slaves have been replaced by well-researched and well-reasoned works.
Civil War history has undergone a similar recasting. We know today that the serried ranks of a regiment might have contained a woman who adopted a masculine identity and stood with her comrades on a firing line. In fact, women’s roles in and contributions to the war efforts embrace a broad range of activities. Many individual women remain in the dark corridors of the past, but more of them and their stories are being discovered.
All the Daring of the Soldier offers dozens of these stories about women in the Civil War. It is the fullest treatment to date on the subject. The author, Elizabeth D. Leonard, professor of history at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, has mined numerous published and unpublished documents for accounts of women who served in many capacities during the conflict.
Individuals familiar to students of the Civil War share the pages with many obscure women. The stories of Belle Boyd, Rose Greenhow, Antonia Ford, Elizabeth Van Lew, Pauline Cushman, Harriet Tubman, Annie Etheridge, and Sarah Emma Edmonds are recounted in detail. In turn, Leonard brings from obscurity such women as Emma A. B. Kinsey, Sarah Collins, Nadine Turchin, Fanny Wilson, and Frances Clalin. The book covers women who supported or fought for each side in the war.
Leonard frames the stories in the context of the times, and of the heritage of women in previous conflicts. She offers accounts of such Revolutionary War heroines as Margaret Cochran Corbin, Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley, Lydia Darragh, and Deborah Sampson, comparing how they were treated, with the treatment of their Civil War sisters.
Leonard examines the careers of spies, couriers, soldiers in the ranks, and “daughters” of regiments (women who traveled with their units, in uniform but with limited duties). She analyzes the socioeconomic status of these groups, noting that women of education or of the upper and middle classes generally served as spies or couriers, while working class women more often disguised themselves as men and volunteered in regiments.
Various motivations sent women into armed service. Some followed their husbands or lovers into the army, some sought adventure like many male recruits, and others were lured by the prospect of a soldier’s wage. Leonard accepts the common estimate that 400 women fought in the ranks. A few, like Sarah Wakeman, managed to maintain their secrets for months until either an illness, a wound, or the revelation of an acquaintance or comrade disclosed their gender. Many of these veterans were awarded postwar pensions because of their service.
Leonard deserves credit for her research efforts. While a few of the women penned memoirs after the war, they were the exception. Leonard searched through military and pension records, more than 40 newspapers, and various manuscript collections to retrieve the women’s stories. She has tried to separate bogus claims and legends from documented facts.
The narrative suffers from the repetitive nature of many of the accounts. Although each woman’s story varies in details, many basic facts are similar, and as Leonard retells each one’s career, the text follows familiar patterns. Nevertheless, the stories of these individuals deserve an accounting, and Leonard fulfills her purpose.
All the Daring of the Soldier seeks to restate the sacrifices and services of women during the Civil War, a subject neglected for more than a century. Leonard succeeds in correcting this historical wrong. She has plied her trade as a historian and has uncovered the lives of women who chose manly endeavors for a cause.
Jeffry D. Wert
Centre Hall, Pennsylvania