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Confederate Heroines:120 Southern Women Convicted by Union Military Justice

(Louisiana State University Press,Baton Rouge,2006, $29.95)

The National Archives bulges with manuscripts—millions of them—that poured from Civil War pens.Their sheer volume has defied indexing, which makes them obscure and difficult to use.Even the large body of contemporary Civil War papers that has been indexed and well arranged lies largely fallow because an astonishingly large majority of historians simply do not have the energy and determination to go to Washington to use them.

Thomas P. Lowry and his wife and coresearcher, Beverly A. Lowry, stand at the other end of the research-diligence spectrum.The Lowrys moved from California to Virginia expressly to work in Civil War manuscripts, and have been spectacularly successful in fulfilling that goal. In recent years they have examined the 75,961 surviving court-martial records of Union soldiers from the Civil War, and produced a thorough index.Their labors unveiled a rich trove of fresh stories,both military and civilian.Those 76,000 courts tried 1,234 murderers, 333 rapists, 26,014 deserters, 1,541 charges of cowardice and 14,048 cases involving drunkenness.

A separate file contains the records of Navy courts, with their own array of malfeasance,in addition to the totals above. The Lowrys also found trials in which hundreds of Southern women stood at the mercy of Northern military tribunals.The concept of military trials of civilians sounds incongruous, but the U.S. Constitution went on a long holiday during the 1860s.

Confederate Heroines:120 Southern Women Convicted by Union Military Justice, the Lowrys’ new book, displays in great strength the attribute that I most admire in Civil War literature:thorough research using fresh sources.Virtually nothing in this book has been seen in print before.

More than 30 years ago a National Park Service bureaucrat stationed in Fredericksburg said to me smugly, “Well, obviously every book about the Civil War has been written by now, and we won’t have to put up with any more new ones.”Although he was even more indifferent to Civil War history than the low, low norm for such creatures,this fellow had accurately remarked on the prevalence of books on the same topic, over and over again,based on nothing whatsoever new.The popularity of Civil War history makes steady rehashing inevitable, but the availability of such wonderful unused resources as those in the National Archives makes possible interesting books full of new material.The Lowry book is one such.

Some of the cases that Lowry describes in Confederate Heroines include dramatic passages. Some are sordid in their particulars. Not a few are pathetic. His opening scene depicts an 18-year-old Southern girl receiving word that she would be hanged in 10 days (the sentence was later remitted).

A pervasive theme in the book is how civilians stood helpless at the whim “of a single Union officer with nearly absolute power.”Another repeated Lowry leitmotif is the degree to which Southern women “were anything but passive.” He draws an amusing contrast between these heroines and the “passive, apprehensive, solicitous” women seen in the saccharine imagery of many modern Civil War paintings.

One of Lowry’s subjects, who wrote a sorrowful letter to her boyfriend in the Confederate Army, suffered after her note fell into Yankee hands. She “announced the death of your comrade (and my brother),” and in an impolitic moment added,“God bless you all is the prayer of one sinner.” Since the brother had died in a Northern prison camp,she was guilty of sending intelligence about Northern matters to the Rebels,and paid for that treasonous activity by being sentenced to imprisonment—at hard labor—until the war’s end.

Most of the draconian treatment of Southern women came at the hands of rear-echelon Jacobins,not from seasoned professional officers.The disgusted reaction of real warriors to such behavior offers a nice contrast to the avid hostility of noncombatants. In 1865 four Northern clerks carefully entrapped a Tennessee “school-girl,”the “little daughter…of Mr.Lattimer,”as the transcript called her, by waving a U.S. flag and daring her to take it away from them.The defense lawyer drolly asked one of the accusers, “Well, then, Mr.Adams, this then was your first fight for the flag?”The court sent her to jail for six months and fined her $300— the equivalent of two years’pay for a soldier and of course ridiculously beyond the means of a schoolgirl.

The judgment against that youngster eventually reached the desk of Maj. Gen. Richard W.Johnson,a West Pointer with 16 years of service.Johnson’s scornful comment on the fanatical clerks was:“Their first battle for the flag was with a thoughtless schoolgirl! The entire transaction looks like the work of children temporarily removed from parental control.” Johnson disgustedly remitted the entire sentence, but by then the girl had been in the penitentiary for several months.

The Lowrys’ book will not garner favor in the politically correct world because it looks at 19th-century Southerners without condescension. Publisher’s Weekly, no friend to anything outside the 21st-century New York City ethos, has damned the book because it “never grapples with the fact that” the women had committed “acts of treason against the U.S. government.”The notion that anyone within one’s own accepted group can do no wrong, and vice versa, brings to mind the antinomian heresy rooted in medieval times—the premise that being on the anointed side of any issue cancels all obligations to “obey the laws of ethics or morality,” to quote a dictionary definition.


Originally published in the May 2007 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.