Long Time a’ Comin’

Topics like “Women Who Have Inspired You” usually have one format: a younger person looks back to an older mentor and sings her praises. I do not have that luxury. I am old, and all the professors who inspired me were men. The only woman who taught history was in the Medieval Department. I was interested in politics, economics, map reading, strategy, and tactics. I wanted to learn to think like a Marxist and a Hamiltonian–at the same time. I did not much care for feminist history, at least as it began in the 1960s. My view of the past is pretty much men and women, not one or the other.

Nope. I have the distinct honor of being able to look forward. I am the oldster here, although my list of inspirational women includes a couple of more mature historians. There were times when I thought it would never happen for me–no academic Masters, no published articles, no reputation as anything more than a California Ellsworth Groupie–just an old math teacher. But when I put my head up and looked over the earthworks, I saw amazing things!

I saw that Drew Gilpin Faust (the only woman in this list older than I) was not only President of Harvard, Forbes magazine listed her as the third most powerful woman in the world. More important, Drew Gilpin Faust is a HISTORIAN!!!!!!!!!!!!! My parents warned me that historians could not make a living as historians–they neglected to tell me about Ms. Faust. Apparently, it can be done. Drew Gilpin Faust dared to follow her heart, and I channeled her many times when I was working on my Masters. Thank you, Ms. Gilpin Faust.

I looked closer and found UCLA Professor of History Joan Waugh. I read her book on Grant (U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth), and I saw her speak at a West Coast Civil War Round Table Conference. She is smart, funny, and composed. She projects a real sense of being in charge of her subject when she presents. I have seen her several more times–she is a fantastic role model. She not only knows her history, but she can go one-on-one with Gary Gallagher. There is a vast difference between teaching math to middle school students and giving a presentation at a symposium. I watch her YouTube videos before I have to speak, but her magic has not rubbed off on me yet. I will keep trying. Thank you, Ms. Waugh.

The two women I have briefly mentioned are my beau ideals of elder stateswomen. They are closer in age to my generation. The rest of the women I admire are younger, and each one is a powerhouse in her own right. These women are the ones that make the old guys who like those red and blue lines shake in their Hush Puppies. I will give each a brief nod here, but I feel every one of them deserves a several-part blog interview on her own.

  • Catherine Clinton, the Denman Professor of American History at the University of Texas, has forced Civil War historians to look beyond the battlefield and into the plantation house. Her work laid the foundation for the new books appearing that examine and discuss the mentality of southern existence and how the war affected the minds of those involved. Her seminal book Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom was the biography from which the award-winning movie Harriet was made. Thank you, Ms. Clinton.
  • Chandra Manning, full Professor of History at Georgetown University and part-time lecturer at Harvard, has written books that confront the irrefutable fact that slavery was the primary cause of the Civil War. What This Cruel War was Over was one of the first academic books to shake the Lost Cause to its roots. Troubled Refuge: Struggling for Freedom in the Civil War deepens her arguments. She will be one of the historians responsible when the myths of the Confederacy are finally understood and rectified. Thank you, Ms. Manning.
  • Caroline Janney, who has been interviewed by Chris Mackowski for ECW (https://emergingcivilwar.com/2018/03/12/a-conversation-with-caroline-janney-part-one/ and three other parts) is one of the historians who first wrote about the Civil War and memory–how we “see” the war and why. Her book Burying the Dead but Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause was one that helped me see southern people differently than I had before. It is due to the efforts of historians like Ms. Janney that the Lost Cause is now more clearly seen in context. She is a Professor of History at Purdue University. Thank you, Ms. Janney.
  • Thavolia Glymph, Professor of History and Law at Duke University, is the author of Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household, and The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battles for Home, Freedom, and Nation. Aside from having one of the best names ever, she, too, has written about the South. Her ability to examine her subjects dispassionately and yet be passionate in her choice of the subjects themselves has been a model for my historical writing. Ms. Glymph deals with the conditions of the war and the impact they had on southern women of all kinds, from elite to enslaved. Thank you, Ms. Glymph.

Apparently, trying to understand the mindset of the South is very important to me.

I have a more personal connection with the last two women on this list. The first one is Lesley J. Gordon. She has written a couple of things that have changed the trajectory of my work. I first read her essay, “‘These Zouaves will never support us’: Cowardice, Congress and the First Battle of Bull Run,'” as a chapbook I found on amazon when I was looking for titles concerning the 11th New York and First Bull Run. Ms. Gordon, currently the Charles G. Summersell Chair of Southern History at the University of Alabama, proposed the idea that Ellsworth’s Zouaves had not “run like scared pet lambs” at First Bull Run. She claimed that the Committee on the Conduct of the War had used the 11th New York as a scapegoat to explain the Union’s devastating loss at that battle. I ran with it! I read the sources, and I read letters from soldiers. I read all the bios of the 11th New York officers. I talked to some vets about the “fog of war,” unit cohesion, professional leadership, the importance of competent officers, and battle fatigue. I bought her book A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War, which gave me a model for writing up my research. She inspired me to add a chapter to my Ellsworth book concerning this issue, and I have never looked back. I have so much for which to thank her. She came to my attention at precisely the right time. Thank you, Ms. Gordon.

My last inspirational woman is Megan Kate Nelson. All the women listed above are academic historians–Ms. Nelson is not. She was the first historian of whom I was aware who broke away from academia to become an “independent” historian. I love reading her blog, “Historista.” Published irregularly, it told tales of working one’s way up through interviews, part-time lecturer jobs, publishing within the academic community, the necessity to move to where a job was–much like the military–low salaries, and kicking in the glass ceiling of military history along the way. And then it didn’t. Megan Kate Nelson decided enough was enough, and she needed the time and space to do the work of a historian without having to do the work of a professor at the same time. The first result is her newly-published book, The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and native people in the Fight for the West. I did not even know that could happen. That was what I wanted to do! Thank you, Ms. Nelson.

Megan Kate Nelson blew my mind. I cried. How I wished I had had more courage, more foresight, better support… but I did not. I was born too early to join these young women who, by doing work as historians, are changing how the world sees the American Civil War. I am following in their footsteps, not the other way around. I am so proud of these women–the ones who are my peers and chose a different path than I did, and the ones who could be my daughters. I am fortunate to be surrounded by all this glorious intellectual wonderfulness. I am doubly fortunate to exist in an age of technology within which this type of contact is possible.

Thank you, ladies! Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

About Meg Groeling

CW Historian
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1 Response to Long Time a’ Comin’

  1. I have a few of the books you’ve mentioned, but have yet to get around to pulling them from the shelf. Now I’ll be reading them with a greater context to the inspirational ladies who wrote them. So much talent and achievement that it’s almost intimidating. But if we don’t have role models to aspire to, I guess we’d get nowhere. Thank you for sharing, Meg!

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