Back when I entered graduate school at the University of California in the mid-1980s, only a few historians displayed a serious interest in examining the intersection of women and the American Civil War. At the close of the war itself, Frank Moore’s Women of the War (1866) and Linus P. Brockett and Mary C. Vaughan’s Woman’s Work in the Civil War (1867) had brought to public attention the contributions that numerous individual women of the North had made to the Union war effort, and writers in the vanquished Confederacy had sought to do the same for a host of stalwart female supporters of the white Southern cause. But it was fully a century after Appomattox before Mary Elizabeth Massey’s Bonnet Brigades (1966) revived for a new age a good chunk of the history of Northern and Southern women’s involvement in the Civil War, and also pondered to some degree the impact of the Civil War on American women’s lives.
Despite Massey’s efforts, it took almost two decades more for a new generation of scholars to fully recognize the depth and breadth of the gap that remained in the historiography of women and the American Civil War, and to commit wholeheartedly to trying to fill that gap with their own thoughtfully composed products of what invariably amounted to very challenging research. Since the mid-1980s, however, the situation has changed dramatically. Nowadays it is actually possible for a college professor to develop a semester-long seminar entirely devoted to the topic of women and the Civil War, and there is even a surplus of intellectually challenging, analytically sound, and (yes!) reader-friendly resources available for students to consider. Certainly there is a good deal of work left to be done, but we have come a long way from assuming (and proclaiming) that the Civil War was men’s work alone, something that Moore, Brockett and Vaughan, and those who actually lived through the war obviously already knew to be incorrect.
Judith Harper’s Women During the Civil War: An Encyclopedia witnesses to, and also augments, the enormous strides taken in recent years toward understanding the diversity of roles played by women in the Civil War (and in Civil War America generally), and the crucial and sometimes surprising ways in which the war affected American women’s lives, their perspectives, their opportunities, and their futures. Although no encyclopedia ever exhausts the topic it explores, to Harper’s great credit she pushes the boundaries of our knowledge to include not only those categories of Civil War women whose stories have by now become relatively familiar (nurses, ladies aid activists, spies, soldiers), but also women in the arts, farm women, business women, nuns, industrial workers, and many other walks of life. Harper also makes a point of bringing non-white women into the heart of the picture; slave women,