Saturday, June 22, 2013

Maryland Women in the Civil War: Unionists, Rebels, Slaves, & Spies / Claudia Floyd -- Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2013

Most histories of the Civil War have approached the topic either from the perspective of a limited military campaign or battle or from a national military-political perspective.  Some, of course, examine specific themes related to the war, e.g., the emancipation of slaves, international relations, or political intrigue.  Others focus on the biographies of key historic figures.  Many of these approaches overlook how different the war seemed to people in different states.  The people of Virginia experienced the war quite differently, of course, from how it was experienced by the people of Wisconsin.  Ohio University Press has begun a very interesting series of Civil War histories that recognize the importance of these state differences.  Included in their offerings are Ohio's War, Indiana's War, Illinois's War
, Missouri's War (reviewed in this blog), and Kansas's War.
In this vein, The History Press has published Maryland Women in the Civil War by Claudia Floyd.  The work treats exactly what you would expect from the title.  Examining the role of women in Maryland's war is particularly interesting, in that the Maryland was a slave state that was secured by the Union in the early months of the war.  Consequently, a large number of southern sympathizers found themselves going about their normal domestic lives under what they perceived as a hostile occupation and resisting that occupation or supporting the southern cause often involved covert activities and not open, armed Resistance.  Both men and women could and were fully engaged in these activities.

By and large, Floyd's book examines the roles of a handful of women who we might assume are representative of larger groups of women.  We learn about Anna Ella Carroll, a prolific pro-Union propagandist; Elizabeth Phoebe Key Howard, a member of a prominent Baltimore pro-secession family; Madge Preston, a diarist and southern supporter living outside Baltimore; and perhaps the most famous woman from Maryland during the Civil War era, Harriet Tubman; but there are a host of other women who's lives and views make brief appearances in the work.

Floyd does an admirable job of illustrating how different women reacted differently to the war, not just based on their sympathies for the Union or Confederacy, but due to their station in society and particularly due to the effects that the war had on their families.  One gets the sense that more than in many other states, the women of Maryland were driven to engage in politics because of the high stakes that existed for families living in a slave state, that bordered the nation's capital and separated free states from slave states.  The controversial suspension of habeas corpus by the Lincoln administration mostly affected men living in Maryland, Maryland's geographic location made it particularly important to the underground railroad, and Baltimore's large free black population complicated race relations in ways that the rest of country did not experience.  Again, elements of this sort meant that the war reached into domestic life in a way that was not common in other states.

If there is a weakness in the work, it is that it appears to rely too completely on diaries and letters.  While this gives the work an admirable immediacy, it is not clear how much the experiences of the women who are the subjects of the book can be generalized to the rest of the women in Maryland.  Many of Floyd's women are socially prominent, making it less clear that working class women experienced the war in the same way.   For what it is, though, Maryland Women in the Civil War is an engaging and informative work.

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