A lagniappe

Dear Readers:  I'm guest-blogging today at Karen Elliot's Blog:  Finding Your Way Through the Civil War

Visit.  Say hi.  Sit a spell.

Tough Broads of the Civil War

I've said it before:  If you hang out in Popular History Land, or even Book World these days, it's impossible to ignore the American Civil War and its sesquicentennial. Civil War references are everywhere.

The most recent bit of Civil War "stuff" to start my brain churning was a review of a new book by historian David S. Reynolds:  Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America. Reynolds' book looks fascinating.  I've added it to my ever-growing To-Be-Read list.  But I'm not sure it will have as much impact on me as the first book I ever read on Harriet Beecher Stowe.

When I was in the fifth or sixth grade, our school library got a handful of biographies on American women in history.  I'm not sure now if they were a series or separate biographies pulled together by a school librarian with a bee in her bonnet.  Either way, I loved the books and read them as often as I was allowed before they circulated on to another school.  Although each woman's story was different, they held a common theme:  a smart tomboy (or at least a not-very-girly girl) has trouble as a child but grows up to do Something Important.  They were balm to my nerdy, not-very-girly soul.  They also left me with the abiding impression that the Civil War was a period when women were kicking down doors and doing things they'd never done before.

Turns out that impression was right.   Look at the roster:

  • Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin inflamed the North on the subject of slavery.  To quote Abraham Lincoln (via Carl Sandburg), "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!"
  • Julia Ward Howe provided the North with a soundtrack for the war: a little ditty called The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
  • Clara Barton, "the soldier's friend", charmed and kicked men in high places until they allowed her to provide comforts and medical care to "her boys" on the battlefield.  When the need for her services in the field diminished, she helped the families of missing soldiers locate their fathers, sons, and brothers.  After the war, she started a little group called the American Red Cross.  Maybe you've heard of it?

Clara Barton, still kicking shins in 1904

  • Hundreds of women in both the North and South took the unheard of step of volunteering in military hospitals.   (If you want a lively first hand account of one young woman's Civil War nursing experience, check out Louisa May Alcott's Hospital Sketches.)
  • Most amazing of all, women cut their hair, disguised themselves as men, and enlisted to fight.*  Some followed their husbands or fiancés. Others enlisted out of a sense of patriotism or adventure.  For obvious reasons, we don't know how many women fought disguised as men, but an article in the National Archives estimates 250 women fought for the Confederacy and almost 400 for the Union.  Most were not discovered until they were wounded or died.  At least one woman, discovered and discharged for the official reason of "incompatibility of sex" (The fact that there was an official term of discharge tells you everything you need to know.), suited up and joined a new regiment.

Tough broads indeed.

Who's your favorite tough broad of the Civil War?


*If you want to read a take on this general topic that's hysterical rather than historical, check out  Monstrous Regiment by one of my favorite novelists, Terry Pratchett.  It will make you both laugh and think.  I promise.

Slouching Toward Jerusalem


I've been fascinated by the Crusades for several years now.  Not surprising, I suppose, given my basic interest in the times and places where two cultures touch (or in the case of the Crusades, whack at) each other and change.   I've read accounts of what the Crusades looked like from the Muslim perspective. (Barbarian invaders who didn't take enough baths).  I've been fascinated by the changes in Europe that made the Crusades possible. (Do not underestimate the impact of the steel-tipped heavy plow and the horse yoke.)  I've spent a lot of time on the innovations the Crusaders brought to Europe.  (Don't get me started.)  I even toured a Crusader castle in Turkey with My Own True Love, who's pretty fascinated by the Crusades himself.

But until recently I hadn't given much though to the place that stands at the very heart of the Crusades:  Jerusalem.  I "knew", in a fuzzy general knowledge sort of way, that Jerusalem was a sacred city for Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  That was enough.

Until, of course, it wasn't.

When a recent assignment forced me to think about Jerusalem in a more detailed way, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to start with Karen Armstrong's Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths or Simon Sebag Montefiore's Jerusalem, the Biography.  I choose history over theology pretty much every time.  But Montefiore's book, which traces the history of Jerusalem from the time of David through the Six-Day War, looked like a dense concrete block.

I flipped a coin.  History prevailed. (Here's where I need to say something like "don't judge a book by its cover", or at least not by how many pages it has.)

Jerusalem, the Biography may be long, but it's also fast-paced and smart. Montefiore's stated goal is "to show that Jerusalem was a city of continuity and coexistence, a hybrid metropolis of hybrid buildings and hybrid people who defy the narrow categorizations that belong in the separate religious legends and nationalist narratives of later times."  He more than succeeds.  Montefiore weaves together stories I thought I knew into a larger framework that illuminates them in ways I didn't expect. Over and over I enjoyed a flutter of recognition, followed by "wow, I didn't know that". The book is full of vivid characters: familiar, unfamiliar, and unexpected. (I had no clue that Cleopatra had anything to do with Jerusalem.  Did you?)

(Montefiore is also is a master of the miscellaneous tidbit.  For example:  the emperor Vespasian introduced public lavatories to Rome.  Today, public lavatories are still known as vespasianos. i don't know about you, but I find this kind of stuff irresistible.)

Between big revelations and fascination tidbits, my library copy was stuffed with Post-it notes by the time I reached the end of the book.

Plenty of intellectual roads lead to Jerusalem. If you're slouching, marching or just moseying along on any of them, Jerusalem, the Biography would make a good travel guide.  But don't say I didn't warn you. You're going to want your own copy--or a lot of Post-its.