The U.S. Civil War is remembered as a war of brother against brother, with women standing innocently on the sidelines. But Stephanie McCurry—whose Confederate Reckoning was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—shows that women were indispensable to the unfolding of the Civil War.
McCurry makes...broad points crystal clear, even as she raises questions on finer ones ... The chapter about Gertrude Thomas and her family’s precipitous fall helps us notice things we might otherwise miss about the meaning of emancipation and the wild contingency of the war’s end, when nobody knew how things would turn out. Thomas’s individual misfortunes notwithstanding, the chapter’s bold claims about the downfall of the planter class are tough to sustain in light of hard evidence that the planter class endured a momentary stumble rather than a permanent fall ... The book lands its strongest blows in the chapter about the Lieber Code. Before the Civil War, no systematic legal guidelines governed armies’ treatment of noncombatants ... In sum, the book’s chief takeaway is that the Civil War and emancipation constituted genuine revolutions whose true radicalness women helped cause and that we can fully see only when we write histories of war with women included ... She is lamentably and undeniably right that where women and war are concerned...but perhaps this book will make forgetting a little more difficult.
The author defends her choice to dwell at length on Thomas, but readers may wish the book quoted more personal testimony from other women. They will also notice the author’s insistence on 19th-century American marriage as 'a tool of politics and policymaking,' especially when it came to African-American women. But they should remember that, under slavery, these women had no legal protections for their marriage and family relations, as Ms. McCurry herself acknowledges. That so many freed women embraced legal marriage suggests not merely a pragmatic acceptance of imposed gender norms but rather a taking back of a right they had long been denied.
... so much...seems lost as the reader tries to figure out just what the author tries to achieve by bringing these three thought provoking essays together in one volume. Even within each essay, major points seem just to drift away.