During the American Civil War, more than four hundred women were arrested and imprisoned by the Union Army in the St. Louis area. The majority of these women were fully aware of the political nature of their actions and had made conscious decisions to assist Confederate soldiers in armed rebellion against the U.S. government. Their crimes included offering aid to Confederate soldiers, smuggling, spying, sabotaging, and, rarely, serving in the Confederate army. Historian Thomas F. Curran’s extensive research highlights for the first time the female Confederate prisoners in the St. Louis area, and his thoughtful analysis shows how their activities affected Federal military policy.
Early in the war, Union officials felt reluctant to arrest women and waited to do so until their conduct could no longer be tolerated. The war progressed, the women’s disloyal activities escalated, and Federal response grew stronger. Some Confederate partisan women were banished to the South, while others were held at Alton Military Prison and other sites. The guerilla war in Missouri resulted in more arrests of women, and the task of incarcerating them became more complicated.
The women’s offenses were seen as treasonous by the Federal government. By determining that women—who were excluded from the politics of the male public sphere—were capable of treason, Federal authorities implicitly acknowledged that women acted in ways that had serious political meaning. Nearly six decades before U.S. women had the right to vote, Federal officials who dealt with Confederate partisan women routinely referred to them as citizens. Federal officials created a policy that conferred on female citizens the same obligations male citizens had during time of war and rebellion, and they prosecuted disloyal women in the same way they did disloyal men.
The women arrested in the St. Louis area are only a fraction of the total number of female southern partisans who found ways to advance the Confederate military cause. More significant than their numbers, however, is what the fragmentary records of these women reveal about the activities that led to their arrests, the reactions women partisans evoked from the Federal authorities who confronted them, the impact that women’s partisan activities had on Federal military policy and military prisons, and how these women’s experiences were subsumed to comport with a Lost Cause myth—the need for valorous men to safeguard the homes of defenseless women.
About the Author
Thomas F. Curran has taught in the department of social studies at Cor Jesu Academy in St. Louis since 2003, and before that he taught at Saint Louis University and the University of Notre Dame. For eight years he served as managing editor of the Journal of Policy History. Curran is the author of Soldier of Peace: Civil War Pacifism and the Postwar Radical Peace Movement.
Published by Southern Illinois University Press, 2020. Paperback, 274 pages.