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Book Review: They Fought Like Demons

by Suleman

The authors DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook successfully collaborated to combat the battles of history faced by a relatively small but socially important group of former soldiers: women who took part in American civil wars who did not perform the natural duties of a woman such as cooking or nurses, but as couriers, combatants, and spies. There were already popular images of women during the war which included self-sacrificing nurses, romantic spies and even brave women maintaining the home in the absence of their men. However in their research Blanton and Cook argue that such pictures did not tell the entire story. They researched the important role of women during the civil war and their direct participation in the war. It is easy to note from their statement the reasons why they have written this book: to research and describe these women and their experiences as combatants and the many contentious issues concerning their military service.

Blanton and Cook’s most tremendous success in their book is drawn mainly from their professional archivist and amateur historians’ professional experiences. With Blanton working at the national archives, specifically with the military records from the nineteenth century and Cook taking part in civil war reenactment, at least until when she was discovered to be a woman together they present a very able and qualified duo to perform the research.

Book Review: They Fought Like Demons

The text recounts the true history of patriotic people, which has been distorted. You depict women as triumphant warriors, an individual whom their comrades respect and trust even if the reality finally comes to fruition. Women soldiers who were part of the national consciousness have been seen before, before Freudian age when a woman in a particular sexual position was considered abnormal or depraved. However these women’s history tales were limited to a minimal and ultimately ignored before writers such as Blanton and cook took the initiative to explore the facts and truths. They documented at least 250 women serving in the union and confederate ranks, using more than a decade of primary source research. The women in uniform had different reasons and perhaps some of the reasons mirrored those of men-patriotism, honour, heritage, and desire for excitement.

The women’s motives for joining were the same across the lines; that is, they never wanted to be separated from their loved ones. They had a strong belief in the war course itself and desired to live as a free, independent person. Several women warriors are traced through the various chapters dealing with life in the military, the prisoner of war experience, and women as casualties and how the public perceived the female soldiers. Despite all these challenges, the authors show how some of the women emerge as victors fulfilling their purpose of joining the civil war. The chapter titled “when Jennie came marching home” is a fascinating chapter detailing what happened to these women after 1865. For instance, Elizabeth Niles, who served with her husband Martin in the 14th Vermont Infantry, returned home and raised a family. Others like Jennie Hodgers, who lived the rest of her life as a cashier in Illinois, kept their male identity and the freedom it afforded.

To support their argument, Blanton and Cook examine how the women were able to slip in as recruits since all they had to do was show their hands and feet. In addition , the authors describe how Yankee and rebel women soldiers have eluded detection and even merited promotion for many years. Their comrades could not discover such well-hidden identities until the “young boy” in their midst was wounded, killed or gave birth: some women even succeeded in concealing the pregnancy until dawn. The argument would be how their social life was or how they lived amongst the men and carrying out the day to day war activities. However to discard the idea, the authors describe the women as having sizes and voices similar to those of the young boys serving in the military ranks. Additionally, this was the Victorian age and people did not customarily undress, even when in bed sleeping. The baths were a rare occurrence and even it was a common practice for a soldier to seek more privacy to carry out cleanliness in the woods instead of doing it in the camp.

The ill-fitting uniforms enabled the women to hide their shapes as well as pregnancies until they delivered. For instance, a case where a subordinate was reprimanded for allowing his sergeant to have a baby violate the set military rules and regulations was documented. However with such twists, the story of women civil war soldiers takes on mythic aspects. The fame of women soldiers was widespread during the war itself. Some men even took advantage of the dynamic to come out as women and get sent home even though they were men.

The account of female combatants in the War Between the States is quite a fascinating reading. The notion of women fighting for the yanks was something I had never thought of. Reading this book served as a significant learning experience for me. A great deal of research went into the monograph, and the authors did a great job. It unique to me to learn that women even in the late stage of their pregnancy, not only did they keep their gender a secret, but also they fought fiercely in the battle at the same time.

Perhaps in their most probing chapter, “female Soldiers in the Public consciousness”, the authors make an effort to interpret the significance of the female warriors as bold in the nineteenth-century American culture. After the discovery, the assertion was that some women soldiers developed negative perceptions and stereotypes by appealing to the idea of female patriotism and self-sacrifice that for a moment it overflowed the bounds of home and hearth onto the battlefield. Feeling guilty, some women were almost ashamed to justify their perceived violation of acceptable gender behavior. Blanton and Cook explain that some even went ahead to cite the reasons: it was due excessive love for country and man as unusual. Still, understandable factors that propelled them into the battlefield were.

The female warrior bold motif explanation by the authors only explains the reception that the right kind of female soldier received. Still, their concept fails to present their warrior women as complicating factors in our understanding of the nineteenth and twentieth-century gender norms. Despite the subjects flouting gender expectations, the authors are satisfied relying on a somewhat outmoded and rigid interpretation of separate spheres rather than engage their excellent literature on the current generation women’s extra-electoral political and public action. Women putting on men’s clothes and passing the check-ups with full equality was a considerable radical experience. Even doing so in a mostly masculine military culture was an even bolder statement for social, cultural and political participation. The departure from gender expectations deserves greater emphasis on the concept of previous or continued gender passing outside of the military context.

I also raise issue with the way the monograph presents information on each known female soldier. It was presented in a piecemeal fashion where the book would bring up women numerous times in different chapters but never clearly told any woman’s story at once. That is to say their motivations, experiences, discovery and thoughts are treated in separate chapters to my disappointment-all I kept walking away with was women were fighting in the civil war. My take is I would have enjoyed the book more if it had covered at least one prominent individual in a full chapter. Reading the book the way it is, it isn’t easy to achieve a deep insight into any one person’s ambitions, motivations and thoughts as a whole.

Nevertheless, “They Fought Like Demons” is a book the authors have made to tell the story of female participation in the civil war as soldiers. The book is not too long, perhaps why the authors did not delve into discussing the role of how valuable the women were during the war effort. It does satisfy however in a healthy way the need to understand the women patriotism and their desire to fight and preserve their country.

It is a book I can readily recommend to any person wanting to understand the women participation in the civil war on an “outside of the house” front. Still, it wouldn’t suffice if looking for an understanding of women’s doings amid the battle. Similarly, the book was a little hard to follow because the authors switched the characters a lot. However I did enjoy the reader because this is an excellent work done by the two authors. My criticism is relatively small and doesn’t change the fact that the book is a revelation to modern historians.

  • Browder, Laura. 2006. Her best shot: women and guns in America. Chapel Hill, NC: Univ. of North Carolina Press.
  • DeAnne Blanton, Lauren M. Cook. 2002. They fought Like demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University press.
  • O’Brien, Cormac. 2007. Secret lives of the Civil War: what your teachers never told you about the War between the States. Philadelphia, PA: Quirk Books.

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