The United States at War
Women in the Civil War
The American Civil War is an excellent illustration of how gender roles are transformed during a military conflict when women are allowed to enter into previously male-dominated positions of power.
The Civil War generated a considerable amount of social, economic, and political change for American women. Because the conflict called for a substantial number of men to leave their families and enter military service, women were required to accept responsibilities and tasks that had previously been limited to men. Yet, although these contributions had a direct impact on the outcome of the war, the majority of American women were forced to return to their traditional domestic roles following the end of the war in 1865.
In 1860 and 1861, many Southern states decided to secede from the United States and fight a civil war rather than dismantle their system of African American slavery. For decades, female activists had flocked to the abolitionist movement and exerted considerable pressure on the Southern "slavocracy." Individuals such as author Lydia Maria Child published pamphlets and books condemning this institution. Her coverage of John Brown's 1859 raid at Harpers Ferry in Virginia attracted national attention and helped to increase support for African American freedom. Harriet Tubman, a former slave from Maryland, escaped to Philadelphia in 1849 and, during the 1850's, organized the Underground Railroad to help runaway slaves obtain freedom in the North. Other activists, bolstered by the first successful women's rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848, also agitated for slavery's demise and demanded equal rights for all Americans regardless of race or sex. In fact, although many male politicians continued to search for a negotiated settlement, female abolitionists refused to accept any compromise on slavery.
During the first two years of the war, many women delivered speeches, conducted letter-writing campaigns, and pressured President Abraham Lincoln to free all slaves still held in bondage in the South. When Lincoln eventually issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, most female abolitionists remained skeptical and lobbied for a constitutional amendment that would eliminate this practice forever. Two leading feminist reformers, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, formed the Woman's National Loyal League in 1863. During the next two years, they enlisted the assistance of numerous other leading feminists and ultimately attained nationwide support in 1865 for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which banned slavery in the United States. In addition, this organization provided women with an opportunity to champion equal rights for women, and many of the league's members later served as the leaders of the emerging woman suffrage movement.
The war also granted women greater access to newly developing industrial jobs and economic household power. With more and more men entering the conflict, women were required to oversee farm production, plantations, and rural businesses. This task became increasingly difficult in the South following the introduction of the Union blockade. Unable to secure goods from foreign sources, Southern women assumed responsibility for sustaining the food supply for both the troops and the home front. Other shortages forced them to produce cotton and wool clothing, construct tents, sew flags, and manufacture medical bandages. Wealthy women supervised lumber mills, widows served as government clerks, and other women became schoolteachers. Although critical shortages of goods and services would ultimately contribute to the South's defeat in 1865, Southern women performed duties well beyond their prewar domestic sphere of influence, and consequently, their efforts enabled the Confederate Army to withstand and survive countless material hardships.
While the South struggled with shortages, wartime production created an unprecedented need for industrial goods in the North. Clothing, munitions, and other manufactured goods were in high demand, and with the loss of income because their husbands and sons were fighting at the front, women flocked to the mills. These opportunities, however, did not result in increased prosperity. Women were forced to accept substandard wages, and many barely escaped starvation. In New York City, more than twenty thousand women were employed in the clothing industry as stitchers and sewers. Working fifteen-hour days, they were forced to pay for their own thread and any damaged goods, but these women refused to accept their fate. In 1863, they formed the Working Women's Union, and by the end of the war, they were able to mobilize female clothing workers throughout the Northern industrial belt. These efforts eventually helped to produce greater female participation in the emerging American labor movement; similar to the abolitionist experience, this venture significantly contributed to the rise of modern feminism in post-Civil War America.
Despite all the adversities and difficulties women suffered on the home front, their contributions on the military front as nurses and spies provided vital support throughout the war. By mid-1861, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn an M.D., in 1849, organized the United States Sanitary Commission. This organization raised funds for medical supplies and recruited and trained nurses. It also labored to improve sanitation in Army camps. Through the establishment of several local chapters, the commission ensured that soldiers received their back pay and pensions. It provided help for disabled veterans, obtained jobs for soldiers' wives, and eventually, by the war's end, raised more than $50 million.
Other women achieved similar successes. Dorothea Dix, a renowned prison reformer and advocate for the mentally ill, also trained nurses and eventually was appointed as superintendent of army nurses. Clara Barton, a former patent office clerk, labored endlessly in hospitals and battlefields as a one-woman aid society. She helped families locate relatives missing in action, and she was able to provide a dignified grave site for more than thirteen thousand men who perished at the notorious Andersonville prison in Georgia. These accomplishments, moreover, generated long-term gains that facilitated the rise of modern American feminism. After the war, Barton and others eventually formed the American Red Cross and helped the nursing profession gain legitimacy in the medical field.
Southern women followed a similar path. Several middle- and upper-class women quickly erected army hospitals following the outbreak of hostilities. In Virginia, Sally Louisa Thompkins, who later received a commission as a captain in the Confederate Army, established a hospital in Richmond. Others served in military stations at the front and helped to create fund-raising agencies similar to the United States Sanitary Commission. In September, 1862, the Confederate Congress passed a law granting women official positions in the army medical service, and, like their Northern counterparts, Southern nurses helped to eliminate barriers for others.
Female spies on both sides also provided military leaders with indispensable logistical information. Some helped prisoners of war escape; others befriended generals and politicians in order to destroy the enemy's element of surprise. More than four hundred women, moreover, concealed their sex and fought in the war. Although military combat was largely limited to men, female spies and soldiers are further indications of how the war affected the rise of modern feminism. Although the majority of women were forced to return to their domestic roles following the Civil War, this period marked a significant turning point in women's history. Wartime experiences shattered the myth that women could not endure the rigors of economics, politics, and war. No longer content to sit at home and leave the decision making to men, women gained self-confidence from their wartime ordeals, which fortified the growing feminist movement and eventually helped countless women achieve unprecedented personal success in post-Civil War affairs.
Robert D. Ubriaco, Jr.Books
Blanton, De Anne, and Lauren M. Cook. They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York: Free Press, 1991.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil Waar. New York: Vintage, 1997.
Rable, George C. Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Scott, Anne Firor. The Southern Lady: From Pedestal to Politics: 1830-1930. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.
Venet, Wendy Hamand. Neither Ballots nor Bullets: Women Abolitionists and the Civil War. Richmond: University Press of Virginia, 1991.
Wertheimer, Barbara Mayer. We Were There: The Story of Working Women in America. New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.
SALEM PRESS, a division of EBSCO Publishing. · 131 North El Molino Avenue · Pasadena · CA 91101
© Salem Press, Inc. All Rights Reserved.