CURRAN: Women Making War (2020)

Woman Making War: Female Confederate Prisoners and Union Military Justice by Thomas F. Curran. Southern Illinois University Press, 2020. Paper, ISBN: 978-0809338030. $26.50.

In Women Making War: Female Confederate Prisoners and Union Military Justice, Thomas F. Curran examines partisan Confederate women in St. Louis during the Civil War and how the federal government—specifically the United States military—viewed and treated these women. According to Curran, a combination of the development of the Lost Cause mythology and difficult primary sources led to the “story of disloyal women in custody” becoming “mutated, submerged, lost, and forgotten” in the story of the Civil War (190).

Curran combines recent work which has explored the role of Confederate women in the Civil War with his own extensive research to argue that rebellious women operated as political actors when they engaged in disloyal actions, such as smuggling mail, cutting telegraph wires, recruiting Confederate soldiers, and proclaiming their allegiance to the Confederacy. He further contends that federal military authorities held women accountable for these actions and prosecuted them in the same manner they prosecuted men.

Over ten chapters, Curran explores the “escalation of partisan women’s wartime activities…and the evolution of the Union military response to the women’s disloyalty” in St. Louis and the surrounding areas of Missouri (12). Chapters one and two analyze how federal officials struggled to develop a clear policy towards women’s disloyal actions until the establishment of Lieber’s Code and the idea of “war-traitors.” Prior to the Civil War, authorities rarely charged women with treason because of women’s inability to function as public actors or possess their own civic identity under coverture. However, the development of the category “war treason,” with a softer definition of treason than the one contained in the Constitution, created space for women to be held accountable for treasonous activities. Federal officials (particularly western theater commander General Henry Wager Halleck) proved eager to prosecute women accordingly. The following three chapters trace how this policy change resulted in increased arrests, imprisonments, and banishments of Confederate women as federal officials attempted to maintain control of St. Louis and Missouri amidst guerrilla war.

Chapter six is perhaps the most entertaining of the book, as it tells the story of Mary Ann Pitman—a former Confederate soldier and smuggler for Nathan Bedford Forrest who testified against a pro-Confederacy conspiracy in St. Louis following her arrest. Pitman eventually became a Union spy. While her story is certainly not representative of how most partisan women participated in the war or expressed their political views, Curran wisely uses Pitman’s fascinating story to demonstrate how women partisans were often identified by federal officials, prosecuted, and imprisoned.

The latter chapters focus on some of the issues federal officials faced when imprisoning women, including finding adequate space, dealing with repeat offenders, and prosecuting partisan women as they anticipated the end of the war. The last chapter demonstrates how the Lost Cause refashioned the stories of these disloyal women and their imprisonment, creating the image of “defenseless women” in need of protection (14).

With a fairly straightforward story about disloyal women in St. Louis, Curran wades into several quickly growing fields, including women in the Civil War, civil liberties during the war, and carceral studies. Curran does an excellent job giving credit to the many scholars (such as Stephanie McCurry and LeeAnn Whites) who have significantly shaped scholars’ understandings of Confederate women, but he is not afraid to point out how Women Making War complicates more familiar narratives. For example, Curran demonstrates that partisan actions cut across socio-economic lines in St. Louis; they were hardly limited to middle and upper-class women. Further, he argues that federal officials prosecuted women at much higher rates than previously believed.

Curran is able to make such important contributions because of his meticulous research in notoriously difficult sources. Curran’s argument relies on stories of women prosecuted for disloyal actions, skillfully pieced together through work in local newspapers, the War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, and most importantly, the records of provost marshals. While Curran cites the difficulties of “incomplete records, misfiled documents, misspelled names, bad penmanship, and more,” his ability to track Confederate women throughout the war is impressive and a powerful reminder of how tireless research can support a complicated argument.

However, Curran’s willingness to engage with so many different fields occasionally results in the larger story becoming muddled, leaving the reader wondering just where these disloyal St. Louis women fit in the larger narrative of the Civil War and the history of incarceration. Should we consider any woman that engaged in disloyal activities, whether in Union controlled territory or the deep South, conscious political actors? While Curran notes Women Making War focuses on St. Louis because of available sources, one wonders if similar kinds of arrests, prosecutions, and imprisonments occurred in other cities under federal authority—and how they  differed based on location and/or the men in charge. It would also be useful to understand the imprisonment of disloyal women within the larger context of the incarceration of women during the nineteenth century. How did these military imprisonments compare to civil incarcerations? Curran briefly mentions a couple of women transferred to state facilities for imprisonment, but he does not fully explore what that might have meant for the relationship between military and civil officials—or for the women themselves.

Even with its weaknesses, readers and scholars with wide-ranging interests will find Women Making War useful and fascinating. It is a straightforward read that scholars at all levels can engage with and learn from. While those interested in the role of women in the Civil War, especially as political actors, will likely find it most useful, the many captivating stories of the disloyal women which define this book make it a compelling read for anyone.


Heather Carlquist Walser is a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at The Pennsylvania State University.

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