Women and the War

Women found that the war changed their lives just as dramatically, though they usually escaped persecution for protesting against war measures.  The absence of men from their homes forced women to assume unaccustomed roles to support households.  Now they had to handle all daily tasks, not just those usually assigned to women.   Southern women ran farms and plantations, while northern women also managed farms or even went to work in factories. Many women went beyond these demands to serve as nurses, cooks, clerks, doctors, and even spies for the armed forces of both sides. 

Winslow Homer illustration for Harper’s Weekly, “Role of Women in the War,” 1861

Winslow Homer illustration for Harper’s Weekly, “Role of Women in the War,” 1861

Volunteers

Women on both sides of the conflict considered the war theirs, too, and worked to aid the cause. In the North, women created soldiers’ aid societies and organized bandage-rolling associations and gathered clothing and food for the soldiers. Northern African American women organized a freedmen’s-aid movement to help starving and homeless freed slaves. Anti-slavery societies founded by black women spearheaded the movement from New York to Chicago, and by 1865 Congress adopted their model and created the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Like their counterparts in the North, Southern women greatly contributed to the cause. At the beginning of the war, elite white southern women celebrated and supported the Confederacy by sending their brothers, fathers, and husbands off to what they were sure would be a short swift victory for the South.  When peace did not come immediately, white women created more than 1,000 voluntary associations or ladies aid societies to help the troops.  As one woman said, “Our needles are now our weapons and we have a part to perform as well as the rest…. Yes, Yes, we women have mighty work to perform ….”  They sewed uniforms and raised money to buy what the soldiers needed through bazaars and sales of fancy goods. Many in the North did the same, but as the war dragged on and the deaths piled up, southern women began to sense the futility of the fight and complained bitterly over their many losses.

Soldiers

Mary Tippee, who fought with the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry

Mary Tippee, who fought with the 114th Pennsylvania Infantry

Women on both sides of the battle disguised themselves and became soldiers.  The numbers of women who donned male uniforms and fought in the war is difficult to ascertain, but northerner Mary A. Livermore, who directed a branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, asserted that 400 women fought as soldiers.  While most women soldiers were white, at least one African American woman, Maria Lewis, fought with a New York Cavalry unit that delivered to the War Department in Washington D.C. seventeen Confederate flags as trophies of war.   Women passed as males by cutting their hair, sewing their own uniforms, and by managing to get past the loosely organized physical examinations required for new recruits. Many were from working-class or farming backgrounds, displayed unusual fitness, and learned quickly the techniques of rifle loading, drilling, and target practice.  Most female soldiers were “discovered” at death or when their injuries brought them into the hospital, thus ending their military adventures.

Did you know...

Belle Boyd

Belle Boyd

Belle Boyd is one of the most famous female Confederate spies.  She shot to death a Yankee soldier who invaded her home in 1861 and then gleaned information from the soldiers who came to guard her. After her exoneration, she sent word of Union troop movements to Colonel Turner Ashby and General Thomas J. Jackson in the 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign. She was imprisoned twice, once in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington D.C.  She lived to write her two-volume memoir in 1865 and died in 1930.

Spies

A tiny minority of women acted as spies.  Using femininity rather than boyish looks, they dressed the part of the elegant lady and hid their secrets under parasols, hoop skirts, and corsets.  Isabelle (Belle) Boyd, the most famous Confederate spy, used both feminine wiles and masculine attire to achieve her ends.  The northern press, frustrated by the success of southern female spies, labeled them “Secesh harlots.”

Nurses

The majority of women who participated in the Civil War did so as nurses, a term that implied skill and training, which was often not the case. Many volunteered to nurse the wounded and then learned nursing while on the job.  The model for their work was Florence Nightingale, who had trained British nurses for the Crimean War (1853-56), and who wanted to see nursing become a woman’s profession.  Two who responded were Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and her sister Emily Blackwell, both physicians in New York who recruited and trained volunteer nurses for the Women’s Central Relief Association. Dorothea Dix, who earlier had lobbied for mental health reform, was recruited with a War Department commission to organize military hospitals. Dix made sure that only middle-class white women worked in hospital wards and that they were plain looking and between the ages of thirty and fifty.  She insisted they dress conservatively in dark skirts with no hoops in order promote propriety in the hospital wards. 

Did you know...

Clara Barton

Clara Barton

Clara Barton went on to continue with her philanthropy work after the war, founding the Red Cross in 1881.

These efforts inspired the creation of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a semi-official organization approved by President Lincoln and funded and managed by civilians.  The Sanitary Commission tried to take on roles that the government could not or would not do, such as setting up sanitary camps for the soldiers and nursing the wounded. U.S pension records show that 20,000 women were paid for their Union army services, mostly as army nurses. Most of them got used to the horrors of war, the piles of amputated limbs thrown out of surgery windows, the blood and the misery of the wounded and dying. They came to work and found that they could assist doctors in surgery (even though many army surgeons and doctors detested women in their midst), serve meals and drinks to the invalids, dress wounds, deliver medicines, read letters, write to loved ones, change bedding, give baths, comb hair, and listen as soldiers found comfort in a female presence. African American women were the last to be accepted as employees of army hospitals, but in January 1864 the War Department allowed them to work in menial domestic jobs as cooks, laundresses, and janitors.

nurses and officers of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Fredericksburg, Virginia, May 1864

nurses and officers of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, Fredericksburg, Virginia, May 1864

Some women served the wounded independently of army employment.  For example, Clara Barton, an employee at the U.S. Patent Office, sought and won permission to nurse the wounded at the scene of battles. It was Barton who made her way to the Battle of Antietam and found the fields littered with the bloody carnage of war.

In the South, the Confederate legislature passed a law in 1862 creating the Confederate Hospital Act that allowed women to work in military hospitals.  Even before this act, southern women had created makeshift hospitals out of homes, barns, and churches. Phoebe Yates Pember, one of forty-six matrons in Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, supervised volunteer nurses, directed slave laundresses and cleaners, ordered food, aided army surgeons, and guarded the liquor used as an anesthetic. Sally Tompkins of Richmond helped 1,333 men in her private hospital, losing only 73 patients. This was the best record of medical care anywhere, North or South.

Women’s wartime medical work led to important changes for women. Many “veterans” of the women’s Civil War continued their activism.  Clara Barton created the American National Red Cross in 1881 and attended to the needs of those ravaged by natural and manmade disasters, including the Youngstown Flood and the Galveston Hurricane in 1900.  Some nurses actually went to medical school and earned an M.D.  Male doctors, having witnessed the fortitude of wartime nurses, dropped their objections and convinced the American Medical Association to establish nursing schools for women.