The Role of Women in the Civil War

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Updated: Mar 28, 2023
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The bloodiest conflict in history of North America was not between other countries, like one would might imagine, it was in fact the economics of slavery and political control of that system that was central to the clash between the North and Southern states. The Northern states was committed to ending the practice of slavery. However, the Southern states wished to introduce slavery into the western territories. During this time of conflict over the issue of slavery, Abraham Lincoln won the election of 1860, carried by the free states of the Northeast and Northwest.

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Gradually, the Southern states started to believe they had no influence which drove them to make a political decision leading to war. The Civil War lasted between 1861 to 1865. Throughout this time, there were about three million men who fought as soldiers. During this time American women were shaped by a set of ideals called “The Cult of True Womanhood,” but as men left home to fight the war, women who worked as housewives moved to working in shops and factories. Most importantly, American women contributed to the war effort by serving as nurses, spies, and their disguise as soldiers.

When the war broke out, men left their previous jobs to become soldiers and women had to leave their duties as mothers to fill the jobs the men left behind. However, some women disguised themselves as soldiers. While in disguise, they “chopped off their hair, traded in their dresses for guns and fought for the side they believed in.” Instead of enduring the separation of their husbands, women wanted to accompany their family members. Even women who were pregnant during that time fought in the war next to their husbands.

One woman who stood out among the hundreds of women soldiers disguised as men was Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. Unlike the other women soldiers, she deliberately wrote letters to home and her letters were later published. In these letters, Wakeman described what it was like to undertake the role of a soldier in such a violet and chaotic environment. Before the Civil War, Wakeman was the oldest out of nine children in an impoverished farm. However, in the year 1862, Wakeman decided to venture out disguised as a man for many reasons. She did not have any plans of getting married nor as a “domestic” was she much help to her poor family. Most importantly, her father was in debt. She first started off as a boatman doing labor. However, on August 30, 1962, she was enlisted under the name Lyons Wakeman and departed to Washington that October. After serving as a provost and guard in Washington, she was sent to Louisiana to take part in the Red River Campaign. Forced to walk hundreds of miles without food or water, “she persevered while her comrades slowly succumbed to death.” On April 9, 1864, Wakeman fired round after round on Pleasant Hill as she advanced to the Confederates. As a result, she beat them back six times. Although Wakeman was just one out of many women who participated during the Civil War, she represented a huge amount of woman who left their own homes to fight for what they believed in. Slowly, this big leap for women kind was the beginning of women accomplishments.

Another woman who fought in the war as an American soldier was Frances Louisa Clayton. She disguised herself as a man and fought for the Union Army. Unlike Wakemans, Clayton joined and enlisted as a regiment under the name Jack Williams to fight side by side with her husband. The battles she fought were in the Battle of Shiloh and the Battle of Stone River where she lost her husband. Even when her husband was killed during a charge, Clayton stepped over her husband’s dead body and continued to fight. It wasn’t until a bit later after her husband’s death that she got discharged. Although Clayton’s reason to join the army as a disguised man was not like Wakemans’, she persevered through the violent and chaotic setting just to be a part of the war. Due to her figure described as “tall and masculine-looking” and her part in “soldierly past-times such as drinking, smoking, or chewing tobacco” she was not discovered as a woman. , Clayton’s contribution to the war proved that women are able to do what men can do setting them away from the stereotypical “Cult of Domesticity”.

Not only did women contribute to the war as soldiers, they also worked as spies for both the Confederate or Union armies. During this time, women were perfect for the roles of spies because they were viewed as not threatening due to their attractiveness. In addition, men did not expect women to be this risky or take on this kind of job. Many women spies would usually gather valuable military information by “flirting with male soldiers at parties, dinners or other social events.” Other females were said to be smuggling supplies, ammunitions, and medicine across enemy lines by “hiding them underneath their large hoop skirts.” Despite the fact that these females would get caught and be reprimanded, they still took risks to gather information and fight for their beliefs.

One of the major spies for the Union army was Harriet Tubman. As a former slave, she had to work on the plantation. Refusing to work on the plantations, Tubman determined to escape the reality of a slave and run away. Before being recruited by the Union officers to be one of the spies in South Carolina, she volunteered for the Union as a cook and a nurse. Ever since, she became the “first woman in the country’s history to lead a military expedition” when she helped Col. Montgomery make a plan to raid and free the slaves from rice plantations. In addition, she led several slaves up rivers in gunboats, through mine fields, and along the waterway. When they reached the shore, they “destroyed a Confederate supply depot and freed more than 750 slaves”. Being a slave herself, she knew what it was like to be controlled and stuck. As a result, she fought by the Union side and ended up freeing more slaves than anyone has ever freed. Although she was a female, much more a former slave, she was not scared to get caught. Instead, Tubman fought and did what she believed in. By destroying some of the Confederates supplies, Tubman positively strengthened the success of the Union.

Another Union spy was Pauline Cushman. Although Cushman had the same goal as Harriet Tubman, she came from an absolutely different background. Cushman was a struggling actress who was “dared by Confederate officers to interrupt a show to toast Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy” . Of her own free will, she contacted the Union Army’s local provost marshal and asked to perform the toast as a way to insert herself in the Confederates to work as a federal intelligence operative. Ever since, she was brought to Nashville where she began to work with the Union Army. While working for them, she “gathered information about the enemy’s operations, identified Confederate spies, and served as a federal courier” . Her contribution has helped the Union figure out which Confederate spies were among the Union Army and this made an impact on the success of the Union Army. Without Cushman, we would have one less person fighting for the success of our country and what it is today.

Although these famous figures were known for their effort in contributing to the Union spies, there are also famous female Confederate spies that impacted the war. Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a very famous female spy working for the Confederate Army. She was born into a slave-holding family and married to a man with the name of Robert Greenhow. Though she became a widow later on in her life, it is said it is probably “fortunate, too – for the Confederacy – as she thereby had a much freer hand with the mighty and near-mighty in Washington officialdom.” With the coming of session, Greenhow became the head of the spies in Washington and sent information to President Davis in Richmond. Another accomplishment was when she alerted the Confederates to the “forward march of the Federals leading to their disastrous defeat at Manassas.” With the benefaction of having Greenhow as a spy for the Confederates, the Confederate Army was able to attain additional secret information that led to the Confederate’s win at the Bull Run Battle.

As mentioned before, women were put under different circumstances since the start of the Civil War. Another major contribution besides serving as soldiers and working as spies were women who worked as nurses. Working as nurses was a gruesome job for women because of the casualties of the war. Civil War nurses had to “clean and bandage wounds, feed soldiers, dispense medications and assist surgeons during operations and medical procedures.” Due to the help of nurses, a large number of soldiers were saved.

One group of nurses called “Indian Women Nurses” were contributing as much as they could to the casualties of the war. Just like any other women during the Civil War, it had provided women the opportunity to expand their traditional domestic life. As men were leaving to fight the war, “women devised ways both to help the war cause and to survive financially” . Specifically, Indiana Nurses used their domestic skills to make clothing and collect supplies, they conducted bazaars and organized benefits to raise funds, and they helped needy families of soldiers by supplying them with food and winter fuel. Most importantly, they helped stricken soldiers after hearing about widespread diseases and the chaos of the battles. These nurses typically looked up to Florence Nightingale who “led corps of women nurses on the battlefields of the Crimean War” . Along with their involvement in the Civil war, they also became accomplished and persevered as nurses later on. It is said that after an appeal in churches and in the Indianapolis, “Daily Journal for woman to help the 33rd regiment, five Indianapolis women found their way to the almost inaccessible village of Crab Orchard” . These Indian women nurses didn’t just want to contribute to the war, but they also wanted to continue being nurses and spreading help around the world. Although they started as housewives, they were able to expand due to their experience and effort in the Civil War.

One person who influenced the field of nursing during the Civil War was Dorothea Dix. Although little is known about her childhood, it is said that Dix was born in Hampden, Maine in 1802. She attended school in Boston and tutored children. However, because of an illness she decided to spend time in Europe. While traveling overseas, she “met a group of reformers interested in changing the way the mentally ill were cared for” . When she returned to the United States, she was set out to tour mental hospitals. When the Civil War started, she dedicated herself to the Union cause. Dix was named as the “Superintendent of Nurses”. She was given full “power to appoint army nurses in the hospitals and cheerfully gave her labor and her fortune to the cause” . With her help of rallying up nurses, the nurses were able to help in hospitals where casualties were high in numbers. Also, her appointment of nurses was found on “every battlefield from Bull Run to Appomattox” . Because the nurses were carried out in different stations and helping soldiers who were hurt, they lessened the number of people that could have died due to bleeding out. However, with Dorothea Dix’s help in training and appointing nurses, she had contributed to the Union cause and built up the occupation of nurses today.

Another impactful woman during the time of the Civil War is Florence Nightingale. Nightingale was born in Florence, Italy to a British family. Since she was younger, Nightingale preferred not to be in the center of attention. However, she wrote “I think I am got something more good-nature and complying” meaning she wants to do something great to please her mother who love being involved in social climbing. When she was younger, she was interested in philanthropy and by the age of sixteen, she wanted to become a nurse. Nightingale felt as if “nursing was calling her” . The year of 1853, the Crimean War broke out and at that time there were no nurses stationed at the hospitals, but in 1854, the Secretary of War asked her to organize corps of nurses to tend the sick and fallen soldiers in Crimea. Later in life, she was frequently consulted to manage field hospitals during the Civil War. In one of Walt Whitmans’ letter to his mother from the hospital camps of the Civil War, he claimed “we find the most poetic and truthful expression of the sentiment peculiar to army nursing…it was this wonderous mingling of devotion and suffering observed among the British soldiers and sailors which brought out the finest qualities of heart, will, and mind in Florence Nightingale” . Although Florence Nightingale was not at the Civil War field, she was the foundation in which all nurses looked up to and came for advice. Without her, nursing wouldn’t be what it is today.

In conclusion, there are many roles women have played during the Civil War. Since men were drafted to go fight,women had to move from the “Cult of Domestic” to taking over job men have left. Some strived even more and participated in the war itself. For example, many women changed their appearance to be disguised as soldiers in war, some took risks and became undercover spies, and others became nurse to take care of the casualties of war. Regardless of what women chose to do, they have all contributed to the Civil War and made an impact on today’s world.

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The Role of Women in the Civil War. (2021, Mar 18). Retrieved from