Women's Role in the Civil War
Thousands of women contributed to the war effort for the Union and Confederacy, both behind the scenes and on the frontlines
By Beth Rowen
The Civil War marked a turning point for women and their role in society. Before the Civil War, work for most women was in the home. Women were expected to cook and clean to make the home comfortable for the family and presentable for guests. With the outbreak of the Civil War, however, many women volunteered to help in the war effort. They worked in a variety of capacities, from cooking to nursing to actually fighting on the frontlines.
Women formed aid societies to help both Union and Confederate soldiers. They planted gardens; canned food; cooked; sewed uniforms, blankets, and socks; and did laundry for the troops.
Some women wanted to get closer to the frontlines, and they volunteered as nurses. The no-nonsense social reformer Dorothea Dix served as the Union's Superintendent of Female Nurses. She organized about 3,000 nurses to tend to Union troops. One of these nurses was Little Women author Louisa May Alcott.
Clara Barton set up a system to provide medical supplies for troops, and she also served as a nurse, traveling on field ambulances. Called the "Angel of the Battlefield," Barton also organized searches for missing troops and identified many war dead. Barton used her war experience to create the American Red Cross in 1881. Sojourner Truth collected supplies for African American troops and worked to improve conditions for them.
Government Responds to Women's Request to Create Support Framework for Troops
In 1861, at the urging of women activists, the government created the U.S. Sanitary Commission to supply Union troops with food, medicine and supplies, such as blankets and socks. While officials of the commission were men, women were the backbone of the group and worked directly with and on behalf of the soldiers. They collected and distributed the supplies for the Union troops. They had the goal of sending each soldier one care package a month. Conditions were far from sanitary on the battlefield, and disease spread quickly. The women volunteers taught military leaders how to keep the soldiers clean and healthy on the frontlines. The women also took care of the wounded when they returned home from battle. Members of the commission also raised money for Union soldiers. They held Sanitary Fairs to gather supplies and funds for the troops. Volunteers raised more than $70,000 for Union troops at the Northwestern Soldiers' Fair in Chicago in 1863. That was an enormous amount of money in 1863.
Volunteers on the commission included such prominent figures as Louisa May Alcott, Almira Fales, Eliza Emily Chappell Porter, Katherine Prescott Wormeley, Mary Livermore, and others.
On the Confederate side, women also volunteered as seamstresses, cooks, and laundresses. They organized themselves into local groups. Some southern women took wounded soldiers into their homes and nursed them back to health.
Mary Edwards Walker, one of the few woman surgeons of the day, sought a commission as a military surgeon. The government declined her offer, and instead appointed her as a nurse. After serving in that role for three years, she was commissioned as an assistant surgeon. The Union Army awarded her a medal for her service.
Women on the Frontlines
For some women, working as nurses was not enough. As many as 400 women disguised themselves as men to enlist and fight for both the Union and Confederacy, risking imprisonment if they were caught. Women fought for many of the same reasons as men did: out of a sense of patriotism, to help eradicate slavery, to earn money, and to escape a difficult or unsatisfying home life. Because the women were disguised as men, they performed the same tasks as men. They served on the frontlines, cooked, acted as spies, and nursed the wounded.
It was not that difficult for a woman to pose as a man, especially since they were serving alongside many teenage boys. The age to enlist in the Union Army was 18 and there was no minimum age for the Confederate army. On the Union side, many younger boys lied about their age so they could join the army. The women soldiers bound their breasts, cut their hair short, and spoke as little as possible to avoid being discovered. Women would often leave the service if they were wounded or became sick for fear of being caught.
Sarah Rosetta Wakeman enlisted as Private Lyons Wakeman and served as a private in the 153rd New York Infantry Regiment. She fought in a battle in Pleasant Hill, Louisiana, in 1864. Shortly after the battle, she became very ill and died at the Marine General Hospital in New Orleans. At the time of her death, her true gender was not known. In fact, her headstone reads Lyons Wakeman.
Sarah Edmonds, who enlisted as Franklin Thompson, served with the 2nd Michigan Volunteers and fought in several battles, including the Siege of Yorktown, the Battle of Williamsburg, and the Second Battle at Manassas. In 1863, she contracted malaria and left the army to prevent doctors from discovering her gender. She was charged as a deserter. After recovering from her illness, she worked as a female nurse. After the war, Edmonds revealed herself to her fellow soldiers, and they helped her convince the government to lift the desertion charge. It took an act of Congress and eight years, but Edmonds was cleared of the desertion charge and was given a military pension.
Information about the enemy was a key weapon on war, and hundreds of women spied for the Union and Confederacy. Harriet Tubman, best known as a "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, worked as a cook and nurse for the Union before she was asked to organize former slaves in South Carolina into a spy network. Using information she acquired from the spies, she led a military expedition that freed more than 700 slaves in South Carolina and destroyed a Confederate arms depot.
Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy widow from Virginia, freed all of her family's slaves after her husband's death. During the Civil War, Van Lew brought supplies to Union prisoners at Libby Prison. While visiting the prisoners, she picked up important tactical information about Confederate positions from them. She passed that information on to Union leaders using couriers. Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a former slave of the Van Lew family, was one of her couriers and also one of the most effective Union spies. She worked at the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and she obtained a wealth of information that she passed on to the Union.
On the Confederate side, Isabella "Belle" Boyd was a wealthy debutante from Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia). When Virginia seceded from the Union in 1861, she worked as a nurse before becoming a spy. When Union troops occupied Martinsburg, she wooed Union officers and convinced them to share information with her about troop movements. She passed this information on to Confederate officers. Boyd's most brazen—and famous—mission was alerting Gen. Stonewall Jackson about Union plans to blow up bridges in Martinsburg. Her information helped to make Jackson successful in driving Union troops out of the Shenandoah Valley. In 1864, Boyd volunteered to carry documents to England for Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Her ship was intercepted by Union troops, and she fell in love with Union officer Lt. Samuel Wylde Hardinge Jr. He let her go and later met and married her in England. He was court-martialed and imprisoned for the act.