Civil War historian Elizabeth Leonard has written a number of books about the role of women on the battlefield and the social and political reverberations of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. She’s researched those books, including her soon-to-be-published title, “Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life,” in the Library’s Manuscript Division.
Tell us about your background and research interests.
I am a native of New York City and received my Ph.D. in U.S. history from the University of California, Riverside, in 1992.
While pursuing my doctorate, I took a particular interest in a course on the American Civil War and was struck by the absence of women in any of our readings. The assumption seemed to be that women had been irrelevant to the war effort and had not been affected by the war itself in any meaningful way. I was sure that these assumptions were false, and my desire to fill such a glaring gap in the literature led me to my dissertation topic, which became my first book, “Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War.”
All of my subsequent research has been on the Civil War (or the Civil War era), though it has moved away from a focus on women specifically.
How do you select subjects?
For an Americanist, the Civil War era is, of course, a topic of unending interest and importance. Having begun my career as a scholar of “Yankee women” who sustained the Union effort in various ways, I have generally been guided from project to project by one or more questions that remained unanswered at the time I put the previous project to bed.
In the course of my research on “Yankee Women,” I began to wonder about the experiences of women from both sides who did go into battle on behalf of their respective causes and so were planted the seeds of my second book, “All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies.”
While completing that book, I found myself questioning why so many of the “she-rebels” I encountered had avoided harsh punishment despite their often violent anti-Union behavior, while Mary Surratt had been tried, convicted and summarily executed shortly after the war as one of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators in assassinating President Lincoln. One could argue that Surratt, whose involvement in the conspiracy was actually rather murky, bore the brunt of all the restraint exercised by the Union against she-rebels during the war. Researching her led me to the story of Joseph Holt — the prosecutor of the Lincoln assassination conspirators — and so on.
Why did you decide to delve into Butler’s story?
Anyone who studies the Civil War era in any depth eventually meets up with Benjamin Butler. A prominent lawyer and Democrat in Lowell, Massachusetts, before the war began, Butler volunteered for military service early and thus became Lincoln’s senior “political” general, in which capacity he famously established the “contraband” policy that protected slavery’s runaways from being returned to bondage.
After the war, Butler served for a decade in the U.S. House of Representatives — defending and advancing the rights of Black Americans, women and workers — and for a term as governor of Massachusetts.
Butler was also an alumnus of Waterville (now Colby) College in Maine, where I taught for nearly 30 years. Indeed, I consider him easily Colby’s most important Civil War-era alumnus, though Elijah Parish Lovejoy has traditionally gotten much more attention.
During my early years at Colby, when I still knew very little about Butler beyond the epithets that so commonly attached to his name, I envied neighboring Bowdoin College’s association with the dashing and widely celebrated Joshua Chamberlain, who not only attended Bowdoin but also taught there before leaving to join the Union army.
Then, at a conference in the early 2000s, I confessed my Bowdoin-envy to the great historian Gary Gallagher, who quite appropriately (and gently) chastised me for not digging deeper into Butler’s wartime — and indeed life — story. I eventually decided to take Gary’s advice, and here we are.
When did you first start using the Library’s collections?
I began doing research at the Library when I started work on my dissertation in 1989. I have published seven books since then, all of which have relied to a greater or lesser extent on the magnificent collections in the Library’s Manuscript Division as well as the generous assistance of its congenial and deeply well-informed staff. I am grateful!
Do you have any advice for other researchers on navigating the Library’s collections?
Be focused. Do whatever planning you can do in advance (much information and many detailed finding aids are available online); come with a clear idea of the materials you hope to examine (but be prepared to experience both happy and frustrating surprises); and do not hesitate to avail yourself of the expertise of the gracious and generous archivists there who know the collections so well!