Union or Confederate, American Women Played Crucial Roles in the Civil War Effort

Sarah Bahr
Indianapolis, IN

Filling Cartridges. Women working at the U.S. Arsenal, Watertown, Massachusetts. From Harper’s Weekly, July 1861. (Image: Library of Congress)

“I may be compelled to face danger, but never fear it, and while our soldiers can stand and fight, I can stand and feed and nurse them,” Clara Barton, a Civil War nurse and later founder of the American Red Cross organization, once said.1 Though they were prohibited from serving in combat roles, women acted as spies for the North and South or, like Barton, nursed wounded soldiers back to health.2 From 1861 to 1865, American women assumed a variety of roles in the Civil War effort, from nurses in the North to petitioners and letter writers in the South, positions which, though they resulted in increased short-term male recognition of women’s political capabilities and capacity for treason, did not ultimately lead to a long-term elevation of female status in society.

Both Union and Confederate women were actively involved in the war effort. Although most women did not go so far as to disguise themselves as men to enlist in the army as Confederate woman Loreta Velázquez did in 1861, they nevertheless played crucial roles in the non-combat sphere.3 The view of proper roles for women during the Civil War era still coincided with the ideals of the Cult of Domesticity, a doctrine which dictated that women should remain in the home and not work outside it.4 Nevertheless, many resourceful women managed to participate in activities critical to the war effort while still complying with the cult’s ideals.5 Northern women joined Ladies’ Aid Societies, which were groups that prepared clothing, bedding, food, and other items for Union soldiers.6 Women’s aid work reinforced lessons of civic responsibility and obedience as women learned to be subservient to the demands of government agencies.7 They relied on their domestic skills to supply comforts for soldiers, a task which provided them a means through which they could contribute to the war effort while still staying within the home, following the cult’s ideals.8 Aid work also valued loyalty to the Union above all else, in reinforcement of the cult’s ideal of subservience.9

Many Northern women also served as nurses during the war, a capacity in which they developed motherly relationships with their charges.10 While women retained some say in their patients’ care, they were ultimately answerable to a higher male authority, in a hierarchy which reinforced American cultural ideology of subservience to men.11 The nursing profession did not initially appear to mesh with the cult’s ideals due to the dangerous and dirty nature of the work, but women reframed their work regarding feminine care and affection to justify their roles.12 Nurses worked in a spirit of sacrifice: they believed their work embodied women’s true nature, and shunned concerns over pay in favor of highlighting their patriotism.13 They smoothed out the “rough edges” of war-hardened men and attempted to humanize them into civilized individuals through their “refined womanly care.”14 Obedience was valued above all else for nurses, who learned not to question the hospital hierarchy, but to follow the orders of their male superiors without question.15

In the South, by contrast, soldiers’ wives petitioned the Confederate government and wrote letters to prominent officials begging for help, chastising government policies, and eventually threatening the men if they did not act to address the women’s concerns satisfactorily.16 Elite women worked their family connections, but poor white women had no choice but to write letters to government officials who were strangers to them.17 But write they did.18 They not only wrote letters, but they also gathered signatures on petitions attesting to the need for their husbands’ return.19 They sent mass petitions that included the signatures of more than five hundred soldiers’ wives to government officials who they believed could help them.20 The letters grew increasingly violent as the women’s concerns went unaddressed, however (“Send me good grain if you want to live!” threatened one woman, Martha Sheets), and in 1863 food riots broke out.21 Women had warned the government, but when their letters were ignored, they resorted to direct and violent action.22

One of the war’s most notable short-term impacts on women was evident in the changes in how members of both armies punished female spies and traitors. Though the North initially reprimanded Southern female spies and traitors with benign slaps on the wrist, Union treatment of Confederate women evolved throughout the war.23 At the beginning of the war, according to one Illinois private, Confederate women were “entitled to protection, even if they were the wives and daughters of rebels.”24 But women complicated matters when they did not fit into the army’s view of women as passive, nonpartisan “booty” in war, and were in reality often intensely involved in struggles.25 The Union punished traitors and belligerent women relatively leniently at the war’s outset, but as the conflict progressed the Union stopped issuing orders of protection for Confederate women and began holding them accountable for treason.26 Scouts, spies, and traitors could all be executed irrespective of womanhood, although no women ever were.27 Women were now seen as political persons and made to take loyalty oaths if they wanted to remain in occupied territory, a shift representative of women’s larger change in status from passive observers in war to active participants.28

In the short-term, the Civil War had both positive and negative impacts on American women. The transition from treating women as “booty” to a reluctant recognition of their “political personhood and capacity for treason” in the South resulted in men viewing women as active and capable cogs in the war effort for the first time.29As Confederate woman Mary Boykin Chestnut remarked, “It is so delightful to be of enough consequence to be arrested.”30 Confederate women were held accountable for their beliefs and actions for the first time, and though their arrests demonstrated progress in men’s conception of their mental and political acuity, the fact remained that they were being arrested, an adverse effect because it meant they could no longer play as active a role in the war effort.31

While the Civil War did not result in a sustained elevation of women’s status after the war’s end, the vacuum created by the deaths of approximately two percent of the population, or around 620,000 men, did allow many women to attend college for the first time.32 Land-grant schools began admitting women in the late 1860s, and by 1910 40 percent of all college students were women.33 The decision to admit women was one made out of necessity, as the vast number of American men who died in the Civil War meant that colleges were forced to admit women if they wanted to survive.34 Though women enjoyed increased educational opportunities for a few decades, in the 1890s a movement to recruit more men to college and reverse the feminization of post-secondary education gained momentum, and colleges decreased their recruitment of women.35 Women who did attend college were instructed to major in softer fields such as home economics, and were discouraged from taking harder science and engineering classes, which again began closing their doors to women.36 Although women enjoyed educational opportunities equal to those of men for a few years, after the country’s male population recovered from its post-war decimation, women were quickly forced out of colleges when they were no longer needed to bolster enrollment.37

Though neither Northern nor Southern women were permitted to serve in combat roles during the Civil War, women in both regions assisted the war effort in a variety of other ways. They stowed messages beneath their skirts, relayed conversations between enemy officers to opposing generals, and cared for wounded and dying soldiers afflicted by oftentimes gruesome and horrific injuries.38 These actions increased male respect for women’s mental and political capacities in the short term, but, once the war ended, had little direct impact on long-term female social standing.39 Nevertheless, women played crucial roles in both the North and South’s war efforts, and Northern nurse Clara Barton articulated the philosophy of many of these brave women when she proclaimed, “If I can’t be a soldier, I’ll help soldiers.”40


  1. “Clara Barton Quotes,” BrainyQuote, accessed December 13, 2015, http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/c/
    clara_barton.html. >
  2. Nina Sibler, Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 182.
  3. Anita Morgan, Lecture, December 2, 2015.
  4. Sibler, Daughters of the Union, 192.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 163.
  7. Ibid., 164.
  8. Ibid., 166.
  9. Ibid., 175.
  10. Ibid., 195.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Ibid., 196.
  13. Ibid., 199.
  14. Ibid., 204.
  15. Ibid., 208.
  16. Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 170.
  17. Ibid., 165.
  18. Ibid.
  19. Ibid., 170.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid., 174.
  22. Ibid., 173.
  23. Ibid., 89.
  24. Ibid., 86.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid., 89.
  27. Ibid., 102.
  28. Ibid., 113.
  29. Ibid., 86, 89.
  30. Ibid., 102.
  31. Nina Silber, Gender and the Sectional Conflict (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008, 89.
  32. Anita Morgan, Lecture, December 7, 2015.
  33. Ibid.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid.
  37. Ibid.
  38. McCurry, Confederate Reckoning, 103; Sibler, Daughters of the Union, 182.
  39. McCurry, Confederate Reckoning, 86, 89.
  40. “Clara Barton Quotes.”


Sarah Bahr is an IUPUI sophomore pursuing majors in English Writing and Literacy, Journalism, and Spanish with minors in English Literature and Women’s Studies.