New exhibit explores roles of women in the Civil War

Jennifer S. Brown | 3/13/2013, 8:37 a.m.

“Living here in Boston,” she said, “where black men are given their freedom, I wonder if white men know the true meaning of brotherhood.”

She determined for herself that the war was really about land — who would own it and who would work it.

Brown said Taylor often wondered if their situation became more hopeless after the Civil War. Both Tubman and Taylor served as nurses during the Civil War. Brown said that they moved from sick bed to sick bed, caring for soldiers who had become stricken with smallpox and other diseases, remarkably never getting sick themselves.

Charlotte Forten, a native of Philadelphia, was sent north by her parents to receive a better education. Living with abolitionists, Forten had the opportunity to study Literature and Teaching at the Salem Normal School, now Salem State University. She became the school’s first African American student and a graduate of the class of 1856. Brown says that Forten was also the first woman of color to teach a class of white students and the first African American woman to journey south during the Civil War to teach freed slaves on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina.

It was during this time that Forten developed a close friendship with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, Commander of the all Black 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Sea Island Campaign. Forten documented her experiences of the war, and in one journal entry Brown read her description of Shaw as a “wonderfully lovable person... so noble and pure.”

She also wrote, “I hope to have the pleasure of seeing him again.” It was no surprise that Forten was grief-stricken and devastated when members of the 54th Regiment and Colonel Shaw were attacked and killed on Fort Wagner.

Forten wrote, “Oh how sad, it’s too terrible to write... I can write no more.”

Upon closer examination of both the women’s lives, Brown emphasizes how the Civil War prompted Susie King Taylor to write her memoirs, but in direct contrast, the Civil War had an opposite effect on Charlotte Forten, bringing her to a place where she could write no more.

As the lecture came to a close, one audience member inquired about any periods of self-doubt experienced by the woman. Brown suggests that while each women experienced the war individually and endured their own struggles, all of them sensed that their actions and purpose served something higher and were a part of something bigger and greater.

It is because of this fact, Brown said, that “they had the ability to overcome.”

Before ending the lecture portion of the event, Beverly Morgan Welch and Boston Postmaster James J. Holland awarded descendants of John J. Smith, William Lloyd Garrison, Norwood Penrose Hallowell and Augustus Monroe plaques of the Emancipation Proclamation Stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.