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"Fiery Trials:" Women and the Civil War in East Tennessee, 1850-1865




Bocian, Meredith

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation



Restriction Status


Restriction Type


Date Available



This dissertation examines East Tennessee’s white women and their role within the Civil War. Women, often portrayed as passive victims to the violent climate, remain minor characters in Appalachian and more specifically East Tennessee historiography. Current research in those subfields has failed to examine how Appalachian women responded to and influenced the Civil War. East Tennessee women in fact actively influenced the political, economic, and social environment of the homefront and by extension the war. Their story is not singular, however, as political affiliation and class defined women’s war experience. Unionists compromised the majority of East Tennessee’s population. Largely they came from the lower class, while the region’s secessionists and later Confederates primarily hailed from the professional class, with economic ties to Virginia and the deep South. Regardless of political affiliation East Tennessee women experienced a different type of war than their southern sisters, with the region suffering near constant occupation that shifted from one army to the other, campaigns that destroyed the landscape, and roving armies and guerrilla bands that confiscated and decimated the region’s resources. In addition, they lived in a deeply divisive environment characterized by retributive extralegal warfare and political and social alienation. Their sex did not protect them. Like all southern women, they suffered from reduced financial circumstances, a lack of subsistence items, the loss of male family members and friends, and a general upheaval of their lives. Yet, they were not just helpless, as they shaped the war in both gender acceptable and non-traditional ways. While the nineteenth-century concepts of separate spheres, the cult of domesticity, and “southern ladyhood” proved popular concepts in the media, they were a fictitious ideal. Confederate women, however, were more likely to espouse ideas that adhered to female subordination and submission, even if their actions did not always support their words. They would donate needed supplies, volunteer with benevolent organizations, and support the cause, all the while publicly disparaging Federal soldiers and Unionists or aiding Confederate guerrillas. Unionist women’s actions likewise violated those notions when they preserved the lives of targeted male Unionists, maintained supply lines for guerrillas, and generally aided Unionist resistance. Ironically, the women offered protection and assistance to men, whom are traditionally viewed as the primary players of war. Ultimately, women were not secondary but central figures who shaped the war in the region.