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  March 15, 2004

Historian Takes New Look At
Women's Role In Civil War

Although many books have been written about the battles of the Civil War, few have focused on the relationships between civilians and the military.

Image: Jacqueline Campbell

Jacqueline Campbell, assistant professor of history, has written a book about the Civil War that dispels many myths about women at that time.

Photo by Melissa Arbo

Jacqueline Glass Campbell brings social and military history together

in her new book, When Sherman Marched North from the Sea: Resistance on the Confederate Home Front, recently published by the University of North Carolina Press.

"The book takes Gen. William T. Sherman's military campaign through the Confederate heartland and explores the cultural underpinnings of the people who were involved in it," says Campbell, an assistant professor of history. "It's an integration of military history, Civil War history, and women's history."

She says evidence from soldiers and civilians, both black and white, paint "a very different picture from traditional accounts of a military strategy that destroyed both the war resources and the morale of the Southern people."

Campbell's research for the book included examining letters, diaries, and official correspondence.

While sources for the civil war are voluminous and well studied, says Campbell, she paid attention to many things that other writers have skipped over, particularly the viewpoints of the Union soldiers, who talk a lot about the behavior of the privileged Southern white women.

What Campbell found is contrary to most of the popular images of the Southern belle.

"These women were not shrinking violets," Campbell says. "They were pretty tough. When the Union army brought war into the Southern households, soldiers were amazed how fierce the women were. They stood up to them, used bad language, and didn't weep and wail."

While some of the soldiers admired the women's courage, others found their attitudes "inappropriate, crossing the boundaries of acceptable feminine behavior," Campbell says. "In the rural South, where the household remained the political center, white women could see themselves as both mothers and warriors, giving them material and ideological reasons to resist."

Campbell says these women were not particularly afraid because "there was an understanding that the soldiers were not going to harm them. It was very, very rare for Union solders to physically harm white women of that class."

Campbell says that despite the popular images of Sherman's march that appear in such works as Gone With the Wind, the Union soldiers were "not universal brutes. They came from good homes. They talked a lot about the discomfort they had breaking into their homes and destroying their possessions.

"Slaves' reactions to the soldiers were complex," Campbell says. The men in Sherman's army were racist, and often stole from blacks' cabins and assaulted black women. "African Americans didn't know whether to run away with the Union army or flee from them," Campbell says.

According to Campbell, books about the Civil War written by social historians tend to focus solely on the home front, "neglecting how incredibly important the battles were, not just for military leaders and soldiers, but also for the civilians."

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