Women and the Civil War

Contents of this page: Homefront, Medicine, the Army|Supporting the Army, Women of the Civil War|Famous Women of the Civil War

Role of Women during the Civil War

Women often served as spies, nurse men who would get hurt while fighting, keep the family together and sometimes even fight disguised as men.


At the time of the Civil War, women didn't have a lot of rights. When the men went to war, their roles completely changed. Women had to run a household. They needed to run farms and take care of slaves. In the South, some women worked in Confederate government offices. Another role change was that women became nurses. Women also harvested crops took over the chores that the men used to do. Women also used to work in industries. The women worked really hard to keep their lives going on.


Another important role that woman took up in the Civil War was nursing. Before the war only men were involved in medical care. During the war women were given the opportunity to work with wounded soldiers. One of the most famous Civil War nurses is Clara Barton. She founded the American Red Cross. Clara helped recover casualties during the battle of Antietam.

Roman Catholic religious women from several orders also provided nursing to the wounded. The Daughters of Charity, with American headquarters in Emmitsburg, PA, provided the most nurses and served the wounded on both sides of the war. They were strictly neutral in their politics but would not hesitate to invoke Abraham Lincoln himself to get needed supplies for their patients. Union soldiers stopped at their Motherhouse en route to Gettysburg and were fed and sheltered by the sisters who began praying for all those about to engage in the horrific battle. When the battle was over, they drove into the hellacious aftermath and began caring for the wounded; soon, every building in the area was a hospital with the local sisters joined by others from other convents.

Clad in their distinctive religious habits which included black dresses and large, white, winged head pieces, the sisters were highly regarded for their competence and kindness. They were the only trained nursing staff available in the days before nursing schools and the medical corps appreciated them for their dedication and discipline. Not one of the estimated 300 Daughters of Charity were killed or injured during their battlefield service although one did die of illness. The respect that they earned was especially remarkable given the common anti-Catholic feeling that was common in the country at that time.

Supporting the Army

Some women went to war with their husbands or children and were apart of the "Soapsuds brigade." These women cleaned the soldiers uniforms. Although it doesn't seem like the much the soldiers really appreciated it.

During the Civil War, many women were spies for the Union and Confederate armies. They observed troop movements and reported this information to gain strategic planning to gain an edge over their enemy. Belle Boyd was a Confederate spy who communicated pertinent information about Union troop movement in the Shenandoah Valley of Viriginia. Miss Boyd was captured and sent to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington, DC for thirty days. Rosie O'Neal Greenhow was born in Montgomery County, Maryland in 1817. Miss Greenhow was a gifted Confederate spy. She was known as "Wild Rose" for her strong secessionist feelings. The victory of the Battle of Manassas was attributed to the information obtained by her for the Confederacy. She traveled to England and France to gain support for the South. She drowned on a rowboat after a Union gun boat pursued her British blockade runner ship. She was buried in October of 1864 with her coffin wrapped in a Confederate flag.

Famous Women of the Civil War

Many woman made noteworthy contributions during this part of our history. Harriet Beecher Stowe was an abolitionist. She wrote a famous novel called Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852. This book started out as a serial for the "National Era", a Washington anti-slavery weekly newspaper. This novel showed the horrors of slavery. Abraham Lincoln supposedly said that she "was the little woman who started this great war." Elizabeth Cady Stanton was active in the anti-slavery movement. Dorothea Dix was also another anti-slavery activist. The Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina were born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. Their father, Judge Faucheraud
Grimke, own a plantation in Beaufort in the country. The labor at the plantation and the house were done by slaves. Despite living in the South, Sarah and her younger sister Angelina disliked the institution of slavery. They felt slaves should be treated as equals. The sisters
later became Quakers after their father moved to Philadelphia. Later, they became abolitionists and toured the country making speeches about the evils of slavery. The sisters also supported women's right to vote.