The Role of Women in the Civil War

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  • 0:07 New Roles for Women
  • 2:07 The Sanitary Commission
  • 2:48 Boosting Morale
  • 3:58 Hardships on the Homefront
  • 5:46 Nurses, Spies, and Soliders
  • 10:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Amy Troolin

Amy has MA degrees in History, English, and Theology. She has taught college English and religious education classes and currently works as a freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will explore some of the roles women played in the American Civil War. We will see how northern and southern women worked hard to supply the soldiers and take care of their homes. We will also meet women who served as nurses, spies and even soldiers.

New Roles for Women

In the mid-1800s, stereotypes about women abounded. Women were viewed as the weaker sex. They were thought to be fragile and dependent. Gender roles were strictly divided with the woman placed firmly in the home, in charge of domestic tasks and childcare.

However, when their husbands, sons, fathers and brothers joined the military during the Civil War, many women assumed new roles at home. Others decided to assist the war effort as nurses, spies and even soldiers. In many ways, their Civil War duties showed these women exactly how strong they really were.

Supplying the Soldiers

With the Union and Confederate governments crying out for volunteer soldiers, a woman's first Civil War task was to let her loved ones go. Many women met the challenge with patriotic generosity. Even so, allowing and encouraging loved ones to become soldiers was a difficult sacrifice. Once their family members, friends and neighbors were in the military, women had the job of supplying them with necessary items like uniforms and flags.

The demand for supplies only increased as the war continued. Northern and southern women met in sewing circles to make clothing, haversacks and blankets for soldiers. They knitted huge quantities of socks, leading diarist Mary Chesnut to remark, 'I do not know when I have seen a woman without knitting in her hand....'Socks for soldiers' is the cry....It gives us a quaint look, the twinkling of needles, and the everlasting sock dangling.'

Women also formed lint and bandage associations to turn waste fabrics into lint that was used for bandages. Groups of women even took up collections for wounded soldiers, gathering money and everything from books to bed shirts to pies to send to hospitals.

The Sanitary Commission

One of the major difficulties early in the war was getting supplies to the soldiers who needed them, so the Union organized the U.S. Sanitary Commission in July 1861. Headed by men but staffed by many women volunteers, the Commission was in charge of collecting and distributing supplies, hiring nurses and working to improve conditions in army camps and hospitals.

The Commission also organized Sanitary Fairs to raise money and supplies. The Confederacy lacked a national organization like the Sanitary Commission, but southern women organized on a local level to provide their soldiers with necessary items.

Keeping the Home Fires Burning

Women were also charged with helping to boost and sustain soldiers' morale. The government urged them to write to soldiers often, to be cheerful and not complain of their hardships and to fill their letters with daily news from home. Most women had plenty of daily news to share, but they probably found it difficult to be cheerful and not complain, especially when their responsibilities at home had greatly increased when the men went off to war. Many women were now the heads of their households. They had to figure out how to feed and clothe their families, care for their children by themselves and keep their homes running smoothly.

Women on farms faced special challenges. While they may have been involved in aspects of farming before the war, they were now in charge of planting and harvesting crops, caring for animals and maintaining their property. Other women, recognizing the need to supplement their husbands' army wages, entered the workforce for the first time. They took jobs in factories, offices and shops, often leaving their children in the care of relatives or friends.

Hardships on the Home Front

On top of all their new responsibilities, women also had to deal with a multitude of hardships on the home front. Most of them lived daily with the fear that their loved ones would be killed. All too often, their fears proved true, and women had to cope with the loss and grief brought on by wartime deaths.

Women also had to battle war-related inflation and shortages. In the North, inflation levels reached 100% by the end of the war, making it difficult for women to supply their families' needs. Things were worse in the South, however, where inflation soared to 9,000%. Sometimes, it proved almost impossible to buy food and basic goods like fabric and pins. In Petersburg, Virginia, chickens cost $50 each in 1865, while butter and bacon were both $20 a pound.

After frequently appealing to the Confederate government for help that never arrived, some southern women decided to take matters into their own hands to get the food and materials they needed to survive. On April 2, 1863, hundreds of women rioted in the streets of Richmond, Virginia, screaming 'Bread or blood!' and looting stores. The crowd only dispersed when President Jefferson Davis threatened that he would order soldiers to open fire on them. Smaller, so-called 'bread riots' took place in other southern cities.

Finally, many women, especially in the South, faced violence at home during the war, and some were forced to leave their homes and become refugees. Hundreds of women saw their homes destroyed, their possessions stolen and their loved ones killed. Many fled their homes in terror.

Civil War Nurses

Nursing was not a woman's job before the war, but by 1865, there were over 3,000 nurses serving the Union and Confederacy. These women were excited to do something active and important to help the war effort. In the North, most women nurses worked in hospitals. So many applied at the beginning of the war that the U.S. government hired Dorothea Dix to serve as the superintendent of women nurses.

Dix set strict requirements and rules for her subordinates. A nurse had to be at least 30 years old and plain in appearance. She was not to wear fashionable clothing or jewelry, nor was she to entertain romantic notions about nursing. Dix knew that nursing was a serious profession, and she wanted her nurses to know it, too.

Indeed, nursing was difficult work, both physically and emotionally. Female nurses like Louisa May Alcott assisted doctors in caring for patients, sometimes participating in operations and amputations. They gave out medicine, dressed wounds and cared for their patients' physical needs.

They also tended to their patients' emotional needs. Civil War nurses read to their patients, wrote letters for them and tried to assume the role of mother or sister. All the while, they had to cope with poor conditions, grief for their patients, hostility from doctors who didn't like working with women and sometimes getting sick themselves.

In the South, many upper class women refused to lower themselves by working in hospitals, but they did open up their homes to wounded soldiers and nursed them there. A few put aside their distaste for hospitals and went to work. Lower class women, both black and white, were not so choosy and spent hours, weeks, months and even years nursing patients, cleaning and preparing food in southern hospitals.

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