Wilkes University

Catherine Gourley Book Excerpts

Award-winning author Catherine (McCormick) Gourley ’72, M.S. ’78 has written more than 30 non-fiction books for adults, young adults and children. Gourley, who was profiled in the winter 2010 issue of Wilkes magazine, shared excerpts from two of her books – The Horrors of Andersonville: Life and Death in Civil War Prison and an excerpt from her Images and Issues of Women book series.

Please the links below for additional excerpts from the Images and Issues of Women book series.

Images and Issues of Women | The Horrors of Andersonville: Life and Death in Civil War Prison

Images and Issues of Women book series excerpts

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The hot television series “Mad Men” has sparked a retro fashions and renewed interest in gender roles of the 1950s and 1960s. In this passage below, meet some “Mad Women” of the same period.

What were the health effects of atomic blasts on living creatures? If another country were to develop atomic weapons, how could the United States best defend itself?  These were the question Operation Crossroads hoped to answer.

In the summer of 1946, the United States military invited news reporters from around the world to come to the South Pacific island of Bikini to witness an atomic explosion. Anchored in the lagoon were various navy ships, including aircraft carriers, cruisers, battleships, and even a submarine. Tethered on the decks of some ships were goats, sheep and pigs. When the countdown began, all military personnel and all journalists were safely aboard ships approximately 18 miles away. They wait with binoculars, notebooks, and camera. A Washington Post reporter who witnessed the explosion form his ship described the first two killing effects of the bomb: the blast was “a fearsome blaze of light.” The heat wave was a “giant rumble” that rocked his ship even miles away.  “A creamy canopy of cloud, tinged with pink writhed and twisted five miles high,” he wrote. The rising mushroom cloud “looked at though a giant mountain had risen from the sea, as though we were watching the formation of a continent,” wrote another reporter from the New York Times.

Throughout the 1950s, the United States as well as the Soviet Union continued aboveground testing of nuclear weapons.  Very likely, Mary Sharmat, a housewife and mother living in New York City, knew little about Operation Crossroads or the devastation on Bikini Island. But she did know about Operation Alert. This was a civil defense program, again developed by the United States government. During practice sessions when an air-raid siren began to signal an attack, all people were to take cover, either in the basements of their homes or in public fallout shelters that were usually underground. Those who did not obey this order could be fined one hundred dollars, arrested, and sentenced to a year in prison.

Sharmat believed that if an atomic bomb exploded over New York City, the city would become a desert. “I felt that nuclear air-raid drills taught fear and hate towards an enemy,” she said. Sharmat did not think of herself as a warrior maiden. Still, what she was about to do required warrior-like courage. She was going to break the law, a law she did not believe in.

One morning in 1959, Sharmat dressed in a black-and-white-checked cotton suit. Her shoes and handbag were red. She dressed her baby boy, Jimmy, in a blue linen outfit. She wanted to look like a sensible, respectable woman, she said. Perhaps she had chosen red, white and blue for another reason—to express her patriotism.  Before she left home, she had cooked a roast beef dinner for her husband. If she were arrested—and she fully expected to be—then her husband would still have something to eat. She had even packed an overnight bag for herself and her baby.

Sharmat put her son in his stroller and walked two blocks from her home in New York City. At the center island of Broadway and Eighty-Sixth Street was a bench. She sat down. Nearby was a civil defense truck. She had known it would be there. She looked at her watch. In fifteen minutes her rebellious act would begin. “I . . . gritted my teeth in determination not to become a coward and return home,” she said.

At noon the air-raid sirens began to wail. Civil defense wardens wearing white helmets appeared on the streets and ordered people to take cover. Sharmat did not move. One of the wardens approached, shouting, “Operation Alert. Take cover!”

“I can’t take shelter,” she said. “I do not believe in this.”

The warden threatened to call the police. Sharmat said that was fine with her. The sirens were screeching. Jimmy was crying. A police officer approached Sharmat. “Lady,” he said, “We’re going to give you a ticket.” She did not argue with him. She just refused to take cover. At last, he walked away. He didn’t give her a ticket or arrest her.

At twelve fifteen, the sirens stopped, replaced by an all-clear signal. People began emerging from the city shelters. May Sharmat walked home and put her baby in his crib for a nap.

In the late edition of the newspaper that day, Sharmat read an article about a woman named Janice Smith. She, too, had refused to obey the civil defense order. “All these drills do are scare birds, babies and old ladies. I will not raise my children to go underground,” she said.

Sharmat was not alone.

Mary Sharmat would disobey the civil defense law again in 1960 and 1961. Each year, more women joined the rebellion and not just in New York City. These women did not argue about the destructive power of atomic weapons. Instead, the protested the government’s military policies of testing nuclear weapons and adding more of these weapons to its arsenal.

On November 1, 1961, women in approximately sixty cities across the country—women who did not know one another—removed their aprons, switched off their vacuum cleaners, and simply stopped working. Women who head jobs outside the home did not report for work.  They had learned about the Women Strike for Peace (WSP) through their neighborhood networks, including the Parent-Teacher Association (PTA and the League of Women Voters. Many telephone their friends and alerted them to what was about to happen. This time the women did not sit on park benches while air-raid sirens wailed. They knocked the doors of their local government leaders and demanded that they “End the Arms Race—Not the Human Race.”

Newsweek reported the startling event, commenting first on the women’s appearances: “They were perfectly ordinary looking women, with their share of good looks; they looked like the women you would see driving ranch wagons, or sopping at the village market, or attending PTA meetings . . . carrying placards, many wheeling baby buggies or strollers—they marched on city halls and Federal buildings to show their concern about nuclear fallout.”

The Horrors of Andersonville: Life and Death in Civil War Prison

John Ransom was sick. His teeth were loose. His gums had swollen and were bloody. His legs were swollen, and he had little energy. Ransom knew what ailed him: Scurvy. He had noticed the first signs of scurvy in May. By July he could not walk. . . .
In the distance, Ransom could see the tops of the pine trees. They swayed with the wind. the high stockade fence, however, prevented any cooling breeze from circulating inside the prison pen. Battese, his friend and former partner in the laundry business, carried him to the creek and helped him to bathe. But Ransom knew that if help did not some soon, he would go to the camp hospital and from there to a trench grave. His eyesight was very poor. Just to write in his diary took all his energy. He longed for a square of shade to lie in. Some days he fantasized about drinking a glass of iced lemonade. Instead, Battese dug roots to brew a tea for Ransom. He made a soup with bits of beef, onion, and potato. On those days when Ransom ate something nourishing, his spirits lifted. If he could avoid the hospital, he might yet survive. . . .

One night in September, 1864, as the guards shouted their rounds, the prisoners heard them holler, "Post Number Four, half past eight o'clock, and Atlanta's gone to Hell!"

The fall of Atlanta would be a Union triumph. Was the news a cruel trick? Had Union general William Tecumseh Sherman's troops at last pushed the Confederates out of Atlanta? . . . If Atlanta had truly "gone to Hell," then the Confederacy was near its end.

And then, days later--how many the men could not say--the gates of Andersonville swung open.

Not all prisoners could leave at once, of course. There simply wasn't transportation. They would depart Andersonville, as they had arrived, in groups of hundreds, packed tightly in boxcars. Their destination was unknown. . . .

On September 6, Ransom wrote in his diary that seven detachments of prisoners had gone out the gate. His detachment was the tenth and would go the next day. There was a drawback, however.  Those too ill to walk could not leave. Ransom could hardly stand upright on his own two feet. Walking out of the stockade was as impossible as being served a glass of lemonade. Still, Battese assured him that he would not leave him behind.

At midnight on September 7, 1864, Battese picked Ransom up and carried him to the gate. Ransom still had possession of the blanket out of which he had cheated a Confederate soldier so many months ago in Richmond. The prisoners fell into ranks of four. As they walked through the gates, the guards kept count. Battese placed Ransom in the middle between himself and another man to brace him upright. As they moved through the gate, Ransom said he heard a guard call after them. But Battese kept walking.

Robert Kellogg likewise shouldered a feeble comrade to help him pass through the gate. He recalled Wirz standing in front of his headquarters as they walked past. "You never come back here again!" Wirz told them.

(c) Catherine Gourley. All rights reserved.