The American Civil War not only led to racial equality, but also gender equality; trialed by the role of women disguised as men to fight in the war. Women who fought in battle played a fundamental contribution to the outcome of the war, all fighting for the same common goal: to prove their capability in the adversity of gender inequality. In their decision to join either the Confederacy or the Union, women had to consider the tragedy, trauma, and consequences of fighting as men in the war. Although the women that chose to disguise themselves as men to become soldiers they all shared a common goal of demonstration of their physical ability, they also expressed very differing motives for fighting for either the Confederacy or the Union. How did the women fighting for the Confederacy justify slavery when they were being held back based on gender inequality?
The active role of women in the American Civil War varied between women. disguising themselves as men and serving as soldiers to nurses working at the front healing injured soldiers. On the home front, women confronted daunting and unfamiliar tasks, “as men’s departure for the war required them singlehandedly to hold together households and family businesses” (Leonard xvii, 1995). The Civil War was not a man’s fight, contrary to popular belief. The Civil War proved itself an era in which women broke the gender roles of that society by fighting alongside men on the front.
Many women took this as a chance to “exercise their supposedly unique caretaking talents on a new scale and in the new, violent, and profoundly public contexts of the military hospital and the battlefield” (Leonard xix, 1995). About twenty thousand women performed nursing and other medical support services. They bore arms and charged into the battlefield, lived in camps, suffered in prisons, and died for the causes they believed in. Both Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women soldiers.
At the time women weren’t considered equal to men by any stretch of imagination, women were mostly confined to the domestic sphere. However, this did not stop them, women soldiers found the courage to disguise themselves as men and assume masculine names. Hundreds of women served in the Confederacy and Union. It can be estimated that a little less than four hundred fought in the war (Righthand).
Women were “entrenched in secrecy, and regarded as men, they were sometimes revealed as women, by accident or casualty” (Leonard 166, 1995). Most commonly, injuries and illnesses exposed women of their gender and identity. If found out, the most generally resulted in a wave of rumors followed by most frequently being sent home without punishment. A very small amount faced imprisonment, institutionalism, or fines they were required to pay. One of the more dramatic instances of a female soldier being discovered after giving birth while imprisoned at Johnson’s Island prison camp on Lake Erie, Ohio.
“‘This is the first instance of the father giving birth to a child we have heard of,’ said the Sandusky Register” (Hall 134, 2006). No witnesses considered the possibility that it a woman disguised as a man gave birth, as if a female soldier was tabooer that a man giving birth for the first time in history. This woman above was discovered six months earlier after being wounded, yet still became an officer due to displaying well-above average courage and ability (Hall 134, 2006).
In battle women were able to keep their disguises hidden very well. They were not required to have military training, in fact, most were “citizen soldiers”, so they could easily become a part of the army. Soldiers slept clothed, bathed separately, and avoided public latrines. Because of these circumstances, women avoided having their identity revealed and were able to advance in their position of male soldiers.
A surprising number of women took position as officers and even sergeants. (Hall xi, 1994). The evidence that survived suggests that women made it so far without describes them as being aloof and keeping to themselves in order to help maintain the secret. Their motivation for fighting in the war paralleled to that of the male soldiers. Their incentives ranged from staunch patriotism, to supporting their respective causes, for adventure, to be able to leave home, and to earn money.
Some personal writings that have survived displayed that many women were running away from unsatisfying. and abusive families. In a household where women are trapped at home or weren’t able to marry leaving their family with a financial burden catalyzed women to flee. There were also cases in which women followed either their husbands or brothers into war, enlisting with a relative most likely against their wishes (Righthand).
Sarah Wakeman joined the army because it provided more money than most professions to working-class men and women. She also chose to flee because she suffered domestic abuse in her household (Burgess 72). Jennie Hodgers worked as a factory worker as an immigrant. She spent most of her life disguised as a man to work higher wage jobs that women never would be hired for (Leonard 57, 1999). In joining the military Jennie desired adventure and wanted the army’s attractive wages (Blanton, 34).
A great range of women enlisted in the war as male soldiers, along with a great range of differing perspectives. Female soldiers came from across the economic and social spectrum, ranging from poor and sometimes illiterate young girls to highly educated upper-class women. One girl, Lizzie Compton, claimed to have enlisted in the war at age fourteen and served eighteen months in seven different regions, “leaving one and enrolling in another when fearing detection” (Hall 174, 2006). Not only did she bypass the male gender requirement, but the age requirement by four years.
Astonishingly, she didn’t get caught, and concurrently proves that the women suffrage at the time clearly wasn’t a partisan issue. Although women were fighting as men in the war, they weren’t necessary able to gain any equal rights. Yes, it made a statement, but only through the avenue of disguising themselves as men. All records of their achievements were published long after the war ended, and made only a slight impact on the state of gender inequality. However, the circumstances of the Civil War sparked the women’s suffrage movement in America.
In the South, the notion of women serving as military nurses in the battlefield areas was frowned upon, but demonstrated “the closest parallels in the South to young women…who served openly as women, and whose battlefield exploits were widely admires” (Hall 98,1994). Shattering gender roles of those who tended to the wounded on the battlefield Front made for further. progression of the women’s suffrage movement.
Sarah Emma Edmonds served as one of the most famous female soldiers in the American Civil War history. She writes in her memoir, Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy, discussing the trials of going undercover. Edmonds understood that although sometimes her disguises placed her at a lower level of hierarchy in order to achieve. union victories, for example at one point she dressed up as a slave in order to contract Confederate information valuable to the Union. “He hastened away and informed the rebel sharpshooters that…they would charge on that portion of the line they might capture…I thanked god for this information” (Edmonds 117).
Edmonds’ stance on the battle doesn’t favor one side or the “other”, the Union and the confederacy, but women fighting for equal rights on both side. In one incident, a different female soldier shoots her twice so she deflects by shooting her in the hand. Directly after, she wraps the woman’s wound with a bandage and washes her face, “I laid her by the roadside while I went for some water, which I brought in my hat, and after bathing her face for some time she recovered” (Edmonds 95).
The compassion Edmonds expresses for the other side proves compassion only. a woman could truly present, and proves that not all women were fighting the opposing side just for the sole purpose of winning, but rather because they wanted to stand up and fight for their beliefs: gender equality. She knew that working against each other would do no good, and immediately went to the woman’s aid and assist her in any way possible even after the offenses. Edmonds asserted that “that was the first and only instance a female rebel changed her sentiments, or abating on iota in her cruelty or hatred toward the ‘Yankees’” (Edmonds 97).
In opposition, the memoirs of Confederate female soldiers characterize the opposing side in a much more negative connotation in. comparison to Edmonds. They quite often demonize the other side by referring to them as “Yankee devils”. Belle Boyd describes an officer in the Illinois cavalry as both physically and culturally primitive based on his appearance. She describes another Union officer as the devil himself. This brings up the question of the question of the sentiments Confederate female soldiers felt towards the institution of slavery and slaves. themselves (Edmonds).
Morality molded Southern lifestyle as churches were the center of social and. intellectual life there. The Southern Clergy justified the morality of slavery through elaborate scriptural defense built on the infallibility of the Bible (Kvach 2). This irony arises in the sentiments of women soldiers that fought on the Front during the American Civil War. They were generally patriotic and in favor of having more equal rights, but they were also in support of the institution of slavery. The ideology of supporting equal rights for women and not for slaves manifests itself in the hypocrisy of confederate. women warriors.
Two cousins from Pulaski County, Virginia, Mary and Mollie Bell, disguised themselves as men and joined a Confederate cavalry after their uncle deserted them to. fight for the Yankees. The Southern cavalry that they joined comprised of militiamen responsible for supplying their own horses, and whose prior experience consisted primarily of policing and arresting escaped plantation slaves. Although there is no evidence that Mary and Mollie were trained “slave catchers,” joining the cavalry meant that they were in support of the institution of slavery. Mary enlisted under the name ‘Bob Morgan’ and Mollie under the name ‘Tom Parker’.
Despite their cavalry unit being taken by Union Soldiers, they remained undetected. Soon after, Mary and Mollie transferred to the 36th Virginia Infantry and became foot soldiers where they were “acknowledged. by all the soldiers with whom they were associated to be valiant soldiers” (Blanton 11). Mollie was even promoted to Corporal ranking during her years as a soldier resulting in. boastfulness, “if all the women of the Confederacy were as patriotic as us, the country would have been free long ago” (Blanton 12). Their definition of free refers to the Confederacy becoming independent of the Union and remaining a country that allows. slavery to exist.
Another Confederate soldier that shared the views of Mary and Molly was Loreta. Janeta Velazquez. In her book The Woman in Battle, she expresses her opinions regarding Southern blacks as a combination of stereotype and personal experience. As a slave owner, she viewed them as “happy, contented and weak-witted individuals” (Velazquez 89). Like most Southern whites, Loreta displayed shock that slaves sought emancipation.
An instance in which she expresses extreme racist tendencies occurs after the war has ended. Loreta spouts that she feels uncomfortable returning to a South that has been placed “in the hands of ignorant negroes, just relieved from slavery, and white ‘carpet-baggers’” (Velazquez 535). The term ‘carpet-bagger’ refers to someone perceived as an unscrupulous opportunist.
She makes another derogatory comment toward former slaves later in the text, saying that they “would have been just as well to have remained at home and fought the battle for supremacy with the free negroes and carpet-baggers on familiar ground” (Velazquez 543). Her desire to fight on the Front alongside other Confederate men confirms that she longs for rights. corresponding to those of men. However, her sentiments towards slaves suggests a certain level of hypocrisy.
Loreta justifies the institution of slavery by stating that “the faithful servant proved the moral and social necessity of slavery. On this foundation rested the plantation system and the entire structure of southern society” (Velazquez 223). On the other hand, women were held to a docile standard in society during that period and expected to be passive, conforming to the requirements of the domestic sphere. Loreta saw these social constructs as arbitrary, believing she deserved the right to fight in support of the Confederacy, despite her sex.
Contradictory attitudes like those of Mary Bell, Mollie Bell, and Loreta Janeta Velazquez, are shared by countless women soldiers of the Confederacy. They desperately wanted to participate in politics, as their opinions on issues were equally as strong as those of men, but at the time men held the domain of politics and business. Given that women still didn’t have the right to vote, their political power was limited. Although they had strong feelings as to what the outcome of the Civil War should have been, they had no influence on the matter.
Women like Mary, Mollie, and Loreta disguised themselves as men in order to contribute the war in the most explicit way possible: on the battlefield. In comparing racial inequality to gender inequality, it seems unjust that that white women were more respected more than African Americans but were simultaneously considered inferior. compared to white men. Confederate women fail to see the irony in their opinions towards slavery in comparison for their desires for more rights for women. In no way are white women more deserving of their freedom than African Americans, especially female African Americans. Unfortunately, in the movement of feminism during the Civil War era, black women were left behind, and had a long way to go even after being granted their freedom at the end of the Civil War.
The movement of women’s suffrage took great lengths to accomplish change. Women disguising themselves as men only encompassed a miniscule part of what actions needed to be made in order to reach the condition of the United States today. Equality of all genders, races, class, are ideals that may never approach. When prejudices based on human biology continue to prevail, oppression won’t go away any time soon. During the American Civil War era, women circulated hypocrisy in the Confederacy by oppressing black people while simultaneously believing the oppression and lack of rights they received was unwarranted. This internalized oppression of all social groups restrains the progression of equality worldwide.
Example of this phenomenon occurred before the Civil war era, and still occur today. Before, because of the tyranny of the patriarchy many women of that time period were against voting rights for women. Today women have advanced to political positions in the legislature. However, when voting on reproductive healthcare for women, many women in official positions voted against it. Millions of underprivileged women in America don’t have access to reproductive healthcare, or any healthcare whatsoever (Price). It is up to the women in office to stand up for women’s rights and represent them justly.
In black communities, there are people like Kanye West that are discrediting the black suffrage movement, claiming, “When you hear about slavery for 400 years… For 400 years? That sounds like a choice”. As a person of color, he internally oppresses the people of his social group by saying that no marginalization to people of color comes from 400 years of slavery because it was a choice (Kaur). At this day and age, this mentality of speaking against the best interest of ones given social group should not happen.
The Civil War era catalyzed the feminist movement. At the start of the war, women took on roles outside of their domestic sphere and ventured into positions in the workplace. The war forced women into public life, no longer content to sit at home and leave all the decision making to men; fortifying the growing movement. About 150 year ago women disguised themselves as men in the American Civil War in order to fight on the battle field Front alongside men. Not until this year, 2018, did a law to allow women to fight on the Front get passed (Fantz). Yes, women and people of color have come a long way over the course of 150 years, but still have ways to go.
- Blanton, DeAnne, and Lauren M. Cook. They Fought like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil War. Sutton, 2005.
- Edmonds, S. Emma E. Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: Comprising the Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields. Scholarly Publishing Office, University of Michigan, University Library, 2011.
- Fantz, Ashley. “Women in Combat: U.S. Joins More than a Dozen Nations.” CNN, Cable News Network, 20 Aug. 2015, www.cnn.com/2015/08/20/us/women-in-combat-globally/index.html.
- Hall, Richard. Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War. Marlowe & Co., 1994.
- Hall, Richard H. Women on the Civil War Battlefront. University Press of Kansas, 2006.
- Kaur, Harmeet. “Kanye West Just Said 400 Years of Slavery Was a Choice.”