Women Amidst War

By Thavolia Glymph, Duke University; and Nina Silber, Boston University
Photo of an Mary Bannister, wife of Private George H. Bannister of the 13th New Hampshire Infantry
Mary Bannister, wife of Private George H. Bannister of Company H, 13th New Hampshire Infantry

Library of Congress

Think "women during the Civil War" and many conjure an image of Scarlett O'Hara. Or if they don't think specifically about Margaret Mitchell's fictional creation, they imagine feisty southern belles, lovely yet willful like Scarlett, defying Yankee invaders but also enduring the poverty and deprivation of wartime. Yet, while fragments of real-life events may have found their way into Scarlett's story, the real history of women during the Civil War covers a more complex and varied spectrum of experiences, ranging from enslaved women fleeing plantations and seeking refuge with the Union army; northern and southern women looking for work in factories and government service; southern white women angrily challenging the military and economic policies of the Confederate government; and women everywhere struggling with the hardships and the violence of war.

So powerful has the Scarlett image become that both scholars and students of the Civil War have almost completely lost sight of southern poor white and African-American women, as well as those, black and white, who lived north of the Mason-Dixon line. In the Union states, women experienced a different kind of war than their counterparts in the Confederacy. With the exception of those in Pennsylvania and the border states, women of the Union knew little about enemy invasions and military displacement. Moreover, with a smaller percentage (less than 50%) of eligible northern men serving in the Union army, compared to 75% of eligible men in the Confederate army, many northern women felt the war's effect indirectly. And, only after 1863, and the enactment of the Emancipation Proclamation, did military service become a significant factor in the lives of African American families.

Still, women in all walks of life withstood dramatic changes. For many northern women, especially those who were white and middle class, the war accentuated the message that women must devote themselves whole-heartedly to the domestic arena. Only now, that arena encompassed not simply individual homes but the wide-ranging northern "home front". Everywhere - in cities and rural villages, in farms and in factories - women took on new jobs and responsibilities, often motivated chiefly by economic necessity but also adopting a mantle of patriotic sacrifice. Farm women, whose previous tasks had mainly consisted of gardening, cooking, cleaning, and clothes-making, now also learned to be threshers, harvesters, wood-choppers, and animal-slaughterers. Nearly all had to reckon with unfamiliar financial transactions - whether hiring help or stretching an inadequate military paycheck or seeking assistance from relatives and neighbors. Significant numbers, too, became sole property owners when their husbands died at war.

In Northern cities, and in regions with a more industrialized economy, women were more likely to experience the war through a new, and generally unfamiliar, institutional landscape. For some, the institution was a factory, like the munitions arsenals that employed working-class women as cartridge-formers. Some found work in smaller settings, like the garment workshops that made army uniforms or tents or blankets. Sometimes the institution was an almshouse, an increasingly crowded place of refuge and last resort for women and families with no place else to turn. More women, too, found themselves in negotiation with public officials as they demanded the relief money promised by many northern cities and states, or as they filed papers to claim increased federal pensions, or when they demanded higher pay from government contractors. Although many of the new jobs were lost once the war ended, overall the wartime experience accentuated women's place, not simply as husbands' or fathers' dependents, but as citizens - who had a right to claim the support of their government - in their own right.

Women's public prominence was also enhanced as the war gradually drew them into national affairs, and especially as they took up the work of soldier relief. Countless northern women joined thousands of "ladies' aid" societies, many of which became submerged under the larger umbrella of the United States Sanitary Commission, formed in June 1861. In these societies, women prepared aid packages for soldiers, gathered medical supplies for army hospitals, gave one another emotional support, and sponsored large-scale fund-raising fairs for the troops. These organizations gave women a direct connection to the Union effort and encouraged a stronger sense of national loyalty and a more business-like approach to benevolent work. For a number of women, the work with the Sanitary Commission provided an essential stepping stone to postwar careers and political work on behalf of women.

Of course some women in the North, both black and white, had already engaged in national politics, specifically through the abolitionist and early women's rights movements. These women remained active during the war and, under the leadership of women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Ernestine Rose, mounted a concerted campaign, and gathered 400,000 signatures, to demand a full-scale government commitment to slave emancipation. At the same time, numerous black women, in cities like New York and Philadelphia, extended their support work for United States Colored Troops by protesting segregation policies on their cities' streetcars. Everywhere in the North, men and women observed how keenly the war had intensified women's political involvement, whether through street politics, petition campaigns, or even in the electoral arena. Said one soldier's wife: it was high time the government "let the soldiers wives vote while they are gone".

About twenty-thousand women, both northern and southern, hoped to contribute to the war effort through their work in military hospitals. Drawing inspiration from the recent experiences of Florence Nightingale, an Englishwoman who served in the Crimean War, white women in both the Union and the Confederacy sought access to military hospitals, even directly onto the battlefields, so they could offer medical assistance to the sick and the wounded. Few came with medical training, yet these women learned essential skills, and often challenged the established male hierarchy, in demanding better care for their patients. Although women in both sections met resistance in taking on this work, northern women faced fewer obstacles and even received some measure of support from the government. Southern white women, in contrast, had to contend with their society's concerns that refined white ladies should not engage in the kind of hard labor usually done by slaves. Indeed, free and enslaved black women could be found in far greater numbers than white women in Confederate hospitals, often categorized as "cooks" and "laundresses" but still frequently doing a range of chores to help the sick and wounded.

In the South, black and white women had much in common during wartime -fear, hunger, violence, dislocation, added family and work responsibilities, and the death of loved ones--but differences attendant to their race and class status overwhelmed these commonalities. Enslaved and free black women experienced dislocation, violence, and death on a level that white women could not imagine. As men departed the plantations, farms, and cities, they were worked harder. Poor and working class whites witnessed more clearly than ever before the class-bound limitations of racial privilege, and elite southern white women of the planter and merchant classes oversaw at close quarters the near-total disintegration of a world built upon that privilege.

Black people, whether North or South, slave or free, had stood outside the political process that debated and determined when and under what conditions Americans would go to war against each other. When war came, they protested the judgment that it was a white man's war in which black people had no political stake. Rejecting the judgment of the vast majority of white Northerners that the war was about Union, not slavery, slaves in the South constituted themselves as active, if unwanted, partisans. Defying northern prognostications, they simultaneously demonstrated little regard for white southerners' pronouncements of their abiding loyalty to masters and mistresses. Like black men who enlisted in the Union Army, enslaved and southern free black women placed their faith in a Union that would fight for and protect their right to freedom and citizenship, a Union that did not yet exist. The war's end in emancipation and the establishment of the sovereignty of the nation-state validated their faith and rewarded their work in helping to secure Union victory.

The Confederacy impressed black women as hospital workers but thousands voluntarily entered the Union ranks as spies, nurses, and laundresses. In running away or refusing to continue to work for masters and mistresses, enslaved women contributed to the destruction of slavery and the making of freedom. Like white women, they endured sacrifices. The enlistment of black soldiers placed even greater responsibilities on their shoulders. While black soldiers tried to return for their families when possible, increasingly the task of getting a family to Union lines fell to enslaved women. Freedom was not free and enslaved women paid the ultimate price. Tens of thousands lost their lives, dying on the war's battlefields, in contraband camps, and on government-run and leased plantations from disease, hunger, cannon, and bullets. An untold number were beaten to death by masters and mistresses seeking to crush their bid for freedom. And when the war ended, black women had disproportionately lost husbands, fathers, and brothers. The death rate of black soldiers exceeded that of both northern and southern soldiers.

Speaking in Alexandria, Virginia in 1864, the ex-slave Harriet Jacobs reminded the audience that had come to celebrate the anniversary of West Indian Emancipation and honor black Union soldiers of the role of black women in the struggle. She praised black men for taking up "arms for the freedom of your race and the defence [sic] of your country." But, not to be forgotten, she told them, was the role of black women who had stood with them ready to "bind up your wounds and administer faithfully unto you." Jacobs' mere presence on the podium and her wartime labors also testified to the ways in which black women's work had extended far beyond binding up wounds, to the multiple battlegrounds upon which they had labored and died. Some like Jacobs and Mary Starkey of New Bern, North Carolina worked as teachers and nurses in refugee and contraband camps. They set up schools and hospitals and fought with Union officials to secure decent housing and medical care for refugees, increasingly a population of women, children and the elderly. They formed Colored Women's Relief Associations to nurse and care for black and white Union soldiers and out of which they distributed food and clothing to black refugees, often in collaboration with northern allies.

In these and other ways, they contributed to the struggle that transformed the war for Union into a war for Union and freedom. This, however, was quickly forgotten and their role in the war remains a footnote in Civil War historiography and memory even as a growing body of scholarship on white women and the "home front" has transformed these fields. Yet, enslaved women's flight and the resistance of those who did not flee to the demands of masters, mistresses, and Confederate authorities ultimately undermined the ability of the Confederacy to survive. Confederate leaders in Richmond had not only to worry about Grant and Sherman but also, as Drew Gilpin Faust writes, to garrison "a second front" in the face of a growing threat to their ability to keep an army in the field and white women and children on the home front fed and clothed.

That second front came to include poor and working class white southern women and their families. The war was barely into its second year when, facing starvation, poor and working-class women implored their husbands and fathers to return from military duty, else they wrote, their families would starve. A lukewarm response from Confederate authorities amidst charges that such demands demonstrated insufficient patriotism was not the support they expected nor believed was due them. In cities across the South, they took their struggle to the streets. Carrying signs reading "Bread or Blood" and "Bread and Peace," they publicly called into question the rationale that had sent their men to war. If southern white men were fighting to protect white women and home, surely something was amiss. From the start of the conflict, poor white southerners had questioned the motivations of the leading secessionists and soon enough were calling the war a "rich man's war." The denigration of the women rioters as "unwomanly" and unpatriotic (some were also jailed) by the southern press seemed to validate this critique. Initially, in couching the war's purpose in the language of domesticity, Confederate propaganda had taken some of the edge off of the obvious class divisions within white southern society but the divisions were never far from view.

When poor white women "sent" their men to war, they sent men less well equipped in every way to do battle for either home or country than men of the planter class. When their men left to protect home, they left wives and mothers equally ill-equipped to do their womanly part in the fight for home and country. Knowing this from the outset, however, did not prepare poor white southerners for the crushing force of the practical implications. With few or no slaves to cushion the enlistment of their husbands and sons, poor white women entered the labor force in unprecedented numbers.

Few southern homes or women escaped the ravages of war but in comparison to slaveholding women, poor and working class white women, like enslaved and free black women, faced challenges from the outset that were more profound and difficult to surmount. Food scarcities and a shortage of materials needed for home manufacture meant that there was little they could do for themselves or their soldier husbands, fathers, and brothers. The riots highlighted the growing desperation of the largest class of white southerners andthe growing clarity of their political reckoning. Poor white women found work making and packing cartridges in arsenals, as laborers in the Confederate Clothing Bureau, and in Confederate hospitals. Some turned to prostitution but the vast majority continued to grub minimal subsistence from the soil. For most, even those who found wage work, the Confederacy increasingly appeared as a failed state. Their efforts to redefine patriotic duty--their men could contribute at home, many advised, as well as at the front--came to naught and efforts by the Confederate government in Richmond and state governments to relieve hunger among white southerners proved vastly insufficient. If the fight was a rich man's fight, it was also a rich woman's fight, many poor whites came to believe. Sometimes, they joined slaves in celebrating the destruction of the big house.

Elite white women had their own crosses to bear, but starving times generally came much later in the war for them; for some, they never came. But slaves' desertion of the plantation, black enlistment and Union military victories combined with growing food and other shortages to eventually rent their faith in the Confederacy. With more to lose in defeat and imbued with traditional notions of female duty and sacrifice, they continued to send their sons to war (if more reluctantly) and to immerse themselves in relief work and in knitting and sewing for Confederate soldiers. Defying notions of female delicacy, a few went to the front as hospital workers and helped found hospitals. In the absence of husbands and sons, many were forced to take on new roles as plantation managers and storekeepers and to enter the wage labor market as clerks in the Treasury Department and Post Office, teachers, and store clerks. Of all the paid work available to southern white women, these were considered the most respectable and paid the best wages , and were closed to poor and working class white women.

The flight of black women to Union lines left mistresses with their hands even fuller. For the first times in their lives they cooked their own meals and cleaned their homes, and washed their own clothing, doing work unimaginable before the war. They struggled to manage field hands who, sensing freedom in the air, were no more amenable to the control of female masters than male ones. By war's end, the poverty that had long stalked poor white women and their families appeared on the doorsteps of virtually every southern home. Slaveholding women were increasingly on the defensive in their own homes and on their own soil. Thousands were forced to flee their homes; others saw their homes occupied by their slaves or Union soldiers. Place and time surely made for differences. Slaveholding women in Union-occupied and hotly-contested areas that changed hands repeatedly, and in the border states, stood amidst the war much differently than their peers in areas largely untouched by battles or Union forces. The latter too lost slaves and husbands and fathers to the war, but for most of the war's duration were sheltered from the military depredations that came with enemy invasion and the attendant displacements.

Women's work on the home front--from "manning" the home front to keeping up morale on the battle front--was central to the ability of the Union and Confederate governments to prosecute the war. Women's lives were transformed in unprecedented ways, whether they wished them to be or not. In the South, the transformations proved more wrenching, and, in important respects, more revolutionary than in the North. The impact of military invasion, internal wars, and emancipation were decisive in reshaping gender and race ideals in the South even if southern white women did not welcome them. The war threw elite women into the working class, but this did not prompt, as it did in the North, an expectation or desire on their part for a lasting transformation or hope that the new wartime responsibilities would translate into postwar advances for women.

This essay is taken from The Civil War Remembered, published by the National Park Service and Eastern National. This richly illustrated handbook is available in many national park bookstores or may be purchased online from Eastern at www.eparks.com/store.

Parks with Relevant Major Resources Related to Women Amidst War

Andersonville National Historic Site, Antietam National Battlefield, Arlington House, Booker T. Washington National Monument, Clara Barton National Historic Site, Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park, Gettysburg National Military Park, Manassas National Battlefield Park, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Petersburg National Battlefield, Richmond National Battlefield Park, Shiloh National Battlefield, Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site, Vicksburg National Military Park, Women's Rights National Historical Park

Last updated: November 10, 2017