By the beginning of the latter half of the 19th century, more rural women were becoming educated, and women everywhere in the United States were being treated with more respect and granted more legal privileges than in the past. They enjoyed these new freedoms, and this is why it should come as no surprise that many of them leaped on the opportunity to contribute to the Civil War in some way. It was the first war fought in the United States where they could have some official role. While there were always unofficial roles in wars for women in times past, this was their first opportunity to openly help their side’s cause. And they did so in large numbers.
Perhaps most surprising is that they volunteered to fight in the war as soldiers. While the numbers of female soldiers were not huge, there are around 250 documented women who were Civil War soldiers, and probably many more who were not documented. Women participated in the fighting at every major Civil War battle. Most of the women soldiers joined the war along with a male relative or a husband. Sometimes they volunteered along with their fiancé or sweetheart, to stay close to them and make sure they were protected. Others joined the army to earn money for their families, while others had a genuine belief in their side’s cause and wanted to do their part to achieve a win. The vast majority of female soldiers dressed up as men and pretended to be men when they joined the army. Their gender was usually only known to the male with whom they joined (if any), and they were typically only discovered to be females if they were injured or killed in battle. This is why it is believed many more women fought as soldiers in the Civil War than are documented… most of them were probably never discovered to be women.
Other women served regiments openly as women, but not as soldiers. They worked for the regiments doing “women’s work,” such as cooking, cleaning, teaching soldiers to read, tending the ill and injured, and more. They usually served in the same regiments as their husbands or male relatives.
There were women who worked as spies for both sides during the Civil War, and they did so on the front lines. It was easy for women to be spies, as most men did not expect women to have political opinions that would make them liable to join the military. Therefore, women could easily get behind enemy lines, gain the confidence of male officers of high ranks, and pass the information they received on to their own military superiors. When they would meet up with other spies with messages to carry across enemy lines, they had easy hiding places in the voluminous layers of their clothes, and no gentleman on either side would dare go there without permission. In addition to spying, women on both sides engaged in a little smuggling, too. Usually, it was the women spies who also did the smuggling, since the two activities were so closely related to one another.
Of course, plenty of women served as nurses during the Civil War, and this role is what they are best known for today. In fact, it was Clara Barton’s work as a nurse in the Civil War that started the American Red Cross and brought some fame to the Civil War female nursing profession. At first, they were discouraged from doing this work, as it was often grisly, gory, and violent. Women nurses had to serve in chaotic environments with a lot of seriously wounded soldiers, often in the dangerous location of right on or near the battlefield. They had to prove they were up to the task before being allowed to become nurses. Being able to work on the body parts of males who were strangers to them was also a requirement, and something Civil War women had to prove they were willing to do before joining a regiment. Civil War nurses stitched up soldiers, operated on them, gave them medications, often amputated limbs, tended healing wounds, changed bandages, and even provided comfort in the form of cooking for the wounded, and reading and writing letters for them. Clara Barton became famous for tending injured soldiers directly on the battlefield and dodging bullets as she did it.
Women didn’t have to join the army to be part of the war effort and help their side, either. Many of them stayed home, usually out of necessity due to having children who needed their care. However, they still did their part. They started local societies for the aid of soldiers. These societies provided supplies to men on the battle lines. They also opened up their homes to house sick and wounded soldiers and fed those who were in their area who were hungry (as the army’s rations often ran low, especially near the end of the war). Sometimes, they organized the community to open up churches and schools for these same purposes.
As far as enslaved women in the south, they also had a role to play. The approaching Union armies brought opportunities with them. Many women left with the Union armies, who promised them freedom. Some brought their families with them, while others left on their own with only the clothes on their backs and what they could carry. Those who left their families behind hoped they would be able to retrieve them or bring them north to them later, and they were sometimes able to do this after the war. Other women chose to stay where they were, and use the victories of the Union army to negotiate better conditions for themselves and their families with their white owners. After the war was over, the women who stayed often stayed on at the places where they had been enslaved, but with the ability to demand and receive payment for their work. Others used their newfound freedom to find better situations for themselves in the south during Reconstruction. Some did help the army in the same way white women did, usually in the Union army, but in rare circumstances (usually where they were negotiating for their freedom) in the Confederate army.
Women played large roles in the Civil War. While they were always a part of any war in which the United States took place, this was the first time they could serve in an official capacity. And, once given the opportunity, they proved they could serve with just as much valor, bravery, and dedication as any man. This paved the way for their official inclusion as genuine officers in the military in future wars.