Women on the Civil War’s ‘Front Line’

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The Civil War is indisputably a significant event in American history. As we know, the war was mainly fought over the dividing issue of slavery with the North opposed to slavery while the South for it. Of course, the Civil War was a result of a series of events. With the invention of the Cotton Gin by Eli Whitney, cotton fibers were quickly pulled from their seeds enabling for a faster production of cotton and as a result, prompted for an increase in slaves and institutionalized slavery. The industrialization of the North only added for a further demand for cotton and as a result, slaves.

Slavery continued to play a large part of American society and politics as seen with the Missouri Compromise in an effort to preserve the balance of power in Congress between slave and free states, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed for the people of the territory to choose whether or not they would be a slave state or a free state.

Furthermore, after the Fugitive Slave Act and the Dred Scott case, tensions between the Northern and Southern states, tensions rose greatly. Finally, the South, yearning for succession, had its’ final straw after the Election of 1860. Abraham Lincoln won the Presidency and was an advocate for the halt of slavery and its’ abolition, and less than a month after Lincoln’s election, southern states began to secede from the Union.

After a clear division of two governments, the Union and Confederacy, President Lincoln refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of the Confederacy. After intentionally provoking Jefferson Davis into bombarding Ft. Sumter, Lincoln was able to legally declare an emergency without legislative approval, develop an army, and take action upon the Confederacy, initiating the Civil War. The war resulted in a bloodshed which took the lives of 624,511 Union and Confederate soldiers, formally ending and ceasing the existence of the Confederacy after Confederate General Edmund Kirby Smith signed the surrender terms offered by the Union.

When we discuss the Civil War, we often omit or underestimate the importance of women; however, the Civil War was not only the result of contributions from men on the front lines but women too. The thousands of women who were actively engaged in the war reserved their individual reasons to why they contributed to war efforts. Many were fueled by mere patriotism to their respective side or devotion to a cause. Faced with opposition or fenced by gender roles, women adjusted to their restrictions by serving in capacities, traditional and unique, or through other means.

These capacities varied from humanitarian roles such as wartime nurses to espionage roles, collecting intelligence for the Union or Confederacy. Women were available as they ditched their roles of housekeepers instead of standing by. Among this, women were prime for particular wartime capacities for multiple reasons and characteristics. When all is considered, women involvement on the front during the war undoubtedly contributed to war efforts and arguably advancements.

But why would women want to join such a war to begin with? Prior to the war, women remained restrained to gender norms which included the stereotypical household obligation. The social structure was clear and outlined; men and women understood their respective roles. However, as time progressed, women began ditching the confines of their home and household characteristic – that is – mainly for Northern women.

Southern women were still shackled to household duties primarily as it was apart of southern ideology. Regardless, southern women still saw some movement of a shift from the acceptance of male authority. This shift is representative of the mid-19th century feminist movements which occured at the time.

The mid-19th century feminist movements empowered women to break norms and change for reform, and the impact of the movement is seen in the Civil War as the feminist movement gained momentum, likely influencing and empowering women to help with the war and its’ efforts. Alongside this formed mentality of women empowerment, some women were devoted to joining or aiding war efforts as a byproduct support for or patriotism to the North or South. Of course, this decision was heavily determined by secessionist or abolitionist views.

Even so, most women faced obstacles to join war efforts on the front. Women were prohibited by Army regulations to join as a soldier. Those who wanted to serve as battlefield nurses often faced opposition from family, once again confined by gender roles. Nonetheless, many still sought to serve in a capacity.

Some assumed masculine names and disguised themselves as men to fight on the battlefield. It’s approximated that 250 women were in the ranks of the Confederate army despite both armies, Union and Confederacy, holding no regard or acknowledgment that women served as soldiers. There are some documented instances of women soldiers being discharged. For instance, John Williams of the Seventeenth Missouri Infantry of Company H was a nineteen-year-old soldier who was subsequently discharged after being discovered as a woman.

Another instance is of a Mary Scaberry who enlisted as a private at the age of seventeen who was discovered to be a female after being treated at a hospital for fever. Like Williams, she was discharged after discovery. Yet, not all women soldiers were quickly discovered with a few being documented to have lasted in the ranks. Now, compared to wartime nurses, women soldiers were not as contributive to the overall outcome of battle as after all, they were only a considerably small number and inferior to the number of men serving.

Prior to the Civil War, most nurses in the United States were men. As a result of an influx of injured men, a need for more nurses arose, and women were considered and given the greenlight to serve in the capacity. Most notably, Dorothea Dix who was an administrator in Union military hospitals during the war heavily advocated for female nurses and paved the path for women nurses and led the recruitment and interviews of female candidates.

Once again, Dix’s promotion of female nurses and women themselves signing up and volunteering to become nurses is a portrayal and result of the feminist movements and women empowerment. The exact number of women nurses during the war is hard to establish but many historical accounts estimate two thousand on the Union and Confederacy.

A few prominent women nurses during the period of the war were Mary A. R. Livermore, Margaret Breckenridge, Helen Louise Gilson, Katherine Wormeley, Annie Wittenmyer, the Woolsey Sisters, and Mother Bickerdyke. In company to these names are a series of photographic prints of Civil War nurses, mostly unidentified. The responsibilities of these nurses varied. Regardless, women nurses had to keep up with the strict demands that their job dictated. To add to this, bureaucracy sometimes hampered their efforts and deprived nurses to provide personal care to the soldiers with one nurse, Harriet Eaton, writing how she was ‘more than ever dissatisfied with this way of working.”

Regularly, women nurses were responsible for the overall order of a ward, attend to their patients, assist patients with their correspondence, supervise the diets of patients, and administer drugs and stimulants. Evidently, women nurses contributed a great part in the humanitarian aspect of the war, attending not only to wounded soldiers but also to prisoners of war. Without women nurses, there would have continued to be a shortage and lack of nurses and as a consequence, threaten the wellbeing and lives of soldiers requiring medical attention.

Though, beyond fulfilling the roles of nurses and disguising themselves into battle, women also served as an important yet unknown role: intelligence operatives. In any war, intelligence is an essential component to any party of the war, and the Civil War is no exception to that. The North and South both valued the collection of intelligence because of the power such information could result in an otherwise unexpected outcome, especially in a battle.

The field of espionage was extremely dangerous and risky. The traditional punishment for captured spies was death by hanging. During the war, the Union and Confederate Congresses permitted courts-martial the power to try and punish spies by death. For the most part, men engaged in scouting and military reconnaissance.

Male spies did exist and were successful and effective, however, most men in the field of espionage were seen as untrustworthy and considered a risk. Women on the other were greatly suited for espionage because of society’s lingering gender roles and conceptions. A lady would be the last person expected to be involved in engaging in such a line of work. On top of this, women were able to exploit men and get behind enemy lines easier than their male counterparts.

Female spies coexisted in the Union and Confederacy as both sides saw the necessity in military intelligence. On the Northern side, Sarah Emma Edmonds served as a spy for the Union. For the South, Maria “Belle” Boyd and Rose O’Neal Greenhow spied for the Confederacy.

After hearing about the start of the Civil War, Sarah Edmonds felt a patriotic duty to take action which prompted her to join the war under an alias as “Frank Thomas” by disguising herself as a male and signing up for a male field nurse position. Edmonds continued until being reassigned as a mail carrier and later volunteered for an open position as a spy under Union General McClellan. One of her first missions involved her darkening her skin and posing as a slave in a Confederate military camp.

There, she eavesdropped on conversations where she was able to gather intelligence on the troops size and weapons which the Confederates planned to use in Yorktown. She infiltrated the Confederate army twice more under the disguise of an Irish peddler and once again as an African American in a Confederate Army camp. In the camp, she was able to take documents from the jackets of officers. Edmond’s career in espionage ended short after being hospitalized because of malaria and spent the rest of the war working as a hospital nurse.

One of the most notorious and successful Civil War spies is Rose O’Neal Greenhow. After marrying a State Department official, Robert Greenhow, Robert and Rose became influential figures in the capitol. Her husband’s position opened Greenhow to important political figures where she frequently socialized with them. After the war broke out, Greenhow was recruited to spy for the Confederacy after being asked by Virginia’s Governor, John Letcher, who had established a spy network in Virginia. Greenhow learned that on the Union, led by General Irwin McDowell, planned to advance on Confederate forces.

Subsequently, she sent Confederate General Pierre-Gustave Toutant de Beauregard warnings of the Union plans to advance by concealing messages in a discrete and unique manner. Once received, Beauregard requested that President Davis order General Joseph E. Johnston to station his troops to Bull Run. This move reinforced Confederate positions and troops, allowing for the Confederacy to secure a win on one of the war’s first major battles.


Cite this paper

Women on the Civil War’s ‘Front Line’. (2021, May 19). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/women-on-the-civil-wars-front-line/

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