Go to the Mattresses, Female Edition

New commenter Joe was kind enough to drop some hilarious history here which does not speak well for the shield maiden trope.

During the late stages of the [American Civil] War, the town of LaGrange, Georgia, had an armed all-female militia unit which drilled with weapons and which mustered in the street apparently ready to fight when the Federals arrived. The Yank in command, a gentleman and a diplomat, sent a messenger under a white flag to tell them that their homes would not be burned and that (as I recall) “they could surely do more damage with their eyes than with their old squirrel-rifles”.) Reassured, they stood down. LaGrange was not burned, but in a touch suitable for the worst of novels, the Federal in command later married one of the members of the “Nancy Harts” girl militia unit.

Otherwise: They would have been slaughtered. The Union force was strong enough that the Confederate cavalry fled them; according to a link provided by Dalrock.

In mid-April 1865 Major General James H. Wilson led a Union raid on west Georgia. As the Union troops approached LaGrange from West Point, the local Confederate cavalrymen fled, and the Nancy Harts stepped in to protect the town.

…which was accomplished by entreating the Union soldiers to spare the town, and then surrendering to the strong handsome Union soldiers; even unto the mattress.

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He Put Her Boots on Like Any Other Man

Oscar left a link to an article about a Wyoming homesteader named Elinor Pruitt Stewart. She is presented as an American heroine, but turns out to be more of a fantasy. Here’s the short version:

Elinor was born after the last Comanches had been sent to reservation. By her adulthood, the American West had been tamed, but not yet settled. After divorcing her first husband of three years she moved to Wyoming and took a job as a housekeeper. Then she married her boss. He built an add-on to his house so that she could live in it and pretend to be an independent homesteader. This pretension went on for years, as she hid the fact that she had married her boss, and that his family controlled “her” homestead; even after Atlantic Monthly began to publish her accounts. For years readers of her letter accounts were misled to believe she was single instead of married and supported by a husband and his family. According to those who published her letters: The greatest (conscious) threat to Stewart were coyotes; which are skittish creatures. 

She didn’t own her homestead. She didn’t build her house. She didn’t depend on herself. She didn’t fight off anyone or anything. She told lies that she homesteaded independently.

I will continue research, so please point me towards more historical books and articles.

Research Request: Fighting Frontier Women

In Texas, where I live, it is not uncommon for a man to speak of his wife as a crack shot, or even as a hot-headed gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger. Yet I have never detected a sense of obligation and responsibility which was attached to such boastings. What I mean is this: Suppose a man is away on business. While he is gone a burglar invades his home while his wife and children are there. If she hid, fired no shots, and in fact did not even make a peep: He would be fine with that as long as she was unhurt. If she ran, he’d be fine with that, too.

Afterwards, when nerves had settled, he or she might crack a joke that the burglars were “lucky” that she didn’t pump them full of lead. But in no way would the husband actually be disappointed in his wife because she fled and hid instead of fought. The reverse is not true.

Several times now someone has written in comments that frontier women were regularly expected to defend the homefront from Indians, bandits, and wild animals such as bobcats, cougars, and bears. I find the idea preposterous. It seems much more likely to me that frontier husbands either:

  1. Left their wives in trusted communities, i.e., near family, friends, or gov’t authorities.
  2. Expected their wives to flee/escape to safety.
  3. Foolishly hoped that danger never came.

So here is my request: Can anyone give me a historical account or source for the widespread notion that frontier men actually expected their wives to actually fight off dangerous marauders?