Many look back on the Civil War and remember all the men who died fighting for the Union and the Confederacy, but not many remember the vital role women played in the war. Women weren’t allowed to serve in the military, so how big of a role could they have played? Women did everything from looking after homes and businesses and running massive fundraisers to support the troops, to serving as army nurses, soldiers, and spies.
The United States Civil War, which lasted from 1861 - 1865 was a war fought between the Union and the Confederacy. The Confederacy consisted of 11 southern states that had seceded from the United States (US) in 1860 and 1861. These states seceded predominantly because of their desire to uphold the institution of slavery on which the South’s economy relied; though some argue that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights.
Most American women were impacted by the war; many had husbands, fathers, brothers, or sons go off to fight, leaving the women at home to take care of everything. Many women took over all household responsibilities and took care of the family – though they had been responsible for most, if not all, of the household responsibilities before the war – and some women took over farms and businesses run by their husbands when they went off to fight in the war. Women, whose place at the time was seen as in the home, were left to look after everything while the men were away.
Helping the War Effort
At the time, women working was looked down upon, so many led aid organizations and relief efforts. These efforts included organizing fundraisers, making supplies to send to soldiers, collecting and sending supplies to the front lines, and donating money and homemade goods. Other efforts included helping those in poverty.
One of the most successful fundraisers were sanitary fairs, which helped raise money for the US Sanitary Commission. It was formed in 1861 and worked to improve medical care and living conditions for Union Soldiers. The sanitary fairs, which were primarily organized and staffed by women, also increased support from men and women of all ages and classes for Union troops and the Civil War (Madway, 2012).
The fairs created a sense of patriotism among fairgoers as well as a sense of connection to the frontlines of the war and an interest in the outcome. These fairs would not have been possible if it weren’t for women – who organized, ran, and attended the fairs, and contributed to the Union’s war effort. Overall, 21 sanitary fairs held in the northern states during the war raised millions of dollars for the US Sanitary Commission.
On the Front Lines
Some women, usually wives or daughters of soldiers would live in the camps with the soldiers and often help out around the camp doing chores like laundry, cooking, cleaning, sewing clothes, and taking care of the camp. Some of these women who followed the army in the field actually held positions and were recognized as daughters of the regiment by the army.
Army nurse Annie Bell tending to wounded soldiers in Nashville circa 1864.
Women also served as nurses during the Civil War because they were allowed to be nurses when the Union Army realized they needed more medical staff. Between 5,000 and 10,000 women served as nurses during the Civil War, and the nurses provided medical care, did administrative work, helped keep hospitals sanitary, and kept patients company.
One woman - who wasn’t a nurse herself but contributed greatly to women serving as nurses for the army during the war - was Dorothea Dix. In 1861, at the age of 59, Dix – a mental health reformer – was appointed Superintendent of Nursing for the Union Army by the Secretary of War when there was a shortage of nurses. Dix’s job was to appoint nurses for the Union Army, and Dix set rigid standards for army nurses: 35-50 years of age, good moral character, matronly, and in good health.
After two years, the War Department ended Dix’s program, which employed more than 3,000 female nurses in the army on a salary of 40 cents per day (which is equivalent to almost $12 today). Women also volunteered as nurses for the Union Army without being appointed by Dix because women who had volunteered in Union hospitals could get certified as official nurses by regional aid societies.
Women at War
During the Civil War, only men could enlist in the Army and fight on the battlefields. Women were not allowed to enlist, though that didn’t stop some. Experts estimate that between 400 and 750 women served as soldiers during the Civil War, although there is no way to be sure of the number since women didn’t enlist as women.
Hundreds of women pretended to be men and fought alongside male soldiers on the battlefields. Oftentimes, they weren’t discovered to be women until they were injured or killed, and many were never found out to be women because they survived the war.
Mary Owens was one woman who served as a man named John Evans in the Union Army for 18 months until she was wounded, at which point she was discovered to be a woman. She was sent home to Pennsylvania where she received press attention. During the war, the armies and the public learned that there were women fighting on the front lines.
Women didn’t just serve as soldiers, hundreds of women also served as spies during the Civil War, for both the Union and the Confederacy. Spies were invaluable during the Civil War for both sides, effectively changing the course of the war.
Maria “Belle” Boyd
Maria “Belle” Boyd is one such spy. Boyd served as a spy for the confederacy starting in 1861 at the age of 17. Given that she was such a successful spy, one would think her identity wasn’t found out until after the Civil War. However, the Union and the public knew of who she was and what she did. She was known in the press as “La Belle Rebelle,” and the “Siren of Shenandoah,” among other nicknames. Boyd pretended to be a courier and gathered information at Union camps where she would often visit.
Boyd, who was considered to be an attractive woman, relied most heavily on getting information from Union soldiers whom she seduced. Even though she was arrested about seven times, Boyd wasn’t incarcerated until July of 1862, where she was held in Old Capitol Prison in Washington DC for a month until she was freed in a prisoner exchange. However, she was once again arrested a year later in July of 1863. Boyd was released from prison in December of that year and exiled to the South.
Women helped both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War, playing vital roles on both sides. They did more than looking after their home and children during the war; they played a crucial role in raising funds for the Union army so that they could keep fighting the war. They served as daughters of the regiment helping the army with cooking, cleaning, and boosting morale, and also as nurses to help wounded soldiers.
Some women even served as spies, which were important during the war – they gathered intelligence for both sides and monitored troop movements, which helped shape the war. Women even managed to fight on the front lines to help their country win the war. Had it not been for the women’s contributions, the Civil War might have had a very different outcome.
The Union army may not have been able to continue fighting if it weren’t for the sanitary fairs and nurses, and the course of the war would have looked very different if there weren’t spies, many of whom were women. All in all, the Civil War was made possible by the efforts of women despite the sexism that kept all but a few women from fighting on the front lines.
Written by Sydney Henderson