Often when we think about “girls who do things,” we focus on great fictional characters – Pippi Longstocking or Katniss from The Hunger Games. But I have always been drawn to the stories about real women who lived fascinating lives or tried to accomplish something unusual. Many fine books exist with this focus — from picture books such as Michelle Markel’s Brave Girl to more complex nonfiction such as Tanya Lee Stone’s Almost Astronauts.
My first children’s book about women with true grit began as the result of a walk I took around the battlefields of the Civil War. For those in Virginia, of course, Civil War sites exist close to home. Because I live in Boston, I had to schedule several vacations to these areas. On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up They Fought Like Demons by De Anne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook. It tells the stories of the around 1,000 women who actually fought both for the North and the South as soldiers in the Civil War. No one had ever told me about these women when I was a girl, and I became obsessed with learning more about them.
I’ll Pass for Your Comrade: Women Soldiers and the Civil War took six years to complete. I needed to figure out how the women managed to enlist. What about going to the bathroom and taking a bath? Did they have to learn new mannerisms to pass as a man? As I struggled to answer these questions, I started to travel to Civil War battlefields –Gettysburg, First Manassas (Bull Run), and the sites of the Shenandoah Valley campaign. Finally, at Antietam, I spent several days locating where each woman stood and where some of them died. I brought along my two beautiful Bernese Mountain Dogs, Lady and Merlin, who found this research fascinating. They even managed to find a ravine (where one of the women soldiers was wounded) that I had missed! Both dogs have now died, but I believe that in dog heaven, they have been given Civil War battlefields to explore.
In I’ll Pass for Your Comrade, I tell the stories of some of these women – why they went to war and what happened to them. Often writers of women’s history have to search harder for primary resources than do those writing about men. This is certainly true of the women soldiers of the Civil War. Basically, I had to locate small pieces of information, stitch them together, and create a composite portrait of what the experience of a woman soldier might have been like.
During the summer, I hope you read some stories of real women who did things. If your plans involve Civil War battlefields, use the time to honor not only the brave men whose hearts were “touched with fire” but also the women who fought and often died for their cause. -AS