Monday, April 1, 2013
Review: They Fought Like Demons by DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook
They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War by DeAnne Blanton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Before I heard of this book, I hadn't realized there was any official record of women soldiers throughout history. This went a long way toward filling in my knowledge about the phenomenon during the American Civil War. The book even explains why it fell out of general knowledge. Altogether, though, it's more of a starting-off point than a comprehensive look.
They Fought Like Demons covers several aspects of women soldiers: the why, the how, the discovery, and what their male counterparts, the press, and the general public thought of them. The book takes great pains to debunk several notions about female soldiers. They weren't sexual deviants or lesbians; only one woman was found to be prostituting herself, and a lot of them went to join a husband, lover, or brother. Confederate women were able to serve more openly, because the Confederacy was in greater need of soldiers and spies, and most who joined a loved one left after the loved one died or was discharged. Treatment of an injury was the greatest cause of discovery, but many women who were discovered re-enlisted in another regiment. Most of the men who served with disguised women spoke highly of their service, and were surprised to learn their secret.
If the above seems scattershot, that's because the book is told in a scattershot way. Rather than telling any one woman's story (that of Albert D.J. Cashiers is most comprehensive, but still scattered throughout), it's a series of premises, backed up by the evidence presented by one of perhaps a dozen women soldiers. Because each woman went by at least two aliases (her own and her male pseudonym, and sometimes what the press called her or another name she switched to, or simply "unknown"), it was hard to keep track of everyone.
According to They Fought Like Demons, there were, provably, 240 women who disguised themselves as men in order to serve in America's bloodiest conflict. That's hardly a large number, but it's not a small representation, either. These women were known to the press and the Civil War veterans, and yet they vanished out of the historical record once there was no one alive to tell their tale. The book suggests this is due to a backlash to women's suffrage and the rise of feminism.
Mostly, reading this book made me want to write a fictionalized account. It's been done before in a fantasy setting (Terry Pratchett, Monstrous Regiment), but I suddenly want to bring it alive in a way that makes it impossible to deny. If another writer beats me to it, I'll happily read that, instead.
Considering how spotty my Civil War history is, that story will have to wait a long while before it's written.
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