Date of Award

Spring 2015

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Cristy Beemer

Second Advisor

Thomas Newkirk

Third Advisor

Christina Ortmeier-Hooper


This dissertation explores how disenfranchised nineteenth-century women used sensational rhetoric to circumvent obstacles that prevented them from publicly discussing issues related to the American Civil War. A kind of pathetic appeal, sensational rhetoric is the use of shocking, exciting, and thrilling language and/or subject matter for persuasive purposes. Although sensational rhetoric was employed in newspapers and novels, I focus specifically on how women utilized this strategy in the genre of memoir. The personal accounts of Rose O’Neal Greenhow, Belle Boyd, Sarah Emma Edmonds, Loreta Janeta Velazquez, Pauline Cushman, Mary Ann Loughborough, Elizabeth Keckley, and Susie King Taylor describe their enthralling experiences as spies, prisoners, crossdressing soldiers, field nurses, etc. Scholars who have researched these memoirs often explore the accuracy of the narratives or their literary qualities. I, however, examine these memoirs through a rhetorical lens, investigating why, how, and in what ways they worked to promote the writer’s particular agenda. These memoirs, I conclude, were intended to be more than entertaining stories. Functioning as an “available means,” sensational rhetoric allowed these women, in recounting their astounding experiences, to persuade reluctant readers to support their particular political and social causes. Contributing to scholarship devoted to the recovery of nineteenth-century women’s rhetorical voices, my dissertation ultimately calls scholars to reclaim sensational rhetoric as a valuable persuasive strategy.

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