The American Civil War brought women new responsibilities on the battlefield and at home. Many became providers for their families, managing farms and businesses while male relatives served in the military. Many also contributed to the Union or Confederacy. Some raised money and supplies through ladies’ aid and soldiers’ aid societies as well as the US Sanitary Commission, a private agency that operated across the North and became critical to the Union victory. Others nursed soldiers (Louisa May Alcott, author of the beloved novel Little Women, worked as an army nurse), spied on the enemy, cooked and laundered for enlisted men, and served as uniformed battlefield helpers called vivandières. Unknown numbers of women fought as soldiers by concealing their identities and enlisting as men.
The war affected different groups of women differently. Native American women dealt with divided tribal loyalties in the aftermath of forced removal from ancestral lands. Before emancipation, the Civil War worsened the condition of many enslaved women in the South, though African American women from various regions helped the Union or abolitionist cause. Harriet Tubman, the famous Underground Railroad “conductor,” led an armed expedition in South Carolina, for example, and Susie King Taylor was an army nurse. Overall, the work women performed during the war inspired new ways of thinking about women’s place in society. Women such as Clara Barton awoke to fresh opportunities inspired by their war experiences. Barton, founder the American Red Cross, declared that the war put the American woman “at least fifty years in advance of the normal position which continued peace would have assigned her.”
Additional resources for research
- Selected Online Works by Civil War Era African American Women, The Library of Congress.
- “The Women who fought in the Civil War” and “Women Spies of the Civil War,” Smithsonian magazine.
- Women in the Civil War, The Civil War Trust.
- Women on the Border: Maryland Perspectives of the Civil War online exhibit, University of Maryland Libraries.
- “Women in Nursing during the Civil War,” New-York Historical Society.