During the American Civil War (1861-65), women took on new roles to support their families and the Confederacy. The war provided elite white women with opportunities to take part in the public sphere. They often voiced their opinions about events, and they filled roles previously held by men. For poor white women, the war proved less liberating, as the demands of the war and economic hardship created major challenges in supporting themselves and their families.
The women of the war formed groups like the Sick Soldier's Relief Society and the Soldier's Aid Society. In the South and in the North too, women made bandages for the wounded and knit socks to keep the soldiers' feet warm and dry. A few, Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, among them, volunteered to nurse the wounded.
Women influenced and even changed the course of society by their experiences, as documented in diaries, letters, and children's literature. A strong evidence of commonality is disclosed in the written expressions and feelings of these women. This written evidence discloses a solidarity which alters the value of women in the American Culture. No longer were women seen as the weaker sex. They defied this Victorian image, demonstrating a strength to be reckoned with. Women began their organized move toward equality as the Civil War offered them opportunities to display courage and resourcefulness.
The EuroAmerican women, whether they made their home in the north or the south contributed greatly to the advancement of their respective causes, joining the war effort by taking on unheard of functions. The war opened up challenging opportunities for women in vocations that before were only accessible to men. Women went into nursing, spying, and even battle. These unusual roles allowed women to demonstrate their strengths and abilities by moving outside the boundaries of cultural expectations for females.
Women also carried on the daily responsibilities of the farm or plantation. They maintained their homes and families while husbands and sons fought and died for their beliefs.
Women faced life-style changes which they never dreamed they would have to endure great hardships and grief to maintain some semblance of a normal life and accomplish the minimum levels of survival for themselves and their families. These women fought the battle on the homefront with devotion and fortitude while praying for the safe return of loved ones.
Women took on jobs in factories, and the physical labor of running farms or managing plantations. Women worked to manufacture arms, ammunition, uniforms, and other supplies for the soldiers. Prior to its destruction, women in the Fayetteville arsenal made some 900,000 rounds of small arms munitions in 1864. People were grateful for the contributions of women in the war, and newspapers reported their accomplishments. Many other services and supplies were also needed for the war effort.
They also entered the traditionally male-dominated field of teaching. These women receiving less pay for the same jobs men had caused them to alter their lifestyles in order to cope with the high prices and shortages produced by the war. Women's standard of living went down drastically as every day was a challenge to get through using old methods of doing daily activities and substituting one thing for another.
Women survivors of the Civil War period penned accounts of life of women during the war. These accounts are part of the Library of Congress American Memory Project. The understanding of the fact that war affects all people not just the men fighting, permanently scars the hearts and minds of all it touches no matter which side of the fence you are defending or where you are placed around the fence.
There was no merchandise in the stores or very little money to purchase goods if there was. Christmas was without the usual presents.There were sewing contests, candy pullings and other ways that women used to gain relief from the stresses and losses of war. Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book were available to some - (similar to today's Good Housekeeping or Ladies Home Journal) - with pictures of clothing and the styles of the day. Poorer women were often far more vulnerable to the war's devastation than were affluent women. The wives and children of yeomen farmers had far fewer resources to draw on when left to their own devices, and many experienced food shortages as early as 1862.
More affluent women engaged in voluntary activities on the home front that proved vital to the Confederacy. Like women throughout the South, they formed aid societies to provide soldiers with socks, undergarments, shirts, gloves, blankets, shoes, comforters, handkerchiefs, scarves, bandages, and food. In more isolated areas, women worked as individuals to send supplies to the soldiers.
They also planned and attended bazaars, fairs, concerts, raffles, and dances to raise money for army supplies and even sponsored specific Confederate gunboats through fund-raising drives.
It was the women who tended the wounded tirelessly, ensured sanitary conditions and fought for causes that men were unable and possibly unwilling to fight for. The women's role in the Civil War is just as significant as the man's, and any discussion of the War in general should not leave this fact out.
The common determination among all noncombatants seemed to be a determination to survive, whatever the dangers, humiliations, disappointments, challenges, losses, and disruptions. They endured and in doing so left a shining legacy for their descendants and for their reunited country that has persisted down through the ages.
A Separate Battle: Ina Chang
Civil War Heroines: Bellerophon Books
Daughters of The Cause: Women of the Civil War: Robert P. Broadwater
Behind Rebel Lines: Seymour Reit
Special Collections Library, Duke University
-- On-Line Collection
Library of Congress American Memory Project
-- On-Line Website
Mississippi State University
Foreign Policy Research Institute