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Q & A
What is it about the Civil War that so fascinates Elizabeth Leonard?


Faculty expert opinions


Q and A: What is about the Civil War that fascinates Elizabeth Leonard

Elizabeth Leonard, director of women's studies and the Harriet S. and George C. Wiswell Jr. Research Fellow in American History, recently talked to Colby about women soldiers who masqueraded as men, and about both the horror and fascination of war. Her book, All the Daring of a Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies, (W.W. Norton), will be reprinted in paperback in March.

Q: What planted the idea that led to All the Daring of a Soldier?
In doing the research for Yankee Women [about Civil War nurses, ladies aid activists and Mary Walker, the only woman doctor to be employed by the Union army's medical department during the war], I kept coming across these stories of women whose service to the Civil War armies took other forms: women who served as soldiers, as support staff to the armies, as spies. So I decided to write a book about their experiences as well.

Q: Are you surprised to find you've become a Civil War historian?
To some extent, yes. I'm not surprised to find that I'm an historian per se, but the fact that I've focused my work on the Civil War is somewhat startling to me, primarily because I think of myself as a pacifist, and I hate both war and guns, and I'd be miserable if my sons grew up and wanted to join the military. And there's no other war in history that has captured my attention in this way. I've recently come to believe that there is some great and personal life lesson that I have to learn in relation to the Civil War, and that that's why I've been driven to study it. I'm still trying to figure out what that lesson is.

Q: Of all the woman soldiers you've come to know through your research, is there any one that you find especially compelling?
The story of Jennie Hodgers [aka Albert D.J. Cashier of the 95th Illinois Infantry Volunteers]. Hodgers served for three full years and mustered out with her regiment in 1865. After the war she continued for most of the rest of her life living as a man in a small town in Illinois. When she was about 66 or 67, her sex was discovered, and she was put in an insane asylum. While she was there they forced her against her will to wear women's clothes. The poignancy of her story is profound.

Q: What is it about war that fascinates us so? After all, it's the one thing that, as a country, we strive to avoid.
I don't know! Certainly there are many interesting characters to be found in the story. Certainly there are tales of enormous valor, people doing things that are seemingly superhuman, either physically or morally. There are also ghastly horrors, stories of people doing things that are utterly subhuman or experiencing brutal killing on a grand scale: the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chickamauga, Gettysburg, the Wilderness. . . . Perhaps it's because so much of the war seems so much bigger than life. Perhaps it's because we associate the war with the great moral cause of emancipation, although that wasn't the initial cause by any means, and there were so many–yes, even in the North–who resisted the notion of emancipation and equal rights for blacks right through Reconstruction.

I'm convinced that many who are fascinated by the Civil War want to cut off their study of it at Appomattox, because Reconstruction is such a demoralizing story in so many ways, and seems to undercut so much that is–for northerners at least–triumphal about the war itself. I think, too, that many of us suffer from something of an inferiority complex: could we have done the sorts of courageous things that Civil War soldiers–and civilians–did? Could we have endured what they endured? Would we put ourselves on the line for any cause, the way Civil War era people both North and South put themselves on the line? Are we made of the same sort of stuff as they seem to have been made of, the same sort of moral fiber? I think we are fascinated by these sorts of questions.

Q: How do today's students react to stories of women serving in combat?
Most students are interested in–and surprised by–women's roles in the Civil War military. Every time I teach the Civil War course (or the American Revolution course, for that matter) there are, however, some who clearly indicate to me that they think spending any time on women in relation to these wars is wasted. Of course, I get the same response when I give talks on the subject to other audiences as well. Most are fascinated; some are annoyed as hell.

Q: Do students surprise you with their reactions to the roles of women in American history?
Yes. Although one of the happier surprises I had recently is coming to realize that students are learning more and more about women's roles in American history in their high school and even junior high school and elementary classes, so they come in to my classes somewhat more familiar with the material we'll be covering than students generally did when I first came to Colby in 1992.

Q: So what lessons does Civil War history hold for today's Colby students?
Seek compromise via diplomacy if at all possible.

Q: Speaking of revelations, during the Inauguration Weekend festivities you showed your musical side by singing and playing guitar in the Mary Low Coffeehouse. Did you consider a career in music?
I did once, and spent about a year performing around Southern California and exploring the possibility. I realized in that year that, a) I really wasn't good enough or driven enough to make a career for myself in that field; and b) certain aspects of my nature work against such a possibility, namely: I like to go to bed early, I don't like to be away from home for extended periods of time, and I like a regular paycheck. So that about sewed it up.

Q: Why history?
I'm the sort of person who is always trying to figure out why things are the way they are. For me, history helps to provide some explanations for why life is the way it is. That said, the explanations history provides are not always explanations that make me happy, or make me feel particularly good about being a member of the species!

The Colby Difference: The Inauguration of William D. Adams
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The Hot Zone and the Cold War: Frank Malinoski '76 Investigates Biological Warfare

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