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For many Americans, the mention of U.S. Civil War studies brings to mind names of battles and generals, or stirs memories of Lincoln’s speeches. But a Saint Leo University senior and budding historian has earned recognition for a different study, a work of social history that examines the lives and torments of everyday women who lived through America’s war with itself.
Samantha Tyler, a University Campus student, presented findings from her senior thesis “From the Ground Up: Women of the Civil War” in a national meeting. She traveled to New Orleans in January to make a presentation at the Phi Alpha Theta (national honor society) convention for historians. It was the first time a Saint Leo student had done so. A scheduling conflict prevented her from also appearing at the Florida Conference of Historians to deliver her presentation on lesser-known perspectives on the war.
Tyler’s work does discuss the influence of the famed author Harriet Beecher Stowe and the fiery words of African-American leader Sojourner Truth. But the famous women appear in Tyler’s work within the broader context of understanding the emotions and attitudes of everyday Northern women, Southern white women, and former slaves and freed African-American women. Tyler combed women’s letters, journals, and other personal writings—in addition to Stowe’s best-selling book Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech—to reach her conclusions. “The stories that those diaries and personal papers provide help us see that the simplistic views of women that dominated the antebellum era, and that have been repeated by historians since, do not tell the whole story,” Tyler’s introduction states.
For instance, the papers she found revealed to her much more starkly the actual brutality of slavery than did more widely published works she had read, Tyler said. She found white women in the South who developed a personal hatred of the opposing side, arising from the battles that took place in their towns and fields, the seizure of land, livestock, and homes by the Union Army, and the widespread destruction ordered by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. Meanwhile, Northerners who were more distant from battlefields were not affected in the same way, physically, or as deeply emotionally in their feelings toward Confederate troops, Tyler observed. But Northerners who went to the conflict as nurses—if they came from the middle class or more prosperous backgrounds—might actually be criticized by family members for venturing beyond the social norms of the day, rather than earning heightened respect from their relations for their bravery, compassion, or sense of duty. Common to all the women, Tyler said, was the deep fear that the men closest to them would be killed or maimed by the war.
This vein of American history is incredibly rich, Tyler decided, though it has not been studied much. Tyler’s conference presentations partly address the void, while also pointing toward her hopes for the future.
Tyler so loves “learning about our world and American history” that she will make history and teaching her career. She has always enjoyed the support of her parents in her endeavors; her dad, in fact, is an Air Force veteran who involved the young Samantha in military history long before she ever thought of history as a possible college major. Tyler hopes to secure a high-school teaching position in Florida after her graduation this spring; she plans also to earn a master’s degree in American history through an online program at Fort Hays State University in Kansas. Eventually, Tyler, said, she would like to teach at the college level.