Skip to Content

Listen to Them Being Ghosts

Women in Civil War Texas: Diversity and Dissidence in the Trans-Mississippi

Women in Civil War Texas:
Diversity and Dissidence in the Trans-Mississippi

edited by Deborah M. Liles and Angela Boswell

Denton: University of North Texas Press, 2016.
336 pp. $29.95 cloth.

Reviewed by
Elizabeth Turner

It has long been a lament among historians that a full account of Texas women had been missing from Civil War histories. With eleven chapters and an introduction, this anthology is a timely corrective to that lacuna. Although Texas was affected less by actual combat than other states, it still experienced bombardments at Galveston, Indianola, Corpus Christi, Matagorda Bay, Sabine Pass, and at the border town of Brownsville. Women who escaped these invasions became refugees not unlike those who fled Union forces in other parts of the South. Whereas Texas women performed many of the same roles held by other southern women during the war, the diversity peculiar to Texas is noteworthy. Anglos, Tejanas, Germans, Unionists, slaves, refugees, as well as women living on the western frontier, made up the distinctive female population of Civil War Texas. For the most part, the questions asked by the authors revolve around the transitions and transformations the war brought to these diverse groups.

   Texas women were fully engaged in secession and the war that followed.  Vicki Betts writes of the war fever that Anglo-Texas women fueled, beginning with the election in 1860. Politicized women editorialized in local newspapers, created hand-sewn flags, raised funds through barbecues and tableaux, rolled bandages, and made uniforms for the soldiers. Perhaps as many as 70,000 men left home; it was then that many Texas women sobered to the absence of their menfolk and the tasks before them. As shown by Dorothy Ewing, most white southern women favored secession, but when the realities of war took hold, they were left to manage hearth and home. Beverly Rowe explores the correspondence between husbands and wives. While soldiers wrote home that camp life was boring, the food offensive, clothing in short supply, and health care lacking, women returned letters full of complaints over the work of spinning; planting; selling cotton, slaves, and horses; as well as dealing with the rise in commodity prices. Brittany Bounds found that despite these vicissitudes, Texas women calmed their preoccupation with war and the possible loss of their men through entertainments, earning funds for uniforms and bullets.

   Slaves in Texas, 25,000 of whom came from neighboring states, called it the Freedom War. Estimating the female slave population at about 100,000, Bruce Glasrud describes their work, treatment, and views of war and emancipation. Food was scarce, working hours were long, and trust between white women and their slaves was often strained. Free black women, numbering 174, worked as laundresses, cooks, seamstresses, and house servants. When freedom came, some owners gave freed people no provisions and no help. Others were more generous; they offered work for wages or sharecropping. Maleficent owners declined to tell them they were free and kept them working long past emancipation. Linda Hudson argues in her chapter that some women freed from bondage suffered murder, rape, and terror as they were “blamed for the deaths and financial hardships of the war.

   About 3,700 Tejanos joined the Confederate Army or the state militia, and nearly 1,000 joined the Union Army when it occupied the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 1863 and 1864. These enlistments meant expanded roles for Tejanas, who then found themselves managing farms, harvesting cotton and corn, and herding animals. Although a majority of Latinas whose husbands were at war worked small farms, wealthier Latinas may have gained a degree of independence. Yet, Jerry Thompson and Elizabeth Mata argue that besides slaves and Unionists, Tejanas suffered the greatest degree of discrimination.

   Unionists, many of them of German descent, suffered grievously for their anti-slavery views. Judith Dykes-Hoffman notes that if German Unionist men refused to swear allegiance to the Confederacy, they risked death, leaving their wives to a perilous fate. Unionist women experienced “harrowing circumstances,” when forty men were lynched in the “Great Hanging” of 1862. Rebecca Sharpless echoes the experiences of Unionists in her chapter on settlers who came to North Texas for land. Methodist minister Anthony Bewley, suspected of abolitionist activity, escaped North Texas, but vigilantes captured and hanged him in 1860. Women survivors had little choice but to leave Texas at the end of the war or carry on with bitter memories.

   The final two chapters recount the travails of women refugees and frontier women. Candice Shockley records that the most famous Louisiana refugee was Kate Stone, whose published memoir describes the trek across East Texas with slaves in tow. Texans had little sympathy for refugees who came from neighboring states in advance of a Yankee invasion, and Stone felt the snub from Anglo-Texans. In the final chapter, Debbie Liles recounts the dangers women faced living on the Texas frontier. One of the most compelling arguments for the unique status of Texas women during the war highlights their vulnerability after federal troops withdrew from the western region, leaving many women to fight off Indian attacks or sequester in army forts.

   There is much to admire in this volume. The authors have recovered diverse sources and histories. Although Texas women did not endure a scorched earth policy, they faced scarcity, loss of life, and changing statuses. It may be that the experiences of Texas women varied far more than that of their warring menfolk. Once Texas soldiers enlisted, they joined in the common discomforts and disasters of the battlefield, while their womenfolk endured a far greater variety of vicissitudes. As a last word, with the rich array of topics presented in this volume, one wishes for an epilogue to bring them into perspective.

Elizabeth Hayes Turner is Distinguished Teaching Professor Emeritus and Professor of History at the University of North Texas. She is the author of Women and Gender in the New South, 1865–1945 (2009), Women, Culture, and Community: Religion and Reform in Galveston, 1880–1920 (1997), and is co-author of Galveston and the 1900 Storm: Catastrophe and Catalyst (2000). Turner has authored several articles and coedited six volumes, including Texas Women: Their Histories, Their Lives (2015), Lone Star Pasts: Memory and History in Texas (2007) as well as Major Problems in the History of the American South (1999 and 2012). In 2003 she was a Fulbright Lecturer to the University of Genoa, Italy. In 2011 she was awarded the William P. and Rita Clements Center Fellowship for the Study of Southwestern America, Southern Methodist University, and elected Fellow of the Texas State Historical Association.