Unpublished: Chatting about Civil War Women’s Writings

A couple weeks ago, a few of the women at Emerging Civil War discussed unpublished primary sources on a Zoom call. The conversation lasted nearly two hours and rambled a bit. While the notes have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity, we’ve tried to keep the feel of the discussion between Cecily Nelson Zander, Meg Groeling, Sheritta Bitikofer, Caroline Davis, and Sarah Kay Bierle. (Bierle took and edited the notes with everyone’s permission.)

  1. Are there different factors or challenges to consider when approaching women’s unpublished primary sources?

Cecily: Scarcity is a huge problem. We have lots of men’s memoirs, and women saved letters from their male friends and relatives. In that process, women preserved history but often left out their own stories. When we look at what look at what me wrote to their wives and daughters, and the published and unpublished primary sources by women, it’s clear that women had a significant role in the war behind the scenes. As far as what’s been published, we have a lot of Southern women’s writings. There should be many Northern women’s voices sitting unpublished in archives. I would have to have more Northern women’s voices in print, not just looked at in the libraries. A little more “Little Women” and a little less “Gone With The Wind.” (smiles) 

Meg: I love Little Women! I just read and reviewed A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky: The Diary of Frances Peter. She was 18 years old and died when she was 21. Peter lived in Louisville, Kentucky and suffered from epilepsy. Her diary is now published, and she offered commentary on John Hunt Morgan and a sophisticated and intense view of the war in a border state. I was surprised to learn about her experiences, and it makes me wonder how many similar sources lie unpublished. However, I would like to raise a question: Looking at women from a military history point of view – are they important to the war or are they a sidebar? 

Sheritta: I see what you’re saying. Women’s sources are not often a huge piece of what one person thought. But if we disregard their writings and voices, we remove a huge chunk of history. Oftentimes with women’s primary sources, we can “get into the minds” of the people who were there. It’s also important for understanding the culture and society that form the backdrop of the military conflict. A civilian may not be in the overall understanding, but they understood their the world and often had insightful commentary. 

Meg: Yeah, I was surprised in Peter’s diary to learn about the soldiers’ camping in the town square, and all the details of the military/civilian interactions.

Sheritta: Those tiny details make it all more vivid.

Sarah: Absolutely. Those military and civilian interactions could certainly affection ideas and morale, too. I think they are an important subtext to the “traditional” military history. 

Meg: Frances Peter comments on how poorly clothed the Confederates were and how bad they looked. She even commented, “Why couldn’t the Confederate women do better for their soldiers?”

Cecily: Well, she is in Kentucky, and she is seeing an army of losers. I like to use young women’s diaries with college students. Kate Stone (published) offers important perspective on how southern women experienced the war. She’s 17 and her voice is relatable to students.

Caroline: Southern women had to deal with a lot of economic factors. In the grand scheme, this makes it hard for them to take care of their soldiers. They didn’t have the means to support their army, and they are trying find grain for feed their families. It’s so drastically different for northern and southern women. The war doesn’t reach Indiana and Ohio (except Morgan). Even now, this influences how the war is taught and viewed. Also remember, women supported the war effort through morale, and some see this as prolonging the war.

Cecily: There may have been unrealistic expectations, too. Does Lee think Mary (his wife) is going to knit socks for the whole army? Get a grip, Bob.


Sheritta: I would also point out the perceived role of a woman, especially in the south. Sarah has talked about this on other chats. It’s the whole “romantic chivalry and damsels in distress.” Also, the fact that much of the south is rural and there few urban centers means it would have been more challenging for Southern women to organize relief efforts.

Cecily: The North had a pre-existing culture of reform, and for decades prior to the war, Southerners didn’t like that. The Southern men generally did not want to see their women involved in reform causes which could threatened eventually threaten their society and culture. Going back to significance of primary sources…we think they should remember. But to them, it was a “normal” day. What other circumstances are affecting “these significant dates”?

Sarah: That’s a great point. I’ve been working with some unpublished civilian letters, and one in particular is from May 1861. I expected a lot of war news, but instead – after a mention of the local company not liking the new mandates from the Confederate War Department in Montgomery, Alabama – most of the letter is about a devastating storm that destroyed the crops and all the work and economic woes of this particular family. I’m like, “Hello! War news? Your son just left with a lieutenant’s commission…and all you’ve got is news about the storm?” But then I started really thinking about how this letter showed the culture, this family’s place in the county, the lack of information about “big events” in the rural setting, and how far away the war felt from this community in the deep South.

Sheritta: I do think it’s important to question was this the “unvarnished” opinion? Is this what they felt? Or is this what society wants women to feel? Diaries might be more raw and uncensored. This goes back to evaluating primary sources. If she had a strong opinion and didn’t voice it, do the diaries give an honest opinion? Does she make claims in letters that make sense? What is she really saying and is it authentic? 

Cecily: Well, and women would self-edit in a way a man might not. 

Sarah: Right, reputation was so important. That makes me wonder if men would purposely destroy letters to protect a woman’s reputation. Even if he agreed and supported her views, would he eventually destroy the evidence if it went against proper norms?

Sheritta: Would someone try to destroy their own primary sources during the Reconstruction? Could it have been a way to destroy evidence? 

Sarah: Hmm… that’s an interesting thought. Especially considering the intensive process for the Southern Claims Commission and other times that women might have had to testify about their conduct during the war.

  1. What has been the most heartwarming or shocking thing you’ve found in a Civil War woman’s primary source? 

Cecily: Libby and George [Custer] were wild. Let’s just say that Libby missed her husband and wasn’t vague in her desires. In a different way, Ulysses and Julia [Grant] have a nice relationship that comes through their letters. But my all-time favorite is Kate Stone and her pimple. Vicksburg is besieged, and this teenager is writing in her diary about how embarrassed she is about a facial blemish. We’ve all been there, I suppose? 

Caroline: In my research, I focus mostly on navy history. While there are lots of women’s voices “onshore,” there’s unfortunately not much in the navy itself during the Civil War.

Meg: My favorite unpublished document is Carrie Spafford’s scrapbooks. [Meg shared the whole story of her discovery on the call, and you can read her written version here.]

Sarah: I always appreciate finding letter collections between courting or married couples and looking at the dynamics of their relationship as it unfolds. It always amazes me when I find men asking women for their opinions on important and sometimes life-changing decisions. I’ll admit I usually find it in Northern collections. Still, that is so different than what I was led to believe for a long time about men and women’s relationships in the past. One of my favorite “unpublished moments” was getting to see and hold a marriage certificate for a Southern couple I’ve been tracing for more than 10 years. It was a total surprise that the archive even had it! There was so much hope and so much sadness represented in that document. (The young officer was mortally wounded about nine months after the wedding.)

Sheritta: I love to find a “spunky” woman telling someone off in archive documents. Or a good sarcastic quip. We don’t always think of mid-19th Century women speaking in that way, but they did. It’s those moments of “OMG she actually said…”

  1. If you could wave a magic history wand to locate and publish any Civil War woman’s writings, who would you choose?

Cecily: I want to know about the women who were jailed after the Richmond bread riot. It would be so interesting to get their perspective on the trials and their opinion of the Confederacy. The only information we have about these women (as far as I know) is in the newspapers. What were these women going through as they were tried for trying to survive? I’d also like to undo all of Sallie Pickett’s edits, which are grievous historical wrongs, preventing us from seeing who George Pickett really was. 

Caroline: Frances Clayton was “supposedly’ a female soldier at Stones River. I would want to find her voice and answer some questions. Was she even there? We know that she applies for a pension, and she was a controversial figure who may not have even been at the battle. I would love to hear why she wanted to be part of this event? There are just so many unknowns in her story, and it really asks the question, “How did the folklore comes about?” 

Sheritta: I’ve had the opportunity to find an unpublished woman’s voice. A while back I wrote about Delitey Powell Kelly, but I really wanted to find the story from her view, outside the pension files. Eventually, I found a 10 page bio that she wrote herself! I would like to find and study first-hand accounts of formerly enslaved women and their transition after emancipation, from slavery to freedom. I know there are a few, but I wish there were more…or more published. It feels like such a big gap in history – in women’s history, history of the enslaved families, and in Civil War history in general.

Cecily: For example, we know that a formerly enslaved woman named Eliza was a cook for George Custer. However, in Libby Custer’s memoirs, Eliza is not written well and only speaks in racist dialect. She is reduced to a character in the white Custer narrative, but she must have had a significant life story, and she worked for the Custers for years. If only we had her story, from her perspective.

Sheritta: Right! And I think about Sojourner Truth. There’s evidence that she used proper grammar in her famous speeches, but when white people wrote about her, they wrote with dialect to make her sound like an enslaved person according to their cultural views.

Meg: I want Elizabeth Van Lew’s voice. There’s a lot about her that we never hear about!

Sarah: I have a lot of wishes for unpublished women’s primary sources, but for tonight, I’ll go with Bessie Shackelford’s war era letters or diary to clear up what she REALLY thought about John Pelham. I think I have it figured out, but I certainly wish I had some primary sources to fully prove it. And, I would like to read Ellen Shaw Barlow’s letters. (Younger sister of Robert G. Shaw, second wife of Francis C. Barlow). I think they exist, but I think they are in Massachusetts! Anyway, amongst other items of interest that should be in her letters, I think one of my distant relatives might have known her in the early 20th Century, and I would love to see if Ellen wrote about her. 

[The conversation turned in other directions and ended shortly after the three topic questions had been explored.]

3 Responses to Unpublished: Chatting about Civil War Women’s Writings

  1. Cecily: “The North had a preexisting culture of reform”? Perhaps among a narrow band of the self aware elites, but it was neither that broad nor deep. The fire of the war largely expunged it.

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