Author Dr. Jean Marie Christie, a Professor at Western Connecticut State University, was kind enough to agree to an interview with the Siege of Petersburg Online about her new book, The Women of City Point, Virginia, 1864-1865, published by McFarland (McFarlandBooks.com).
BRETT SCHULTE (BRS): Dr. Christie, thanks for taking the time to (virtually) sit down with me and answer some questions regarding your upcoming book.
- Before we dive right into your background and the details of your book, could you take a moment to describe your interest in Women’s History and Military History, and their intersection? How did it start? Were you interested in Civil War topics or Women’s History topics prior to becoming a Professor?
Jeanne M. Christie (JMC): As a college graduate so many years ago, I was an Art Major and had very limited awareness of Women’s or Military History. I was expected to graduate, marry, and start a family. However, I wanted to do something else. The question was what might that be? Eventually, I applied for the American Red Cross SRAO program and was accepted. I had no clue of what an Art Major could do or where Vietnam was let alone what war was like. Let’s just say it was an intense and life altering education!
In the 1980’s I had very interesting and diverse friends. Because of my past experiences I related easily to me which caused some problems with the women who hated the war or anything or anybody who had anything to do with it. As a result I played dumb and never said anything in public. Going to school was an easy way to hide time periods. I eventually became engaged in a variety of organizations and with the Veterans issues. One thing led to another. As an example, I found myself speaking to the head of Women’s Affairs in DC as an advocate for Women’s history, specifically to the women who had been in Vietnam and sitting in on the Agent Orange hearings.
- BRS: If I’m reading your Preface correctly, you are a Vietnam Veteran. Would you like to go into any details of your service? If so, how did your experiences in Vietnam impact your new book?
JMC: I am a veteran of Vietnam but technically not a veteran. Back in 1967, there were very few women who were permitted to join the military (less than 3%). They were primarily medical and secretarial type support staff. I was an art major and you would have been lucky to have me put a band aid on a wound…. As a result, the military needed help in other domains. The USO, American Red Cross, Special Services, and Armed Forces Radio were contracted as “Close military Support” organizations to provided psychological aspects and support the military was unable to do at the time. We wore uniforms, answered to Chain of Command, were given orders, exposed to the same dangers, flew into endless fire bases, ran Centers, visited the hospitals, etc. We had everything except a DD214.
The ARC, Supplemental and Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) program was designed to bring a touch of home to the GI’s. There were only 627 women during the 7 year period. Three were killed while in VN, a fourth died during Operation Babylift. The program provided psychological health and welfare. The women were located at different times under twenty Commands. In some locations they ran Recreational Centers, others did all field work. That meant you took armed guards and used quarter ton trucks, jeeps, but primarily choppers to go out to the units/ fire bases/ landing zones and talk to the guys. On average the women logged over 2,125,000 miles in the 7 years and on average visited /saw 280,500 soldiers. The premise was simple, you could not laugh and cry at the same time, so we often played games to get the guys to laugh, but more often we smiled, talked American girl talk, and listened to an awful lot of raw anger, utter frustration and wonderful joy when something good happened back home. We were sounding boards for the soldiers. We were the girls from “Home”. Sometimes they were fun visits and sometimes, such as when half a unit had been wiped out, they were tough visits. At the end of a ‘run’ we always tried to get into the hospitals for short visits.
As mentioned above I became involved in the Vietnam Veterans issues. I was asked to be on the CT Governor’s Task Force for Women Veterans and the Southern New England Telephone (SNET) wanted vets to go out and speak to family members. A female Executive I knew was utterly shocked when I showed up to join the group. Six of us then engaged in a peripatetic forum for SNET. One of those vets found an 1865 book, Frank Moore’s Women in the War, and gave it to me as a gift. When I read the book, I was flooded with memories and that was the start of the Civil War experience.
- BRS: Tell us a little bit about your educational background. Did you take any Civil War related courses during your studies?
Typical college background. I may have had an American History course but more probable the History of Art because I eventually I majored in Art Education. No Civil War related courses.
- BRS: A self-described “Yankee,” you mention moving to Virginia and experiencing a bit of culture shock. Help us understand what you were feeling, what you observed, and how it helped you write your book.
You have to consider I moved with a spouse so he would go off to work and I had to learn to deal and create my own ‘new sense of community’. This is a tough question to answer. I must also preface that every woman’s experience was different and it is very difficult to generalize experiences so I hope you feel the differences in reading the book.
Northern= If you think of visiting NYC you see everyone rushing about …seemingly unconnected but you know they really have a purpose and direction. As a very broad generalization, independent, self-protective, quick with an answer, get what you needed done and move on. Appear to not care about those around them yet, have a territorial quality about their friends and associates. Some cared about the freed slaves while others did not.
Southern= Based on my experiences of entering the culture while doing serious research, I found them warm, friendly even to strangers, took time to chat, knew about their communities, they were gracious, and open. Even though I was from the north they sensed I was interested, and they shared information and clarified other information when needed. I quickly admired their skills. During war the desire to dislike the Yankees obviously prevailed because they lost so much, but time had healed some of the wounds and they were willing to share their histories with me.
As an illustration, I was forbidden to go to the grocery store by my husband at first because I was rude and just grabbed a cart and got my supplies… I had to learn to slow down, say ‘hello’, get to know individuals’ names, talk about the children, and then discuss the produce, learn how they preferred to cook, etc. We had a wonderful fresh produce stand in Mechanicsville where I observed and listened and learned a great deal. I remember trying to get directions while driving around the countryside and the local crew told me to go to the orange barrel and turn… yah sure,… but in reality that was how the countryside was laid out and their directions were absolutely correct. Once more, I started to learn a lot and had many wonderful experiences.
- BRS: Your book is not a general history of women and their role in the Civil War. Instead, it is a much closer look at City Point, Grant’s Headquarters during the Siege of Petersburg from June 1864 to April 1865. Give us a brief introduction to City Point. Why were so many people there? Why were nurses in need at that specific place?
City Point was first occupied back in 1613. By 1635, Captain Eppes owned much of the area and the property was passed on to the younger generations. The old village had several docks for boats coming up the James River from the sea and became a town in 1826. There also was a rail line so supplies could be sent on to Petersburg or Richmond.
General Grant had been at Cold Harbor and logistically needed to cut off supplies reaching Confederate locations. To facilitate the process, he moved the Field Headquarters of The Army of the Potomac taking over the village/ town, and many private residences. City Point had two primary focuses. Supplies for the massive number of military in the area and a medical staging location for large Depot Hospital. Additionally, there were five other hospitals at City Point, and The Army of the James with General Butler was right across the Appomattox River. As an example, the Depot hospital initially had 12,000 tents for the approximately 29,000 sick and wounded. Half of the sick and wounded were eventually sent north so there was always considerable motion. Nurses and caregivers were needed to help with the diverse needs from the wounded, to consoling individuals seeking someone who was unaccounted, and burying the dead, and even help seek back pay. Plus “Gawkers” constantly roamed the area trying to find accommodations and food. There was a huge laundry complex assembled and in addition, City Point had to accommodate all the personnel with a massive bakery, plus thousands of animals for transportation and for food making movement constant and often confusing.
- BRS: You had the opportunity to spend a lot of time at City Point. Tell us about your experiences and role there, what you accomplished, and how those experiences influenced you with regards to this book.
I stated with knowledge of 12 women who had been known to have been at City Point during the war. Shortly after my initial inquiry, I was able to get a research internship through the University of CT and The National Parks Service. Our office was in Appomattox Manor so we never knew who would come through the door with a new letter or information. I had total access to files and the stories of what transpired in the upper levels of the house and around the location. Once more, local residents would sit and chat with me. It was wonderful. When I completed my commitment, I had knowledge of 177 women. With encouragement from the Park Rangers I created an exhibit called ‘No Place for Woman’. There were hand painted examples of several of the women, like a woman reading a letter, Mother Husbands with her unique apron, and Paulina Eppes standing with her hands on her hips by the kitchen door. To add to the exhibit there was text, and many photographs plus I did presentations. However, people always asked about ‘what happened to X’ or ‘what became of so and so’… so I just saved information hopefully to tell the women’s stories. Then my husband was transferred again.
- BRS: The Women of City Point, Virginia, 1864-1865 has a very interesting chapter layout, and you did this for a reason. Could you describe to readers how and why you ordered and organized your chapters the way you did?
I thought about the chronological issues. Obviously, the Safeguard and the Afro-Americans who had come into the area or had lived in the area came first. They had been there before the military. Then clarity of the roles took over and I broke the chapters into the various roles, of nurses, Commission representatives, and State Agents. With so much serious information I needed a bit of levity before the focus on the Officers wives, so I placed the humor chapter to lighten the mood. Finally, the question became ‘what to do with all the bits and pieces?’ This was the section that continued to grow and evolve over the years. Once more, I clustered the women into several categories. Rather than allow the former slaves to become invisible, I added what I had about them. The hope is that I will hear from readers who could add more depth to the Homeward Bound Journey.
- BRS: Your first two chapters set the stage for all to come, the first giving the general situation of life during the Civil War, and the second going into detail about City Point, Virginia from June 1864 to April 1865. Could you give prospective readers a brief introduction to the world found in your book?
As a broad generalization and individual worlds varied from culture to culture but prewar women’s roles were very restrictive, and home based. The head of the household was male and women behaved accordingly. Learned and implied social behaviors were fairly controlled. Generally speaking women were always accompanied by another person, be it a slave, servant, friend, or family member, and could interact within the community, but venturing out of the group or community generally was frowned upon. As an illustration, gloves were worn and shaking hands only transpired after meeting someone at least three times. Decorum was carefully taught to the young girls in school. With the upheaval of war various perspectives developed. In many situations the women now had to take charge of hearth and home. Extended families helped replace the head of a household. From the Union perspective, the soldiers were saving the country. Although many families and towns felt the loss of individuals and need for supplies, the war was distant. For women in the South they too had to assume charge of hearth and home. They felt the loss of individuals and need for supplies, but the war came to their doorsteps and often invaded and destroyed their homes. The impact was significant for the women. During the war black and white perspectives had few shades of gray. Worlds had been turned upside down and each side offered to help in ways they had not thought possible. For the women at City Point, their worlds had been shaken. Some remained in an either black or white perspective while others began to see there were many shades of gray that challenged their previous attitudes. Several developed a visionary outlook and worked to teach and educated the many contrabands while other reached out to the orphans.
- BRS: You devote a chapter to newly freed slaves, “Nameless No More.” How difficult was it to find records of these women and their contributions at City Point?
Very difficult! I could easily have omitted them but I did not want them to become invisible again. They too had a valuable story to tell. They added to the dynamics of the community and had a different perspective on the women and men they worked for. Finding the details of their history still remains within individual family histories. I am hoping readers will add more meat to the bones, add names to the generic names given thus enriching the understanding of who they were and what the freed slaves went through. As a side note, Petersburg had a large freed African-American community prior to the war, so many became displaced instead of freed.
- BRS: Your chapter on Government Nurses contained an illuminating look into the routine daily schedules of these nurses, and how it differed wildly from days when mass casualties poured in after a battle. Could you contrast the experiences of those days for readers?
The daily routine was pragmatic and predictable. Each nurse developed a pattern of behavior that agreed with the doctors in charge and the Command. They had breaks, and time to eat, or sleep and a bit of socialization. Several even had flower and small vegetable gardens they tended to. Chaos was a free-for-all and everyone who was able was pressed into service. Time was of the essence. Triage was not organized and thought out and the women argued over the best way to handle the incoming wounded. Breaks were non-existent, getting some food or sleep was often a vague dream. If you were male or female, a medical person or and individual passing through, in moments of mass chaos you were pressed into helping which in turn added to even more confusion.
- BRS: As “contrabands”, or newly freed slaves, flooded the area around City Point, there were a wide variety of attitudes that led to varying degrees of treatment. Could you briefly compare and contrast how the nurses you studied differed in their approaches?
Attitudes ran the full gamut. Like personal pets, some individuals liked them and others didn’t.
As an example, Aunt Becky had never been exposed to slaves prior to the war and had a hard time with the concept. She was not against them helping but would never have them be in her quarters. Yet she was very curious about their lives and behaviors. She had limited patience when they became sick or wounded.
On the other hand, Cornelia Hancock was from a Quaker background had an empathetic and integrative attitude. Cornelia housed several former slaves within her private quarters. She gathered clothing for them and tried to help when she could. Other remained in the area after the war and helped with the Freedman Schools. Officers’ wives wanted the contrabands to remain as servants while other women wanted to help educate the contrabands with reading and writing and hospital work so they wouldn’t have to remain servants. As noted in the book, a well-educated contraband made a great spy because the general perception was they couldn’t read or write. As for the Nurses, they needed someone to help them when possible. Although they may not have always liked the individual personality, they accepted the fact a contraband was somebody who could help reduce their workload.
- BRS: The nurses working at City Point had different experiences based on what “type” of nurse they were. Could you tell us how life was different for a Government “Dix” nurse than it was for an independent nurse?
Again, they were unique individuals and to generalize about all or a group is difficult. However, Government nurses were hired by Superintendent Dorothea Dix. They were controlled and restricted by rules and regulations. For example, they were told to say with their own group and not to mix with the others. Their attire was dictated, their age was strictly established, and their physical appearance was not to be distracting to the many men around them. The had to strictly obey orders and Chain of Command regardless of how they personally felt. Their pay was established at $12 a month. Even if they were short of supplies, they had to patiently wait for the supplies to come in. Many of the nurses had been at other locations and walked from location to location, just like the soldiers and carried their own belongings.
Independent nurses were contracted by individuals or other Doctors so their pay was greater. They had significant flexibility and could write to those back home for supplies, or openly purchase them, or simply go out and scrounge them. Although their attire was similar to the government nurses, they could adapt their appearance as need be. In the wards they might befriend a patient and provide special care or speak up to a ward nurse or doctor when they felt it was appropriate. The independent nurse could socialize with others and make friends around the various locations. She frequently traveled via boat or hospital transport to City Point and had more personal luggage.
However, both groups, survived the weather for the year, plus they cared deeply about the soldiers and wanting to help in the war effort. That depth of caring stayed with them for the rest of their lives.
- BRS: The Civil War featured the growth of something never seen before, organizations created specifically to assist and comfort the soldiers on the front lines and after receiving wounds. What were the United State Sanitary Commission and the United States Christian Commission? What were their roles at City Point? How did they differ?
At the onset of the war the USSC left much to be desired. However, by the end of the war they were well organized with many representatives who had several years of experience. Health and hygiene were primary to their mission. Their network was well established by 1864 and they had power to negotiate a variety of issues. They moved in and out of the hospitals and different Corps. They worked to help families retrieve seriously injured family members and assisted on the hospital transports. Although the women of the USSC wore practical clothing they could have an assortment of different attire they brought from home. The lived off Agency Row which facilitated a great deal of networking opportunities.
The USCC was a religious /spiritual based group with a focus on saving souls. The tour of duty was for a limited 6 week obligation. Many, especially the women, had never seen the war up close and were shocked by their first encounter with dirty, wounded or sick soldiers. Rather than being out in the field the task for the women was primarily in the kitchen or attending chapel where they were expected to sing songs with the soldiers. Limited ward visitation remained restricted with stiff rules set forth by the doctors. Similar to the other woman they wore practical attire.
- BRS: War often overturns social norms. The Civil War in general, and the situation at City Point in particular, proved no exception to this rule. Tell us a little bit about how women overturned social norms at City Point, and how these changes influenced postwar society.
To begin with, they made a cognitive decision to leave hearth and home and went off to war. That broke the previous norms and changed their lives forever. Many married men who had been soldiers and went to live in states other than the ones they had come from. As a result, the prewar family and community structures changed. Although they learned to use their feminine social skills the women were much stronger personality wise. I dare say they may have had some readjustment issues, because tears were sometimes shed, and because they felt like and knew they could do whatever was necessary. They learned to network and organize concepts or tasks quickly. Having been in chaotic situations they learn to prioritize the tasks at hand for the desired outcome. The war gave them a strange new community of men who were not always their husbands or family. The community of veterans lingered and the women found a new social acceptability of working with men in the larger population.
Post war found the women tough as nails. They had seen it all and been through some extremely difficult situations. The women were not afraid of speaking their mind and speaking up when men wanted them to simply take a back seat. They had developed a ‘can do’ spirit and continued to care deeply about the soldiers who had gone to war. Some created and ran organizations or businesses with staffs composed of both men and women. They were not hesitant to lead others like they may have been prior to the war.
- BRS: Some of my readers are strictly military history when it comes to their reading preferences. So I’m curious to hear about your main sources for the book. Was there a rough equivalent to the Official Records you found and used, or was the research much more painstaking and scattered? I noticed excellent use of diaries, letters, newspaper articles and others throughout the book.
Not really. Obviously, I could not ask any of the women from 1864-1865, but there were a few relatives and citizens around the area who sat down and provided information. Primary information came from diaries and letters. Occasionally I would find an early post war publication that provided excellent information. The further from the war years the less reliable the information became. Cross referencing became critical to get a solid perspective while contextual information required tracking from and on various levels.
- BRS: Tell us a bit about what you label “The Catfight” in your Chapter on State Agents. Who was involved and how did the fight play out?
There were several ongoing catfights among the group of women but two very dominant women locked horns and never got over the issues. Two New York State women, Miss Adelaide Smith and Mrs. Elmira Spencer, thought their territory should be the dominant one. When Mrs. Spencer was injured during the explosion at City Point on August 9, 1864, Miss Smith decided to move in and take over. Adelaide knew what she had to do logistically but she had not considered how strongly entrenched Mrs. Spencer was. The story in the book explains more but the two disliked one another until their dying days.
- BRS: Chapter 9 takes a turn towards humor, gallows and otherwise. What was your favorite humorous story you uncovered from researching women at City Point?
I loved Aunt Becky. She was a Dix nurse but she was so wonderfully sassy. While in the war zone, she would occasionally sit in her tent and cry but then she would go out and do zany things for her soldiers. She went through a ‘bath of fire’ when she started but cared little about herself and became part of the larger community where caring for others was the primary importance. She had integrity and would not back off when she saw an injustice, be it treatment of the soldiers or an overlooked burial. Even General Grant laughed in understanding it was “Aunt Becky” (readers have to read the humor section of my book to understand).
- BRS: Due to the static nature of the fighting for nine and a half months, officers’ wives were sometimes able to join their husbands at the front, especially in winter. How did these women’s experiences differ from those of the caregivers you spend most of the book discussing.
In the book I have very little information about the wives who resided with their husbands at the front. They really became quite invisible and kept a very low profile. General Grant eventually established an order requiring the women to leave the front and return to City Point or to their homes. Annie Etheridge and Bridget Deavers came in but Mrs. Laura Neuman was one wife who refused the order and stayed with her husband. Another died or was killed and buried near the railroad lines while still another women lived in the ranks and delivered a baby boy. Oops….. hopefully she was a soldier’s wife!
- BRS: Your last chapter on the “Homeward Bound Journey” acts almost as an extended “appendix before the appendix,” listing out all of the women whose names you could find who were at City Point in some capacity during the Siege of Petersburg. You mentioned at the beginning of your book your wish that it could be used as a jumping off point for deeper research in the future. Those future researchers will certainly appreciate this list, as well as your compilation of sources used for each individual. That’s not exactly a question, I know! J
I have wanted to tell the women’s stories for a long time. As I researched, I found multiple fragments. Sometimes I even found a newspaper story and even some photos. As an illustration, just the other day, while reading a 1907 source, I found the first name of a single woman whose last name I had and reports that she was a very attractive young women… some day I may find a photo of her. Researching the women is not neat and tidy. It is like working a puzzle and I love working puzzles. Sometimes you look for the colors and other times you look for the patterns. Over time, I found hundreds of women from the war that became my ‘leftover file box’. Being encouraged by one of the board members is how the SWCW spread sheet started. Once more, the premise is to facilitate more research.
- BRS: I personally greatly appreciated your appendix, Weather for 1864-65. This is the type of thing I hope to do for many subjects pertaining to the Siege of Petersburg. What made you decide to include it, and how tough was it finding weather reports?
When you’re living in a tent the weather can become a major factor. In the book the women complained about the problems with the mud. Some hated the corduroy roads used to help keep everyone and things out of the mud. Reading letters of the soldiers and even the women who wrote home, they often talked about how the weather was. As someone interested in contextual factors, I just started tracking the information on a calendar. I must add that the weather in Richmond or Petersburg or even Williamsburg could be different from the weather at City Point on any given day. Climactic conditions off the James River could be very different from inland conditions but it was interesting to see how the conditions changed. I often think about those who were brand new to the area and how the stench during the hot humid summer days must have been difficult to cope with, let alone the cold rain in the winter for those needing accommodations.
Great question. Some days it felt like total chaos, other days I wondered if I would ever find anything new. Sometimes I had to do research on various military units and then backtrack from there, and yes, I even had to use the OR. I love conducting the research. One thing I learned to do was recognize and track individual names. Spelling was sometimes a question so to have a file for each helped and allowed cross referencing.
You asked about useful books for sources of information. I have a hard time nailing down just a few. Of course, there are books the women wrote after the war like Sarah Palmer, aka Aunt Becky, (1868) and Adelaide Smith (1919) but it really depends on where you are trying to go. I have quite a few in the bibliography section in the book as well as many of the primary sources.
Here are just a couple off the top of my head.
Obviously, the Frank Moore (1867), Women of the War, was my starting point. General information
Conkin, E. (1993). Women at Gettysburg 1863. Specific information
Bucklin S. (1869). In Hospital and Camp: Official Papers of Sophronia Bucklin. General information
Brockett and Vaughan, 1867). Women’s Work in the Civil War. General information
McKay, Mrs. C. E. (1876). Stories of Hospital and Camp. General information
Recker, S.J. (2016). Shadowing Grant: Reminiscences of the United States Hospital Transport Service in the Civil War. Specific information
Schultz, J (2004). Women at the Front. General information
Hall, R. (1993). Patriots in Disguise. General information
Sudlow, L. (2000). A Vast Army of Women: Maines’ Uncounted Forces in the American Civil War. General information
- BRS: You’ve produced the equivalent of a detailed tactical study of a battle. What books would you recommend my readers look at for a more general history of Women and their Roles and Experiences during the Civil War?
First, thank you for the wonderful compliment. There are many good books. I have listed several in the previous question, but they are in no set order. I would also recommend reading both Confederate history and the Union history to understand the cultural dynamics that were integral to the women. As above, look at the bibliography and primary and secondary sources in the book. Ultimately, go to your local Historical Societies and ask about what they have from the Civil War. You know one has to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet the Prince. You just never know what you will find out there and don’t give up. New pages are becoming available electronically so play with your searches and think outside the narrow box.
- BRS: Now that you’ve finished this book, what’s next? Do you have any plans to do anything else on the Siege of Petersburg, or another detailed study of women at a specific location and/or point in time?
Not at this exact moment but I have always wanted to write about the Vietnam experience. I would love to also write about the experiences the Vietnamese women survived because they saw life from a totally different perspective. I dare say they were much like the women of the American Civil War with the conflict on their doorstep. Another one I would love to write is about one of my favorite spies, Sarah Slater, who is a double agent working for Judah P. Benjamin and carrying information and gold etc. to the St. Albans Raiders. She goes MIA just before the Lincoln Assassination, but I know where she went. However, as I mentioned, several of us are completing the spread sheet for SWCW. We have over 3000 names at this point. Like my bits and pieces, we do not have all the details so that may end up as a book at some point once we can categorize them. They have great histories that would be fun to share. Another option would be some of the local families I have helped families track down their long-lost relatives. One is up here and another in in the Hopewell area. They too have interesting stories and would make a great book.
BRS: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Dr. Christie. I enjoyed your book and I welcome it as another worthy addition to the Civil War Siege of Petersburg literature. For my readers, if you are interested in buying the book, here’s a link to Amazon and also to the publisher, McFarland. Readers should also look for a detailed review from me coming soon, and by all means check out the permanent page for The Women of City Point at The Siege of Petersburg Online.