Reviewed by Tim Talbott
When civil war erupted with the firing on Fort Sumter by South Carolina Confederates, President Abraham Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers brought men rushing, eager to be citizen-soldiers. Some northern women, who desired to remain with their husbands, or who just wanted to assist in preserving the Union, also found their way into various roles that were unfamiliar and potentially quite dangerous. Their numbers, of course, were much fewer than the tens of thousands of men who immediately went off to war, and thus the records these women left for future historians to tell their stories are often quite scarce. However, by taking creative approaches, it is possible to tell the stories of Union women who went to war and the impact they had on those they served with, as is demonstrated by the late Mike Pride’s recent study, No Place for a Woman: Harriet Dame’s Civil War.
Harriet Dame was not a female soldier. She did not cut her hair or disguise herself as some hundreds of other northern and southern women did. Dame’s Civil War role was both within and outside of the gender conventions for that time period. Society expected women of the Civil War era to maintain traditional gender roles and exist within a culture of domesticity. Women were supposed to exhibit virtuous behaviors by being pure, pious, domestic, and submissive. In becoming a good wife and mother—cooking, cleaning, nursing, and praying for one’s family—women achieved their highest calling and exerted their greatest influence by improving society from home where their moral influence was believed most effective.
The Civil War offered Harriet Dame a multitude of opportunities to fulfill those traditional roles, but outside of the conventional household. Rather, her new chosen field of work was near the war’s battlefields, along the campaign routes of travel, and in the army camps and hospitals. She did not offer her efforts and talents to a husband and children, but instead provided them to the soldiers in her hometown regiment.
When Dame decided to leave her Concord, New Hampshire, boarding house behind and accompany the 2nd New Hampshire Infantry to the front as their matron in the summer of 1861, she was 46 years old. Over the next four years she would see sights and endure experiences that rivaled those of the men she camped with, marched with, cooked and sewed for, and nursed back to health.
To tell Dame’s story properly, Pride felt “the best course was to blend her experiences with those of the soldiers she befriended and helped. Only by understanding their ordeals, defeats, and triumphs is it possible to comprehend hers (9).” Thus, No Place for a Woman is just as much a regimental history of the 2nd New Hampshire Infantry as it is a biography of Harriett Patience Dame. The two were practically inseparable during the Civil War, so it is only proper that Pride tell their stories together. Before reading the book, one might think it would be virtually impossible for the author to strike a proper balance between the regiment and Dame, but Pride delivers a virtually seamless narrative while offering plenty of spotlight for both.
In crafting this fascinating study, Pride cast his research net far and wide. As noted historian of the northern home front J. Matthew Gallman notes in the book’s forward, “Pride turns to a wealth of evidence, from letters, diaries, regimental histories, newspapers, personal recollections, and all manner of invaluable documents (xiii).” Of particular help in telling Dame’s early wartime experience was a collection of recently discovered letters that Dame wrote to a teenage neighbor girl in Concord about Dame’s army adventures from the summer of 1861 to the summer of 1862.
A point that the author emphasizes throughout the book is Dame’s ability to endure severe hardships. Whether told through her writings to friends and family, or by soldiers in the 2nd New Hampshire in their wartime and post-war writings, Pride shares Dame’s sufferings, privations, and fearlessness during her service in the field and the hospital wards. Apparently eating barely enough to hold body and soul together, Dame’s ability to do without food and sleep, and withstand grueling marches is truly as impressive as any soldier’s.
Included in the book are numerous photographs of Dame, the places she visited, and the soldiers she comforted and served with. Five maps help readers better understand the areas in which she lived and traveled. Well researched and cited, Pride’s writing style reflects his career as a long-time journalist.
No Place for a Woman: Harriet Dame’s Civil War is a welcome addition to the body of scholarship on Civil War-era women. It not only tells a fascinating and important story about a truly heroic woman, it does so in a creative way that will hopefully serve as a model for historians to bring other largely forgotten individuals the attention they deserve.