The Surprising Roles Women Played in the Civil War

Family History
13 April 2015
by

[Photo credit: David Foster/Flickr]
The Civil War tore the nation in two, pitted state against state and brother against brother, and led to the death of over 625,000 soldiers. But the Civil War didn’t just change the lives of men who fought in it — it transformed the lives of women, too.

Women served on the battlefield in various roles: nurses, vivandières or canteen carriers, laundresses, and even scouts, soldiers, and spies. At home, women took on new roles that their husbands and sons had performed until war called them off to duty.

Here are a selection of roles thrust upon, or assumed by, women as the country plunged into disunion.

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Soldier

Historians have documented approximately 250 female Civil War soldiers, but they estimate conservatively that between 400 and 750 women took up arms in defense of the Union or Confederacy and fought in every major battle. For example, the Battle of Shiloh on April 6-7, 1862, where 23,746 soldiers became casualties, involved at least six women.

Most female soldiers managed to fight without anyone realizing their true gender, unless they were wounded or killed. At the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, Clara Barton, the nurse who gained fame as a battlefield nurse before founding the American Red Cross, discovered a soldier with a chest wound. That soldier was actually a woman named Mary Galloway. Galloway recovered, eventually had a daughter, and named her after Barton.

Sarah Emma Edmonds, a Canadian citizen, ran away from home and disguised herself as a man named Franklin Thompson. She served the Union army as a soldier, nurse, messenger, and spy. After the war, she said, “I could only thank God that I was free and could go forward and work, and I was not obliged to stay at home and weep.”

Spy

Some women, rather than hide their gender, flaunted their womanhood to coax secrets out of men who assumed they would not pass on the secrets they carelessly divulged. These female spies would pass enemy information in messages they hid in their hoop skirts, corsets, and parasols.

After the Union began taking parts of the South, female slaves also acted as spies and guides for Northern forces. One of the most successful spymasters, in fact, was Harriet Tubman, the former slave who became a legend by leading 300 slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad. Fewer people know about her service to the Union. After she volunteered as a cook and nurse, she established a spy network in South Carolina made up of former slaves.

On June 1, 1863, Tubman also became the first woman to lead a military expedition when she and several hundred black soldiers destroyed a Confederate supply depot in South Carolina and freed more than 750 slaves.

Laundress

Army garrisons had numerous civilians supporting them or taking safety from them. During the Civil War, one type of “camp follower” was a laundress. To prevent laundresses from falling into another type of camp follower, the official Union Army manual required laundresses to be of good moral character. Washing uniform by hand in a washtub with a scrub board and lye soap, they earned about $40.00 a month.

Nurse

The idea that several thousand women served as nurses during the Civil War surprises no one today. But at the outset of the war, women had to overcome resistance to their care of the wounded and dying, an often grisly and sometimes dangerous task.

Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross after the war, became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” for her courage and care at the battles of Antietam and Fort Wagner. At one point during the Battle of Antietam, she knelt to give a soldier water. After feeling her sleeve rustle, she noticed a bullet had passed through it and killed the man she was aiding.

Vivandière

Similar to nurses, but less well-remembered, vivandières (a French term imported from the Napoleonic Wars) were usually the daughters or wives of officers who accompanied both Union and Confederate units in battle. Often wearing semi-official skirted uniforms and sometimes drawing an Army salary, the vivandieres were an attempt to streamline and reduce the number of camp followers. They sold the troops tobacco, coffee, identification tags, oil lamps, hams, and whiskey. Vivandières also did laundry, sewed, and cooked.

Vivandières saw most of their service during the early years of the war because in September 1864, General Ulysses S. Grant ordered all women removed from military camps under his command.

Farmer and factory worker

During the period of the Civil War, the United States remained largely rural. The North, which had a significant advantage in industrial capacity over the South, still had 75 percent of its population living in rural areas. With so many men leaving farms to fight, women became yoked to the burden of carrying on agriculture. Farm women had previously spent their long days gardening and handling other domestic chores such as cooking, cleaning, and making clothes. With the husbands gone, often never to return, they had to plant and harvest crops, feed animals, and operate farm machinery.

Farm women the South also had to deal either with restive slaves or work left undone by slaves who had left bondage. In the North, loss of male income forced many women into industrial work in places such as uniform factories or munitions plants, where they formed cartridges. In Washington, D.C., many women took over government clerical jobs once held by men who were now in uniform.

Household manager

Besides the new burden of income-producing work, women’s domestic duties became much more difficult due to wartime inflation and, particularly in the South, the lack of basic necessities. Both the Union and the Confederate governments printed paper money, but the Confederates printed money at three times the rate of the North, leading to inflation rates that reached 10 percent a month. Before the start of the war, a typical Southern family’s grocery bill was $6.65 per month. By 1864, it was $400 per month.

Women living off a confederate soldier’s pay of $11 a month found they could no longer afford flour that had risen to $100 a barrel. As a result, families found themselves substituting cheaper alternatives for their regular meals. For example, instead of pork and other conventional meats, families turned to crows, frogs, locusts, snails, snakes, and even worms. Instead of coffee, families browned okra seeds. For milk, families beat an egg white and added some butter. For salt, families boiled seawater or refined it out of dirt from the smokehouse.

By April 1863, food shortages had become so severe that several hundred women in Richmond marched on the governor’s mansion shouting, “Bread! Bread! Our children are starving while the rich roll in wealth.”

Did your ancestors struggle to survive — or perish —during America’s bloodiest conflict? Learn more about researching your Civil War ancestors or start a free trial of Ancestry and start searching today.

— Sandie Angulo Chen