Q & A with Nina Silber on her new book, “Daughters of the Union””
History prof to read tomorrow night at Barnes and Noble
Nina Silber, a CAS associate professor of history, has written extensively on women’s roles during the Civil War. Her most recent book, Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War, was published last May by Harvard University Press. Silber will discuss the book at Barnes & Noble at BU on Wednesday, September 21, at 7 p.m. She spoke with BU Today recently about her new book.
What led you to write about the role of Northern women in the Civil War?
When people talk about women in the Civil War, they tend to think Scarlett O’Hara, Southern women, and especially women who lived on big plantations. That aspect of the story is in some ways more romantic and dramatic, and I think Northern women’s work and experiences have suffered because of that comparison. Far less attention has been paid, not only in popular culture but also in the historical accounts, to Northern women.
How did you find accounts of their experiences?
One of my concerns was to not just get the experiences of the most elite women, who tend to leave diaries and journals. So while I used some of those, I also tried to find letters that were exchanged between soldiers and wives or soldiers and mothers. Pension records were another thing, because women who weren’t leaving other forms of evidence behind might show up in the pension records, and they gave testimony about their economic need. There were quite a few letters that women were writing to Abraham Lincoln, which obviously were compiled and saved, so that was another piece of evidence.
One thing that’s sort of a unique problem in doing a project like this is that there’s a treasure trove of letters out there, but there are far more letters written by men to people back home than by people back home to the men. It’s a very practical problem — when soldiers wrote home, it was easier and much more possible to save their letters. You’d wrap them up, put them in the attic, and then those letters get saved and passed down. But when women wrote to men, men were often on the battlefield and they’d leave things behind, or then they’d be injured or killed and who knows what would happen to their letters.
Did you discover anything that surprised you while researching this book?
I realized that we have a certain kind of myth conception about what happens to women in a time of war — women go out to work, they become independent, they learn new skills. A lot of those things certainly do happen, because women have to fill vacancies left by men, but I think what was surprising was how much women also felt frustrated, demeaned, and sort of oppressed by taking on these kinds of new responsibilities.
One of the examples that would come up repeatedly is that they might have to handle the family finances now that their husband was at war. Women were constantly writing to their husbands saying, ‘I have no idea how much you pay somebody who’s come to do work for us, or what kind of debts we have.’ They knew so little that when they were put in this situation of having to manage and handle things, they felt overwhelmed.
What are you working on next?
I’m actually interested in the question of memory and the question of how people remembered aspects of the Civil War experience, and especially how people remembered slavery in the years after the war. It’s somewhat of a departure, but it’s still related to Civil War themes.