The Better Angels: Five Women Who Changed Civil War America

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Clara Barton

Julia Ward Howe

Sarah Josepha Hale

Published March 1, 2020 (Hardcover) 2022 (Softcover)
Potomac Books, University of Nebraska Press
ISBN – 13  978-1640122239
ISBN 978-64012-546-9 (pbk)
Formats: Hardcover, Paperback, Audiobook, Kindle

Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Clara Barton, Julia Ward Howe and Sarah Josepha Hale came from backgrounds that ranged from sheer enslavement to New York City’s elite.  Surmounting social and political obstacles, they emerged before and during the worst crises in American history, the Civil War.

In this collective biography, author Plumb traces these five remarkable women’s awakenings to analyze how their experiences shaped their responses to the challenges, disappointments and joys they encountered.  Here is Tubman, fearless conductor on the Underground Railroad, alongside Stowe, the author who awakened the nation to the evils of slavery. Barton led an effort to provide medical supplies for field hospitals and Union soldiers sang Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” on the march.  And, amid a national catastrophe, Hale’s campaign to make Thanksgiving a national holiday helped move North and South toward reconciliation.

From the Foreword of The Better Angels:

They were notable women, subjects of past biographies with stories known to many school children.  But this work, The Better Angels, expands our understanding of how slavery and civil war provoked, inspired and energized these capable women.  It helps us understand the power of chaos to stimulate creative enterprise and to inspire lives of promise and purpose.

Elisabeth Griffith

Author of In Her Own Right: The Life of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Formidable: American Women and the Fight for Equality 1920-2020;  and a contributor to Ken Burns’ documentary Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Headmistress Emerita of The Madeira School, McLean, Virginia


“All of these extraordinary women did a great deal in the causes of freedom, women’s rights and literary excellence, as Robert Plumb makes clear in this fine group biography of five women who truly did change the course of American history.”

– James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.

The Better Angels weaves together the stories of five extraordinary women whose talents won scope and recognition in the struggle to end slavery that led to the Civil War.  As skillfully told by Robert Plumb, their stories illustrate the measure of liberation that some women were able to seize through that brutal conflict.”

– David O. Stewart, best-selling author of Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy.

“There couldn’t be a better time for America to find its better angels, and Robert C. Plumb’s lucid and admiring portrait of five exemplary women is just the ticket.  You’ll find corners of American history your old textbook never told you about, and once you’re done, you’ll want to pass it on to the next generation.”

– Louis Bayard, author of Courting Mr. Lincoln and The Pale Blue Eye.

“A clear, compelling introduction for readers not steeped in the history of the American Civil War.  Robert Plumb doesn’t just chart clashes and body counts.  He humanizes the conflicts that tore the country apart, focusing on the home front as well as the front lines. His story unfolds through the perspective of five women [whose] lively group portrait will inspire readers to find out more.”

– M.G. Lord, author of Astro Turf and The Accidental Feminist.

“Robert Plumb has placed five remarkable women on the center stage of the American Civil War.  Their compelling stories are told with perception and freshness in this inspiring work of women’s history.” 

– Robin G. Schulze, editor of Becoming Marianne Moore and author of The Degenerate Muse.

“Portraits of five women who leaped into action during the Civil War — and whose contributions have proven essential and lasting …. An inspirational work of history that touts such traits as persistence, courage, faith and compassion.”

Kirkus Reviews


“Few realize the scope of what these remarkable women overcame and accomplished during their long productive lives …. The Better Angels had great impact in their own time but also helped advance issues that benefited society in future generations. From them readers can learn lessons of courage, determination, creativity and resourcefulness to make a difference in today’s world.”

– Marilyn Southard Warshawsky, author of John Franklin Goucher: Citizen of the World.

“Robert, congratulations on your forthcoming book.”

– Drew Gilpin Faust, Civil War historian, President Emerita, Harvard University.

On-line Reviews

“Rich in detail, this book Bacon would find to be ‘one of the few deserving to be chewed and digested.’”

Robert Plumb has written an intriguing tale about five women who in various ways changed America during the Civil War …. A VERY WELL researched book.  New revelations about these women on every page.”

“If you are interested in the pivotal role that women played in nineteenth-century America, you should read The Better Angels.”

“This book presents a well-researched, factual, and readable history of the five better angels.  I particularly liked the way the last three chapters closed out the work with a summary of their accomplishments, the characteristics that allowed them to succeed, and their own words on topics relevant to their time in history.”

“After reading this book, women and men readers will be thankful that these five extraordinary women were there when history needed them most.  But this is more than a history lesson.  It’s a lesson in how ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things.”

The Better Angels is an extremely well-written narrative and profile of real people during the Civil War. Most every sentence is full of colorful description and rich meaning.”

The Better Angels is an inspiring group biography …. Their voices are passionate and exemplify courage, persistence, resourcefulness and creativity.  Their legacies have value today.”

“A wonderful, engaging read about five women who changed America during the Civil War, with heroic accounts of deeds that engross the reader in the perseverance, confidence, and commitment of these brave women.”

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