Claire's Reviews > They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War

They Fought Like Demons by DeAnne Blanton
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's review
Mar 27, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: history-and-soc-science

The subject of women warriors throughout history is often overlooked by present-day scholars; at best, it is acknowledged with a nod to Joan of Ark, and, if one studies the American War for Independence, Molly Pitcher. The topic of female soldiers in the American Civil War, which is often termed the last "old-fashioned war," is notable not only because the conflict occurred more than half a century before women's suffrage in the U.S., but also because we have documented proof of women's service in the ranks--something that both Federal and Confederate armies forbade. In the majority of known cases, women, upon the discovery of their true gender, were sent home. Although some obeyed, others merely bided their time and waited for opportunities to attach themselves to other units. Authors Blanton and Cook catalogue all the known ways and means that women used to disguise their gender--including convenient cicumstances, such as the fact that "medical" examinations of soldiers rarely involved the removal of clothing.

The take-home message is that women, despite the rules and social conventions of their time, joined the ranks of both armies and fought during the war. Although the total number of volunteers will never be known, the authors claim that their research turned up about 250 names. Clearly, a subject like this deserves more scrutiny, despite the general urge among scholars to downplay or to dismiss instances of women soldiers in the Civil War. Parts of this book are compelling, especially sections devoted to the few individuals whose stories survived. Unfortunately, the majority of women are reduced to names only, as nothing of their fates or post-war lives are known. However, the authors make the mistake of listing all these names throughout the book, no doubt for the sake of accuracy, and to preserve the scant existing records and the headcount their research uncovered. On the one hand, it's brutally difficult for writers to sustain a narrative when the only known facts are limited to mere names and unit numbers. From the reader's pov, however, the overall effect is choppy and disorganized, which doesn't do justice to the amount of research that went into this book, or to the women who, though lost to history, served in the conflict. Under the circumstances, I think the authors did the best they could, but one wonders whether a shorter book, or a series of essays, would have been a better choice.
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