Confederate Women and Union Soldiers in Sherman’s March to the Sea

frank-1By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the speakers from the upcoming 2017 CWI conference about their talks. Today we are speaking with Dr. Lisa Tendrich Frank, an independent historian, editor, and writer on issues related to the American Civil War and American women.  She received her PhD from the University of Florida and has taught at universities and colleges across the U.S.  Dr. Frank is the author and editor of several books and articles on women’s and American military history, including The Civilian War: Confederate Women and Union Soldiers During Sherman’s March (LSU Press, 2015); The World of the Civil War: A Daily Life Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 2015); and “Bedrooms as Battlefields: The Role of Gender Politics in Sherman’s March,” (in Alecia P. Long’s and LeeAnn Whites’s edited collection, Occupied Women: Gender, Military Occupation, and the American Civil War, LSU Press, 2009).  She has also worked as a consultant for various non-profits and as a public lecturer.

CWI:  What was the nature of the interactions between General Sherman’s army and Confederate women during the infamous March to the Sea?

FRANK:  The interactions between Union men and Confederate women were incredibly gendered throughout the march through Georgia and the Carolinas. As a result, physical confrontations were rare. Instead, Union soldiers and Confederate women traded verbal barbs and largely fought over feminine material possessions. Union soldiers frequently entered and ransacked homes occupied by the region’s most privileged women, entered their bedrooms and parlors, and then seized various domestic treasures. Soldiers destroyed and stole an endless list of items that had no military value but instead struck at the heart of femininity and included wedding gowns, lingerie, sheet music, personal diaries, artwork, jewelry, and pianos.

CWI:  How did Union soldiers’ conceptions of southern womanhood and class politics shape the nature of their interactions with the women whom they encountered during the march?  How did Confederate women’s conceptions of southern womanhood, class privilege, and northern masculinity shape their responses to Union soldiers’ actions toward them?

FRANK: Union soldiers and Confederate women had overlapping conceptions of southern womanhood and acted accordingly. They both embraced the idea that elite southern women had distinct realms of protected feminine space. This assumed inviolable space included women’s bodies as well as their bedrooms. During the invasion, Confederate women hoped that Union men would respect these spaces but feared that they would not. For their part, Union men largely saw these privileged spaces as opportunities to employ tactics that could humiliate the women even as these soldiers respected white women’s privilege enough to not physically harm these women. Differences in their outlooks also mattered. Union men tended to overstate the emotional and physical frailty of white Southern women, expecting them to psychologically surrender in the face of gendered slights. In contrast, Confederate women took umbrage from their mistreatment but it served to intensify their sense of privilege rather than to negate it.

The Ephraim and Ellen Ponder House, Atlanta, GA. Destroyed by Sherman’s army, 1864. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

CWI:  What was the larger impact of these soldier-civilian interactions on each side’s respective war efforts?

FRANK: The interactions between Union soldiers and Confederate women had multiple impacts. By attacking elite white women’s world without much military resistance, the Union achieved its larger goal of humiliating the South and showing southern white men that they could not protect their families. At the same time, these acts made many elite women even more ardent Confederates than they had been before. The behavior of Union soldiers confirmed women’s ideas about Northern depravity and convinced them that they could not live as one nation. In contrast, the Union tactics demoralized Confederate soldiers who recognized that they could not protect their wives, mothers, and children on the homefront.

If you are interested in hearing more from Lisa Frank and other distinguished historians, consider registering for our 2017 summer conference

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