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Roles of Women in the American Civil War

The American Civil War was, as all wars are, affected not only by the men fighting on the battlefield, but by the women who served on the home front, in military hospitals, and occasionally next to men on the battlefield.Just as women influenced the war, the war changed the world in which the women lived.The women’s rights movement began shortly before the Civil War, and continued through the war, growing stronger as women were touched by the war, and longed for rights equal to men.

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Women supported men by donating supplies to the effort in both the North and the South.

Women served as soldiers, worked in military hospitals, and spied to discover valuable information to aid their homeland. Women were a very valuable resource during the war, and the war was very influential on the way women lived their lives in America. Before the Civil War, women’s roles in America were changing. Economic modernization caused the production of items previously made by women to occur outside of the home. In some cases, families needed women to work for wages in or out of the home. [i] In most cases, however, the men left for work while the women stayed at home to tend to the house and raise the children.

This caused the existence of “separate spheres. ”[ii] With this shift in production, the purpose of the home changed. Mothers were the source of love and nurturing for the children. When families became more centered on love and affection, midle class families started having fewer children. [iii] This, in turn, caused women to be able to be more active in society, since they were not constantly expecting or nursing a newborn. [iv] In the early and middle 1800s, women moved out of the home and into the public sphere.

Many unmarried women had little chance of being planters, and they were not hired in the city. [v] Most commonly, women worked from the home. Occupations that took place outside of their home were traditional feminie roles of seamstress, laundress, or nanny. Few women were able to acquire jobs in retail, and women with larger homes could open a boardinghouse. [vi] Women (and children) worked in factories for wages and served humanity, and were generally overlooked by others. [vii] In the North, the manufacturing of cloth items such as clothing moved from the home to factories.

Northern women increasingly could purchase thred, cloth, and clothing, while the South had fewer factories, so clothing was made in the home. [viii] Southern women did not question their place in society and admired the traditional way of life on their plantations. [ix] With fewer children and much less work at home, families sent their children to school more, and the public education system changed. The school became responsible for education and social skills. Women became more involved in the schooling system, and most teachers were women. Because of this, women needed to be educated, too. x] Women found work as schoolteachers because the environment was safer and more comfortable than a factory. [xi] Other women worked as private music, dance, or art tutors. They did, however, make low salaries. Though women found employment as teachers and in factories and shops, they longed for a traditional family life. [xii] Education was viewed different in the North and in the South. In the North, women were expected by intelligent and independent free thinkers, while Southern women were expected to use their intellect to make polie conversation and support their ladylike character. xiii] Increasingly during the Antebellum period, women learned how to read. More families owned books and taught their children how to read. [xiv] Wealthy families may have had private libraries, from which daughters could read a variety of literature to maintain intellectual abilities. [xv] Though more women learned to read, many Southern women remained illiterate – some white women could not even write their own name. [xvi] Young women often preffered romantic novels that described a fantasy life out of her reach, which caused parents to encourage solid, factual literature.

Surprisingly, women were interested in learning the things men learned, and yearned for an education equal to that of their husbands and brothers. [xvii] Unfortunately, the advancement of education for Southern women was far behind that for Northern women, and was only available to the rich, leaving poorer girls from farming families feeling more ignorant and belittled. [xviii] Women in the North were becoming increasingly active in the public arena, and hungered for a say in government. Previously, women persuaded their husbands on moral ground and raised moral citizens; now they began taking a tand for themselves, speaking to legislators about their concerns. [xix] The most common way that women participated in society was by serving with churches and joining temperance and antislavery societies. [xx] Some women “delivered political tirades, denounced officials, gave advice on military strategy from the lecture platform, or participated in violent public demonstrations;” these were the ones that troubled the public. [xxi] One of the most well-known femal lecturers during the civil war, Anna Dickinson, delivered speeches on the conflict between the Union and Confederacy. xxii] Her skills brought overwhelming popularity, fame, and wealth for some time, but her eccentricity and womanly unawareness of business caused her time in the spotlight to be limited. [xxiii] Since many women spoke against slavery, many men assumed that the emancipation of slaves would pull them from the public eye, and keep them back in the home. [xxiv] Many women, however, quietly expressed their opinions through personal writings and private conversations. The war was a very personal event, so women were individually affected by the choices made by their political leaders.

In both the North and the South, women criticized leaders and blamed them for the heartbreak of the time. [xxv] As women became increasingly aware of and opinionated about national politics, they yearned more and more for a say in the election of governing officials. [xxvi] The first broad attempt to achieve women’s suffrage was at the Seneca Falls convention in 1848.

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Nearly two hundred Americans gathered here, led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, to discuss women’s rights. [xxvii] They drafted and approved the Declaration of Sentiments, which outlined faults in the male-dominated American government, and called for a change.

Unfortunately, men continued to claim that a woman’s place was in the home, not politics, and no state would make a law allowing women to vote until several decades later. [xxviii] While the women’s rights movement gained speed in the North, the South prided itself on avoiding issues of feminism. Some Southern women visited the North and attended meeting of women’s right activists, and noted that they disliked the mixing of races and equality of sexes promoted. [xxix] Louisa McCord attacked Northern movement for femal suffrage, claiming that it took away feminity from women.

She said women should display their opinion in society only through their male counterparts, not by giving public speeches and voting in elections. McCord stated that “The true woman . . . preferred caring for her family to tinkering with constitutions. ”[xxx] Some women may have agreed with female superiority, but were too scared of change to bring their thoughts forward. [xxxi] Women worked to supply materials to their armies. The United States Sanitary Commission was created only weeks after the beginning of the war by Henry Bellows.

He cooperated with Dorothea Dix, who was also working on forming a “nursing corps,” but Bellows did not want to work with her. Through the course of the war, Northern women worked to provide valuable materials to aid soldiers in war. [xxxii] Some soldiers were accompanied by their wives, who aided soldiers. They worked doing laundry, cooking for soldiers, nursing soldiers in emergency situations, or counseling soldiers during this traumatic time. [xxxiii] These women often cared for the men and boys as if they were her own sons.

Many groups of soldiers claimed a woman as its mother figure, and continued to include and honor her long after the war. [xxxiv] While it was easier for a woman to enter the army with a husband and not be questioned too intensely, women who chose to help soldiers independently were often critisized by the public. [xxxv] Many women demonstrated their patriotism by dressing as men and fighting in the army. Even more women thought and wrote, wishing that they could be allowed to fight alongside their male counterparts. xxxvi] Regulations prevented some from attempting to join, others wrote to generals asking permission to volunteer to fight, and there were women who joined battle as a confrontation was occuring, bypassing official enlistment altogether. [xxxvii] The physical examination was a barrier for females – while some were not able to join because of this, other doctors lied on women’s behalf to allow them to join. Still others joined without a physical examination or even official enlistment (women may have joined soldiers and began fighting during a skirmish or battle). xxxviii] Women joined for many different reasons: to be with husbands, brothers, or fathers (though some enlisted secretly, against the wishes of relatives); to leave home; for the money or adventure; patriotism; and some, “to escape the oppresive social restrictions placed on women in that day and age. ”[xxxix] While some joined with family members, others risked the end of family communications by joining. When Ellen Goodridge informed her father that she would fight alongside her fiance, her father disowned her. [xl] Young women dreamed of changing the world, of doing something important, and joining the army could be their chance.

They looked up to figures such as Joan of Arc, and wanted to achieve that kind of glory. [xli] The view of people’s enlistment choices varied by gender. While men were looked down upon if they did not fight alongside their brothers, women recieved the same social treatment if they did join the army. [xlii] Women obviously faced difficulties – menstruation, concealing their figure, and the fact of voice and lack of facial hair. To deal with thease complications, women found privacy as many modest men did and posed as adolescent boys, who often made their way into the regiments. xliii] To enhance their masculine reputation, women learned to act like men by playing cards, smoking cigars and chewing tobacco , drinking, and swearing. [xliv] One thing that helped women maintain their disguise was the fact that no soldier expected to find a woman in the ranks; men were not looking for them, so it was easier to remain unnoticed. [xlv] Wounds and hospital treatment was the most common way for a woman’s gender to be discovered. [xlvi] Unfortunately, a woman’s sex was sometimes uncovered before she even set foot on the battlefield – Sarah Collins and Mary Burns, for example. xlvii] Collins, who was of very good health and “could have easily borne the hardships incident to a soldier’s life,” was an orphaned teenager living in Wisconsin who enlisted with her brother. [xlviii] She was “detected by the was she put on her shoes and stockings” before being able to support the Union next to her brother. [xlix] Mary Burns, also a Northerner, joined to be with her significant other from Michigan. [l] She was arrested in Detroit, also before fighting next to the man with whome she enlisted. [li]

These women fearlessly performed any task asked of them, and fought bravely in a situation where society assumed women would not be able to function, much less fight like the man standing next to her. [lii] Women soldiers readily performed any task given to them, just as if they were a male soldier. It was not uncommon that soldiers were pulled off of the field and asked to work in hospitals. [liii] Some women joined for medical service directly. [liv] Volunteers retrieved wounded from the battlefields and nursed patients as they waited for a surgeon. Women were usually untrained, and had to follw strict regulations.

Many soldiers died simply from disease caused by new exposure to the ranks, and thousands died on the battlefield after being left unaided. [lv] Across the Confederacy, societies were formed to gether supplies and volunteers that were sent to Virginia to help wounded soldiers. Women learned to dress wounds efficiently, where they may have fainted at the sight before the war. [lvi] Soldiers and generals were hungry for information about the opposing side. Women sometimes gained insight from Federals through casual conversation, but others were sent north to spy and bring information to Jefferson Davis or General Robert E.

Lee. Women carried notes filled with information hidden in hams or in the folds of their skirts. [lvii] Some hid in conspicuous places and acted as faithful members of the opposing side, others rode out after midnight to deliver information to officials. This was sometimes dangerous work – soldiers shot these women from afar to stop them from delivering secret plans or other information. [lviii] As citizens of America, the war undoubtedly impacted women. With the absence of men not experienced previously in America, women’s roles shifted ramatically, in and out of war. When men left, women took their place, and that change could not be reverted when the war was over. The result of the American Civil War – emancipation – also altered women’s home life. ———————– [i] James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: McGraw Hill Companies, Inc. , 2001), 19. [ii] McPherson, 19. [iii] McPherson, 20. [iv] McPherson, 20. [v] George C. Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 26. [vi] Rable, 27. vii] Mary Elizabeth Massey, Women in the Civil War (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994), 153. [viii] Rable, 27. [ix] Rable, 30. [x] McPherson, 20. [xi] Rable, 28. [xii] Rable, 29. [xiii] Rable, 18-19. [xiv] Rable, 17. [xv] Rable, 17. [xvi] Rable, 18. [xvii] Rable, 17-19. [xviii] Rable, 20-22. [xix] Jeanie Attie, Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998), 46. [xx] James L. Roark, et al. , The American Promise: A History of United States, 2nd ed. (Boston and New York: Bedford/St Martin’s, 2002), 380. [xxi] Massey, 153. xxii] Massey, 154. [xxiii] Massey, 154-55 [xxiv] Massey, 161. [xxv] Massey, 161. [xxvi] Michael P. Johnson, ed. , Reading the American Past: Selected Historical Documents, Volume I: To 1877, 3rd ed. (Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005), 225-26. [xxvii] Johnson, 225-26. [xxviii] Roark, 380. [xxix] Rable, 15-16. [xxx] Rable, 16. [xxxi] Rable, 16-17. [xxxii] Attie, 78. [xxxiii] Massey, 78. [xxxiv] Massey, 78. [xxxv] Massey, 78. [xxxvi] DeAnne Blanton and Lauren M. Cook, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the Civil War (New York:Vintage Books, 2002), 25 [xxxvii] Blanton, 25-28. xxxviii] Blanton, 25-28. [xxxix] Blanton, 30-32. [xl] Massey, 80. [xli] Massey, 78. [xlii] Blanton, 30. [xliii] Blanton, 46-50. [xliv] Blanton, 52-53. [xlv] Blanton, 57. [xlvi] Massey, 80. [xlvii] Massey, 80. [xlviii] Blanton, 33, 56. [xlix] Massey, 80. [l] Blanton, 31. [li] Blanton, 124. [lii] Francis Butler Simkins and James Welch Patton, The Women of the Confederacy (Richmond and New York: Garrett and Massie, Incorporated, 1936), 80. [liii] Blanton, 65-66. [liv] Blanton, 65-66. [lv] Simkins, 82-83. [lvi] Simkins, 82-83. [lvii] Simkins, 82-82. [lviii] Simkins, 82-82.

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