VILLANOVA, Pa. – In their new book, Women and the American Civil War, Villanova University History Professor Judith Giesberg, PhD, and co-editor Randall Miller, PhD, professor of history at Saint Joseph’s University, examine the intersections of women’s history and the Civil War through a series of paired essays on comparable experiences for women across race, class and geographic location. These eight topics include: politics, wartime mobilization, emancipation, wartime relief, families, religion, Reconstruction and memory.
The book, as Giesberg and Miller describe in the preface, seeks to study women during the Civil War era across regional boundaries, rather than within them, in contrast to much existing scholarship.
“In order to cut across the sectional divide in scholarship that tended to focus on one section rather than engage in an ongoing investigation of people across regional lines, we paired essays on the North and South for each subject and encouraged the authors to share their work so that they would ‘speak’ to one another throughout the book,” they note. “Simply put, the purpose and the plan was to encourage comparisons and counterpoints. By pairing essays by subject, we wanted readers to see the people and the period as dynamic and even dialectic, rather than fixed by circumstance and geography.”
In compiling the essays, the editors reached out to scholars who could illuminate the “deep and richly textured” history of women during the Civil War. One of these scholars is a former student of Dr. Giesberg, Rebecca Capobianco ’11 CLAS, ’13 MA, whose chapter, “Southern Women and Emancipation during the Civil War,” explores how Southern women encountered and negotiated the process of emancipation.
“Emancipation did not happen in a single all-encompassing moment,” Capobianco says when describing her chapter. “It proceeded unequally across the South, and women both black and white experienced it differently depending on where they were and when. Moreover, they often competed against one another, as enslaved women took the opportunity to assert their freedom or at least a degree of autonomy, and women who owned slaves worked to constrain that process.”
Capobianco is a PhD student at the College of William and Mary, and her research focuses on the construction and contestation of national identity in public spaces after the Civil War. She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Villanova, and after finishing her master’s work, she served as an educational consultant and park ranger with the National Park Service at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Cape Hatteras National Seashore. Her work with the Park Service at a southern battlefield and her graduate work at Villanova were important factors in Capobianco being selected to contribute to Women and the American Civil War.
“My time at Villanova shaped the way I think about history, and in particular the Civil War,” Capobianco says. “More concretely, studying at Villanova convinced me of the importance of finding and illuminating all of the voices involved in history – not just the loudest or most visible.”
Capobianco credits Dr. Giesberg for giving her the confidence to pursue a career in academia.
“I can’t say enough about Dr. Giesberg as a mentor. Without question I would not be where I am today if not for her guidance and encouragement,” Capobianco says. “For example, while I was at Villanova, Dr. Giesberg directed the Memorable Days Project, in which we had the opportunity to transcribe, annotate and digitize the diary of an African American woman who lived in Philadelphia during the Civil War. The skills and experiences we gained through that project have been key in my career with the National Park Service, and I have always been appreciative of the way that Dr. Giesberg insisted we, as students, take center stage in sharing the project with outside audiences. Dr. Giesberg taught me that I have an important voice to share with the history world.”
Capobianco also credits the Villanova history master’s program for preparing her for her doctoral work by teaching her to read at an academic level and to participate in graduate-level discussion classes. She points to Villanova’s “powerhouse women in academia,” as she calls them—Dr. Giesberg and history department colleagues Catherine Kerrison, PhD, and Lynne Hartnett, PhD—for sparking her interest and providing inspiration for her career.
In their preface, Drs. Giesberg and Miller acknowledge that their book is “exploratory more than ‘definitive,’” and they hope the book invites others to “continue the inquiry into discovering how gender and place—and race—especially informed what the Civil War era meant to its contemporaries and might mean to students of that time thereafter.”
Capobianco is one example of students continuing the inquiry and creating new knowledge in this complex and evolving area of study.
Judith Giesberg is the editor of the Journal of the Civil War Era and the author of five books. She directs the Last Seen: Finding Family after Slavery project. Women and the American Civil War, North-South Counterpoints, was published in July 2018 by The Kent State University Press.