The prepared script for the Gettysburg battlefield bus tour was all about soldiers, generals and cannons. Over the years, tour guide Eileen Conklin found many of the women visiting the Pennsylvania battlefield were clearly bored.
Conklin wondered if she could find material that they could identify with, so she began researching women's lives during the war. The material was harder to find than she expected, but eventually she rounded up one documented case of a woman who had fought at Gettysburg and other cases of women who had worked within the regiments.
"Those wives in the back seat really came alive when I talked about women soldiers," she said of the tours she gave in the early 1980s. "It meant that they, too, had a history."
Along the way, Conklin built a satisfying--but not lucrative--career.
"Once I started the research, I couldn't stop," Conklin said. "There was the woman in Confederate uniform who died in Pickett's charge. They discovered her in the body count. Then there were the laundresses who traveled with the companies. There were women who were spies and those who were nurses."
Since those tours, Conklin has written two books about women who were involved in the war, and this weekend she is co-chairing a conference in Winchester, Va., on the subject. Along with the field of women's studies in general, the subject has expanded dramatically over the years. She and others are challenging the popular images of women as either angels of the battlefield tending the wounded or loyal wives grouped around the home hearth sewing stripes on flags.
Her just-published book, "Exile to Sweet Dixie," tells the story of Euthemia Goldsborough, who nursed Confederate POWs after the battles of Sharpsburg, Md., and Gettysburg and who was active in the rebel underground in Baltimore. Eventually arrested for smuggling mail, medicine and clothing to the South, she was exiled to Richmond.
"She was quite a lady," Conklin said. "In her papers were poems and letters written to her by Confederate soldiers. She ended up marrying a vet and moving to Summit Point, West Virginia."
Even the women who lived less adventurous lives weren't just passively waiting at home, she said. They ran the farm, kept the store open and protected their families from marauding soldiers, often recording their ordeals in letters and diaries.
The third annual conference of Women and the Civil War began yesterday with a series of workshops at Shenandoah University on researching women's history, interpreting photographs and understanding copyright law. Today and tomorrow, 11 historians will speak on subjects including the response of black women to a changing society, Jewish women in wartime Richmond and prostitutes who traveled with the armies.
Conference speaker Daniel J. Hoisington, whose Minnesota publishing company Edinborough Press specializes in memoirs by Civil War women, said there is an audience for books on civilians.
"There must be a hundred books on the third day of the battle of Gettysburg," he said. "The battles and the generals have all been intensely debated. Until this conference started, there was a tendency to say women were involved and that was enough. All that has changed."
Hoisington will speak about women and the Christian Commission. He said that after the war, women used the volunteer group, which took religion to the troops, as a means to step out of their traditional roles as housewives.
Conklin and others have found that at least 200 women wore either gray or blue uniforms and fought in the war. They signed up under assumed names for a number of reasons: to be close to their soldier husbands, out of patriotism or because of a love of adventure.
Detroit engineer Bill Christen is scheduled to speak at the conference about his near-obsession with finding the real Miss Major Pauline Cushman. Intrigued by a contemporary biography of the actress who became a Union spy, he spent nine years researching her history.
She was a beautiful actress, but as a spy she was a disaster, Christen said. Her first assignment was to infiltrate the ranks of Confederate Gen. Braxton Bragg, who was camped in Nashville. While she was there, Confederate forces caught her with drawings of the fortifications. Later, she told the story that she was court-martialed, was left tied to a tree when the Confederates made a hasty escape and was then rescued from certain death by Union troops.
Christen hasn't found any trace of court-martial papers, but he did find news stories about P.T. Barnum hiring Cushman to appear in a major's uniform and tell her heroic story. Thereafter, she used the rank of major as part of her name.
"She traveled the East Coast and the Midwest talking about her life as a spy, and when she wore those people out, she went out west to appear there," he said.
The Union veterans in San Francisco gave Cushman a lavish funeral in 1893, and she was buried in the officers' circle at the National Cemetery at the Presidio. Her stone gives her name and the epitaph "Union Spy."
"She spent her life deceiving herself and others," Christen said, "but in death, she finally got the recognition she sought."
Christen, who has sold the movie rights to his unfinished book on Cushman, said his research is more proof that women of the 1860s could and did defy Victorian conventions. "She was more of a 20th-century woman," he said.
Conklin said more than 100 people have paid $245 for the conference. Last year, they had 60 people attend.
"I am constantly amazed at how many people are doing research on women in the war," she said. "We put out a call for papers this year and got 30 responses. We had an agonizing time trying to select 11. We're already getting inquiries for next year."