Women in the Civil War

Women in the Civil War


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In many ways, the coming of the Civil War challenged the ideology of Victorian domesticity that had defined the lives of men and women in the antebellum era. In the North and in the South, the war forced women into public life in ways they could scarcely have imagined a generation before.

Background

In the years before the Civil War, the lives of American women were shaped by a set of ideals that historians call “the Cult of True Womanhood.” As men’s work moved away from the home and into shops, offices and factories, the household became a new kind of place: a private, feminized domestic sphere, a “haven in a heartless world.” “True women” devoted their lives to creating a clean, comfortable, nurturing home for their husbands and children.

During the Civil War, however, American women turned their attention to the world outside the home. Thousands of women in the North and South joined volunteer brigades and signed up to work as nurses. It was the first time in American history that women played a significant role in a war effort. By the end of the war, these experiences had expanded many Americans’ definitions of “true womanhood.”

Fighting for the Union

With the outbreak of war in 1861, women and men alike eagerly volunteered to fight for the cause. In the Northern states, women organized ladies’ aid societies to supply the Union troops with everything they needed, from food (they baked and canned and planted fruit and vegetable gardens for the soldiers) to clothing (they sewed and laundered uniforms, knitted socks and gloves, mended blankets and embroidered quilts and pillowcases) to cash (they organized door-to-door fundraising campaigns, county fairs and performances of all kinds to raise money for medical supplies and other necessities).

But many women wanted to take a more active role in the war effort. Inspired by the work of Florence Nightingale and her fellow nurses in the Crimean War, they tried to find a way to work on the front lines, caring for sick and injured soldiers and keeping the rest of the Union troops healthy and safe.

In June 1861, they succeeded: The federal government agreed to create “a preventive hygienic and sanitary service for the benefit of the army” called the United States Sanitary Commission. The Sanitary Commission’s primary objective was to combat preventable diseases and infections by improving conditions (particularly “bad cookery” and bad hygiene) in army camps and hospitals. It also worked to provide relief to sick and wounded soldiers. By war’s end, the Sanitary Commission had provided almost $15 million in supplies–the vast majority of which had been collected by women–to the Union Army.

Nearly 20,000 women worked more directly for the Union war effort. Working-class white women and free and enslaved African-American women worked as laundresses, cooks and “matrons,” and some 3,000 middle-class white women worked as nurses. The activist Dorothea Dix, the superintendent of Army nurses, put out a call for responsible, maternal volunteers who would not distract the troops or behave in unseemly or unfeminine ways: Dix insisted that her nurses be “past 30 years of age, healthy, plain almost to repulsion in dress and devoid of personal attractions.” (One of the most famous of these Union nurses was the writer Louisa May Alcott.)

Army nurses traveled from hospital to hospital, providing “humane and efficient care for wounded, sick and dying soldiers.” They also acted as mothers and housekeepers–“havens in a heartless world”–for the soldiers under their care.

Women of the Confederacy

White women in the South threw themselves into the war effort with the same zeal as their Northern counterparts. The Confederacy had less money and fewer resources than did the Union, however, so they did much of their work on their own or through local auxiliaries and relief societies. They, too, cooked and sewed for their boys. They provided uniforms, blankets, sandbags and other supplies for entire regiments. They wrote letters to soldiers and worked as untrained nurses in makeshift hospitals. They even cared for wounded soldiers in their homes.

Many Southern women, especially wealthy ones, relied on slaves for everything and had never had to do much work. However, even they were forced by the exigencies of wartime to expand their definitions of “proper” female behavior.

Slaves and Freedwomen

Slave women were, of course, not free to contribute to the Union cause. Moreover, they had never had the luxury of “true womanhood” to begin with: As one historian pointed out, “being a women never saved a single female slave from hard labor, beatings, rape, family separation, and death.” The Civil War promised freedom, but it also added to these women’s burden. In addition to their own plantation and household labor, many slave women had to do the work of their husbands and partners too: The Confederate Army frequently impressed male slaves, and slaveowners fleeing from Union troops often took their valuable male slaves, but not women and children, with them. (Working-class white women had a similar experience: While their husbands, fathers and brothers fought in the Army, they were left to provide for their families on their own.)

A Women’s Proper Place?

During the Civil War, women especially faced a host of new duties and responsibilities. For the most part, these new roles applied the ideals of Victorian domesticity to “useful and patriotic ends.” However, these wartime contributions did help expand many women’s ideas about what their “proper place” should be.


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Women in War

The upheaval of the American Revolution and the Civil War profoundly altered women’s lives, opening new paths and allowing them to take on roles previously held largely by men. Nursing, which had been a male profession, is the best-known example.

In hospitals across the country thousands of women stepped in to serve as nurses. The treatment they provided to sick and wounded soldiers saved countless lives. During the Civil War, Kate Cumming and Phoebe Pember tended to hundreds of soldiers in the South. In the North, women like Mary Livermore and the indefatigable Clara Barton made their voices heard in the highest halls of power, successfully advocating for reforms based on their experiences as nurses during the war. These reforms had a lasting and positive impact on the quality of medical care in the United States.

It was not just in health care that women took on an increasingly assertive role during America's founding conflicts. During the American Revolution, women like Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren were able to influence politics and policies in meaningful ways.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, a growing movement for women’s rights developed in the North as an off-shoot of the anti-slavery movement. Courageous activists like Abby Kelley and Sojourner Truth continued to fight for the cause throughout the Civil War, while at the same time advocating for abolition and the Union.

Southern women were no less important or outspoken. Rose O’Neal Greenhow and other female spies provided invaluable intelligence to the Confederacy, making a real difference on the battlefield. Southern diarist Mary Chesnut’s keen insights continue to fascinate readers more than a century-and-half later.

Women, both North and South, also ventured onto the battlefield, many changing their appearance so they could fight incognito for the cause they believed in. African American women like Harriet Tubman often took on especially dangerous roles, operating behind Confederate lines as Union scouts.

While the American Revolution, War of 1812, and Civil War may be remembered by many as a conflict between men, American women knew that it was their fight too.


A time of hardship and grief

The Civil War placed a terrible emotional burden on women on both sides of the conflict. Those who were left at home worried constantly about the safety and comfort of the husbands, fathers, and sons they had sent to battle. They followed reports of the war in the newspapers and waited anxiously for word about their loved ones. Throughout the war years, women often gathered at train stations across the country to hear the names of the dead called, and to comfort those who were grieving afterward. The endless fear and sadness took a heavy toll on them. As diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823–1886) wrote, "Does anybody wonder why so many women die? Grief and constant anxiety kill nearly as many women as men die on the battlefield."

Many women found that keeping busy helped ease their anxiety. In the North, some women passed the time by sewing and knitting furiously in order to produce warm clothing for the soldiers. Some formed aid societies, which were groups that raised money and collected food, clothing, medicine, and other supplies for the troops or for wounded soldiers and their families. Other Northern women took jobs outside the home in order to support their families and contribute to the war effort. Since many men had left factory jobs to enlist in the army, over one hundred thousand industrial positions opened up for women during the war years. Thousands more women became "government girls" by taking office jobs as civil service workers (employees in government administration). Free black women formed groups to help former slaves who had escaped to the North.

The Civil War was more difficult for Southern women in some ways, because most of the major battles took place on Southern soil. "Although women in both camps shared many of the same problems and experiences, one very important distinction existed," Massey explained. "This 'woman's war' was being fought by Southerners on their own doorsteps and the women had to battle the enemy as best they could." In addition to worrying about the safety of their loved ones, Southern women also had to worry about protecting their homes and getting enough food for their children.

During the course of the war, Northern troops conquered many major Southern cities, including Nashville, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Richmond. When some of these cities were captured, particularly towards the end of the war, large numbers of women and children were forced to leave their homes and become refugees. The Northern troops often took whatever food and valuables they could find, either for their own use or to keep them from falling into enemy hands. After the Union troops left, many Southern women returned to find their homes destroyed and their fields burned. In this way, a once-wealthy woman might suddenly find herself poor and homeless.

To make matters worse, basic necessities of life such as food and clothing were in very short supply throughout the South during the war years. Northern ships had blocked the flow of goods into Southern ports, and many farmers either left their fields unplanted or saw their crops seized for the war effort. Prices rose quickly on the goods that were available. Southern women had to be very resourceful in order to make ends meet. Some traded fancy dresses, jewelry, and other items for food. Others set up small businesses in their homes, making soap or candles.

Life was difficult for black women in the South, too. Many chose to remain with their masters even though the Emancipation Proclamation had technically set them free. Most of these women stayed where they were because they felt safer in familiar surroundings than in a war zone. Some continued to work in the fields, while others cooked or cleaned for Confederate troops.

Because many battles were near their homes, Southern women also came into more direct contact with the horrors of war than did most Northern women. For example, major fighting took place just outside of Richmond, Virginia, in May and June 1862. During this time, twenty-one thousand wounded Confederate soldiers were brought into the city for medical attention. "We lived in one immense hospital," a Richmond woman said. Churches, hotels, warehouses, barns, and even homes throughout the South were turned into temporary hospitals, and hundreds of women were pressed into service as nurses.


Maryland Women in the Civil War

Many Maryland women made significant contributions to the Union war effort. As a border state having both slaves and free African American women, Maryland was divided in sentiment between the Union and the Confederacy. The most famous conductor on the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman was also an escaped slave from Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

Harriet Tubman also served as a Union nurse and spy, and she was the first woman to lead an armed expedition. In June 1863, she guided three steamboats around Confederate mines in the waters surrounding Port Royal, South Carolina in the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves.

Anna Ella Carroll played a significant role as advisor to President Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet during the war. After a reconnaissance mission, Carroll advised the War Department that they change their invasion route from the Mississippi to the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers, resulting in the surrender of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson in February 1862, the first important victories in the Western Theater.

Unsung Heroes of Maryland
Women who lived in Maryland had unique perspectives on the Civil War. Maryland represented a microcosm of the national conflict. Maryland women in the Civil War witnessed troop movements, cavalry raids and battles in their towns which were more typical of a Confederate state, but they also had a shared experience with women in those states that remained in the Union.

Most women’s lives were centered around the household and family. However, social changes initiated by the war offered women the opportunity to take leadership roles at home while their husbands and fathers were away. They became more involved in public arenas such as politics and social welfare. More affluent women also engaged in voluntary activities on the home front that proved vital to both sides. They formed aid societies to provide soldiers with clothing and other supplies

An Appeal for Peace was a broadside (poster) from the “Women of Maryland” to Union army General-in-Chief Winfield Scott, dated July 4, 1861 it was a plea to end the conflict before much bloodshed occurred. Ironically, this appeal was dated the same day President Lincoln secured a twenty five percent Congressional increase in both funding and troop levels in support of the Union cause.

Though they “claim, to know no distinction in party broils,” the “Women of Maryland” who authored this broadside displayed clear Confederate sympathies in their appeal. By exalting the “good and noble” Confederate General Robert E. Lee, as well as P.G.T. Beauregard and Joseph E. Johnston, the “Women of Maryland” championed peace as a way to preserve states’ rights and to uphold a non-coercion policy for those states that wished to secede.

Jennie and Hettie Cary
In April 1861, Maryland native John Ryder Randall read the news about the riots in Baltimore, the first blood shed in the Civil War. A secessionist living in Louisiana, Randall wrote a poem in support of Maryland and the Confederacy. My Maryland was published in several newspapers, and Baltimore society sisters Jennie and Hetty Cary decided to set Randall’s poem to music.

The sisters chose the tune O Tannenbaum and slightly modified the wording of the poem. Their song, Maryland, My Maryland quickly became a rallying cry for Marylanders and Confederates alike. The Cary sisters, however, are not named on the original sheet music and neither is Randall. This omission could have had less to do with gender issues, and more to do with the precarious position of secessionists in Maryland, for whom anonymity meant greater safety.

Before the war, women composers went largely unacknowledged and female authorship was indicated on music covers as merely by A Lady. During and after the war, women emerged as composers, singers and arrangers of popular music. Women who wished to contribute to the war effort and demonstrate their patriotism found an opportunity to do so by printing their names on their compositions.

Angela Kirkham Davis
Author Angela Kirkham Davis lived in Funkstown, Maryland, near Boonsboro. She wrote War Reminiscences: A Letter to My Nieces, which describes her experiences during and after the Battle at Antietam, which took place not far from her home. She relates the tensions as well as the friendships between the “Secessionists” and the “Yankees” in her town and the divisions that took place within families and among friends.

Davis describes the Union encampments she visited, the phenomena of Union soldiers marching through her town, and the influx of freed slaves from Virginia. Angela Kirkham Davis’ narrative of her personal experiences of the horrors of war and the effect it had on the citizen population expresses the cruel reality of war in a border state that supported both sides.

Frederick, Maryland was occupied by General Robert E. Lee‘s forces in early September 1862, and the Confederates flooded through town. On September 16, General George B. McClellan confronted Lee near Sharpsburg, defending a line to the west of Antietam Creek. At dawn on September 17, General Joseph Hooker‘s I Corps mounted a powerful assault on Lee’s left flank that began the bloody Battle of Antietam.

Attacks and counterattacks swept across the Miller Cornfield and the woods near the Dunker Church. At a crucial moment, General A.P. Hill‘s division arrived from Harpers Ferry and counterattacked, saving Lee’s army from destruction. Although outnumbered two to one, Lee committed his entire force, while McClellan sent in only four of his six available corps. This enabled Lee to shift brigades across the battlefield and counter each individual Union assault, but he was ultimately defeated.

The Battle of Antietam was the single bloodiest day of the Civil War, claiming the lives of more than 23,000 soldiers killed, wounded or missing in action. After the fighting was over, Angela Davis took food to the battlefield, where she comforted the wounded and dying. Although a Union supporter, Davis provided water for Confederate as well as Union troops. When asked why, she replied, “Because our Heavenly Father taught us to give a cup of cold water, even to our enemies.”

Mary Quantrell – Not Barbara Fritchie
In 1863, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the poem Barbara Fritchie about a woman’s courageous act of flying the Union flag from her attic window above of the heads of Confederate soldiers as they marched through Frederick, Maryland en route to the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. Although ninety-six-year-old Barbara Fritchie was living in Frederick at the time, she was not the one who defiantly displayed the Union flag to antagonize General Stonewall Jackson, as the legend goes.

This is an excerpt from Barbara Fritchie:

“Shoot, if you must, this old gray head,
But spare your country’s flag,” she said.
A shade of sadness, a blush of shame,
Over the face of the leader came
The nobler nature within him stirred
To life at that woman’s deed and word
“Who touches a hair of yon gray head
Dies like a dog! March on!” he said…..

No firsthand account speaks of Fritchie being seen in public that day in fact, she might have been bedridden. Fritchie’s strong Unionist views were never in doubt, however. She freely expressed her strong and unyielding support for the Union throughout the conflict. It is known that Barbara Fritchie stood outside her home and cheered on McClellan’s forces as they marched through Frederick a few days later.

According to eyewitnesses accounts, the brave flag-waver was Fritchie’s neighbor Mary Quantrell. In her late 30s at the time, Quantrell held up the Stars and Stripes on her porch while Confederate soldiers tramped down Patrick Street, according to seven witnesses cited in a book by a Frederick resident who respected Fritchie but wanted the truth to be told. Quantrell also had a verbal altercation with a Confederate officer, who was probably General A.P. Hill.

Virtually no one remembers Mary Quantrell because Fritchie was the one immortalized a year after the event by John Greenleaf Whittier. Disputes about the poem’s veracity arose almost immediately after it was published. Whittier was apparently misled by third-hand information he received from a fellow writer in Washington, DC.

Both Fritchie and General Jackson had died before the poem was written and were not available to set the record straight. True or not, Whittier’s poem became famous, and spawned books, plays, musicals, films and souvenirs of all types. His papers at Swarthmore College include an 1876 letter from Quantrell pleading with him to correct the record.

When Mary Quantrell died in 1879, both major Frederick newspapers identified her as the genuine inspiration for the ballad.

Sabers and Roses Ball
Early in September 1862, while General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia rested near Frederick, Maryland, Lee’s cavalry chief General J.E.B. Stuart occupied Urbana, Maryland to report on any Federal advance from Washington, DC. Stuart received a warm welcome from the community of Urbana, and with his usual flair decided his hard fighting horsemen needed a break from the war.

On September 8, 1862, General Suart hosted a dance at Landon House in Urbana for Confederate cavalrymen and the women of Urbana. The house was decorated with the cavalry’s regimental flags and the ballroom was adorned with roses clipped from nearby gardens. Southern belles from miles around dressed in their finest gowns, and the 18th Mississippi Cavalry regimental band provided the music.

During the ball, news arrived that Union soldiers were close by and on their way to Urbana. The Confederate horsemen rode off into the night. After learning that the 1st North Carolina Infantry had repulsed the Northern forces, they quickly returned and the dance that has come to be known as the Sabers and Roses Ball resumed.

During the Maryland Campaign, Landon House was converted into a field hospital where wounded and dying soldiers who were retreating to Virginia received care. It was likely at this time that so called “lightning sketches” of CSA President Jefferson Davis and General Stuart were drawn in charcoal by Rebel troops on a wall over one of the fireplace mantles.

Shortly thereafter, Federal troops also used Landon House as a hospital and seeing the drawings made by the Confederate troops, the Union soldiers added an even larger image of President Abraham Lincoln and signed and dated it September 16, 1862. These drawings are still visible on the walls of the house today.

Advancements for Women
The Civil War empowered some Maryland women to step outside of their traditional nineteenth-century gender roles. However, women’s involvement in the War did not cause a major shift in woman’s sphere, and gender roles remained largely unchanged immediately after the war. Although women had successfully held leadership positions in businesses or in hospitals, many women were forced to relinquish these roles to men who returned from the battlefield.

Most towns and communities in Maryland had formed relief societies or associations during, and women had taken the opportunity to learn organizational and management skills that would stand them in good stead after the war. In Frederick, fifty women established the Ladies’ Relief Association to obtain supplies needed to aid sick soldiers, and the women then made daily visits to hospitals to distribute the food, clothing, blankets and medical supplies.

After the war, some women used their war experiences to organize women’s associations in order to initiate social reforms. However, most women continued to be tied to the home and family, and without the right to vote or hold property, were considered second-class citizens. African American women had gained their freedom, but not much else. It would be decades before larger strides were made.


Amazing Women in the American Civil War

The role of women in the US Civil War has historically been understated. But, from nurses to spies and even those who disguised themselves as men to join the army, women played key roles. Ashley Goss explains.

Frances Clayton, a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union Army in the US Civil War.

There’s this misconception that the American Civil War was a man’s fight when in reality hundreds of women worked on the front lines of the war as healthcare providers, in espionage and the fight itself. Most men of the era wrote about women helping from the home front and many movies portray plantation women during the war. However, women did far more than just send food and clothing to the front lines. Not only did women have an active role in the Civil War, their efforts had a lasting impact on America as a whole. Nurses like Clara Barton and Ada W. Bacot traveled miles away from home to care for wounded soldiers. Spies like Harriet Tubman and Elizabeth Van Lew snuck behind enemy lines to smuggle information and even people back home. Most astonishingly, women like Frances Clayton, Sarah Edmonds, Marian McKenzie and hundreds more disguised themselves as men and fought on the front lines. However, not many discuss or even know about these brave women and the influence their service had on the Women’s Suffrage movement. Nurses, spies and soldiers changed the course of the Civil War and the ideas of womanhood.

The Cult of Domesticity

During the 1800s many Americans believed in the Cult of Domesticity. The Cult of Domesticity was essentially a guideline to how women should behave, and in turn, traits that men should avoid. Women were expected to follow four cardinal virtues piety, purity, submission and domesticity. ‘True women’ were delicate, soft and weak, did not engage in strenuous physical activity, and were the center of the family and home. Femininity also required a woman to seek a masculine working man while rejecting the values that work entailed, and the reverse was true for men. If any ‘respectable’ woman went against these rules, they were usually shunned and criticized. According to Catherine Beecher:

“Woman is to win everything by peace and love by making herself so much respected, esteemed and loved… But the moment woman begins to feel the promptings of ambition, or the thirst for power, her aegis of defense is gone. All the sacred protection of religion, all the generous promptings of chivalry, all the poetry of romantic gallantry, depend upon woman’s retaining her place as dependent and defenseless, and making no claims, and maintaining no right but what are the gifts of honor, rectitude and love” (Grimke, 2020).

However, with the Civil War the idea of women staying in the home and being dependent on a husband started to change. Women were meant to be the moral center of the home and take care of their families. As more and more men were sent to the front, these barriers began to stretch outwards. The definition of home became debatable moving from the house to the community, to the county, and eventually the country. Women started off by sending clothing and raising money for supplies. Plenty of women helped at home but many found that they needed to do more to help their men.

Nurses played a vital role in assisting the army and helping them to continue the fight. Before the Civil War only men were allowed to be professional practicing nurses. Women were expected to be nurturing but not trained to handle a life-or-death situation, and certainly not paid for it. When the war started an adequate medical force was not a high priority for southern politicians because they thought the war would only last six months. As the war continued though and both sides needed more men to fight, women were integrated into nursing programs around the country. Most female nurses were treated more like housekeepers by the doctors and male nurses and not professionals, instead preparing food and keeping the soldiers’ company. According to Dorothea Dix a “respectable nurse” was over thirty, plain looking and refrained from wearing jewelry and hoop skirts (D’Antonio, 2002). However, as the body count kept rising these women started being treated as professional nurses and less like housekeepers. Even though it was jarring, women were ready for the challenge. After working hard for their new found independence and station it was hard for many women to return to their old submissive ways.

One woman who left home to become a nurse is Ada W. Bacot. Ada was an upper-class woman from South Carolina whose father was a plantation owner and a slaveholder. At the outbreak of the war all of Ada’s brothers saw some capacity of military service and her second husband was killed in a skirmish in Dandridge, Tennessee. When her first husband and two daughters died, all she wanted to do was serve her country. She applied for both a local and out of state nursing program but when she never received an offer, she went ahead to Virginia anyway to help at the South Carolina Association Hospital there. Like many nurses she found the hospital to be unhygienic and her role was very restricted. Ada’s job originally consisted of food preparation, laundry and reading the Bible to the men. However, as the wounded piled up and she became more acquainted with gruesome injuries, her role as a nurse was taken more seriously. She was now able to help more with injuries and had more of a say in the cleanliness of the hospital and her confidence grew along with her workload. In Ada’s own words, “tis gratification to be able to do anything for the poor men, they are so grateful. One man begged me to sit awhile with him he was so lonely” (Bacot, 1990). Now even though her drive to become a nurse had no feminist intent behind it, and she even believed in the Cult of Domesticity, by the end of the war Ada was financially independent, owned her own plantation and ran it herself. Even someone who fit most of the criteria for a ‘true woman’, Ada did not want to be dependent on or owe anyone anything.

Female spies also played a key role in the Civil War, helping with strategy, armory and even freeing slaves. Women were actually preferred over men in the first few years of the war because they were not searched as thoroughly as men. Those who crossed enemy lines hid arms, medicine, and other crucial material in hoop skirts, parasols, and corsets. Messages would also be written on buttons, silk, tissue and commonplace letters in imperceptible ink. Many female spies have been credited with helping in crucial battles. At the First Battle of Bull Run, Rose Greenhow channeled important information on timing, troop strength, and last-minute strategic decisions to Confederate generals. Belle Boyd became famous after she rushed across the battlefield to give Stonewall Jackson information on the Union troops he was about to attack. This job also required constant shifts in identity, and clearly required leaving home, and these women represented a slow rejection of any traditionally established set of values for women. In taking on the roles of men, these women challenged gender norms in the mid-nineteenth century.

One woman who volunteered her services to the war was Elizabeth Van Lew . Shortly after marrying, her mother Eliza, her father John moved them from Philadelphia to Richmond, Virginia and they integrated into Richmond’s high society. Despite her father owning about a dozen slaves, Elizabeth had a Quaker education in Philadelphia, so she was a staunch abolitionist and Unionist. After her father’s death Elizabeth and Eliza freed all of his slaves and even sold land to some of them cheaply. When the war broke out both Elizabeth and Eliza sided with the Union but made sure that those around them believed otherwise. They were able to convince General John Winder to allow them to help the Union soldiers in Libby Prison under the guise of female benevolence. They used this position to pass messages to and from prisoners and even helped some to escape. Eventually Elizabeth had several confidantes working inside and outside the prison to help with prison breaks and used her wealth and family mansion to hide and take care of escapees. In December of 1863 General Benjamin Butler heard about Elizabeth’s work and recruited her as a spy for the Union Army. By the end of the war Elizabeth amassed her own spy network of twelve people, employing both White and Black spies. During reconstruction President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Elizabeth the Postmaster General of Richmond. As Postmaster she used the office to promote women’s suffrage. However, many were not okay with a woman in political office, so as soon as Grant was out of office Elizabeth was replaced. She died in Richmond on September 25, 1900 at the age of ninety-two. Unfortunately, by the end of her life, Elizabeth “had spent much of her family’s fortune on behalf of Union soldiers and civilians, and ruined her family name in the eyes of her Richmond neighbors” by acting as a spy for the Union (Varon, 2005). Also, as good as she was, Elizabeth hated being labeled as a spy because it had negative connotations. In a letter to a friend she said, “I do not know how they can call me a spy serving my own country within its recognized borders…[for] my loyalty am I to be branded as a spy-by my own country, for which I was willing to lay down my life? Is that honorable or honest?” (Varon, 2005).

Disguised as men

The last and most radical group were women who disguised themselves as men to fight alongside their husbands and brothers. Many women in the North and South wanted to help in the war effort but felt their gender limited them several stating “if only I was a man” in letters and diaries (Clinton, 1993). Some took the initiative to change that limiting factor by cutting off their hair, changing their name and enlisting. There are records of at least 250 women who served in the Union and Confederate armies, most of their names being lost to history. It was relatively easy to fool a regiment many of the recruits were very young so it was common to see soldiers with no facial hair and a high-pitched voice. The uniform was also so oversized it easily hid a woman’s curves. Just like the men, these women also lived-in germ-infested camps, languished in appalling prisons, and died miserable but honorable deaths for their country. Both sides were aware that women were joining and although they did not really condone it, it was also hard to regulate. One Union soldier after the Battle of Reachtree Creek wrote to his wife about a wounded female rebel and said, “I hope our women will never be so foolish as to go to war or get to fighting” (Dunn, 1864). He must have been disappointed later.

One woman who not only served in the army in disguise but also served as a nurse and a spy to some degree was Sarah Edmonds . She was born Sarah Emma Edmondson but after suffering years of abuse from her father Sarah ran away and changed her last name to Edmonds. She was still worried her father might find her though, so to keep that from happening and to find a job she disguised herself as a man and changed her name to Franklin Thompson, getting a job as a Bible salesman in Hartford, Connecticut. When the war broke out Sarah was living in Michigan and being an ardent Unionist, she enlisted as a three-year recruit to the Second Michigan Infantry in 1861. She participated in the Seven Days Battle, the Battle of Williamsburg, the Second Battle of Bull Run, the Battle of Antietam, and the Battle of Fredericksburg. In fact, at the Battle of Fredericksburg she served as orderly to General Orlando M. Poe. During the battle she spent at least twelve uninterrupted hours riding back and forth under fire delivering messages between headquarters and the front. Throughout her service she acted as a foot soldier, a nurse, an orderly, a mail carrier and, according to her memoirs, a spy. She accepted every task with exceptional courage. Even twenty years later General Poe claimed that no one in the regiment had suspected that Thompson might have been a woman. In the spring of 1863 she contracted malaria and, out of fear of being discovered if she sought medical attention, she deserted. When the war ended, she wrote her memoirs, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, and donated the profits to various soldiers’ aid groups. Although she never gave the name of her alias out of fear of being prosecuted for deserting. Finally, in 1884, she became the first woman to be awarded a military pension.

Many of these women’s stories go untold even though their work not only helped the war effort but the Woman’s Suffrage Movement as well. Before the Civil War a woman’s place was in the private sphere (home), and a man’s was in the public sphere. However, these women tested the boundaries of the ‘private sphere’ by asserting that their influence on the home extended to where ever their family was, so if their men needed them then they should follow. These stories helped showcase what women were capable of. Clara Barton claimed that their efforts advanced the social position of women by fifty years. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony also used female front-line service as an example for why women should be equal to men who served alongside them. Ada Bacot, the most traditionally feminine of these women, even sent a letter to Stanton saying, “I am a property holder and tax payer [who] ought of right to vote and wish[es] to do so” (Varon, 2005). With their service and sacrifice these women didn’t just help their men but took the first steps toward the fight for Women’s Rights.

What do you think about the role of women in the US Civil War? Let us know below.

Now read about the role of women in the Confederacy in the US Civil War here .


African American Women in the Civil War

Susie King Taylor
Born a slave in Savannah, Georgia in 1848, Susie King Taylor was 14 years old when the Union Army attacked nearby Fort Pulaski (April 1862). Taylor fled with her uncle’s family and other blacks to St. Simons Island, Georgia, where slaves were being liberated by the army. Since most blacks were illiterate, it was soon discovered that Taylor could read and write.


Susie King Taylor

Five days after her arrival, Commodore Louis Goldsborough offered Taylor books and supplies if she would establish a school on the island. She accepted the offer and became the first black teacher to openly instruct African Americans in Georgia. By day she taught children and at night she held a class for adults.

Captain Charles Trowbridge arrived at St. Simons to gather troops for what would become the 33rd Regiment of the First South Carolina Volunteers, which included former slaves from Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. These were the first African American soldiers in the Union army, and they continued to serve until they were disbanded January 31, 1866.

When Trowbridge and the Volunteers left St. Simon’s Island, Taylor was allowed to accompany them. Initially taken as a laundress, her duties expanded to include clerical work and nursing. For the next few years, she assisted the troops as they traveled and battled throughout South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.

Taylor’s experiences as a black employee of the Union Army are recounted in her diary, published as Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33rd United States Colored Troops Late 1st S.C. Volunteers:

Finally orders were received for the boys to prepare to take Fort Gregg, each man to take 150 rounds of cartridges, canteens of water, hard-tack, and salt beef. This order was sent three days prior to starting, to allow them to be in readiness. I helped as many as I could to pack haversacks and cartridge boxes… The fourth day, about five o’clock in the afternoon, the call was sounded, and I heard the first sergeant say, “Fall in, boys, fall in, and they were not long obeying the command…

I went with them as far as the landing, and watched them until they got out of sight, and then I returned to the camp. There was no one at camp but those left on picket and a few disabled soldiers, and one woman, a friend of mine, Mary Shaw, and it was lonesome and sad, now that the boys were gone, some never to return…

About four o’clock, July 2, the charge was made. The firing could be plainly heard in camp. I hastened down to the landing and remained there until eight o’clock that morning. When the wounded arrived, or rather began to arrive, the first one brought in was Samuel Anderson of our company. He was badly wounded. Then others of our boys, some with their legs off, arm gone, foot off, and wounds of all kinds imaginable. They had to wade through creeks and marshes, as they were discovered by the enemy and shelled very badly…

My work now began. I gave my assistance to try to alleviate their sufferings. I asked the doctor at the hospital what I could get for them to eat. They wanted soup, but that I could not get but I had a few cans of condensed milk and some turtle eggs, so I thought I would try to make some custard. I had doubts as to my success, for cooking with turtle eggs was something new to me, but… the result was a very delicious custard. This I carried to the men, who enjoyed it very much.

My services were given at all times for the comfort of these men. I was on hand to assist whenever needed. I was enrolled as company laundress, but I did very little of it, because I was always busy doing other things through camp, and was employed all the time doing something for the officers and comrades.

Taylor served wherever she was needed most until the end of the war, after which she continued to teach illiterate African Americans.

In 1862, Union forces occupied the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. The white residents fled, leaving their plantations and thousands of slaves, who were then liberated by the Union Army. Port Royal and the surrounding Islands became the site of the first major attempts to aid the newly freed slaves, which was called the Port Royal Experiment.

Charlotte Forten
A young teacher and writer, Charlotte Forten (later Grimke) was a member of a well-educated family of well-to-do, free blacks in Philadelphia who were active in the abolitionist movement. Forten was one of many northern teachers who volunteered to help educate the ex-slaves and demonstrate that African Americans were capable of self-improvement.

Image: Sea Island School for Liberated Slaves
St. Helena Island, South Carolina

In this long essay Forten tells us about her teaching experiences as an African American northerner who went south to teach former slaves. The following are excerpts from that work:

In April [1863] we left Oaklands, which had always been considered a particularly unhealthy place during the summer, and came to Seaside, a plantation on another and healthier part of the island. The place contains nearly a hundred people. The house is large and comparatively comfortable…

On this, as on several other large plantations, there is a Praise-House, which is the special property of the people. Even in the old days of Slavery, they were allowed to hold meetings here and they still keep up the custom. They assemble on several nights of the week, and on Sunday afternoons. First, they hold what is called the Praise-Meeting, which consists of singing, praying, and preaching… At the close of the Praise-Meeting they all shake hands with each other in the most solemn manner. Afterward, as a kind of appendix, they have a grand “shout,” during which they sing their own hymns…

Notwithstanding the heat, we determined to celebrate the Fourth of July as worthily as we could. The freed people and the children of the different schools assembled in the grove near the Baptist Church The flag was hung across the road, between two magnificent live-oaks, and the children, being grouped under it, sang The Star-Spangled Banner with much spirit…

Among the visitors present was the noble young Colonel Shaw [Robert Gould Shaw, commander of the 54th Massachusetts, the first unit of black soldiers to be raised in the North] whose regiment was then stationed on the island. We had met him a few nights before, when he came to our house to witness one of the people’s shouts. We looked upon him with the deepest interest. There was something in his face finer, more exquisite, than one often sees in a man’s face, yet it was full of courage and decision…

A few days afterwards we saw his regiment on dress-parade, and admired its remarkably fine and manly appearance. After taking supper with the Colonel we sat outside the tent, while some of his men entertained us with excellent singing. Every moment we became more and more charmed with him. How full of life and hope and lofty aspirations he was that night! How eagerly he expressed his wish that they might soon be ordered to Charleston! “I do hope they will give us a chance,” he said…

We never saw him afterward. In two short weeks came the terrible massacre at Fort Wagner, and the beautiful head of the young hero and martyr [Shaw] was laid low in the dust. Never shall we forget the heart-sickness with which we heard of his death. We could not realize it at first, we who had seen him so lately in all the strength and glory of his young manhood. For days we clung to a vain hope then it fell away from us, and we knew that he was gone. We knew that he died gloriously, but still it seemed very hard. Our hearts bled for the mother whom he so loved,–for the young wife, left desolate…

During a few of the sad days which followed the attack on Fort Wagner, I was in one of the hospitals of Beaufort, occupied with the wounded soldiers of the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts. The first morning was spent in mending the bullet-holes and rents in their clothing. What a story they told! Some of the jackets of the poor fellows were literally cut in pieces. It was pleasant to see the brave, cheerful spirit among them.

Some of them were severely wounded, but they uttered no complaint and in the letters which they dictated to their absent friends there was no word of regret, but the same cheerful tone throughout. They expressed an eager desire to get well, that they might “go at it again.” Their attachment to their young colonel was beautiful to see. They felt his death deeply…

The physical and emotional stress took its toll on Charlotte’s slender frame, and she began to experience periods of ill health and terrible headaches she was forced to leave St. Helena and return to Philadelphia in 1864. After the Civil War, she worked with the Freedmen’s Relief Association in Boston to help former slaves find jobs and homes. In the late 1860s and 1870s, she worked for the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, DC.

During the Civil War, black women’s services included nursing or domestic chores in medical settings, laundering and cooking for the soldiers. As the Union Army marched through the South and large numbers of freed black men enlisted, their female family members often obtained employment with the unit. The Union Army also paid black women to raise cotton on plantations for the northern government to sell.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
Born free in Baltimore, Maryland, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper‘s family sold their home and fled to Canada when the racial climate in Maryland became increasingly hostile after the passage of the Compromise of 1850. Frances chose to move to Ohio, where she became the first woman instructor at the African Methodist Episcopal Union Seminary (now Wilberforce University) near Columbus, where she taught domestic science.

Image: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

In 1855, Harper moved to Philadelphia and joined William Still, Chairman of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, in helping escaped slaves travel the Underground Railroad on their way to Canada. Leaders of the Philadelphia Underground Railroad refused to make Harper an agent because she was a woman, but she collected donations and forged friendships with Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman.

In support of the Free Produce movement which encouraged the boycott of products tied to slave labor, Harper asked, “Could slavery exist long if it did not sit on a commercial throne?” She argued that as long as people constantly demanded rice from the swamps, cotton from the plantations and sugar from the mills, their moral influence against slavery would be weakened and their testimony diluted.

This remarkable self-educated woman was referred to as the Brown Muse, and described as “a petite, dignified woman whose sharp black eyes and attractive face reveal her sensitive nature.” After emancipation, she wrote and lectured to ensure the equal rights of the newly-freed
slaves and continued her work to gain greater acceptance for all women as equals to men.

In 1893, Harper – with colleagues Fannie Barrier Williams, Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Jackson Coppin, Sarah J Earley, and Hallie Quinn Brown – charged the international gathering of women at the World’s Congress of Representative Women in Chicago with indifference to the needs and concerns of African American women. As a result, she was active in the establishment of the National Association of Colored Women and became its vice president.

Excerpts from “Liberty For Slaves,” a speech given by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper in 1857:

Could we trace the record of every human heart, the aspirations of every immortal soul, perhaps we would find no man so imbruted and degraded that we could not trace the word liberty either written in living characters upon the soul or hidden away in some nook or corner of the heart. The law of liberty is the law of God, and is antecedent to all human legislation. It existed in the mind of Deity when He hung the first world upon its orbit and gave it liberty to gather light from the central sun…

Slavery is mean, because it tramples on the feeble and weak. A man comes with his affidavits from the South and hurries me before a commissioner upon that evidence ex parte and alone he hitches me to the car of slavery and trails my womanhood in the dust. I stand at the threshold of the Supreme Court and ask for justice, simple justice. Upon my tortured heart is thrown the mocking words, “You are a negro you have no rights which white men are bound to respect”!

As Union armies occupied Confederate states in the South, liberating more and more slaves, authorities began to employ these laborers for Federal benefit. Government officials placed women, children and men who were unfit for military service to work on abandoned plantations to raise cotton and food crops.

Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin
An African American publisher, journalist and suffragist, Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin was also editor of Women’s Era, the first newspaper published by and for black women. Ruffin was born August 31, 1842 into one of Boston’s leading black families. In 1858, at the age of 15, she married George Lewis Ruffin. They bought a house on Boston’s Beacon Hill and became active in the anti-slavery movement.

During the Civil War, Ruffin helped recruit African American soldiers for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments in the Union Army and worked for the United States Sanitary Commission. She also served on the Board of the Massachusetts Moral Education Association and the Massachusetts School Suffrage Association, working closely with other New England women leaders, including Julia Ward Howe and Lucy Stone.

Image: Josephine St. Pierre Ruffin

Some of Ruffin’s greatest contributions came after the war, when her philanthropic work brought her in contact with many eminent white and black leaders, and her close friends included Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Booker T. Washington.

She is best known for her leadership role in establishing clubs for African American women. In 1894 Ruffin founded the Women’s Era Club, one the first African American women’s clubs. In 1895, she and women from other national groups organized the National Federation of Afro-American Women. Its mission was to draw attention to the existence of a large number of educated, cultured African-American women. At its founding meeting Ruffin said:

We are women, American women, as intensely interested in all that pertains to us as such as all other American women we are not alienating or withdrawing, we are only coming to the front, willing to join any others in the same work and welcoming any others to join us.

In 1896 this group and the Colored Women’s League of Washington merged, becoming the National Association of Colored Women. Ruffin was elected its first vice-president, and she remained an active participant in that group throughout her life. Ruffin was also involved in the founding of the Boston branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

African American women saw the Civil War as an opportunity to fight oppression and end slavery. They also contributed to the war effort in various ways: as organizers, activists, nurses, cooks, camp workers and occasionally as spies. They worked in hospitals in the North and in the South many of the nurses in the South were, in fact, African American women. Undoubtedly there are thousands whose names we will never know.


The Civil War cross-dressers: the women who swapped dresses for breeches

King Charles I forbade it. The Bible declared it an abomination. But that didn’t stop women joining the armies of king and parliament dressed in men’s clothes. Mark Stoyle tells the stories of the people who swapped dresses for breeches in the Civil War

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Published: July 11, 2019 at 7:00 am

Soldiers’ lovers: the unmasking of a “poore loving wench”

During the 1640s England was torn apart by a terrible Civil War fought between the reigning monarch, Charles I, and his enemies in parliament. The conflict saw thousands of lives turned upside down, and one of the most intriguing consequences of this social dislocation was that a number of women ventured into the field alongside the soldiers of king and parliament while cross-dressed as men – despite the fact that transvestitism is explicitly condemned in the Bible.

Some women donned masculine attire not to fight but in order to accompany their male partners while they were away at war. This was true of a certain Nan Ball, “a poore loving wench” who was “taken in man’s cloathes” in the royalist camp near York in 1642. Ball had, it appears, been waiting upon “her beloved”, an unnamed lieutenant in the king’s service.

Once her cover had been blown as the result of “a foolish accident” – the nature of which is, sadly, left unspecified – Nan was brought before the Earl of Lindsey, who was then governing the king’s camp in the temporary absence of Charles. Lindsey questioned the lieutenant and his cross-dressed consort, and – having satisfied himself that the lovers had indeed conspired in a sartorial deception – punished the lieutenant by dismissing him from his command. As for Ball, she was to be exposed to “publique shame”, either by being whipped or placed in the pillory, two punishments that were frequently handed out to “moral offenders”.

In the end, more merciful counsels prevailed, and a “letter was procured for… [Ball’s] reprieve”. As a result, rather than being forced to undergo harsh punishment, this ‘outed’ female cross-dresser was banished from the royalist camp and, in the words of the sympathetic writer who recorded the story, “turn’d [away] to seek her fortune”.

Prostitution: dressing as men for sex or convenience?

How many women dressed as men during the Civil War? We’ll never know for sure. But what is certain is that, by the summer of 1643, Charles I had become so concerned about the phenomenon that, in a draft proclamation designed to regulate the conduct of the forces under his command, he included a directive specifically forbidding that practice. “Because the confounding of habites appertaining to both sexes… is a thing which nature and religion forbid and our soule abhors,” the king wrote, “[and] yet the prostitute impudency of some women have thus conversed in our army, therefore let no women presume to counterfeit her sex by wearing man’s apparall, under payne of the severest punishment.”

Charles’s claim that it was a sense of “prostitute impudency” that led some of the women in his camp to adopt male “habites”, suggests the king regarded female cross-dressing primarily as a cover for the sale of sex. It’s true that a few of the female camp-followers who accompanied the royalist army may indeed have swapped their dresses for breeches in order to make it easier for them to ply their trade as prostitutes. However, it seems probable that most of the women who adopted male attire would have done so for reasons of simple convenience: it made it easier for them to stride alongside their menfolk as they marched across the country on campaign.

Travellers: sniffing out secrets on parliament’s highways

Not all of the women who cross-dressed during the Civil War did so as a means of following loved ones into the rival armies. Others clearly donned male garb in the hope of passing unnoticed through a countryside in which law and order had all but broken down, and in which travel had become extremely hazardous for lone women.

There are several instances of such travellers being unmasked on the highway during the conflict. In 1644, a group of parliamentarian soldiers manning a “court of guard”, or military checkpoint, in Hyde Park, apprehended a young woman of 16 or 17 from Gloucestershire as she attempted to pass through their guard while dressed as a boy. The unfortunate traveller was suspected of being a royalist spy bent on sniffing out secrets in London.

As to her fate, we can’t be sure, although she may well have been despatched to the nearest prison, as those detected in the act of cross-dressing during the 1640s frequently were.

Female warriors: cross-dressing in the name of God

Perhaps the most unusual and fascinating of all the women who dressed as men during the Civil War were those who “counterfeited their sex” because they wanted to serve as soldiers themselves.

There is good evidence to show that a handful of exceptional women fought in the rival armies. A “woman corporall” was among the royalist prisoners captured when parliamentarian forces took Shelford Church in Nottinghamshire in 1645. And long after the conflict was over, a Cheshire man of royalist sympathies expressed his distaste for the fact that one of his neighbours, a certain Katherine Dale, had allegedly served as a parliamentarian trooper during the Civil Wars. “If Kate Dale… had ridden as a trooper for the king,” he remarked, sniffily, “it had bin gallant in her… but rideinge for the Rebells… it was a most base thing.”

If these two women did, indeed, serve as soldiers, they would surely have done so in male attire. And the same was evidently true of the parliamentarian trooper at Evesham, who in 1645 aroused the suspicions of a local tailor by ordering him to make “a petticoat… for my sister, which is just of my stature every way”.

The tailor was convinced that the petticoat was intended for the soldier himself, rather than his ‘sister’, and so informed the authorities. According to the contemporary pamphleteer who related the story, “this young man was sent for… and being examined… [admitted] he was indeed a female, and… that herself and three more sufficient men’s daughters came out of Shropshire when the king’s forces commanded there, and to get away, came disguised in that manner, and resolved to serve in the warre for the cause of God”.

More evidence of female fighters dressing in men’s clothes can be found in the financial accounts of the chamberlains of Worcester. Among those accounts is a note of a payment made in 1649 “to a messenger to carry a letter… concerning the woman that cam[e] disguised in mans app[ar]ell in the name of a souldier”. Presumably Worcester’s local governors were appealing to someone in higher authority for advice as to how to deal with the unsettling male impersonator who had recently been discovered in their midst.

How many other cross-dressed women like these may have served, unrecognised, in the armies of king and parliament? Sadly, we will never know.

Mark Stoyle is professor of early modern history at the University of Southampton. You can read his essay ‘Give Mee a Souldier’s Coat: Female Cross-Dressing During the English Civil War’ in the journal History (volume 103, issue 358).


Women Soldiers of the Civil War

It is an accepted convention that the Civil War was a man's fight. Images of women during that conflict center on self-sacrificing nurses, romantic spies, or brave ladies maintaining the home front in the absence of their men. The men, of course, marched off to war, lived in germ-ridden camps, engaged in heinous battle, languished in appalling prison camps, and died horribly, yet heroically. This conventional picture of gender roles during the Civil War does not tell the entire story. Men were not the only ones to fight that war. Women bore arms and charged into battle, too. Like the men, there were women who lived in camp, suffered in prisons, and died for their respective causes.

Both the Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women. Women soldiers of the Civil War therefore assumed masculine names, disguised themselves as men, and hid the fact they were female. Because they passed as men, it is impossible to know with any certainty how many women soldiers served in the Civil War. Estimates place as many as 250 women in the ranks of the Confederate army.(1) Writing in 1888, Mary Livermore of the U.S. Sanitary Commission remembered that:

Livermore and the soldiers in the Union army were not the only ones who knew of soldier-women. Ordinary citizens heard of them, too. Mary Owens, discovered to be a woman after she was wounded in the arm, returned to her Pennsylvania home to a warm reception and press coverage. She had served for eighteen months under the alias John Evans.(3)

In the post - Civil War era, the topic of women soldiers continued to arise in both literature and the press. Frank Moore's Women of the War, published in 1866, devoted an entire chapter to the military heroines of the North. A year later, L. P. Brockett and Mary Vaughan mentioned ladies "who from whatever cause . . . donned the male attire and concealed their sex . . . [who] did not seek to be known as women, but preferred to pass for men."(4) Loreta Velazquez published her memoirs in 1876. She served the Confederacy as Lt. Harry Buford, a self-financed soldier not officially attached to any regiment.

The existence of soldier-women was no secret during or after the Civil War. The reading public, at least, was well aware that these women rejected Victorian social constraints confining them to the domestic sphere. Their motives were open to speculation, perhaps, but not their actions, as numerous newspaper stories and obituaries of women soldiers testified.

Most of the articles provided few specific details about the individual woman's army career. For example, the obituary of Satronia Smith Hunt merely stated she enlisted in an Iowa regiment with her first husband. He died of battle wounds, but she apparently emerged from the war unscathed.(5) An 1896 story about Mary Stevens Jenkins, who died in 1881, tells an equally brief tale. She enlisted in a Pennsylvania regiment when still a schoolgirl, remained in the army two years, received several wounds, and was discharged without anyone ever realizing she was female.(6) The press seemed unconcerned about the women's actual military exploits. Rather, the fascination lay in the simple fact that they had been in the army.


At camp, "barracks favorites" were available. These were inexpensive novels of a sexual nature. Photographs of nudity were available as well, and were purchased by both enlisted men and officers. These twelve by fifteen inch pictures cost $1.20 for a dozen, or ten cents for a single picture. These were usually pictures of nude women doing innocent things nude women that were engaging in actual sexual activity were usually not white, but either black or Native American. With the soldiers being far away from their wives and sweethearts, it is speculated these were used for masturbation, and not just for entertainment. [1] Only three of the novels are still known to exist they are located at the Kinsey Institute of Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana. [2]

However, this is not to say females were not available for sex. Prostitutes were among the camp followers following behind marching troops. Popular legend has it that they were so common around the Army of the Potomac when Union general Joseph Hooker was in command that the term "hooker" was coined to describe them however, the term had been in use since 1845. The number of prostitutes around Hooker's division only "cemented" the term. [3]

This led to many cases of venereal disease. Among white Union soldiers there was a total of 73,382 syphilis cases and 109,397 gonorrhea cases. The total rate of VD among the white Union troops was 82 cases per 1000 men, where before and after the war the rate was 87 of 1000. Union black troops, however, had rates of 34 per 1000 for syphilis and 44 per 1000 for gonorrhea. [4] Cases were most prominent around larger cities like Nashville, Tennessee New Orleans Richmond, Virginia and Washington, D.C. Numbers for Confederates are unknown, but are assumed to be less, due to Confederate soldiers being less likely to be in cities. [5]

Prostitution experienced its largest growth during 1861–1865. Some historians have speculated that this growth can be attributed to a depression, and the need for women to support themselves and their families while their husbands were away at war. Other historians considered the growth of prostitution to be related to the women wanting to spread venereal disease to the opposing troops. [6] The term "public women" was coined for the women that became prostitutes. There was moral outrage at this rising employment, and law officials classified the people they arrested as such. [7] The word "hooker" predates the Civil War, but became popularized due to Union General Joseph Hooker's reputation of consorting with prostitutes. [8] After the outbreak of war, the number of brothels skyrocketed. "In 1864 there were 450 brothels in Washington, and over 75 brothels in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. A newspaper estimated there were 5000 public women in the District and another 2500 in Alexandria and Georgetown, bringing the total to 7500 by the war's third year". [9] However, it was the towns located just outside the camps where prostitution was most prominent. These small towns were overrun by the sex trade when army troops set up nearby camps. One soldier wrote home to his wife, "It is said that one house in every ten is a bawdy house—it is a perfect Sodom." [10]

The most notorious area for prostitution was in Tennessee. Before the outbreak of the war, Nashville recorded 207 prostitutes however, in 1863 reports claimed to have at least 1500 prostitutes. The area where these prostitutes could be found was known as Smokey Row. [11] In an infamous campaign to rid the city of the "public women", Lt. Col. George Spalding loaded the women on to the steamboat Idahoe. The women were sent to Louisville, where they were not allowed off the ship and sent further along to Cincinnati. Many of the women became sick due to lack of food and were forced to turn around and return to Nashville. Once they arrived back in Nashville, Lt. Col. Spalding created a system of registration similar to European ones. He inadvertently created the first legal system of prostitution. [12] This is the set of regulations he set up:

  • That a license be issued to each prostitute, a record of which was to be kept at this office, together with the number and street of her residence.
  • That one skillful surgeon be appointed as a board of examination whose duty it was to be to examine personally, every week, each licensed prostitute, giving certificate soundness to those who were healthy and ordering into hospital those who were in the slightest degree diseased.
  • That a building suitable for a hospital for the invalids was to be taken for that purpose, and that a weekly tax of fifty cents was to be levied on each prostitute for the purpose of defraying the expense of said hospital.
  • That all public women found plying their vocation without a license and certificate were to be at once arrested and incarcerated in the workhouse for a period of not less than thirty days. [13]

Prostitution experienced a large growth and spread across the North and South, and was one of the few industries to cross enemy lines throughout the duration of the war.

Union Edit

During the Civil War (1861–65), the United States Sanitary Commission, a federal civilian agency, handled most of the medical and nursing care of the Union armies, together with necessary acquisition and transportation of medical supplies. Dorothea Dix, serving as the Commission's Superintendent, was able to convince the medical corps of the value of women working in 350 Commission or Army hospitals. [14] North and South, over 20,000 women volunteered to work in hospitals, usually in nursing care. [15] They assisted surgeons during procedures, gave medicines, supervised the feedings and cleaned the bedding and clothes. They gave good cheer, wrote letters the men dictated, and comforted the dying. [16] A representative nurse was Helen L. Gilson (1835–68) of Chelsea, Massachusetts, who served in Sanitary Commission. She supervised supplies, dressed wounds, and cooked special foods for patients on a limited diet. She worked in hospitals after the battles of Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg. She was a successful administrator, especially at the hospital for black soldiers at City Point, Virginia. [17] The middle class women North and South who volunteered provided vitally needed nursing services and were rewarded with a sense of patriotism and civic duty in addition to opportunity to demonstrate their skills and gain new ones, while receiving wages and sharing the hardships of the men. [18]

Mary Livermore, [19] Mary Ann Bickerdyke, and Annie Wittenmeyer played leadership roles. [18] After the war some nurses wrote memoirs of their experiences examples include Dix, Livermore, Sarah Palmer Young, and Sarah Emma Edmonds. [20] Clara Barton (1821-1912) gained fame for her nursing work during the American Civil War. She was an energetic organizer who established the American Red Cross, which was primarily a disaster relief agency but which also supported nursing programs. [21]

Confederate nurses Edit

Several thousand women were just as active in nursing in the Confederacy, but were less well organized and faced severe shortages of supplies and a much weaker system of 150 hospitals. Nursing and vital support services were provided not only by matrons and nurses, but also by local volunteers, slaves, free blacks, and prisoners of war. [22] [23] [24]

Union Edit

While men were fighting, many Northern wives needed to learn how to farm and do other manual labor. Besides having to tend to the home and children while the men were away at war, women also contributed supplies. Quilts and blankets were often given to soldiers. Some had encouraging messages sewn on them. They also sent shirts, sheets, pillows, pillowcases, coats, vests, trousers, towels, handkerchiefs, socks, bandages, canned fruits, dried fruits, butter, cheese, wine, eggs, pickles, books, and magazines. [25]

Confederacy Edit

At the start southern women gave zealous support for their menfolk going off to war. They saw the men as protectors and invested heavily in the romantic idea of men fighting to defend the honor of their country, family, and way of life. [26] Mothers and wives were able to keep in contact with their loved ones who had chosen to enlist by writing them letters. African American women, on the other hand, had experienced the breakup of families for generations and were once again dealing with this issue at the outbreak of war. [27]

By summer 1861, the Union naval blockade virtually shut down the export of cotton and the import of manufactured goods. Food that formerly came overland was cut off.

Women had charge of making do. They cut back on purchases, brought out old spinning wheels and enlarged their gardens with peas and peanuts to provide clothing and food. They used ersatz substitutes when possible, but there was no real coffee and it was hard to develop a taste for the okra or chicory substitutes used. The households were severely hurt by inflation in the cost of everyday items and the shortages of food, fodder for the animals, and medical supplies for the wounded. [28] [29] The Georgia legislature imposed cotton quotas, making it a crime to grow an excess. But food shortages only worsened, especially in the towns. [30]

The overall decline in food supplies, made worse by the collapsing transportation system, led to serious shortages and high prices in urban areas. When bacon reached a dollar a pound in 1863, the poor women of Richmond, Atlanta and many other cities began to riot they broke into shops and warehouses to seize food. The women expressed their anger at ineffective state relief efforts, speculators, merchants and planters. As wives and widows of soldiers they were hurt by the inadequate welfare system. [31] [32] [33]

Upper-class plantation mistresses often had to manage the estates which the younger men had left behind, Overseers of the slaves were exempt from the draft, and usually remained on the plantations. [34] Historian Jonathan Wiener studied the census data on plantations in black-belt counties, 1850–70, and found that the War did not drastically alter the responsibilities and roles of women. The age of the groom went up as younger women married older planters, and birth rates dropped sharply during 1863-68 during Reconstruction. However he finds that plantation mistresses were not more likely to operate plantations than in earlier years, nor was there a lost generation of women without men. [35]

The number of female soldiers in the war is estimated at between 400 and 750, although an accurate count is impossible because the women had to disguise themselves as men. [36] A Union officer was once quoted regarding how a Union sergeant was "in violation of all military law" by giving birth to child, and this was not the only case where the true sex of a soldier was discovered due to childbirth. A captured Confederate officer whose true sex was previously unknown by the guards gave birth in a Union prison camp. [37]

The Civil War was generally a time of challenges to traditional gender norms, as women mobilized themselves to participate in the war effort and left the home in droves to serve as charity workers, nurses, clerks, farm laborers, and political activists. [38] Across the Confederacy, upper-class women assembled all-female home guard militias, drilling firearms usage and training to protect their plantations, properties, and neighborhoods from Union invasion. Military training became mandatory at some private girls' academies. [39] One female militia in LaGrange, Georgia—a uniquely militarily vulnerable city, poised halfway between the industrial powerhouse of Atlanta and the original Confederate capital at Montgomery, Alabama—engaged in diplomatic negotiations with the invading Union army in April 1865, using the threat of violence to obtain a promise that their city would not be ransacked. [40] As concerted a challenge to gender norms as these all-female militias would seem to pose, however, the participants were careful to otherwise keep well within gender norms, and to avoid the impression of usurping male protective roles. [41]

The most dramatic and extreme challenge to gender roles, then, came with those women who participated in the Civil War as fully enlisted combatants. Though not particularly well known today, it is estimated that there are over 1000 women who enlisted in both the Union and Confederate armies under assumed male identities. [42] The female soldiers were not operating within a vacuum, responding blindly to the stimulus of war. Unlike the members of the all-female militias, the female enlisted soldiers were drawn disproportionately from working- and lower-middle-class backgrounds—and therefore represented a radically different cultural milieu. Mid-nineteenth-century working-class culture, for example, was generally familiar—if not comfortable—with female cross-dressing, with the phenomenon being prominently featured in popular theatrical and literary pieces with mass audiences. [43]

Women had different motivations for joining the army, just as did their male counterparts. A common reason was to escape pre-arranged marriages. Sarah Edmonds, for example, left her home in maritime Canada and fled to the United States to avoid marriage—but took the ultimate protective step of dressing as a man and enlisting in the Union Army to avoid detection. [44] Loreta Janeta Velazquez, on the other hand, was driven to enlist by more personal motivations inspired by the example of Joan of Arc and other historical women warriors, she was idealistic about feminine potential on the battlefield, insisting that, "when women have rushed to the battlefield, they have invariably distinguished themselves." [45] Sarah Rosetta Wakeman had been living as a man long before the outbreak of the war, hoping to find better-paying work on the riverboats of New York rather than as a female domestic servant. She was, therefore, compelled to enlist by an economic imperative the prospect of steady pay as an enlisted soldier in the Union Army appeared to be preferable to the instability of day labor. [46] Whatever the original motivations of the individual female soldiers, however, they ultimately took part in the war on similar terms as their male brothers-in-arms.

The existence of illicit female soldiers was an open secret in both the wartime Union and Confederacy, with stories commonly shared in both soldiers' letters and newspaper articles. [47] Awareness trickled out into the general public—and civilians were fascinated by these women warriors. This curiosity is reflected in the literature of the period. Wartime romance novels idealised these women as heroines sacrificing themselves for love of country and menfolk, while Frank Moore's popular 1866 history Women and the Civil War: Their Heroism and Their Sacrifice prominently featured an entire chapter on the female soldiers of the war. [48] Although it establishes the fact that women warriors were objects of curiosity for the American public, Moore significantly softened and romanticised their experiences in order to make them more palatable to a general audience. For instance, Moore refers to one particular female soldier as an "American Joan of Arc", attempting to frame her wartime exploits within a recognisable paradigm of holy war and divine inspiration. [49]

Regardless of generally warm popular opinion, however, female soldiers actually faced significant suspicion and opposition from within the armies themselves. [50] Female soldiers were generally successful at physically disguising themselves their shorter height, higher voices, and lack of facial hair escaped comment in an army heavily dominated by adolescent boys, while their own feminine shapes could be obscured through breast-binding. [51] Recruits deemed to be of ambiguous gender, for example, were often subjected to improvised tests to check their gendered responses. One such test was to toss a soldier an apple if he held out his shirttails to catch the apple as if in an apron, he would be deemed to be a woman, and would be subject to further investigation. [52] Female soldiers who were most successful at blending into military life were those who had been presenting as male even before they had enlisted: Sarah Wakeman, for example, had been living as a man and working on canal boats in New York prior to joining the Union army, [53] while Jennie Hodgers had likewise assumed a masculine identity long before the outbreak of the war. [54]

Women who passed the scrutiny of their fellow soldiers, however, were nonetheless expected to perform to the same standard—and so female soldiers largely blended in with their male fellows-in-arms, performing the same duties with fairly minimal risk of exposure. [55] Those who were caught typically were exposed while wounded and receiving medical care in battlefront hospitals. [56] Others, however, escaped detection for the entire war, and returned home to resume their normal lives and feminine gender expression—with a few notable exceptions. Female veteran Sarah Edmonds, the runaway Canadian bride, lived under the masculine identity of Franklin Thompson for the rest of her life, and even was granted a pension for her service by Congress in 1886, [57] while Jennie Hodgers continued living as Albert Cashier before being discovered and forced back into feminine dress after having been institutionalized for dementia in 1913. [54] The participation of so many women in the Civil War, however, was an uncomfortable subject for the US Army for many decades the fact of female service was officially denied by the army until well in the twentieth century. [50]

Some soldiers engaged in acts of rape. The Confederate records were destroyed, but a perusal of only five percent of Federal records reveal that over thirty court martial trials were held due to instances of rape hanging or firing squad being the usual punishment if convicted. [58] Sometimes, offering money for sex to a white woman of good standing was considered almost tantamount to rape in the case of an Illinois private at Camp Dennison, for example, the perpetrator spent a month at the guardhouse for offering a mother a dollar and her daughter three dollars for sex. Federal troops who committed rape while invading the Southern states mostly took advantage of black rather than white women, and black soldiers were usually punished more severely for the crime than their white counterparts. [59] Even so, the fear of rape was omnipresent among white Southern women facing the prospect of invasion without male protection although specific numbers of victims are difficult to trace, the threat of sexual violence committed by Union soldiers lingered in Southern cultural memory long after the war ended. [60]

On 24 April 1863, Union President Abraham Lincoln signed the Lieber Code, which amongst other things contained one of the first explicit prohibitions on rape. [61] Paragraphs 44 and 47 of the Lieber Code contained provisions prohibiting several crimes including '(. ) all rape (. ) by an American soldier in a hostile country against its inhabitants (. ) under the penalty of death, or such other severe punishment as may seem adequate for the gravity of the offense.' [62] Thus, the only enforcement mechanisms were the military commanders themselves, having the right to execute the soldiers immediately. [61]

The term "homosexuality" was not coined until thirty years after the war ended. However, no army soldiers were disciplined for such activity, although three pairs of Union Navy sailors were punished, all in 1865. [63]

There was only one case of male prostitution reported during the war. The Richmond Dispatch reported on May 13, 1862, that since the moving of the Confederacy's capital to Richmond that "loose males of the most abandoned character from other parts of the Confederacy" had moved to Richmond and "prostitutes of both sexes" openly displayed themselves in carriages and on sidewalks. [64]

In 1864, a ball was put on by a Massachusetts regiment stationed in Virginia featuring young drummer boys dressed as women. One man wrote to his wife that he had slept with one of the "boy-girls." [65]

Scholars have tried to ascertain if certain Civil War figures were homosexual. The most notable of these was Confederate major general Patrick Cleburne, although it is still disputed. [66]

After the war, many Southern men felt their manhood diminished in a manner some historians dubbed a "crisis of gender" a crisis exacerbated after Confederate president Jefferson Davis was apprehended by Union soldiers wearing his wife's shawl for warmth. The false rumor quickly spread in the North that Davis was caught during his escape while dressed as a woman. Period drawings depicting Davis in full women's dress (bonnet included) were used to ridicule the Confederacy's former President. [67]

One thing that came from the spread of pornography during the war was the rise of anti-pornography forces in particular, the Comstock laws. [68]


Watch the video: How Southern socialites rewrote Civil War history