“I Crave the Privilege of Doing It” – Being a Female Military Historian

In March 1862, Clara Barton – undoubtedly the war’s most well-known nurse – requested to go to the front and serve. “Though it is little that one woman can do, still I crave the privilege of doing it,” she wrote.

This quote epitomizes the importance of Women’s History Month and the role women have in shaping the field of military history – particularly in remembering the sacrifices of the same men Barton helped save. Though there are a select few of us female military historians, we hope to make an impact by contributing valuable scholarship and research to our field.

Here I am at a Thanksgiving Day Parade in St. Louis with the Missouri Civil War Museum in 2003.

I, for one, have had a deep interest in the Civil War, specifically through the lens of military history for as long as I can remember. My first memories are of visiting the Western Theater battlefields, fascinated by the commanders and soldiers who served there. This passion of mine was fostered by my father, who not only was a historic preservationist, but a Marine veteran and police officer. I would get my hands on as many Civil War books as I could and go to as many battlefields as I could visit, trying to understand the stories that occurred on these hallowed battlegrounds.

The more I became interested in the military history of the Civil War, the more I realized how rare it was that a female was passionate about this subject. In fact, I am usually the only woman to attend battlefield tours and talks.

Flash forward to 2019, where I am standing at Watson’s Battery on Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg.

While I was a student at Gettysburg College, though, I was surprised to see many fellow women scholars in the Civil War Era Studies program. Best of all, they were just like me, eager to study this complex time period. Although many studied the war’s social and cultural themes, there were a few fellow women who took on the military history. However, since graduating, I realized that there were far less of us in the real world than I had anticipated. At the Missouri Civil War Museum, where I work, visitors are surprised to see a woman interested in the Civil War. They usually ask if I am a historian and if I know much about the war. I do not believe these people are asking that out of sexism, but out of curiosity.

By being a female military historian, I see it as an opportunity, not a hindrance. The military history of the Civil War is, and will always, be my passion. By studying and sharing the stories of soldiers, it is the chance for me to give back to those who sacrificed life and limb for us during our nation’s deadliest conflict. If military history is your passion, embrace it and never give up on it.

Through confidence and expertise, we women historians can show the history world that we can do whatever we put our minds to. In the end, it really does not matter if the subject is dominated by men. In fact, it has always motivated me to do my very best and prove myself. Just like what Clara Barton wrote in her 1862 letter, “I crave the privilege of doing it.”

3 Responses to “I Crave the Privilege of Doing It” – Being a Female Military Historian

  1. Thank you so much for writing this! It really confirmed things for me. I became fascinated with the Civil War long ago, but less than a year ago I became practically obsessed. So far I’ve gone to over a dozen museums and battlefields for talks, tours, reenactments, and personal research (four Confederates in my family history). And just like you, I’ve gotten weird reactions. I usually don’t take my husband with me, so I’m a lone woman amongst a bunch of dudes or families, totally engrossed in everything. I’d get into long conversations with the park rangers or guest speakers during or after the tour, too. I was checking into a hotel for one trip and the desk attendant asked me what I was doing there, and I told her all about the battle anniversary at Corinth that I was going to attend (last October), along with my trip to Shiloh. She said “Wow, I would have never guessed that”. It really made me think about why there weren’t as many women in this field of study. I’ve started my own blog to help share my experiences and knowledge, but it’s still pretty small. I hope our paths cross one day! You are an inspiration! Thank you!!!

    1. I work in a small civil war museum called The Pearce Civil War Museum on the campus of Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas. We have about 17,000 original documents in our collection. As the only male on the staff I was surprised at the interest and knowledge of the many female guest we have coming from all over the world.

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