Americans remember the conflict of 1861-1865 in many ways. For some, it was the War Between the States, a series of battles where Southern states fought for independence from the oppressive Union. To others, it was the struggle against slavery and for the country, a glorious show of American victory over amorality. Yet in all of these situations, the Civil War is presented as a series of battles between men. Only men were allowed to enlist to fight for liberty and justice for all, which has resulted in a cultural memory that this was a man’s war. How easily we have forgotten about the countless nurses, seamstresses, cooks, and mothers who kept the country going while the men were away at war. Women were not merely the wives, sisters, and mothers of soldiers. They filled many roles in the country’s war effort, both actively in service and passively contributing materials to the army.
Organizations like the United States Sanitary Commission were founded by women, managed by women, and made up of a volunteer corps of women. The work of the USSC saved immeasurable lives by improving the conditions of the camps and hospitals in which the soldiers stayed. In a war where two out of every three deaths were the result of a disease or infection, the basic hygienic needs of soldiers had to be a primary concern for the nation. However, due to a lack of resources and manpower, the government and the army could not address this vital need. The women of the USSC had to step in, and because of their work thousands of deaths were avoided. This is one of a multitude of roles that women played in the war, and yet is almost never discussed or acclaimed.
While textbooks do note that Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross, rarely does one see Sarah Emma Edmonds, Anna Dickinson, or Mary Mitchell mentioned at all. Even Louisa May Alcott, a famous American novelist, is seldom given credit for her nursing work in the Civil War. The United States has great respect for the Civil War—we can see it in the sesquicentennial and the many battlefield reenactments that take place throughout the South every year. However, those reenactments, designed to be as close to the historical truth as possible, never include signs of female effort. Obviously, we hold the Civil War dear to our hearts and integral to our nation’s history. Why, then, do we blatantly ignore a full half of the populace? In these pages, I will be exploring the contributions of four women to the Civil War, women who have been forgotten. Only after doing this can we truly pay respect to the ladies who healed our soldiers, advanced American idealism, and fought for our country.
The fact that women could not enlist in the Union or the Confederate army does not mean women did not fight. Sarah Emma Edmonds took the most active role she could in the war—she disguised herself as a man, took on the name Frank Thompson, and joined the army. Surprisingly, she was not the only woman to do so. In 1889, a former battleground nurse named Mary Livermore guessed that up to 400 women had joined the army in men’s clothes; after 150 years of research, historians now estimate that that number is closer to a thousand. (Leonard, xiv) Most interestingly, Edmonds herself was not a natural-born American—she was born and raised in Canada and escaped to the United States as a teenager, only five years before she went off to war. (Edmonds, 2) Edmonds hid her sex from her fellow soldiers for two full years, only revealing it in 1866 at the reunion of her company. While she is not the only woman to fight as a man in the war, she was the only one who has left us with a confirmed diary of her time with the Army of the Potomac. In her book, titled Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy, she recounts the events of a certain battle and the orders given by her commanding officers, without very much commentary on her personal feelings. Unlike the diaries kept by other ladies, Edmonds’ published work reads like a factual chronicle rather than a personal diary. There are few traces of sentimentality, nostalgia, or intense emotion in her work, and it is virtually impossible to tell that a woman was writing it at all. The closest she comes to a private opinion is when she remarks on the deservedness of her service to the army. “I once heard a pious lady say that… [serving in the army] was so inconsistent with the Christian character that she was tempted to doubt the piety of all fighting men…I believe that a man can serve God just as acceptably in fighting the enemies of liberty, truth, and righteousness with the musket down in the South, as he can in the pulpits of the North; in fact I am inclined to think he can do so a little more effectually in the former place.” (Edmonds, 73) However, such examples of personal sentiment are few and far between. In general, there are no feminine touches to Memoirs, which speaks against the contemporary idea that women were simply too fragile and emotional too fight in battle. In her two years of Union service as a “male” nurse and cadet, Edmonds put in the effort of a worthy and hardworking soldier.
Not only did she fight on the front lines disguised as a white man, but she was then chosen to take on a mission as a spy in the Confederate army as a young black man. Edmonds used her skills at costuming to infiltrate the Southern army and hire out her skills while dressed and painted as “contraband”. It is in this section of the memoir that we find valuable information on the treatment of African Americans during the Civil War. Literate Negroes were a scarcity in the country, and most of them were working like Frederick Douglass as a public speaker and political actor. Therefore, there are few accounts of the African American experience during the war. For example, Edmonds recounts that “[t]he colored men’s rations were different from those of the soldiers. They had neither meat nor coffee, while the white men had both. Whiskey was freely distributed to both black and white, but not in sufficient quantity to unfit them for duty.” (Edmonds, 61) Edmonds continues her style of writing as a soldier and a reporter, rather than a delicate lady in a high-stress situation.
And stressful it was. Not only could she fear having her true sex discovered while in the North, but the discovery of her race would have had her killed in the South. Spying was a capital offense on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Halfway through her mission behind enemy lines she was almost caught as a white person. “After taking a draught of [water], one young darkie looked up at me in a puzzled sort of manner, and turning round to one of his companions, said: ‘Jim, I’ll be darned if that feller ain’t turnin’ white.’…I took a small looking glass which I carried…I was only a dark mulatto color now, whereas two days previous I was as black as Chloe” (Edmonds, 63) Edmonds faced danger multiple times and survived to publish the tale. In many ways, Sarah Emma Edmonds committed herself to the Civil War far more than her male compatriots. She went into active service voluntarily while some men were resisting the draft, exposed herself to the bloodiest of battles, and took on extra missions that depending on makeup and a fake accent alone. This kind of active contribution to the Civil War set the highest degree of women’s dedication to the war effort, and certainly Edmonds was not alone.
Some women chose to stay in the safe areas of the country and contribute through oratory and political advocacy. When the Civil War was still solely about keeping the Union together, it was women who had the necessary time and skill and were able to promote abolition as a war goal. One women who stood out among the rest was Anna Emily Dickinson, who spoke against fighting for anything less than the elimination of slavery. A Quaker girl who grew up in a working class Pennsylvania town, she was engaging enough to fill town squares, city halls, and concert venues with thousands of people who came to hear her protest slavery, belittle the Confederacy, and critique the leadership of the Union. “We have no war-cry—no noble motive…While the flag of freedom waves merely for white man, God will be against us.” (Venet, 39) Dickinson was a young woman who had grown up in an abolitionist household, then carried on her father’s lifestyle of writing essays against slavery and publishing them in newspapers like The Emancipator.
Often called the “Joan of Arc for abolition,” Dickinson used her charm and demure attractiveness to persuade reporters and politicians who otherwise would not listen to abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison or Wendell Phillips. Additionally, she spoke in direct and dramatic terms, an oratorical style welcomed by many during wartime. “The contest can have but one ending, no compromise, no conciliation, but either the Palmetto or the Stars and Stripes from one end of the country to the other.” (Venet, 44) Her powerful words made Republicans out of countless working class people, both recent immigrants and born Americans alike, who would have historically voted Democrat. Dickinson was invaluable to the war effort—without her, both New Hampshire and Connecticut were likely to go Democrat in the 1863 election, a move that would have crippled Lincoln’s campaign. (Venet, 45-46) While the men of the North were not yet ready to embrace a woman in the public sphere, nor did they want to give the young orator a vote, they certainly were inspired enough to allow her to make huge sums of money off of her lecture series.
In the summer of 1862, Anna travelled to Philadelphia to lend her services to Union nurses. While this work was suitable to thousands of Northern women, Dickinson found herself drawn to the stories of the soldiers and surgeons, rather than the practical woes of dressing wounds. She did eventually use these stories in later speeches, particularly when she addressed the US Sanitary Commission in the fall of 1863. Women from Boston to Chicago flocked to her events, eager to see another female in a position of power. If her beauty got her the attention of men on the East Coast, it was her sheer womanliness that won her support in Chicago. Unlike her predecessors, Elizabeth Cady Stanton being the most well known example, Dickinson was not heckled off the stage for her sex. The Independent actually credited her success to her gender, saying “Miss Dickinson is not a woman speaking like a man…She thinks and feels like a woman. And she proves beyond all controversy that there are elements of truth, and phases of public affairs, important to be known, that can be given from no other stand-point than the heart of a true woman.” (Venet, 50) This young woman’s success obviously made progress not only for the Civil War effort, but also for women’s rights. By combining both causes in her popular speeches, Dickinson was able to influence both the leaders and the masses to support two great causes of the late nineteenth century. Unfortunately, for all her success, Anna Emily Dickinson is no longer included among the great names of the Civil War, even though her contemporaries acknowledged that it was her effort that saved Lincoln’s second election, and possibly the Union victory itself.
Of course, there were women who have been remembered and cherished since the end of the war. Louisa May Alcott has earned acclaim for her literary successes, particularly her novel Little Women. But how many people know that she was one of the thousands of women who left their homes to work as nurses in the Civil War, whose work ultimately seized the profession for themselves ever since? Alcott, born of a middle class family in Germantown, Pennsylvania, was better off than her colleague Dickinson. She was inspired to join the corps of nurses based in Georgetown, DC, when she was thirty years old and still unmarried. A writer taught by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoureau and published by the age of seventeen, she kept a diary throughout her six weeks of nurse duty, and published excerpts from that diary in 1863, entitled Hospital Sketches. In this work, Alcott gives her account of the experience of nurses, doctors, and injured soldiers in the Washington area. The style of the memoir is as far from Sarah Emma Edmonds’ as possible—every event is full of emotion and pity, and often does the reader discover her private thoughts on hospital policy, the nature of the war, and the valor and courage of the soldiers. “Our brave boys, as the papers justly called them, for cowards could hardly have been so riddled with shot and shell, so torn and tattered, not have borne suffering for which we have no name, with an uncomplaining fortitude, which made one glad to cherish each as a brother.” (Alcott, 29) In gruesome detail Alcott explains the wounds and diseases of the Union men. Alcott, like every other nurse, endured long hours, scarce supplies, and the most offensive smells in the name of liberty. Her participation in the Civil War is only the most widely published example of the experience of approximately 5,000 women who left their homes and families to care for the wounded men from both sides of the war.
Alcott’s memoir serves to display some of the underlying tensions of the battlefield hospitals. While all Union hospitals were accustomed to taking care of the Confederate injured, not all the attendants were pleased at this tradition. When one of the injured Union soldiers told Alcott that a rebel had been brought into the hospital with the wounded, she wrote “I regret to say that I did not deliver a moral sermon upon the duty of forgiving our enemies…but, being a red-hot Abolitionist, stared fixedly at the tall tebel, who was a copperhead, in every sense of the word, and privately resolved to put soap in his eyes, rub his nose the wrong way, and excoriate his cuticle generally, if I had the washing of him.” (Alcott, 33) Nurses, doctors, and surgeons all had to weigh their personal feelings about the war with their duty to protect and treat every patient in their hospital, regardless of their allegiance. Nurses, particularly female nurses, played a special role in the care of the sick and dying. Surgeons were given the task of sawing off gangrenous limbs, proscribing medicines, and removing bullets from deep wounds. But it was the women who washed and wrapped the hurt areas to ward off infection, wrote letters home for those soldiers who could not write themselves, and then comforted the men as they endured unimaginable pain, high fever, and delusions. Alcott reveals this secondary duty in describing John, a soldier shot in the back during the battle of Fredericksburg. “I knew that to him, as to so many, I was the poor substitute for mother, wife, or sister…” (Alcott, 52) Scores of ladies filled this emotional void for soldiers. The efforts of thousands of nurses saved countless men’s lives, and likely just as many men’s sanity.
Americans may reenact the war with men marching through fields and towns, pretending to shoot each other, but the reenactment cannot possibly be complete without women taking care of them. While we play-act historic battles, we lose a huge component of the experience by faking the injuries and removing the women who would be bandaging them. Women took on a number of different roles throughout the war—they raised money, treated the fallen, and in rare cases, donned men’s clothing and fought themselves. The “war between brothers”, as we now call it, was supported from all sides by the sisters of America, so that nary a woman was uninvolved.
In many cases, the war forced families, women, and even children into serving the army. Especially in the South, where the lack of railroads proved to be a hindrance for the Confederate Commissary, homes were called upon to provide food, blankets, wood, and whatever else the war needed. Southern women often found themselves overrun with starving and sick soldiers and deserters. Most provided all they could, leaving them destitute by the end of the war. (Edwards, 135) Northern women who stayed with their families usually knit socks for the USSC and made quilts that were either sent off to campgrounds or auctioned off to raise money for the army. (McPherson, 225) Regardless of their location or social class, women were constantly needed to support the war in whatever way they could.
In some cases, families who tried to stay neutral were pressed into action by the realities of war. Mary Mitchell and the rest of her family became one of these cases. In the early autumn of 1862, Mitchell’s town of Shepherdstown received the Confederate dead and the wounded from the battle of Antietam, and the Mitchells found themselves playing nurse. Mary Mitchell’s memoir of the event is a compassionate tale of a town’s valiant effort to support the troops. Her account begins with a tragic description of the Confederate army: “There was little mitigation of hardship to our unfortunate armies. We were fond of calling them Spartans, and they were but too truly called upon to endure a Spartan system of neglect and privation.” (Mitchell, online resource) Mary herself was but twelve years old at this time, and yet she still left her tasks to care for the Spartan men. Every woman had a job in the struggle to save lives, even though few were truly qualified for the task. Mitchell’s narrative proves that there were no bystanders to the war—everyone, no matter what age, had a part to play. Like many women in the South, Mary and her townsfolk had to donate whatever materials were available to help the poor men. “Then there was the hunt for bandages. Every housekeeper ransacked her stores and brought forth things new and old. I saw one girl, in despair for a strip of cloth, look about helplessly, and then rip off the hem of her white petticoat…The women helped, holding the instruments and the basins, and trying to soothe or strengthen.” (Mitchell) The resources of the government were gone and the resources of Shepherdstown were stretched thin. And still, women answered the call of necessity to withstand the worse of circumstances and stand by their men.
There is no doubt that the people of the United States remember the sacrifice of the Union and Confederate armies. More than sixty thousand casualties are difficult to forget. However, there is a blatant lack of recognition for the sacrifices made my American women. While they may not have given their lives to the degree of male patriots, the ladies of the USA gave whatever they could, at whatever cost. Participation was not an option in the Civil War, it was a constant. One may have been able to choose to how to contribute, but women from all corners and all classes of the country felt an obligation to help, and now we should feel obligated to honor their work.
Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. Boston: James Redpath, Publisher. 1863.
Edmonds, Sarah Emma. Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy: A Woman’s Adventures in the Union Army. Introduction by Elizabeth D. Leonard. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press 1999.
Edwards, Laura F. Scarlett Doesn’t Live Here Anymore: Southern Women in the Civil War Era. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 2000.
McPherson, James. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press. 1988.
Mitchell, Mary. “A Woman’s Recollections of Antietam,” September, 1862, web accessed from Blackboard.
Venet, Wendy Hamand. Neither Ballots Nor Bullets: Women Abolitionists and the Civil War. Charlottesville: University Publishers of Virginia. 1991.