The War as Complex Metaphor: Elizabeth Young Looks at Women's Writings about the Civil War



The American Civil War may have ended 135 years ago, but that nation-splitting conflict and its legacies of rebellion and union continue to influence our culture in remarkable ways. In recent weeks, for example, South Carolina has seen rallies both for and against the state's practice of flying the Confederate battle flag over the Capitol building in Columbia. At the same time, the practice of Civil War reenactments, in which people dress up as Civil War soldiers and enact mock battles, is a thriving subculture.

Despite the broad impact of the War between the States throughout American society, the conflict is most often seen by scholars as a war first fought and then interpreted by white men. "From nineteenth-century commentaries to recent revaluations," writes English professor Elizabeth Young in her new book Disarming the Nation: Women's Writing and the American Civil War (University of Chicago, 1999), "historical discussions of the Civil War have focused primarily on its white male policymakers and soldiers, reproducing a narrative in which Lincoln, his generals, and their privates successfully labor to reunify the nation. Similarly, criticism of Civil War fiction foregrounds the work of white male writers, especially those who represent white soldiers in battle."

But to Young, it is important to look at how women, both black and white, have been deeply influenced by this war and have helped shape conceptions of the conflict and its aftermath. In fact, Young notes, pointing to the work of scholar Willie Lee Rose, that of the four most influential "reading-viewing" events associated with the Civil War--including Alex Haley's Roots, D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind--two were created by women.

Beginning with Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which Abraham Lincoln credited with unleashing the forces that started the Civil War, Young explores the influence the war had on women, both as a historical fact and as a metaphor for struggles between and within women, including "civil wars" over gender, race, sexuality, and cultural prescriptions of civility.

Drawing on a wide range of texts--from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women to Woman in Battle, the memoir of a Cuban-born woman who cross-dressed as a Confederate soldier, from Mitchell's Gone with the Wind to Behind the Scenes, by Elizabeth Keckley, African-American dressmaker and confidante to Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln--Young contends that women's writing has explored a wide range of symbolic "civil wars."

For example, Young rereads the children's classic Little Women in light of its author's service in the Civil War, emphasizing the battles of the novel's heroine against civility. Young also shows how many writers have used the Civil War to imagine new versions of the nation, often placing women in positions of new authority. In the memoir Behind the Scenes, for example, author Elizabeth Keckley uses her proximity to the Lincolns to describe herself as symbolic president.

As Young notes in the book's afterword and in conversation, these topics are highly relevant today. "The issues central to the Civil War, above all the legacy of slavery, are very much unresolved." As we encounter new Civil War controversies, Young suggests, "including debates about the Confederate flag, Civil War reenactments, and new Civil War novels and movies, we should always ask, What is at stake for women? What roles do women play? Across race and region, women have been fighting and writing about the war since it began, and continue to do so."


photo by Fred LeBlanc