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NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

The Civil War's Common Soldier

   

WOMEN OF THE WAR
by William Marvel

Until 1861, the part played by women in American wars had been only incidental. For both political and sociological reasons, that began to change almost with the opening of the guns at Fort Sumter.

Until the first half of the nineteenth century, the individual family had constituted the principal unit of production in a society that was largely self-sufficient. Within the family, men tended to provide the raw materials while women served as the manufacturers of finished products. The evolution of industrial society had freed millions of women from their roles as the producers of goods, and a simultaneous, gradual reduction in the size of families somewhat lessened the burdens of motherhood. These combined factors allowed many women the leisure to pursue other callings. By midcentury American girls were accorded the "unprecedented right to equal education in public schools, and female seminaries began springing up across the country."

Added to these societal changes was the movement toward female equality: an 1848 convention in Seneca Falls, New York, had marked the opening of the women's rights movement. That movement arose at least partly as an outgrowth of the abolitionist crusade, which usurped its momentum for another generation, but the Civil War posed an opportunity for women to express and exercise their independence. It is no surprise that the founders of the women's movement and the prominent women of the war included a disproportionate number of Quakers and Universalists, for those denominations had long since begun to shed the veil of male supremacy.

Much attention has been devoted to the women who disguised themselves and served under arms in the Union and Confederate armies. The lack of extensive physical examinations permitted such masquerades in far greater numbers than might have been possible in later wars, and some women inevitably saw combat: a shallow grave uncovered near the Shiloh battlefield in 1934 contained the skeletons of nine Union soldiers, one of which was identified as that of a woman.

MARY ANN BICKERDYKE (LC)

Rare wives like Kady Brownell, of Rhode Island, actually marched openly with their husbands on the parade ground and, reputedly, into battle. Armed women, however, were relatively few, disguised or not. Far more women contributed by replacing the men who left civilian employment for the army. Particularly in the Midwest and the South, great numbers of women could be found driving teams and harvesting crops; one Iowa observer recalled seeing more women in the fields than men. North and South, women turned their energy toward the production of uniforms, equipment, and medical supplies, while still others on both sides filled vacant clerkships in government bureaus. In the North, women composed much of the labor force that engaged in the manufacture of ammunition, and dozens of them were killed in the accidental explosion of a munitions factory at Pittsburgh in September of 1862.

The single greatest service that women provided lay in the field of humanitarian relief. Within a week of the outbreak of war Dorothea Dix proposed the creation of a corps of army nurses, and she was named superintendent of those nurses. Until then the care of sick and wounded soldiers had been the domain of men alone, but the war changed all that. Northern women flocked to hospitals by the thousands, both under official auspices and, like Clara Barton, independently. An 1862 Confederate law provided for female nurses wherever possible, and Southern women rose to the formal command of large military facilities.

Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree, drew 3,000 women to a meeting in New York two weeks after Fort Sumter fell, and that meeting led to the formation of a group that became the Sanitary Commission, which saw to the general health and comfort of the U.S. soldier. In Chicago Jane Hoge and Mary Livermore organized the Northwestern Sanitary Commission, and their most famous field agent was Mary Ann Bickerdyke, known to the soldiers of the western army as Mother Bickerdyke. She was the only woman William Sherman would allow at the front, and when his army marched in the Grand Review in 1865 she rode a horse at the head of the Fifteenth Corps. In the South, women gathered in smaller, local relief societies devoted to the health and comfort of their men in the ranks, but the dispersion of their efforts limited their effectiveness.

Dr. Mary Walker, a young medical school graduate, began the war by volunteering in Washington hospitals. From there she moved into battlefield hospitals, and in September of 1863 she was appointed assistant surgeon of an Ohio regiment. After the war she was awarded the Medal of Honor for meritorious service.

Bold, determined souls like Barton and Walker blazed a wide path for women who wished to claim their place in society. They served as clarion examples for their sisters, and their work challenged male domination of the medical profession in particular. In postwar years the veterans did not forget the devotion of their wartime nurses, often welcoming them as honorary members of their fraternal associations, and that camaraderie may have initiated a transformation in the way American men viewed the opposite sex.

The Civil War had to run its bloody course so that the destiny of the United States could be determined. A bloody course it truly was. Almost 700,000 American soldiers of blue and gray gave their lives in the Civil War to define the nation's destiny. If civil war erupted today in America and total losses were in the same proportion to population now as they were then, the Northern states would lose 4,000,000 men while the Southern states would suffer 11,000,000 casualties.

DANIEL COULET ENLISTED IN SEPTEMBER 1861 AT AGE TWENTY WITH THE 40TH OHIO VOLUNTEER INFANTRY. HE DIED OF WOUNDS RECEIVED AT THE BATTLE OF LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN, NOVEMBER 1863. (COURTESY OF DENNIS KEESEE)

DRAWING BY EDWIN FORBES OF PICKETS TRADING BETWEEN THE LINES. (LC)

Four times more Americans were casualties at the 1862 battle of Antietam than in the 1944 D-Day invasion of France. Over 125 Civil War regiments suffered losses of 50 percent or higher in a single engagement. At Gettysburg the 1st Minnesota and 26th North Carolina each suffered 85 percent losses. Ninety-one pairs of brothers served in an Illinois regiment. Of these, 43 pairs were killed in action and 15 pairs died of sickness.


With the passing years the men of blue and gray aged gracefully. Time healed most wounds a nd obliterated scars of mind and body.

They are all gone now—the last of them died in the 1950s—but they left something for us to remember and to use. From the fractures of that war came common ties. All that the survivors on both sides endured ultimately became a common bond that brought them together. The millions of farmboys, students, and clerks who went home from that terrible storm of fire and blood realized that they had been witness to the greatest event of the century. As time cooled passions, shared experiences helped to forge a oneness. A post war brotherhood took root, and it became more concrete than the ties of sectional allegiance had been.

With the passing years the men of blue and gray aged gracefully. Time healed most wounds and obliterated scars of mind and body. "Some good to the world must come from such sacrifice," a North Carolina veteran observed late in life; and when Tennessean John Mason was asked in the 1920s about his Civil War experiences, the bent and gray-haired Confederate responded: "I fired a cannon. I hope I never killed anyone."

MANY SOLDIERS LIED ABOUT THEIR AGE IN ORDER TO JOIN IN THE WAR EFFORT. (ILLUSTRATION BY MARK KAUFMAN)

CONFEDERATE CEMETERY AT FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA. (MPS)

"HOME COMING, 1865" PAINTING BY W. T. SHEPPARD. (MC)

From a common pride came a common legacy, and they remain foundations of a nation of united states. Johnny Rebs and Billy Yanks demonstrated for all time how to endure, to fight, to suffer, to die, to remember, and to forgive. In the fire and ashes of a great civil war, the strength of the common folk stood supreme. Because of that, and because of them, America still lives.

Back cover: Painting by Mark Kaufman, 203 Brandywine Blvd., Wilmington, DE
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