Women's Roles in the Amrican Civil War

Women’s Roles in the American Civil War

Women played an important role during the American Civil War but it wasn’t until 100 years afterwards that they received recognition. Even today history books skip over the important contributions of women.

Women in the 1860s and even today were not recognized for their abilities outside the home. Even though the men were off to war, women had to fight at home to work. They were considered too frail to work in business. Ironically, women had been working beside their husbands for generations as they pioneered out west. They worked on their farms and in the family stores.

The Civil War was important as a watershed event in American history, especially for women. The history books detail the war as told from the men’s point of view with battles and generals. Most history books include a little information on famous women such as Clara Barton, who served as a volunteer nurse during the Civil War and is credited with starting the American Red Cross. Yet little else about the other heroic women is included in those history books.

Women undertook working outside the home and endured hardships, heartbreak, and sorrow as their men and young boys were taken away to fight in the war. Many men died or were maimed for life. There were even women who took up arms themselves and dressed in the uniforms of their deceased fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons, fighting alongside the men. Three hundred such women have been documented, but scholars believe there were many more who were never discovered.

The Story of Clara Barton: A Pioneering Woman of the Civil War

Clara Barton was a woman who knew how to organize. She used her skills during the American Civil War. Officially, she was not connected to the military. However, she collected and delivered supplies to northern troops around Washington, D.C. Her background was as a teacher. She was only twenty when she ran her own school. Later on, she was hired to work for the government in Washington, D.C., which was unusual and high honor for a woman.

Clara Barton

Clara Barton heard about a pro-slavery group who attacked soldiers in her home state of Massachusetts. Many in the regiment were wounded, and some killed. When Barton learned that some of the injured were her former students, she rushed back to Massachusetts to offer comfort.

She used whatever medical skill she had and organized groups of other women to collect supplies for the men. The proslavers have stolen all their supplies. Her kindness was carried with the remaining troops as they headed south. They wrote their families and told of the wonderful woman who came to their aid.

Clara organized ladies’ aid societies to continue sending supplies to the troops. Wagons of donations were filled and brought right into the camps and battlefields in the Washington area. After the war, she continued her humanitarian efforts with the International Red Cross.

In 1881, she started the American Red Cross and devoted the rest of her life to it.

Jenny Wade’s Bravery in Gettysburg

Jenny Wade was another young woman caught up in the war effort. She lived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

It was the summer of 1863 when the Confederate troops headed for Gettysburg to find shoes for their troops. The Northern troops were stationed in the small town of Gettysburg. They were added by the 2,000 or so residents who had no idea the war was coming to their doorsteps.

Jenny Wade was really Mary Virginia. Her friends called her “Gin” or “Ginnie,” and when her brave deed made the newspaper, it was inaccurately reported as “Jennie.” The name stuck throughout history.

On June 26, 1863, the Confederate troops marched into Gettysburg, looking for supplies. The people hid their food. They stationed themselves around the perimeter of the town. With the Northern troops marching into Gettysburg, there was bound to be a clash. That came true on July 1.

Many citizens retreated to their cellars as protection against battle shells. Jennie and her family thought her sister’s home would be safe since it was not in the direct line of the battle. She prepared bread for the Union soldiers and filled their canteens with water.

On July 3, the Confederates fired on the area, including the Wade house. Jennie refused to retreat to the basement. She was making biscuits for the Northern soldiers and felt it was her patriotic duty to remain. A Confederate soldier, one of the Louisiana infantrymen, fired, and the bullet went through the door of the Wade house and struck Jennie in the back.

The Jennie Wade House Museum Gettysburg

A lot of people died in the Civil War, but Jennie was the only civilian killed in Gettysburg. The Northern soldiers considered her a heroine for all she had done for them. In recognition of her efforts, Congress declared that the U.S. flag be flown over Jenny Wade’s tomb. It still flies today as a reminder of the bravery of one young girl.

Female Heroes of the Civil War

There are biographies in the library about Clara Barton and Jenny Wade, but there were thousands of other women who helped who never had their names recorded. Northern women were the driving force behind the anti-slavery issue. After Lincoln’s Proclamation freeing slaves in the Confederate state, many of these women traveled with the troops at their own expense. They set up schools to teach freed slaves how to read and write and helped them settle on farms and in cities where they got jobs.

Other women formed groups such as the Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission. These women also traveled with the troops. They saw the health of the men, both physically and emotionally. They were very good for morale. They comforted the lonely men, wrote letters for them, and shared their food. Many more men would have died from disease if it wasn’t for the work of these brave women. Most of them were middle or upper-class ladies used to lives of privilege. They gave up their comfortable homes to travel by wagons with the troops, live in tents, and cook over open fires.

There are many more famous names associated with the American Civil War. This includes writers Louisa May Alcott, who worked as a nurse in a military hospital, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who continued the fight at home through her writing and speeches.

There are too many names and too many brave deeds to include in this article. Women from all the northern states participated in different ways to help. Some organized charity balls to raise funds for supplies for the troops. Others provided meals for the troops going through Washington, D.C.

The role of women during the Civil War was not recognized more than 100 years later, and even now, people are learning about these accomplishments. Many unnamed women put their own health at risk to volunteer in military hospitals. Other women kept journals and diaries that recorded the day-to-day life during the war years and provided us with a first-hand view of history. Women worked in the camps and fought on the battlefields and on the home front. Some, like Pauline Cushman, even risked their lives as spies for the North. They are all unsung heroines in the greatest battle ever fought on American soil. 

Nancy Vawter
Nancy Vawter

Nancy Vawter has been a reporter and writer since shortly after her graduation from the University of Arizona. She spent seven years with the New York Post, working as a national feature writer in New York. She later taught journalism as an assistant professor at American University in Washington.