Behind Every Great Man is Ten Great Women: The Unsung Heroines of the Civil War

Americans remember the conflict of 1861-1865 in many ways. For some, it was the War Between the States, a series of battles where Southern states fought for independence from the oppressive Union. To others, it was the struggle against slavery and for the country, a glorious show of American victory over amorality. Yet in all of these situations, the Civil War is presented as a series of battles between men. Only men were allowed to enlist to fight for liberty and justice for all, which has resulted in a cultural memory that this was a man’s war. How easily we have forgotten about the countless nurses, seamstresses, cooks, and mothers who kept the country going while the men were away at war. Women were not merely the wives, sisters, and mothers of soldiers. They filled many roles in the country’s war effort, both actively in service and passively contributing materials to the army.

Organizations like the United States Sanitary Commission were founded by women, managed by women, and made up of a volunteer corps of women. The work of the USSC saved immeasurable lives by improving the conditions of the camps and hospitals in which the soldiers stayed. In a war where two out of every three deaths were the result of a disease or infection, the basic hygienic needs of soldiers had to be a primary concern for the nation. However, due to a lack of resources and manpower, the government and the army could not address this vital need. The women of the USSC had to step in, and because of their work thousands of deaths were avoided. This is one of a multitude of roles that women played in the war, and yet is almost never discussed or acclaimed.

While textbooks do note that Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross, rarely does one see Sarah Emma Edmonds, Anna Dickinson, or Mary Mitchell mentioned at all. Even Louisa May Alcott, a famous American novelist, is seldom given credit for her nursing work in the Civil War. The United States has great respect for the Civil War—we can see it in the sesquicentennial and the many battlefield reenactments that take place throughout the South every year. However, those reenactments, designed to be as close to the historical truth as possible, never include signs of female effort. Obviously, we hold the Civil War dear to our hearts and integral to our nation’s history. Why, then, do we blatantly ignore a full half of the populace? In these pages, I will be exploring the contributions of four women to the Civil War, women who have been forgotten. Only after doing this can we truly pay respect to the ladies who healed our soldiers, advanced American idealism, and fought for our country.

The fact that women could not enlist in the Union or the Confederate army does not mean women did not fight. Sarah Emma Edmonds took the most active role she could in the war—she disguised herself as a man, took on the name Frank Thompson, and joined the army.  Surprisingly, she was not the only woman to do so. In 1889, a former battleground nurse named Mary Livermore guessed that up to 400 women had joined the army in men’s clothes; after 150 years of research, historians now estimate that that number is closer to a thousand. (Leonard, xiv) Most interestingly, Edmonds herself was not a natural-born American—she was born and raised in Canada and escaped to the United States as a teenager, only five years before she went off to war. (Edmonds, 2) Edmonds hid her sex from her fellow soldiers for two full years, only revealing it in 1866 at the reunion of her company. While she is not the only woman to fight as a man in the war, she was the only one who has left us with a confirmed diary of her time with the Army of the Potomac. In her book, titled Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy, she recounts the events of a certain battle and the orders given by her commanding officers, without very much commentary on her personal feelings. Unlike the diaries kept by other ladies, Edmonds’ published work reads like a factual chronicle rather than a personal diary. There are few traces of sentimentality, nostalgia, or intense emotion in her work, and it is virtually impossible to tell that a woman was writing it at all. The closest she comes to a private opinion is when she remarks on the deservedness of her service to the army. “I once heard a pious lady say that… [serving in the army] was so inconsistent with the Christian character that she was tempted to doubt the piety of all fighting men…I believe that a man can serve God just as acceptably in fighting the enemies of liberty, truth, and righteousness with the musket down in the South, as he can in the pulpits of the North; in fact I am inclined to think he can do so a little more effectually in the former place.” (Edmonds, 73) However, such examples of personal sentiment are few and far between. In general, there are no feminine touches to Memoirs, which speaks against the contemporary idea that women were simply too fragile and emotional too fight in battle. In her two years of Union service as a “male” nurse and cadet, Edmonds put in the effort of a worthy and hardworking soldier.

Not only did she fight on the front lines disguised as a white man, but she was then chosen to take on a mission as a spy in the Confederate army as a young black man. Edmonds used her skills at costuming to infiltrate the Southern army and hire out her skills while dressed and painted as “contraband”. It is in this section of the memoir that we find valuable information on the treatment of African Americans during the Civil War. Literate Negroes were a scarcity in the country, and most of them were working like Frederick Douglass as a public speaker and political actor. Therefore, there are few accounts of the African American experience during the war. For example, Edmonds recounts that “[t]he colored men’s rations were different from those of the soldiers. They had neither meat nor coffee, while the white men had both. Whiskey was freely distributed to both black and white, but not in sufficient quantity to unfit them for duty.” (Edmonds, 61) Edmonds continues her style of writing as a soldier and a reporter, rather than a delicate lady in a high-stress situation.

And stressful it was. Not only could she fear having her true sex discovered while in the North, but the discovery of her race would have had her killed in the South. Spying was a capital offense on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Halfway through her mission behind enemy lines she was almost caught as a white person. “After taking a draught of [water], one young darkie looked up at me in a puzzled sort of manner, and turning round to one of his companions, said: ‘Jim, I’ll be darned if that feller ain’t turnin’ white.’…I took a small looking glass which I carried…I was only a dark mulatto color now, whereas two days previous I was as black as Chloe” (Edmonds, 63) Edmonds faced danger multiple times and survived to publish the tale. In many ways, Sarah Emma Edmonds committed herself to the Civil War far more than her male compatriots. She went into active service voluntarily while some men were resisting the draft, exposed herself to the bloodiest of battles, and took on extra missions that depending on makeup and a fake accent alone. This kind of active contribution to the Civil War set the highest degree of women’s dedication to the war effort, and certainly Edmonds was not alone.

Some women chose to stay in the safe areas of the country and contribute through oratory and political advocacy. When the Civil War was still solely about keeping the Union together, it was women who had the necessary time and skill and were able to promote abolition as a war goal. One women who stood out among the rest was Anna Emily Dickinson, who spoke against fighting for anything less than the elimination of slavery. A Quaker girl who grew up in a working class Pennsylvania town, she was engaging enough to fill town squares, city halls, and concert venues with thousands of people who came to hear her protest slavery, belittle the Confederacy, and critique the leadership of the Union. “We have no war-cry—no noble motive…While the flag of freedom waves merely for white man, God will be against us.” (Venet, 39) Dickinson was a young woman who had grown up in an abolitionist household, then carried on her father’s lifestyle of writing essays against slavery and publishing them in newspapers like The Emancipator.

Often called the “Joan of Arc for abolition,” Dickinson used her charm and demure attractiveness to persuade reporters and politicians who otherwise would not listen to abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison or Wendell Phillips. Additionally, she spoke in direct and dramatic terms, an oratorical style welcomed by many during wartime. “The contest can have but one ending, no compromise, no conciliation, but either the Palmetto or the Stars and Stripes from one end of the country to the other.” (Venet, 44) Her powerful words made Republicans out of countless working class people, both recent immigrants and born Americans alike, who would have historically voted Democrat. Dickinson was invaluable to the war effort—without her, both New Hampshire and Connecticut were likely to go Democrat in the 1863 election, a move that would have crippled Lincoln’s campaign. (Venet, 45-46) While the men of the North were not yet ready to embrace a woman in the public sphere, nor did they want to give the young orator a vote, they certainly were inspired enough to allow her to make huge sums of money off of her lecture series.

In the summer of 1862, Anna travelled to Philadelphia to lend her services to Union nurses. While this work was suitable to thousands of Northern women, Dickinson found herself drawn to the stories of the soldiers and surgeons, rather than the practical woes of dressing wounds. She did eventually use these stories in later speeches, particularly when she addressed the US Sanitary Commission in the fall of 1863. Women from Boston to Chicago flocked to her events, eager to see another female in a position of power. If her beauty got her the attention of men on the East Coast, it was her sheer womanliness that won her support in Chicago. Unlike her predecessors, Elizabeth Cady Stanton being the most well known example, Dickinson was not heckled off the stage for her sex. The Independent actually credited her success to her gender, saying “Miss Dickinson is not a woman speaking like a man…She thinks and feels like a woman. And she proves beyond all controversy that there are elements of truth, and phases of public affairs, important to be known, that can be given from no other stand-point than the heart of a true woman.” (Venet, 50) This young woman’s success obviously made progress not only for the Civil War effort, but also for women’s rights. By combining both causes in her popular speeches, Dickinson was able to influence both the leaders and the masses to support two great causes of the late nineteenth century. Unfortunately, for all her success, Anna Emily Dickinson is no longer included among the great names of the Civil War, even though her contemporaries acknowledged that it was her effort that saved Lincoln’s second election, and possibly the Union victory itself.

Of course, there were women who have been remembered and cherished since the end of the war. Louisa May Alcott has earned acclaim for her literary successes, particularly her novel Little Women. But how many people know that she was one of the thousands of women who left their homes to work as nurses in the Civil War, whose work ultimately seized the profession for themselves ever since? Alcott, born of a middle class family in Germantown, Pennsylvania, was better off than her colleague Dickinson. She was inspired to join the corps of nurses based in Georgetown, DC, when she was thirty years old and still unmarried. A writer taught by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoureau and published by the age of seventeen, she kept a diary throughout her six weeks of nurse duty, and published excerpts from that diary in 1863, entitled Hospital Sketches. In this work, Alcott gives her account of the experience of nurses, doctors, and injured soldiers in the Washington area. The style of the memoir is as far from Sarah Emma Edmonds’ as possible—every event is full of emotion and pity, and often does the reader discover her private thoughts on hospital policy, the nature of the war, and the valor and courage of the soldiers. “Our brave boys, as the papers justly called them, for cowards could hardly have been so riddled with shot and shell, so torn and tattered, not have borne suffering for which we have no name, with an uncomplaining fortitude, which made one glad to cherish each as a brother.” (Alcott, 29) In gruesome detail Alcott explains the wounds and diseases of the Union men. Alcott, like every other nurse, endured long hours, scarce supplies, and the most offensive smells in the name of liberty. Her participation in the Civil War is only the most widely published example of the experience of approximately 5,000 women who left their homes and families to care for the wounded men from both sides of the war.

Alcott’s memoir serves to display some of the underlying tensions of the battlefield hospitals. While all Union hospitals were accustomed to taking care of the Confederate injured, not all the attendants were pleased at this tradition. When one of the injured Union soldiers told Alcott that a rebel had been brought into the hospital with the wounded, she wrote “I regret to say that I did not deliver a moral sermon upon the duty of forgiving our enemies…but, being a red-hot Abolitionist, stared fixedly at the tall tebel, who was a copperhead, in every sense of the word, and privately resolved to put soap in his eyes, rub his nose the wrong way, and excoriate his cuticle generally, if I had the washing of him.” (Alcott, 33) Nurses, doctors, and surgeons all had to weigh their personal feelings about the war with their duty to protect and treat every patient in their hospital, regardless of their allegiance. Nurses, particularly female nurses, played a special role in the care of the sick and dying. Surgeons were given the task of sawing off gangrenous limbs, proscribing medicines, and removing bullets from deep wounds. But it was the women who washed and wrapped the hurt areas to ward off infection, wrote letters home for those soldiers who could not write themselves, and then comforted the men as they endured unimaginable pain, high fever, and delusions. Alcott reveals this secondary duty in describing John, a soldier shot in the back during the battle of Fredericksburg. “I knew that to him, as to so many, I was the poor substitute for mother, wife, or sister…” (Alcott, 52) Scores of ladies filled this emotional void for soldiers. The efforts of thousands of nurses saved countless men’s lives, and likely just as many men’s sanity.

Americans may reenact the war with men marching through fields and towns, pretending to shoot each other, but the reenactment cannot possibly be complete without women taking care of them. While we play-act historic battles, we lose a huge component of the experience by faking the injuries and removing the women who would be bandaging them. Women took on a number of different roles throughout the war—they raised money, treated the fallen, and in rare cases, donned men’s clothing and fought themselves. The “war between brothers”, as we now call it, was supported from all sides by the sisters of America, so that nary a woman was uninvolved.

In many cases, the war forced families, women, and even children into serving the army. Especially in the South, where the lack of railroads proved to be a hindrance for the Confederate Commissary, homes were called upon to provide food, blankets, wood, and whatever else the war needed. Southern women often found themselves overrun with starving and sick soldiers and deserters. Most provided all they could, leaving them destitute by the end of the war. (Edwards, 135) Northern women who stayed with their families usually knit socks for the USSC and made quilts that were either sent off to campgrounds or auctioned off to raise money for the army. (McPherson, 225) Regardless of their location or social class, women were constantly needed to support the war in whatever way they could.

In some cases, families who tried to stay neutral were pressed into action by the realities of war. Mary Mitchell and the rest of her family became one of these cases. In the early autumn of 1862, Mitchell’s town of Shepherdstown received the Confederate dead and the wounded from the battle of Antietam, and the Mitchells found themselves playing nurse. Mary Mitchell’s memoir of the event is a compassionate tale of a town’s valiant effort to support the troops. Her account begins with a tragic description of the Confederate army: “There was little mitigation of hardship to our unfortunate armies. We were fond of calling them Spartans, and they were but too truly called upon to endure a Spartan system of neglect and privation.” (Mitchell, online resource) Mary herself was but twelve years old at this time, and yet she still left her tasks to care for the Spartan men. Every woman had a job in the struggle to save lives, even though few were truly qualified for the task. Mitchell’s narrative proves that there were no bystanders to the war—everyone, no matter what age, had a part to play. Like many women in the South, Mary and her townsfolk had to donate whatever materials were available to help the poor men. “Then there was the hunt for bandages. Every housekeeper ransacked her stores and brought forth things new and old. I saw one girl, in despair for a strip of cloth, look about helplessly, and then rip off the hem of her white petticoat…The women helped, holding the instruments and the basins, and trying to soothe or strengthen.” (Mitchell) The resources of the government were gone and the resources of Shepherdstown were stretched thin. And still, women answered the call of necessity to withstand the worse of circumstances and stand by their men.

There is no doubt that the people of the United States remember the sacrifice of the Union and Confederate armies. More than sixty thousand casualties are difficult to forget. However, there is a blatant lack of recognition for the sacrifices made my American women. While they may not have given their lives to the degree of male patriots, the ladies of the USA gave whatever they could, at whatever cost. Participation was not an option in the Civil War, it was a constant. One may have been able to choose to how to contribute, but women from all corners and all classes of the country felt an obligation to help, and now we should feel obligated to honor their work.

Works Cited

Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. Boston: James Redpath, Publisher. 1863.

Edmonds, Sarah Emma. Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy: A Woman’s Adventures in             the Union Army. Introduction by Elizabeth D. Leonard. DeKalb: Northern             Illinois University Press 1999.

Edwards, Laura F. Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil             War Era. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 2000.

McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford             University Press. 1988.

Mitchell, Mary. “A Woman’s Recollections of Antietam,” September, 1862, web             accessed from Blackboard.

Venet, Wendy Hamand. Neither Ballots Nor Bullets: Women Abolitionists and the Civil             War. Charlottesville: University Publishers of Virginia. 1991.

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Fight for the Right to Fight

When we think of the Civil War nowadays, we know that it was about freedom. Depending on what side of the country you’re from, that freedom can be either from the Union of from slavemasters. In the North especially, we like to idealize the values we were fighting for, idolizing the Union troops as liberators and the proponents of equal rights for people of all races. But how truthful is this view? Even if they were segregated from white regiments, were the African American Union soldiers treated with the same respect and deference as white soldiers? What realities have we blurred over in our overly-optimistic picture?

Black family serving as slaves for the Confederate Army

In the South, we understand that blacks were treated wretchedly. They maintained their slave status, and followed around the troops acting as cooks, maids, seamstresses, and other menial functions. They were always the last to be fed and, unsurprisingly, never paid for their work. When we picture the civil war, we tend to remember first and foremost the plight of these African Americans, suffering at the hands of the Confederacy.

Picture of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry

The Union, sadly, was not as different and egalitarian as we’d like to think. African Americans had fought in all the major wars of the nascent United States. While they were not usually federally sanctioned or paid like their white counterparts, they still volunteered for service. In the civil war, black regiments were formed under the Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 1862, though they were not allowed to be sent to combat until the Emancipation Proclamation was issued 6 months later (officers feared they would be captured and reenslaved by Confederate troops).

Once recognized however, they were treated almost as badly as the African Americans in the South. Black Union regiments were trained less, sent out to the front lines of battle more often, and given less rations and pay. They were valued much less than white regiments, and racism and discrimination ran rampant. They were almost always under the command of white officers who were respected less than officers from white regiments. While we may want to idealize the civil war by saying we allowed black men to fight for their own freedom, it is simply not true that the Union treated them fairly.

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Disguise and Decoy

Decoy cannon that was really a log carved to fool the Union

The reenactors of the American Civil war provide a realistic representations of the battles of 1861-1865. The men who march across fields in blue or grey uniforms know that they are honoring their ancestors by copying the strategies and movements of the civil war. But when they carry fake or unloaded guns, they may not know how closely they are really reenacting those fateful days.

The term “quaker gun” sounds like an oxymoron–the Quakers are pacifists, and therefore opposed to all forms of violence. However, in the civil war shortages of supplies and artillery (usually on the side of the Confederates) led to the use of quaker guns–hollowed-out tree logs that were sometimes painted black to fool the Union into thinking they had more supplies that was true. This creative front put on my the army reflects the very real problems that we hope to forget. Quaker guns, like many aspects of the less glamorous civil war, have been virtually erased from our history.

On left, Sarah Edmonds before enlisting. On right, Private Frank Thompson, her Union soldier alter ego.

Another “smoke and mirrors” effect used in the civil war was the estimated 400 women who disguised themselves as men and enlisted to support the effort. The most famous account of this experience was Sarah Emma Edmonds, who joined the Union as Frank Thompson. As Thompson, Miss. Edmonds became a spy in the Confederacy, taking on yet another disguise as a black man named Cuff. While it is unknown exactly how man women took this unconventional route, it shows another way that women took part in this “man’s war”. We think of women of the civil war in two ways: knitting socks at home or bandaging wounds on the battlefield. But from stories like these, we see that the role of the woman was far more versatile and undefined than imagined.

When the men of the reenactments do battle, who is unrepresented? What has been dissolved? How much of the civil war has been erased from the story?

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Quilting Across America

Union Ladies' Quilt that was sold at a Sanitary Fair

I already posted about the US Sanitary Commission, and about nurses who were active during the Civil War. But what keeps coming back to me is the other contributions that women made, from home, and the differences in the difficulties faced by Northern and Southern women. For example, women from all regions of the United States and the Confederacy made quilts to support the war effort. Some, like the one shown at right, were fancy silk affairs that were auctioned off at Sanitary Fairs to raise money for the military when it was poorly stocked. These were meant less for warmth and comfort than to display Union themes, such as the stars and stripes and the eagle in the center. Additionally, the use of silk, rather than cotton, shows the tensions of the war. Since the lion’s share of cotton fabric came from the South, many women chose the more expensive and less practical option of silk for their work.

Confederate Homespun Cotton Quilt

Union ladies were not alone in the quiltmaking of the period. Confederate women made quilts like the one at left, also for auction. Commonly called “gunboat quilts”, referring to the shortage of gunboats the South had, these featured different designs. The dainty florals and quaint patterns is meant to show off the femininity and delicacy of Southern belles. The fabric of these quilts is also interesting. The South of course had an abundance of cotton fiber–but all of the textile factories that turned fiber to fabric were across the blockades, in the North. Therefore, Southern quilts were made of cotton homespun, a fabric previously reserved for coarse slave clothing. However, during wartime homespun became a popular and patriotic thing to wear no matter which social class you were in (similar to the rise in domestically-made products during the American Revolution).

Cot Quilt for Civil War Soldiers

The final kind of quilt that was produced during the Civil War was the cot quilt. Ladies from either side of the Mason-Dixon Line would rip apart old clothes, bedding, curtains, or any other textiles they could find and stitch them together again to make these quilts for the soldiers. It is more difficult to tell whether any particular quilt was Union- or Confederate-made, since they were produced quicker and with less attention to detail, more attention to warmth and comfort. These quilts were sent in large quantities to the battlefield with the USSC. What is also telling about the cot quilts is the blatant appearance of even stitches, a detail that is hidden in modern sewing. This is due to the advent of the newly-invented Singer sewing machine, a luxury many women wanted to show off in their work.

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The Nurses of Fredericksburg

The nurses of the Civil War are vividly portrayed in Mary Mitchell’s account from her girlhood days enduring the battle of Antietam. The spontaneous handling of responsibility and duty that those girls and women showed was courageous and inspiring. But it got me thinking about women nurses in general. If the Civil War was the advent of the American Red Cross, the US Sanitary Commission, and the shift of the nursing field from a male-dominated career to its current station as primarily lead by women, then what other outstanding nurses must there be?

This (and a Google search) brought me to Hannah Ropes, a women who opposed slavery with the passion of her male counterparts, even if she never brandished a broadsword or a ballot to show it. However, when her Union fellows needed medical experience to help the wounded, she made her way to Georgetown from Massachusetts to tend to them. It was of course surprising that this was happening in our backyard. Even more than that, she mentored another great American woman, Louisa May Alcott, in the profession to enhance the quality of medical care for the soldiers. This seemingly odd connection reflects the interconnectedness of everybody in these times–West Point graduates killing their classmates, and great writers joining forces with great abolitionists. Ropes also was a major influence on medical reform politically. When she saw the poor conditions under which soldiers were treated, she went directly to Secretary of War Stanton. And then Stanton fired the chief surgeon. Ropes, Alcott, Nightingale, and countless others brought on the reform that revolutionized medicine in the United States, and brought us out of the so-called “Medical Middle Ages”.

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Women at War

Call to work from the early US SAnitary Commission

Women in the North and South were obviously not allowed to fight in the war, but they had other ways of contributing to the effort. Women in the North formed the US Sanitary Commission, which is best known for improving the plumbing and waste disposal systems at the troops’ campsites. However, the early USSC was more focused on home tasks like this ad for sewing socks for soldiers. What intrigues me most is how reminiscent this is of the WWI and WWII housewives who sent supplies like homecooked meals, blankets, and such to the men in battle–especially when the items were not being sent directly to her husband, brother, or son.

And McPherson also makes sure to mention that the women of the Confederacy had a different way of encouraging their soldiers. The Southern women, apparently worshipped by men, would humiliate them into joining the army. This contrast in character shows off some of the trends that McPherson keeps bringing up–the industriousness of the North versus the passion of the South.

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Three Strikes and You’re Out

This 1860 cartoon, which I found in today’s New York Times Disunion opinionator, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/30/bats-balls-and-bullets/. Had to bring it up in the blog because baseball seems like such a national icon, something not to be divided between the North and South. But here we see that not only is it used to poke fun at the South, but it was circulated to communicate such sentiments to the masses. Also, the speech blurbs by (from left to right) Bell, Douglas, Breckinridge, and Lincoln are hilarious.

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What does uniform mean, anyway?

Uniform of the 5th New York Volunteer Infantry

“Uniform: not changing in form or character, remaining the same in all cases and at all times.” This definition would indicate that an army defending one country under one flag should look the same. But as the picture at the right indicates, there were many changes that took place in the Union army between 1861 and 1865. This get up, more reminiscent of a Renaissance fair than a military regiment, was what many Union soldiers from New York showed up in Washington wearing. The confusion and disorganization of the early Northern militia reveals what could have been a major weakness to the war effort. Without proper mobilization and efficiency, the vast quantities of industrial power and manpower available to the north would be useless. The Zouaves also reveal an interesting juxtaposition of the early civil war–how united was the North, really? The states were not yet a coordinated force to be dealt with, just a collection of incensed men fighting for the vague ideals of “liberty” and “patriotism”.

On the other hand, was the Confederacy any better? The book mentions how the Confederate army, while passionate about their cause, faced detrimental shortages of supplies and munitions–in part because the state governments were saving these valuable resources for themselves. If the Confederated States of America was going to survive, it seems backwards that its own states would withhold necessary supplies to the armies. It looks like the southern states distrust their own government, forcing the nascent government into a shaky standing much like the original Articles of Confederation in this country.

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Senators Gone Wild

Popular Cartoon of the Event

The caning of Charles Sumner changed the way I saw the antebellum period. I never thought public officials were so vehement, especially in the conservative and proper nineteenth century. But the image of a senator being beaten to a pulp on the floor of the Senate, is unbelievable. Not only that, but the fact that nobody helped him is telling about the political tensions of the time. Southern gentility and the brotherhood of men was gone.

Above that, this was a flashpoint in the war, given the reactions of both sides. Not only did southerners support Brooks, but they sent him replacement canes for the one he broke while assaulting a public official. The treatment of Brooks shocked me. I can no longer believe that the Civil War didn’t begin until the first shots at Fort Sumter. While those may have been the first gunshots, it was not anywhere near the start of violence. The canings, the killings in Kansas, everything points to a bloody antebellum. The beginning and ending of any war is difficult to truly mark, but the beginning of the Civil War seems to be so much more fluid than the rest. The political end of the war may have been just as complicated–Lee may have surrendered in 1865, but the societal tensions were not resolved until much later (if they even are now). This week I have been thinking alot about how one defines the start and end of a war. Who decides when the war began? Especially in a war that was never declared, and a war the president refused to ever call a war, it gets much more subjective to put dates on it.

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Are There Any New Stories?

Storytelling has always been a part of a worldwide human culture, a way of relating our past, our beliefs, our superstitions, our morals, and pretty much everything important to us to others. People tell stories for a variety of reasons, whether it’s to warn a child of the dangers of the woods or to relive a glorious moment of the past—we see examples of these stories in a plethora of fairytales and epic tales. Stories are of utmost importance to a culture, which is why we still tell them today and print them in books and magazines and journals. Stories are told orally, in written form, and depicted in art. Using the eyes of authors of stories, we gain a new perspective on the same story, ultimately creating a new story altogether. Here we will use the eyes of Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Susan Sontag, Randy Roberts and James O. Olson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson to discover what work stories do for them, and why they tell stories at all.

Henry David Thoreau’s book, Walden, is a story, once it has been boiled down to its main narrative style. Reflecting upon his two years spent living alone in nature, the work is one long storytelling experiment. He uses this story to not only advise and encourage others to live as he did, but also to explain himself, and not have his experiment forgotten in time. Perhaps the most often quoted passage of the book exemplifies this fear of living without the experience: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” (Thoreau, 59) However, if his only goal had been to experience nature firsthand, he would not have felt compelled to write it all down and publish it. Thoreau represents the permanence of written stories. Unlike folktales, which are manipulated and changed over time by the nature of any oral tradition, the written and published word lives on, unchanged. The story that Thoreau told in 1854 is still being read exactly as he told it, even though over 150 years have passed. Stories anchor us in history, and attach our experiences to the cultural memory. It’s unclear whether or not Thoreau believed he was writing a “new story”. On one side, he was rejecting the cultural norms and practices of his era, which would make this woodsman lifestyle a new story to his peers. However, the phrase “returning to nature” marks an important point—people used to live in these conditions. Therefore, it is inconclusive whether Thoreau thought he was writing a completely new story, or merely rewriting a forgotten one. Thoreau used his story of living in the woods to raise up his own voice, or possibly the voice of his ancient ancestors, and raise it to the level where it could he heard for centuries.

Frederick Douglass, though also writing purely of his own experiences, had a much larger purpose. Most autobiographies are solely focused on commemorating the life of their subject, much like Thoreau’s Walden. However, Douglass gives a voice not only to himself, the great orator, but also to many who never got the chance to tell their stories. The details and facts of his work have been contested over the years, but the bigger purpose was to tell the story of African American slaves in that era, to ensure that the permanence of the published word will carry the slaves’ stories into the future and not be forgotten. While Douglass might be the only slave educated enough to tell his story, his deliberate references of other slaves and their horrific lives is proof that he was trying to loan them his literacy, and wanted to improve the lives of others. His book had a much broader purpose than anchoring himself in the historical narrative; he wanted to tell the stories of millions. We see this in his mentions of old Barney, Demby, and Caroline, among other slaves. (Douglass, 53, 57, 82) The three of them—not even given the dignity of a second name—are memorialized through Douglass’ autobiography.

Douglass also uses stories to give himself the dignity of being seen as civilized. It is an understood belief that the ability to write down one’s history is the key to civilization, an ability long withheld from the African American slaves. (Class notes, 14 February 2011) By writing down not only his history, but also the histories of other slaves, Douglass is asserting that slaves are civilized people, worthy of recognition from their society. Unlike Thoreau, Douglass is using his story as a conduit for the stories of the less fortunate. In this way, Douglass is decidedly telling an old story—a story that speaks through years and across states and speaks for millions of people. But by being able to tell it at all, he is telling a story that is totally new to his audience, and therefore could be seen as a new story altogether.

The other source we have read that shows people telling stories for the sake of others is the secondary resource by Randy Roberts and James O. Olson, A Line in the Sand. This book tells the story of the Alamo, both as a historical event and a cultural icon, but without the firsthand experience we see in Walden or The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Roberts and Olson take on the job of telling the story for those who never got the chance. But this book brings us a new complication in the theme of storytelling—the Alamo story was told in two very different contexts. The historical narrative of the battle in San Antonio is one method of storytelling, by providing facts and dates and places. This historical narrative is the best way of learning the story the way Texans knew it—in terms of facts, dates, and names.

However, it is the other half of Roberts’ and Olson’s book that is much more closely related to this analysis of storytelling. When the two authors discuss the Disney retelling of the Alamo and of Davy Crockett, we get a better look at the influence of storytelling and of the biases we put in our stories. Walt Disney took the story that Texans had been telling for over a century and made it an American story, a story to be retold by countless people who had never had a personal connection to the Alamo. Disney shows us how stories can be told to fit the intentions of the storyteller. If Walt Disney wanted an American fable, he merely had to pick up and polish an existing event, and present it as an established American narrative. So is this a new story? At face value, it’s not, since the event and the related story had been told for many years before. However, this malleable nature of stories is vital here, since it was only after Disney shaped the story to his intentions that it went national. But perhaps the Alamo story needed a fresh perspective in order to gain the popularity it eventually did. Possibly the characters of the story could only appeal to a national audience when the story was revived.

A much better illustration of this kind of character revivification is the storytelling at work in Susan Sontag’s The Volcano Lover. Sontag resurrects Lord Nelson, Sir William Hamilton, Emma Hamilton, and others and gives them a unique (though wholly fictional) voice. These people are from centuries ago, and the romance speaks a lot about the importance of stories and storytelling. Most prominently is part four of the romance, where four characters appear out of context and plotline and do nothing but tell their stories. In each of these soliloquies, we see the character trying to explain the failures and mistakes of her life, trying to justify her decisions and faults to her audience, the reader. These passages, like the small mentions in Douglass’ Narrative, are giving voice to the otherwise silent, yet important, characters: Catherine, Emma’s mother, Emma, and Eleonora Pimentel. Catherine’s posthumous monologue reads like an apology for her personality, especially when held in contrast to Emma’s. “I am surprised that I find so much to complain of, since it is my belief that a wife’s part is to excuse, to pardon, to bear with everything.” (Sontag, 378) Catherine’s story is a publishing of a voice that would otherwise go unheard. Sontag uses Catherine the way Douglass uses himself, to tell the story of millions of subservient and obedient women who otherwise would think it too impolite to tell their story themselves.

Interestingly, the other soliloquies at the end are not apologies, and do not speak for millions of average women. Emma’s mother spends most of her story restating that she was Emma’s mother, not governess, a misconception that probably wasn’t common. Emma Hamilton herself is larger than life, and tries to not only justify why she was loved by all, but also tries to excuse her treatment of her daughter later in life. Eleanora Pimentel, female revolutionary, is probably the most counter culture of them all, and Sontag works just as hard to give her a voice. These women may have been forgotten in history, but in no way represent the common, silenced victim the way Catherine does, or even Frederick Douglass or Davy Crockett does. Once again, it’s difficult to tell whether any of these are old or new stories. Although the characters lived in reality hundreds of years ago, is Sontag’s resurrection and liberty with details turning them into completely new stories? It’s complicated further by the fact that The Volcano Lover is a work of complete fiction. Does that make this story more or less legitimate than the firsthand accounts?

The answer to the question of old or new stories is best answered by reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1836 essay Nature. Emerson begins his work by with the passage “Why should we grope among the dry bones of the past…There are new lands, new men, new thoughts.” (Emerson, 1) Emerson finds no value in studying the histories of old cultures, since we are not experiencing those times ourselves. Emerson is like Thoreau in this respect, he advocates for firsthand knowledge of a subject, to have a personal relationship with nature and the world. The result of this premium on personal experience is the idea that every story is a new story. Emerson makes the point that each new perspective can completely change our view of the world. “Turn the eyes upside down, by looking at the landscape through your legs, and how agreeable is the picture, though you have seen it any time these twenty years!” (Emerson, 11) This also shows up in the popularity of the slave narrative of Douglass and others. While many people knew something of what was happening in the South in the United States, the slave story revealed a whole new world of cruelty and hatred that was possibly unknown in the North and abroad.

In summary, if one accepts the ideas Emerson puts forth, then every story told is a new story. While old stories and new stories have some common themes, the details of the story, the background of the storyteller, and the cultural context into which the story is told create a whole new story. If every story is a new story, what happens to the oral traditions that many cultures have? Can we still communicate the “old stories” we hold dear? And more than that, do we need to tell those old stories over and over? If, as Emerson says, experiences and personal relationships are the most important thing about storytelling, perhaps its better that each retold story is new and different. Either way, the power of a story is one of the strongest themes shown through these five texts. Whether the story is an attachment to a national history, a retelling to lift a nation’s spirits, a symbol for so many more stories, or a resurrection of old figures, it is a potent tool in developing a culture, and developing a communal story.

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