Thousands of men fought and died in the American Civil War (1861-1865), and the military and political leadership of the conflict was dominated by men. But women also played a pivotal role in the conflict, participating as nurses, soldiers, abolitionists and more.
The war was fought primarily between the Union armies of the northern states and the Confederate forces of the south. On both sides of the conflict, American women took up arms, spied on their enemies and tended to injured soldiers on the front lines.
Here are 5 key roles women played in the American Civil War.
1. Organisers and Volunteers
Women in both the Union and the Confederacy rallied quickly to support their cause. Forming ladies’ aid societies, they helped gather supplies for the troops – baking and canning food, sewing uniforms, fundraising for medical supplies and other necessities, and even serving as nurses.
Through the advocacy of women, the federal government agreed to create the United States Sanitary Commission, which aimed to improve conditions, like bad hygiene, in army camps and hospitals. This commission would provide almost $15 million in supplies to the Union army by the end of the war, principally due to women’s fundraising efforts.
One such volunteer was Louisa May Alcott. In 1861, she began volunteering, first sewing uniforms and tending to minor soldier needs and a year later officially enlisting as a Union nurse. Best known as the author of Little Women, Alcott gained valuable experience during the war that inspired future writing.
Many women who started volunteering to distribute supplies to soldiers later enlisted as nurses to tend to soldiers on the front lines. As nurses, both northern and southern women travelled from hospital to hospital, providing care for the sick, wounded and dying.
Clara Barton, known as “the angel of the battlefield” for her work tending to soldiers on both sides of the battlefield, is one example of a Civil War nurse. Early in the war, she created the Ladies’ Aid Society to distribute bandages, food and clothing, and in August 1862, she was permitted to tend to soldiers.
She would provide aid to Union and Confederate soldiers after bloody battles, dedicated to their care. In 1881, Barton founded the American Red Cross after being introduced to the International Red Cross on a trip to Europe.
Conventional depictions of women’s roles during the Civil War ignore their contributions as frontline soldiers. Though difficult to approximate, best estimates of female soldiers in the Civil War are between 400 and 750.
From the Battle of Shiloh to the Battle of Gettysburg, both northern and southern women impersonated men and fought for the same reasons that men did: adventure, consistent and reliable pay and patriotism. Because most soldiers in this war had little to no previous military experience, women were able to be trained alongside men, gaining the necessary skills without drawing any attention.
Military standards at the time required soldiers to sleep clothed and bathe separately anyway, further concealing women. If discovered, they would most often be sent home without reprimand.
One such soldier is Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, who enlisted as Lyons Wakeman in the 153rd New York Infantry Regiment in 1862. It is presumed that her decision to disguise herself and enlist was due to family debt and an opportunity to make good money. Wakeman spent much of her time in Louisiana in the Red River Campaign and fought in several battles alongside her male counterparts.
There is no evidence her true identity was ever discovered, and she is buried under the headstone ‘Private Lyons Wakeman’. Her family saved her letters home and their publication provides great insight into life as a female soldier during the American Civil War.
Both northern and southern women served as spies during the war, perfect for the role as they were not seen as threatening and were easily trusted. It was known that soldiers would let their guard down around women, lulled into a false sense of security as they were reminded of their mothers, wives and children.
Taking advantage of social norms, women were able to gather information about the enemy’s battle plans, troop size, supplies and more. Most women volunteered as spies, though some were recruited.
A famous Confederate spy was Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a DC socialite turned staunch secessionist, who volunteered in 1861. Her efforts revealed plans about the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), which ultimately became a Confederate victory. She ran her own spy network of 48 women and 2 men and used a specific code to send messages within it.
Despite being exposed as a spy and pursued by the Union, she continued her work until her death in 1864 aboard a ship carrying $2,000 in gold she had raised in France and Britain for the Confederacy. She was buried with full military honours by the Confederacy.
One of the main causes of the American Civil War was the issue of slavery, and many women took up the abolitionist cause long before the war. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which is credited as popularizing the anti-slavery movement amongst northern white people by educating northerners on the horrors of slavery.
To write the novel, she sought out first-hand accounts from enslaved people and was able to describe the national tension around this issue of slavery. After the war broke out, she met with Lincoln and continued pushing for abolition.
A central figure in the American Civil War was Harriet Tubman, a formerly enslaved woman turned conductor of the Underground Railroad. Tubman’s work was unwavering, and before the war she was revered amongst abolitionists in Boston, who would consult with her about their plans and efforts.
She knew the land well, which proved crucial during the Civil War, when she served as a nurse, cook and spy. In 1863, Tubman was in South Carolina when she planned a raid along the Combahee River to rescue approximately 700 enslaved people who had fled the plantations and were hiding along the bank of the river, an act for which she was never compensated.
Like many of the women mentioned here, Tubman’s efforts were not limited to one role, and her contributions to the American Civil War were critical to the Union victory.