Women's Roles in the Civil War
Hello reader! I know I've been away for a while and haven't updated in weeks, but that's because I'm still on the journey to earning my Master's Degree in American History. I have a few days off before my third term of graduate school starts, so I thought I'd post a few entries to this blog to keep you guys on your toes and learning about this great country. One of the courses I just finished up was a course on the Civil War, which was appropriate since that's where we've been in this blog on the timeline of American history. To keep going with the Civil War, before we delve into Reconstruction as promised in the last post, I thought it would be beneficial to post about women's roles in the Civil War. This post is the bulk of my final paper for my Civil War, complete with citations of the sources I used. Enjoy!
From 1861 to 1865, a civil war ravaged the United States. The war would pit brother against brother, and neighbor against neighbor, as each side fought for what they believed in. As the battles raged in the South and in the mid-west, the home front was an active place as well, as women worked to move along their war efforts. Clara Barton, “the Angel of the Battlefield” and founder of the American Red Cross, is quoted as having said, “This conflict is one thing I’ve been waiting for. I’m well and strong and young—young enough to go to the front. If I can’t be a soldier, I’ll help soldiers” and that is what she and others have done. History tends to forget the actions of women, with many believing that the actions and sacrifices of women are lesser compared to those of their male counterparts.
As several states began to secede from the United States in late 1860, the tensions between the northern and southern states grew. Men prepared to go to war and women prepared to do what they needed to do—many followed men into battlefield, working as battlefield nurses and even as spies and soldiers; others stayed and ran their households, working the farms and plantations, taking care of livestock, taking care of children, and helping the war effort by making items to send to the soldiers on the warfront. Women on both sides of the conflict played major roles during this era, whether they followed the troops to battle or whether they remained at home.
Women in the North mobilized for the war effort. “As most accounts went, brave women, having sent their husbands and sons to the war, scraped lint in church basements and scrimped on household necessities to produce socks, shirts, bedding, jams, and jellies for local soldiers’ aid societies. Society members carefully packed their gifts and forwarded them to the United States Sanitary Commission, the largest and best-known national war relief organization, which distributed them with utmost efficiency to grateful soldiers languishing in military hospitals…Other women left their cherished homes, venturing forth to nurse wounded soldiers in army hospitals or on hospital transports”. This work, the household manufacturing of supplies for use in army hospitals, was the most vital of the work the women in the North were participating in. Without these actions, the Union army would have struggled greatly, as many of these items were not provided by the government or were in short supply. Northern women also worked to raise money by making and selling goods, allowing for monetary donations to be sent to the armies. Of the actions Northern women performed on the homefront, the most important of these was the farming; after the men left, the women were responsible for the farms, growing grain for the army. Historians estimate that half of the U.S. Army at this time was comprised of farmers or farm laborers; at a time when the men had been called to war, women filled the void in order to ensure that the work the men left behind was still being completed. In 1863, two years into the Civil War, Isaac Newton, the commissioner of agriculture under Abraham Lincoln, made note that despite the war the productivity of Northern farms had not diminished, that “agricultural output remained high and employment in agriculture constant”.
However, Northern women began to challenge the gender roles in which they were thrust. At this time, it was believed that women were gentle, nurturing, and benevolent, and these gendered beliefs were responsible for making the voluntary giving to the army and to relief societies obligatory. “Though most middle-class women had been socialized to embrace charitable work as part of their duties, the value of such work rested on the premise that it was undertaken freely and with no constraints. But as the military conflict intensified and the commission’s demands for homefront donations escalated, women confronted, some for the first time, the consequences of a set of beliefs that deemed their benevolent and patriotic acts mere extensions of their biological nature. When the war placed heavy burdens on their household economies, many became resentful of these men’s assumptions about the ease with which they could continue to labor for the war”.
It was not merely through the manufacturing of goods for the war effort and the undertaking of women to become battlefield nurses that Northern women were able to mobilize for the war effort, women also went to war themselves. According to the Civil War Trust, estimates place female soldiers’ numbers between 400 and 750 total between both sides of the conflict. The reasons why women joined the conflict as soldiers varied; for example, some women chose to follow their loved one into battle, others chose to fight because they believed in the cause(s) for which they were fighting and felt it was their patriotic duty to fight as well, and still others joined because of the promise of adventure and reliable wages. One of the most famous female Union soldiers was Sarah Emma Edmonds Seelye, also known as Franklin Flint Thompson. Seelye, like others, disguised herself as a man and joined the Union Army. One would think that it would be difficult for women to disguise themselves and fight in the war, but on the contrary; with the Victorian era well under way, the prevailing sentiments of that era were that soldiers sleep clothed, bathe separately, avoid public latrines, and avoid form-fitting clothing; the lack of facial hair was attributed to youth. Women also worked undercover as spies; due to the prescribed gender norms of the era, women were thought to be genteel, nurturers, and benevolent givers; these assumptions create a false sense of security around women, that because of their nature they would not collect information and pass it on to the side they aligned themselves with.
Despite many women taking active roles as soldiers and spies, the most important role they played on the battlefield was as nurses and even doctors. The most famous of the Union battlefield nurses is Clara Barton, who would go on to found the American Red Cross, and organization still in operation today. In an 1892 poem titled “The Women Who Went to the Field”, Barton described what she and other women witnessed during their time as battlefield nurses. In her poem, Clara Barton states how people felt about women going to war as battlefield nurses—a lot of people disagreed with the actions of those women because thy did not believe that women were capable of having to witness fighting and to mend wounded soldiers; a lot of people believed that women were best remaining on the homefront where they could “pick some lint, and tear up some sheets, And make us some jellies, and send on their sweets, And knit some soft socks for Uncle Sam’s shoes, And write us some letters, and tell us the news”; however, Barton also notes that things changed, but she was not sure how or why, just that countless women, many of whose names have been lost to history, decided to defy what men (and other women) had said about conforming to their gender roles.
Although Clara Barton is the most famous of the battlefield nurses, there were others who sacrificed to tend to the wounded soldiers as well; one such woman was Mary Walker. Mary Walker became the first female surgeon during the Civil War. Walker was born and grew up in Oswego, New York and attended college at the Syracuse Medical College. Walker butted heads with numerous physicians who believed amputation to be a cure-all during the war, and believed that her duty was to do what was best for the soldiers, which was not always amputation. In 1862, Walker boarded a train to Washington, DC with sick and injured soldiers so they could acquire better care; while there, she noticed that numerous women were arriving to try to find loved ones they had not heard from in quite some time. These women often had nowhere to go and had little money, so Walker asked for donations from a women’s suffrage group in order to establish a home where women could stay while in Washington, DC. In 1865, Mary Walker was awarded the Medal of Honor for Meritorious Service, becoming the first, and only, woman to have received that honor.
Northern women had done much for the war effort, but their Southern counterparts were not idle during the time of the war either. Southern women had to overcome numerous challenges just as women in the North had to overcome; but unlike the women of the North who fought for changes to society at the time of the fighting (and prior to the war as well), women in the South did their best to hold on to the traditions they had grown up with.
In his book Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism, George C. Rable explains just how Southern women were different from their Northern counterparts. Contrary to popular belief, the women of the South were educated, came from wealthier families, and did have feminist leanings although they were not interested in joining feminist organizations; women in the South were deeply concerned with the changing climate of the South at the time of the Civil War and were extremely interested in keeping the traditions they had grown up with instead of trying to change their positions in society like their sisters in the North. Throughout the book, Rable explains how the women of the South did much to uphold their virtues than to undermine them in the changing times. In the South, girls faced pressures to marry; have an abundance of children whether they wanted to or not; run the homes without the same ability to escape from the cult of domesticity that the Northern women had; for wives who wanted to no longer be married and have to face their daily grind, divorce was rarely an option unless the wife was injured or if there was proof of adultery, cruelty, or desertion on the husband’s part; and church membership, which was one of the very few public activities that was freely open to women, often spoke of women having to forfeit their own wants and comforts for others. Due to these circumstances, many women in the South had feminist leanings, however they would keep their thoughts and beliefs to themselves, writing them down in their diaries for their eyes only, because they were not truly wanting to “rebel against [their] lot”.
As the Civil War began, Southern women had to take on numerous roles. One role the women took on was that of the patriot woman, seen as offering up her husband and sons to a just cause and regretting that they did not birth enough sons to give to their country. Other women took efforts to advance the cause by creating sewing circles where they could talk politics while they sewed uniforms and other such clothing items the soldiers needed; still, other women joined the war by becoming battlefield nurses, where they traveled with the armies and took care of the wounded and eased the suffering of the dying. Like their sisters in the North, the women of the South mobilized for the war effort, and some would travel with their men to wherever they went over the course of the war. Two Confederate women of note who followed their husbands to war were Laetitia Lafon Ashmore Nutt and Sarah Jane Estes. These women are noteworthy to the history of the Civil War because of their honesty when it comes to how they felt about following their husbands off to war. Nutt followed her husband across the Deep South with their three daughters in tow and often struggled to find lodgings close to her husband’s areas of operation; she would go on to recount how she was often exhausted and should have left her daughters with her mother so she could focus her efforts to the sick and wounded soldiers. Sarah Jane Estes did leave her children home when she left to follow her husband to war; however, she did not follow her husband completely on her own volition. Estes followed her husband in part because of her “women’s obligations”; Confederate women felt the desire to hold on to their traditions, as previously stated in this paper, as opposed to using the changes during the war to bring on social changes of their own. It is fascinating to believe that women felt more of an obligation to their husbands than to their children, especially in this time period where women were seen as nurturers and the caretakers of the home. “…Estes could not reconcile herself to failing as either wife or mother”, and was frustrated with the choice she was obligated to make.
Although the sacrifices these two women made were difficult situations for both, other women had to find accommodations with family during the war, especially if they lived in the towns and cities where the battles grew particularly close. Many women found it difficult to live with their relatives, however, the situation allowed for women to enter roles within society while keeping their traditions alive and well, such as discussing politics in salons and attending women-only colleges. As a response to the war, there was a sort of homespun revolution within the South, with Confederate women having to learn to spin yarn and to weave using a loom in order to make clothing for themselves, their children, the soldiers, and their slaves because mass produced manufactured goods were becoming increasingly difficult to come by; sewing and knitting became popular in the South among the women for the same reasons.
Women in the South also helped out the war effort by volunteering as soldiers—disguising themselves as men and enlisting under false names—just as women in the North had done as well. In a 2011 article with the Smithsonian, Bonnie Tsui, the author of She went to the Field: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, described how women were able to disguise themselves and pass the physical tests to become soldiers: “The Confederacy never actually established an age requirement. So [women] bound their breasts if they had to, and just kind of layered on clothes, wore loose clothing, cut their hair short and rubbed dirt on their faces. They also kind of kept to themselves. The evidence that survived often describes them as aloof. Keeping to themselves certainly helped maintain the secret”.
Life was not easy for the women in the Confederacy, and even Confederate women had to defend their property from the Confederate troops. In a 1907 book titled Confederate Women of Arkansas in the Civil War, Josephine Crump wrote a chapter titled “Two Brave Women”; in this chapter, Crump describes the hardships that Confederate women in the state of Arkansas endured during the war. Confederate women had to hide their stores of food so the Union soldiers, or event their own Confederate soldiers, would not take it, leaving the women with nothing. Crump wrote about a woman named Mrs. Parker who grew corn with the help of her son; during the war, food was scarce and Mrs. Parker knew that she had to hide the corn so others could not get to it and leave her with nothing, so she buried twelve bushels of corn on her property, only going into her stores once the men returned and would feed them with the corn.
The roles of women in the South were just as varied as the roles women in the North had to take on, or chose to take on, during the war. At the time of the Civil War, women’s organization began to rise up, and these organizations would play a role during and after the war, particularly the organizations for abolition and women’s suffrage.
Women’s organizations, particularly for abolition and suffrage, were very popular during the antebellum period and those efforts continued during and even after the Civil War as well. For many, joining these organizations was a way for the women’s voices to be heard in a time when they were still considered second-class citizens. Suffragettes utilized the heroic actions of women during the Civil War, those who fought, those who served as nurses and surgeons, and those who assisted in other ways, to highlight how women contributed much to the war effort and should be given full citizenship rights. In the book Neither Ballots Nor Bullets: Women Abolitionists and the Civil War, author Wendy Hamand Venet describes the ways women continued to fight for suffrage during the Civil War. Some of these women, such as Sarah Remond, would go on to write appeals to those living in England for sympathy for the North and for assistance in the war. “…Remond often appealed to the sensibilities of white women by discussing the emotional and sexual abuse of female slaves…She declared that slavery denied to black Americans the natural rights inherent in the Declaration of Independence and reminded her listeners that black people had never been allowed to test their real capabilities…she emphasized that slavery was the cause of the conflict; abolition was the only basis for peace and prosperity”. The Civil War and the abolitionist movements paved the way for later feminist activities, such as suffrage for women, to flourish; it is important to highlight that the causes that women cared about were not placed on the backburner during the war, and that women on the homefront continued to fight for what they believed in in any capacity they could.
As the Civil War came to an end, the women of the South were beginning to create ways in which they could preserve their traditions and way of life. One way in which they accomplished this feat was to ensure that no one forgot the war or its heroes.
It was a goal of Southern women to memorialize the Confederacy and the lost cause of the Confederacy, but no one individual did as much work to memorialize the Confederacy and the idealistic antebellum period than the group the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The United Daughters of the Confederacy, or UDC, was founded in 1894 to preserve Confederate culture. In Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate to preserve Confederate culture and tradition. The Lost Cause of the Confederacy romanticized the “Old South” and the Confederate war effort; there are six tenants of the Lost Cause, according to Caroline E. Janney, an assistant professor of history at Purdue University. Writing for the Encyclopedia Virginia in partnership with the Library of Virginia, Janney writes that the six tenants of the Lost Cause myth are: “1. Secession, not slavery, caused the Civil War. 2. African Americans were “faithful slaves”, loyal to their masters and the Confederate cause and unprepared for the responsibilities of freedom. 3. The Confederacy was defeated militarily only because of the Union's overwhelming advantages in men and resources. 4. Confederate soldiers were heroic and saintly. 5. The most heroic and saintly of all Confederates, perhaps of all Americans, was Robert E. Lee. 6. Southern women were loyal to the Confederate cause and sanctified by the sacrifice of their loved ones. The historical consensus, however, presents a picture that is far more complicated, one in which some tenets of the Lost Cause are obviously false and some are at least partly true”. However, the women of the South were deeply involved in the perpetuation of this Lost Cause myth. In particular, the UDC were responsible for raising money in order for Confederate soldiers to have proper burials; the UDC also “successfully campaigned to build monuments in almost every city, town, and state in the former Confederacy…Monuments were central to the UDC’s campaign to vindicate Confederate men, just as they were part of an overall effort to preserve the values still revered by white southerners”. The members of the UDC were educated upper-class Southern women, and a goal they established aside from fundraising for monuments and to ensure that the war dead received proper burials was education; to ensure that the younger generation and that future generations would know the causes for which the Confederacy fought during the Civil War, numerous women entered into the education profession.
Although the Civil War remains one of the bloodiest conflicts in history, there were benefits that women achieved because of the war. In an 1894 speech titled “What women did for the war and what we did for women” given by Josiah H. Benton, Jr., the Civil War is described as the “father of all things” because from it women were able to compete with men in occupations they previously would not have been able to find employment, and women were able to gain a political voice because of the war as well.
 Jeanie Attie, Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), pg. 125.
 “Female Soldiers in the Civil War”, www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/female-soldiers-civil-war, accessed 5/25/2017.
 Clara Barton, “The Women Who Went to the Field”, 1892, www.civilwar.org/learn/primary-sources/women-who-went-field, accessed 5/26/2017.
 Elizabeth D. Leonard, Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), pg. 124.
 Ibid, pg. 125.
 George C. Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989), pg. 8.
 Ibid, pg. 9.
 Ibid, pg. 10.
 Ibid, pg. 11.
 Ibid, pg. 13.
 Ibid, pg. 16.
 Ibid, pg. 50.
 Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: North Carolina University Press, 1996), pg. 35.
 Ibid, p. 36.
 Jess Righthand, “The Women Who Fought in the Civil War”, April 7, 2011, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-women-who-fought-in-the-civil-war-1402680/, accessed 5/30/2017.
 Wendy Hamand Vent, Neither Ballots Nor Bullets: Women Abolitionists and the Civil War (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), pg. 66.
 Caroline E. Janney, “The Lost Cause”, https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Lost_Cause_The#contrib, accessed 6/2/2017.
 Karen Cox, Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003), pg. 49.
I know this bit of information comes after a long post, but I want to see what everyone has to say about this:
In the paper above, I mentioned the construction of the Confederate monuments. Now, many states are removing the monuments. My question is: What are your thoughts on this? I want to hear what my readers have to say.
My opinion on the matter is that this is all part of our history and it shouldn't be tampered with. Good or bad, the Civil War and all of those involved on both sides helped to make this country what it is today. We can use those monuments as examples of what happened in our past, as a way to say "Never forget what happened here". In Europe, many of the concentration camps of World War II are still standing and have been made into museums for the purpose of showing everyone what happened and to not let it happen again, and I think these Civil War monuments can serve the same purpose--to not let our differences come between us again and to remain united despite what is happening around us because, really, we're all in this together, or at least we should be.