A Conversation with Conference Panelist Heath Lee

The Civil War remains a topic of unquenchable interest to readers. In this, the final year of the conflict’s sesquicentennial, the BIO conference will feature a panel “Civil War Women.” Many biographers are discovering that the female figures of this time are a source of vital yet sorely under-explored stories. Justin Martin’s latest book is Rebel Souls: Walt Whitman and America’s First Bohemians, the story of a group of notable Civil War-era artists including Adah Isaacs Menken and Ada Clare. Martin spoke to author Heath Lee, who will co-moderate the panel.

Justin Martin: Please explain the need for and value of a panel devoted specifically to Civil War women.
Heath Lee:
The majority of the scholarship and press attention on the war has focused on traditional themes of the conflict’s military, political, and economic dimensions and the male figures who were Union and Confederate leaders. However, information regarding the lives and fates of women during this period is still scarce and their portraits are often incomplete. The women we will talk about in this panel were shaped tremendously by their experiences and memories of the war, whether they were Northern or Southern, black or white. Women were more than just incidental bystanders during this tragic period in American history.

JM: Who are some of the notable women who will be discussed? And what are some of the unique issues confronting a biographer whose subject is a Civil War woman?
It would be hard to find a more fascinating list of characters. Among the figures we’re sure to discuss are Harriet Tubman, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Kate Chase Sprague, Elizabeth Van Lew, Varina Davis, Winnie Davis, Julia Dent Grant, Angelina Grimke Weld, Emma Edmonds, and Belle Boyd.

One of the unique challenges for a biographer researching a woman from this period is the lack of primary source materials. In the nineteenth century, it was common for women’s letters and papers to be destroyed—often even by her own family. It was considered unseemly for information about women to appear in published form. For instance, it is likely that Varina Davis burned Winnie Davis’s private diaries and love letters to her ex-fiancé.

JM: You’ve assembled quite an impressive panel. Please provide a bit of background on yourself as co-moderator, and also on your fellow panelists.
HL:I am a biographer and freelance writer with a background working in southern history museums such as Stratford Hall and the Levine Museum of the New South. My biography of Varina Anne “Winnie” Davis, entitled Winnie Davis: Daughter of the Lost Cause, was published last April. Dr. Carol Berkin, who will be co-moderating the panel with me, is professor emerita, Baruch College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of numerous prize-winning books, and her group biography, Civil War Wives: The Lives & Times of Angelina Grimke Weld, Varina Howell Davis, & Julia Dent Grant, examines three fascinating women from this period.

Joining Dr. Berkin and me as panelists will be Karen Abbott, John Oller, and Dr. Catherine Clinton. Abbott is a well-known journalist and author of both fiction and nonfiction works. Her latest is Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, a portrait of four Civil War women who went undercover to participate in the conflict that is a New York Times bestseller. Oller, a lawyer and former journalist, is the author of four books, including, most recently, American Queen: The Rise and Fall of Kate Chase Sprague—Civil War “Belle of the North” and Gilded Age Woman of Scandal. Dr. Clinton teaches American history at the University of Texas, San Antonio, and is president of the Southern Historical Association. She is the author and editor of two dozen books, most recently, Mrs. Lincoln: A Life.

JM: It’s notable that “Civil War Women” is a mixed gender panel. What’s the benefit of this?
We felt that it was really important to have at least one male voice on this panel! After all, why can’t a male biographer do an outstanding job writing about a woman and vice-versa? In my mind the empathy and passion biographers bring to their subjects is far more important than their own gender. That said, we want to explore the unique ways a man might approach a woman’s story. During our discussion, I suspect that John Oller, biographer of Kate Chase Sprague, will field some excellent questions.

JM: This is such a rich topic. What’s a surprising issue or two that you expect will be explored in this session?
One issue I think could be fun to explore is how women of the Civil War are portrayed in film. Dr. Clinton was an adviser for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Sony optioned Karen Abbott’s new book for a miniseries.

I also think historians are beginning to talk more about the losing side in the Civil War. Currently, there’s more being written, both fiction and nonfiction, about the experience of Southern women, particularly post-war when their lives often became very challenging. I think this is a fresh and fascinating topic for biographers to explore.