Women during the American Civil War

Lisa Tendrich Frank. Civil War: People and Perspectives. Editor: Lisa Tendrich Frank. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

In July 1861, Virginian Belle Boyd shot and killed a U.S. officer in her home. The young woman claimed self-defense, asserting that the drunken officer had threatened her and her mother. As a white woman, Boyd’s actions were quickly excused and she faced no legal consequences for her actions. Taking a cue from her treatment after this event, Boyd began more fully employing her femininity to her advantage. On her own initiative, Boyd, an ardent supporter of the Confederacy, began openly associating and flirting with Union soldiers, many of whom had been stationed around her house as guards to prevent future incidents. Unbeknownst to them, however, the young woman had no romantic intentions toward them. Instead, she was using her feminine charms to gather information on military movements and passing it along to Southern troops. Her initial efforts as an unofficial spy did not last long. Unskilled in the work of espionage, Boyd hardly concealed her work as an unofficial spy and she was quickly discovered. Once again, Boyd discovered that her womanhood provided her protection. Even though there was solid evidence to confirm her treasonous role—Union officials discovered one of Boyd’s uncoded messages, written in her own handwriting—the authorities did little to punish the budding spy. Boyd escaped with only a warning.

Boyd continued her efforts to aid the Confederacy by taking advantage of assumptions about white women and their ability to escape punishment. From Front Royal, Virginia, where she was sent to stay with an aunt and uncle, Boyd not only nursed wounded soldiers, but she also began to take weapons and supplies from Union troops for Confederates. Furthermore, she became an official Confederate courier, carrying messages between Generals P. G. T. Beauregard and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson using federal passes she obtained from Union officers. In this capacity, Boyd became “the rebel spy,” providing valuable information to Confederate officers during the Battle of Front Royal in May 1862 (Boyd 1865, 74). After receiving a message from another courier and then garnishing information from local Union soldiers, Boyd ran through the battlefield to meet the approaching Confederate Army. For her efforts, Jackson later awarded her an honorary commission as a captain and an aide-de-camp. Northerners and Southerners publicly recognized Boyd’s role in the Confederate success, and her new status made it difficult for her to continue her espionage efforts. As a result, she was captured and imprisoned twice. The Federal Department of War imprisoned her in the Old Capitol Prison for a month in July 1862 and in the Carroll Prison for a longer stay in the summer of 1863. However, these prison stays did nothing to dampen Boyd’s commitment to the Confederacy. In May 1864, she headed to Europe with secret Confederate government dispatches, but was arrested again within a few days. She was exiled to Canada this time and from there she traveled to England where, in 1865, she published her memoirs of her wartime exploits.

Not all women took such extraordinary roles in the American Civil War. Yet the nation’s women all shaped and were shaped by the sectional conflict and the realities of war. All women, regardless of their locale, age, race, or class, dealt with the direct and indirect results of the Civil War. As men marched off to the battlefields, it was the women left behind who had to keep society running—by raising children, feeding families, running farms and businesses, making uniforms, and provisioning armies. In both the North and South, the needs of war and a loss of manpower mandated that women take on expanded responsibilities. Some took control of family businesses and others took jobs in a growing industrial sector. Slave women also dealt with the shifting realities of wartime, as the conflict provided opportunities for emancipation while wartime tensions made their lives even more precarious. Other women—white and black—became active participants in the military, as nurses, cooks, laundresses, spies, and even soldiers. Even women who were lukewarm in regard to the war discovered that the war became everyone’s business. Women across the nation discovered that they needed to deal with food shortages, fiscal inflation, the absence and deaths of family members, and the arrival of troops. Some women became refugees; others housed refugees. The war required the mobilization of the entire population, and in many cases, men, women, and children took up the rallying call. Although most scholarly attention focuses on men’s political and military roles during the Civil War, women played a vital part.

The Coming of the War

Although war is frequently understood as being in the domain of men, the social history of the American Civil War demonstrates that the war could not have been waged without the nation’s women. From the very outset of the conflict, women became integral to both the Union’s and Confederate’s ability and willingness to fight the war. Many women helped fill the ranks by encouraging men to enlist, but women were also among the most vocal opponents of mobilization efforts and the war itself, especially as their effects on the home front and family life became known. In this way, women made themselves central participants in the brewing conflict.

The active participation of women began before the first shots were fired on the battlefields. Just as the secession crisis consumed the thoughts of husbands and fathers, the nation’s women also recognized it as a momentous and important event. Women everywhere commented upon secession in their diaries, some even starting a journal for the first time to commemorate what they knew were historic events. As one Tennessee woman explained in 1861, “The War is the all absorbing topic of conversation and of letters” (Jabour 2007, 246). With the high stakes involved in secession and then the war, it should not be surprising that many women were, like Virginian Kate Corbin, “all … intimately concerned in the threatened [and] inevitable war that it is not to be wondered at after all” (Jabour 2007, 248). Northern white women, too, were similarly preoccupied with the political realm. Author Louisa May Alcott, for example, observed “of course the town is in a high state of topsey turveyness, for every one is boiling over with excitement” (Sizer 2000, 75). Although women were expected to refrain from publicly engaging in politics, many women did more than simply follow politics and talk about it among themselves. Around the Confederacy, women attended the secession conventions, cheered raucously in support of their political positions, presented flowers and wreaths to admired speakers, and made banners to voice their public views. In Boston, as elsewhere in the North, “windows were flung up; and women leaned out into the rain waving flags and handkerchiefs” to salute the first volunteers for the Union Army (Attie 1998, 19). As another woman from Massachusetts explained, “I neither know, nor care for politics in any form, and yet I am drawn into the vortex” (Attie 1998, 23). Although they were occasionally scorned for their brazen public behavior, the nation’s women recognized the importance of secession and the political events swirling around them.

African American communities similarly recognized the importance of the secession crisis. In the North, their involvement in the political realm often occurred as an extension of their abolitionist activities. Although slave women were expected to be especially ignorant about public affairs—on account of their race, gender, lack of education, and status as chattel property—they too followed the secession crisis closely. In the lowcountry of South Carolina, for example, slave owners observed that their slaves “all think this a crisis in their lives that must be taken advantage of” (Schwalm 1997, 77).


At the outset of the conflict, women on both sides helped rally the troops as well as outfit the units. As the Union and Confederate governments both called for recruits, Northern and Southern communities scrambled to organize regiments that they could send off to defend their respective nations. On occasion, women made their voices heard in public. A crowd of women, for example, watched Abolitionist Frances Dana Barker Gage make an impassioned and “beautiful appeal to the mothers, urging them not to keep back their sons from the war … but to send them forth willingly and gladly as she had done hers, to fight for liberty” (Silber 2002, 50). Other women made similar appeals in the private realm, personally urging husbands, sons, sweethearts, and brothers to enlist.

Women played an integral part in raising these local regiments. They cajoled family members and sweethearts to join the ranks, often proclaiming that they would not tolerate a shirker in their society. Some women postponed engagements until their fiancés had enlisted in the local unit, refused to talk to nonenlisted men, and publicly scorned those not willing to wear a military uniform. Stories abound of women who shamed men into service by sending nonenlistees a piece of women’s clothing, thereby solidifying the connection between military service and masculinity. Many women made it known that they were more than willing to judge those who served against those who did not. Some single women made it clear that they would not allow men to court them if they were unwilling to serve their nation. Some wives made similar threats. A British observer proclaimed that wives “won’t let a man capable of carrying and handling a rifle stay round home. If he can walk he must be off” (Gallagher 1997a, 78). Women of both regions were willing to shame men into enlisting. Maria Patec of Kansas observed that “Men who love their homes, country, and firesides are willing to fight for them” (Silber 2005, 25). Women took seriously their roles as unofficial recruitment officers.

Concurrent with women’s efforts to raise regiments and aid their nations, many women felt severely the conflict between country and family. Many women prioritized the public good over their personal needs. Eliza Oatis, for example, recognized that “It’s hard to do without him and yet … his country has higher claims upon him now than I have” (Silber 2005, 26). Others came to different conclusions about sacrifice. “What do I care for patriotism?” a wife from South Carolina asked. “My husband is my country. What is country to me if he be killed?” (Faust 1996, 13.) An Ohio woman’s comments reveal similar concerns. “I am more a wife than a patriot [and] although I do care for my country, I care for you [my husband] much more” (Silber 2005, 14). Although these women saw the patriotic necessity of sending men to the battlefield, they were reluctant to sacrifice their personal interests in favor of national interests. They hoped they would not have to make the choice between their husband and their nation.

In addition, women of both regions played a significant part in the elaborate ceremonies held before local soldiers headed off to join the armies. In addition to cheering for the recruits and wishing them well in their war endeavors, women also made the flags that the men carried off to battle. The flags subsequently served as a reminder to the soldiers of the families and homes that they fought for on the battlefield. Some flags had political messages on them, while others instead focused on local images. As another constant reminder of the women who had made the flag, some flags even incorporated material from women’s dresses. At the flag presentations, prominent women made elaborate speeches encouraging the new soldiers to remember what they were fighting for—the freedom and survival of their homes and their loved ones. In these speeches, women also drew a link between soldiers’ protection of the flag as a metaphorical protection of the women who had made it so lovingly. The soldiers took a piece of home with them as they marched into battle. In Tampa, Florida, for example, the community’s women presented a flag with silk trimmings as a “memento of regard from those whom your self devotion is so highly esteemed” (Revels 2004, 15). When African American troops were raised in the North, their women organized similar flag presentations.

Outfitting Armies

Once the community’s men had formed companies, women helped outfit them for battle by raising funds, sewing uniforms, and gathering supplies for the troops. On an individual and community level, women made blankets, clothes, bandages, and other wartime necessities for the enlisted men. Women on both sides were knitting so often that countless women referred to the “everlasting sock” or “everlasting mitten” that was on their knitting needles (Massey 1966, 35). As one woman in Pennsylvania explained, their obligation was “to supply regularly the Hospital at this place, with all the comforts necessary for the sick soldiers” (Silber 2005, 19). Just as they routinely did before the war, Southern white women often took credit for the work that was performed by their African American slaves. Julius Porcher, for example, “made the uniforms for the entire company of eighty men—she and her coloured seamstresses. The wool from their own sheep was spun into yarn…. This was then woven by her women on hand looms, cut out by her own hands, and made by her and her seamstresses” (Weiner 1998, 157).

The sewing societies and other aid societies formed in both the North and the South at the outset of the conflict to make flags and supplies for new regiments continued their work throughout the war and were joined by countless others. Women’s aid efforts ranged in size and scope. Across the Confederacy, aid societies were locally run and independent of each other. Some were composed of two or three related women or friends who sewed together in the evenings for the soldiers. Others were community-based groups that met in church basements. For many women, these aid societies provided them with their first opportunities to work outside of the home—even if it was in the homes of their neighbors. In North Carolina, Catherine Anne Devereaux Edmondston observed that “Thousands of ladies who have never worked before are hard at work on coarse sewing all over our whole country” (1979, 60). Although many women enthusiastically incorporated textile work into their busy lives, many found it exhausting. Near the end of the war, for example, Sarah Wadley shamefully admitted that she just recently “commenced to card and spin, and I never tried anything so difficult to me, or so tiring” (Faust 1996, 47). Whatever its form, women’s voluntary efforts on behalf of their soldiers proved vital to the armies on both sides.

As the war lengthened, wartime shortages became more severe and basic supplies became scarcer. Despite these problems, the scale of private donations to the war effort remained remarkably high. For example, in January 1865, as William T. Sherman’s Union troops were rapidly approaching Columbia, South Carolina, a fund-raising bazaar raised between $150,000 and $350,000 for Confederate soldiers. The bazaar, which was organized and run by elite white women, offered everything from fortune telling to a wide assortment of donated food—including roasted turkey, salmon, lobster, duck, venison, and a variety of desserts. The bazaar also offered a wide range of other donated products for sale, including jewelry, cutlery, dolls, fancy clothes, tobacco, and livestock. “You would never imagine there was a war in our land, could you have seen, the delicacies of every description” (Frank 2001, 163). After much success, the sumptuous bazaar closed early to avoid the danger of enemy troops.

The U.S. Sanitary Commission

In June 1861, the U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC) formed in the North to coordinate the efforts of local women and aid societies to supply the Union Army. With approximately 7,000 aid societies supporting the Union, the USSC’s task was profound. As an umbrella organization, the USSC coordinated millions of dollars of food, medicine, and clothing for Union soldiers, and it provided a structure for the thousands of individual women who volunteered to serve as nurses, knit socks, make uniforms, raise money, or donate supplies. The USSC created formal branches in 10 cities—with the largest headquartered in Chicago—and also created 25 soldiers’ homes to provide for the needs for soldiers who were heading to and from the front. At the soldiers’ homes, an estimated average of 2,300 mostly sick and injured soldiers daily received food, medical care, a bed, and help with pension forms and other paperwork. Elizabeth Blackwell, one of the founders of the USSC and the first woman to earn a professional medical degree in the United States, recognized the chaos that existed before the creation of the USSC. “There has been a perfect mania amongst the women to ‘act Florence Nightingale’” (Giesberg 2000, 22). The USSC successfully channeled women’s desires to be wartime nurses into areas where they were needed.

In addition to distributing supplies and placing nurses where they were needed, the USSC also conducted Sanitary Fairs to raise money to support the soldiers and the efforts of smaller branches. In late 1863, a fair in Chicago raised more than $100,000 and subsequent fairs elsewhere raised even more money. The New York Metropolitan Fair was the most successful of its kind, raising $1,183,505. These fund-raisers required a tremendous amount of organization as well as skills that were hardly common before the war. More than 3,000 volunteers helped with the spring 1864 Philadelphia Fair. The sight of women selling goods, let alone organizing the entire affair, certainly shocked many Northerners. As William Sherman explained to his wife, “I don’t approve of ladies selling things at a table. So far as superintending the management of such things, I don’t object, but it merely looks unbecoming for a lady to stand behind a table to sell things” (Lewis 1932, 520). Despite these concerns, the USSC eventually conducted about 30 fairs and raised millions of dollars for the Union war effort.


Although it was primarily a male occupation before the war, necessity demanded that thousands of women become nurses. The frequency of amputations, gruesome wounds, and naked male patients made nursing—especially wartime nursing—a potentially unfeminine prospect. North Carolinian Lucy Capehart, for example, explained

I never in my life could go to one [hospital], [and] never expect to unless I am compelled. Not that I am not willing to do everything I can for the Soldiers, but simply because I don’t like so much mess,[and] so many different odours—it makes me sick to smell soldiers anyway. (Frank 2001, 148fn)

Others overcame their reticence and came to different conclusions. Thousands of female nurses performed a wide range of tasks in formal and makeshift hospitals. They comforted and fed patients, helped change bandages, obtained supplies, cooked food, shook out ticks, did laundry, cleaned the wards, lifted patients, and helped soldiers write letters home. At least 21,000 female nurses served in the Union Army and others served as nurses in unofficial capacities. The number of female Confederate nurses is more elusive, but soldiers and doctors all noted their omnipresence. Even with volunteers in short supply, African American nurses were frequently relegated to menial tasks as “wardboys.” At Tunnel Hill Hospital in Atlanta, for example, “negro women who aid in cleaning the wards are also required to wash” (Mohr 2005, 278). Despite their varied roles, the work that women provided in military hospitals, at all levels, proved invaluable.

Fighting the War

Some women were directly involved in the fighting. Because both the Union and Confederacy restricted women from joining their armies, women who wanted to enlist had to conceal their sex. Hundreds of women bound their breasts, cut their hair, and dressed like men to serve their nation. Fortunately for them, both the Union and Confederacy only required remarkably superficial medical exams for enlistees, so their sex was rarely discovered. Consequently, there is no way of determining the full extent of female soldiers’ participation in the Civil War, because no one knows how many female soldiers were ever revealed as such. The service of women that came to light did so as a result of several factors. In some instances, doctors or fellow soldiers discovered disguised women when they were killed or wounded, when they became pregnant and delivered a baby, or when they were captured. Other female combatants revealed their identities after the end of the war.

Scholars have been able to document the participation of female soldiers in every major Civil War battle. For example, at least 10 fought at Antietam and five fought at Gettysburg. These women joined the military with similar justifications as their male counterparts: to collect bounties and wages, to demonstrate their patriotism, and even to escape the general ennui that many claimed characterized the home. Once in the army, the performance of women did not contrast sharply with that of male soldiers. Female soldiers often rose in the ranks, a reality confirmed by the dismissal of several sergeants from duty. Although they broke the law by concealing their identities, neither the Confederacy nor the Union court-martialed women for their deceptions. Sarah Emma Edmonds, who fought for the Union as Franklin Thompson, received a pension for her service in the 1880s. The petitions of her former infantrymen helped convince Congress that she had earned a soldiers’ pension despite her desertion—one made necessary by her feared discovery. After running from the ranks to avoid discovery, Edmonds became a nurse for the Union Army.

Female Spies

Throughout the war, female spies aided both the Union and Confederate war efforts. White women frequently relied on their feminine charms to disarm enemy soldiers and officials and convince them that they had no political motives. Allan Pinkerton, who created the U.S. Secret Service, explained that when the war began “it was not deemed possible that any danger could result from the utterances of non-combatant females … That this policy was a mistaken one was soon proved” (Leonard 1999, 21). Abolitionist Elizabeth Van Lew, for example, spent most of the war in her Richmond, Virginia, home. Unbeknownst to her Confederate neighbors, she headed an extensive spy network in the Confederate capital. She hosted Confederate officers and nursed wounded soldiers in her home, and she used these opportunities to gather information and ameliorate suspicious neighbors who were aware of her antislavery attitudes and resistance to donating supplies to the Confederate Army. Van Lew helped several dozen Union soldiers escape from Richmond’s Libby Prison and passed information to the Union on the military positions of the Confederates. She sent encrypted messages in the spines of books, in the shoes of her servants, and even in a hollow egg in a basket of eggs. Congress expressed its appreciation for Van Lew’s service in 1867 with a reward of $5,000.

Slave women, too, provided the Union with additional information—”black dispatches” that they gathered while performing domestic chores for white Southerners, who rarely noticed the presence of their black slaves or assumed them unable to understand political and military discussions. For example, while working as a house servant for Jefferson Davis in the Confederate White House, Mary Elizabeth Bowser listened carefully to the Confederate president’s discussions of military affairs and later passed them on to the Union. In addition, Mary Louveste, who was employed at the Gosport Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, passed information about the state of the Confederate Navy on to U.S. secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. Others, like former slave Harriet Tubman, served as formal spies during the war. Although Tubman earned a reputation for leading slaves to freedom through the Underground Railroad, she also used her contacts in the South and in the slave communities to gather information and pass it on to Major General David Hunter. For three years, “General Moses,” as Tubman was called served as a Union scout in South Carolina and Florida. The importance of espionage by black spies was not lost on Robert E. Lee who concluded, “The chief source of information to the enemy is through our Negroes” (Fellman 2000, 201).

Home-Front Work

When the men of both regions marched off to battle, they left women of all ages and classes to keep everything running smoothly. Women on the home front faced new challenges as they were left in charge as the primary decision makers in households and businesses, and on farms and plantations. These adjustments were not always easy ones, but home-front women had no choice. Some women became the heads of family businesses and others took jobs in the industrial sector to support their families. In some cases, wartime women publicly took on roles and jobs that they had previously done in the domestic sphere. In other instances, women were new to the tasks at hand. Many women jumped at the opportunity to expand their responsibilities; others found it burdensome.

In the wealthy plantation areas of the South, elite slave mistresses often took on the tasks of the plantation master, including the role of overseer of not just household slaves but also of field hands. Although before the war women had run the households, these jobs did little to prepare them for full-time plantation management. Some fulfilled their new positions with little trouble, while others struggled to maintain the control necessary for efficient plantation management. For some, managing the household in the most trying of times was burdensome, especially when many African American slaves were increasingly expressing their independence. Mississippian G. W. Gayle, for example, worried that if any more white men left for the army, “anarchy will prevail and the slaves become one nation, if they can” (Edwards 2000, 78). Furthermore, white women on plantations as well as those on smaller farms also had to take on the tasks of farm work that previously had been done by men or slaves. Many, unaccustomed to the hard labor of fieldwork, struggled with these tasks and complained about them to friends or in diaries.

In addition, this lack of a male workforce, black and white, placed even more emphasis on the labor of African American slave women. As the Confederate Army impressed slave men, the women who remained in the slave communities were given the additional responsibility of doing the labor previously done by men. As some female house slaves were moved into the fields to work, others gained additional tasks inside the house. For example, one former slave recalled that during the Civil War, “I worked in the big house, washed, ironed, cleaned up, and was nurse in the house when the war was going on” (Weiner 1998, 165). Slave women also had to deal with the isolation and trepidation that came with loved ones living at a distance. Although the Confederate Army did not impress slave women, many slave owners hired out their female slaves to compensate for the white family’s financial needs. Slave Ellen Campbell, for example, recalled that “My young missus wus fixin’ to git married, but she couldn’t on account de war, so she brought me to town and rented me out to a lady runnin’ a boarding house” (Hunter 1997, 10). Hired-out slaves performed a myriad of tasks. Some were hired out to nurse, chop wood, work in fields, iron, carry water, cook, and do laundry. One former slave recalled that when she was hired out as a 6-year-old, her job description was “in general just do everything” (Hunter 1997, 12).

Household Decisions

With the men in the military, women of both regions and all classes had to make all household decisions on their own. They had to ensure that they had the resources necessary to feed and clothe themselves and their children. This often meant coping with less. One Southern white woman recognized that “a year ago we would have considered it impossible to get on for a day without the things that we have been doing without for months” (Edwards 2000, 74). Women also had to keep up with the daily chores necessary to running their households. Some initially wrote to their husbands asking for advice, but slow communication and women’s growing confidence in their abilities eventually led women to make these decisions entirely on their own. Many women moved in with relatives or opened their doors to neighbors on their own initiative and enjoyed the companionship afforded by sharing quarters.

Industrial Work

In addition, women filled positions previously held by men in factories, government posts, and other jobs. In return, women received desperately needed wages, although their wages were not as high as those given to men doing the same work. With few male breadwinners left on the home front and with prices rapidly increasing, many women had to find ways to bring in money to support their households. In the North, hundreds of “Government Girls” met the labor shortage created by the widespread enlistment of clerks in the Union Army. These women worked in the Treasury, Patent Office, War Department, Quartermaster’s General Office, and elsewhere. Similarly, several hundred women—from middle- and upper-class Southern families—worked for the Confederate Treasury in Columbia, South Carolina, and Richmond, Virginia. Although there was resistance to hiring women to work as clerks, the absence of qualified men led to women signing treasury notes and performing other clerking tasks. In addition to government work, women filled in wherever their labor was needed—at textile mills, shoe-making factories, iron works, and telegraph offices. At the war’s end, many of these workers were forced to relinquish their positions, even though they had more than proved their proficiency.

Industrial work was remarkably dangerous during the Civil War—especially in the munitions plants. Although cartridge making was naturally hazardous, the clothes worn by female workers exacerbated the risks. Women’s long dresses not only caught fire easily, but also helped spread fire as they caught upon each other when female workers crowded together to flee danger. Explosions in several munitions factories in the Confederacy and Union—including those in Richmond, Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Jackson, Mississippi; Allegheny, Pennsylvania; and Waterbury, Connecticut—turned deadly. For example, in September 1862, the explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal killed 78 workers, most of whom were young women. Sparks from wagon wheels ignited the loose gunpowder on the stone road within the compound and then ignited the arsenal’s main supply of gunpowder. The ensuing explosion could be heard for miles. Employees rushed to the doors to escape, but got trapped by the inward opening doors. Some were blown apart while others caught fire. The bodies of 54 of the dead employees were unidentifiable. Although the explosion was undoubtedly caused by avoidable dangerous conditions, the commanders of the factory received no punishment.

Home-Front Shortages

Making life even more difficult for those on the home front, the Civil War initiated shortages and high inflation. Prices skyrocketed and supplies dwindled in both the Union and the Confederacy. The impressment of supplies by both governments contributed to the lack of food and clothing for many. In addition, especially in the Confederacy, which faced a blockade of its ports from the beginning of the war as well as destructive foraging by enemy troops, women had to find ways to cope with the lack of food, textiles, and other things that they had considered necessities during peacetime. As a result, women had to be resourceful throughout the conflict and find substitutes for daily items, including coffee, sugar, tea, paper, ink, needles, thread, cloth, buttons, shoes, medicines, and candles.

African American slaves, who were hardly accustomed to a world of plenty, especially struggled with the shortage of supplies. Masters across the South cut back on provisioning their slaves with shoes, coats, shirts, and other basic supplies, often providing even less for women than for men. When clothing was necessary, slaves made it out of blankets and carpets. Slave women were expected to spin cotton for the needs of their master, but homespun cotton clothing became an even scarcer luxury for slaves. Thomas Porcher Ravenel, for example, provided new pants for his slave men, but concluded that women “can do without” (Schwalm 1997, 77). Food supplies also became more limited, especially items like salt that were diverted to the war. As a result, complaints of sickness and hunger became increasingly common in the slave quarters.

Protests and Riots

When unsatisfied with the conditions on the home front, women of both regions willingly took to the streets to make their opinions known. In the South, feminine protests often took the form of urban food riots. Women who had willingly sacrificed their husbands, brothers, and fathers to the Confederate war effort expected their government to help them survive if they could not manage it on their own. Consequently, when faced with unbearable shortages and drastic inflation, women took to the streets to demand the assistance they thought they deserved. Bread riots took place in cities in Georgia, Louisiana, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, and North Carolina. The largest riot took place in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, on April 2, 1863. One woman explained her decision to participate by stating:

We celebrate our right to live. We are starving. As soon as enough of us get together we are going to the bakery and each of us will take a loaf of bread. That is little enough for the government to give us after it has taken all our men. (Rable 1989, 109)

Close to 500 women raided stores, taking coffee, candles, shoes, flour, bacon, and beef. Some were armed, but did not use their weapons. Approximately four dozen women were arrested for their participation in this disturbance, which was ultimately dispersed by the city’s public guard.

Northern women, not faced with the same desperate and widespread shortages as their Southern sisters, did not need to turn to bread riots. Instead, their frustrations often played out in protests over conscription. Their anger at the prospect of losing their male loved ones to the armies manifested itself in physical violence. As individuals, some women threw things at enrollment officers; other women joined together to chase away these officers. In more drastic instances, women took to the streets in mob violence to protest conscription. Although draft riots occurred in several cities, the two biggest, and most violent, riots were in New York City and Boston. The draft riot in New York City—which served to vent many of the frustrations of the city’s working-class Irish community—began with the destruction of a conscription office and rapidly expanded into assaults on manifestations of the Republican Party and the war. The most brutal behavior was directed at African Americans—with unthinkable assaults and murders routinely taking place across the city and in New Jersey. Although black men faced the most horrors, black women were assaulted when they tried to intervene on behalf of their sons and fathers. Only Union troops who had recently fought at Gettysburg were able to restore order.


Many women on both sides of the Mason Dixon line became refugees because of the war. Although it is impossible to know the exact number of refugees, Southerner Eliza Frances Andrews hyperbolically concluded that “half the world is refugeeing” (Massey 1964, 47). At the outset of the war, some women followed their soldier husbands or sweethearts to the front lines, becoming camp followers that both aided and hindered the armies. Others left their homes to join female family members nearby, assuming that there was safety, and knowing that there was good company, in numbers. The tendency of women to group together with other female family members whose kinsmen had departed for the battlefield resulted in numerous female enclaves, especially across the South. Additionally, assuming that they could find safety and food there, many Confederate women refugeed to Southern cities, whose populations ballooned during wartime. For example, the population of Richmond, Virginia, which was approximately 40,000 at the start of the war, doubled in size by 1861, and continued to grow throughout the war. The mass influx of people contributed to food shortages and poor sanitary conditions in the city. In 1863, one observer concluded that the city “was never intended to hold so many people” (Massey 1964, 75). Still other women, who had no relatives nearby or could not make it to the cities, sometimes took refuge in caves in the hilly areas. For example, hundreds of women sought safety in the caves surrounding Vicksburg, Mississippi.

African American women, too, often experienced the war as refugees. Some enslaved women accompanied owners who moved during the war. Still others ran from slavery. Although they did not run away as frequently as did their male counterparts, many African American women fled for safety when the opportunity presented itself, leaving their homes in the slave quarters for freedom behind Union lines. There they often volunteered as laundresses or nurses for the Union Army or simply followed the soldiers on their marches. Approximately 25,000 slaves followed Union general William T. Sherman for at least part of his March through Georgia and the Carolinas. The dangers of running from slavery and the fears of retribution from white slaveholders kept many African Americans in the South.

Not all refugees had a choice of whether they should risk staying in the homes or take flight. Union military policies intentionally created thousands of refugees in Atlanta, Georgia, and a few other towns. After his capture of the Atlanta in September 1864, for example, Sherman ordered the evacuation of all of the city’s civilians. On September 8, Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 67, requiring the removal of the hostile civilian population. Of the more than 1,600 evacuees, most were women and children. The policy’s effect on women roused the ire of people throughout the Confederacy, who thought that the policy was immoral.

The War Comes Home

When enemy soldiers approached the towns and farms, women directly confronted the war. In these instances, the home front and war front became conflated. Many women did not wait to see what would happen when the enemy arrived. This was especially true in the South, where much of the fighting occurred. Wearing as many of their clothes as possible, women in the path of Union armies left for safety with family members or fled to cities. Similar fears faced African Americans in areas invaded by Confederate soldiers. For example, many free blacks in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, feared being enslaved by invading Confederate troops. Their fears were not unfounded. In nearby Chambersburg, one woman observed that the soldiers

were hunting up the contrabands [and] driving them off by droves! O! how it grated on our hearts to have to sit quietly & look at such brutal deeds—I saw no men among the contrabands—all women [and] children. Some of the colored people who were raised here were taken along. (Creighton 2002, 213)

Women who stayed in their homes as enemy soldiers approached rarely passively waited for the impending invasion. Southern women, especially those in the Upper South, repeatedly faced the prospect of meeting Union troops. Civilians in port towns similarly feared invasion and occupation. Many women prepared by hiding their prized possessions—jewelry, family heirlooms, silver, letters from loved ones, sewing supplies, and journals—wherever they thought they would be safe, including under floorboards, in fields, under and in mattresses, on their bodies, and even in baby cribs. Some women hid guns under their dresses, in case enemy soldiers threatened their personal safety or virtue. Others made makeshift pockets under their skirts to hold personal treasures. For example, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Susan Blackford hung so many items, including her silver, under her skirt that “as I walked and when I sat down the clanking destroyed all hope of concealment” (Frank 2005, 129). Women also attempted to hide food from the invaders.

In occupied areas of the Confederacy, women had to figure out how to live among Union troops. This reality of occupation had social and political ramifications. In Vicksburg, Mississippi, as elsewhere in the occupied South, women were compelled to take loyalty oaths or live without the resources and business of the occupying Union troops. Elsewhere, Confederate women pestered the occupying troops, refused to submit to their demands, crossed streets to avoid coming in contact with the enemy, and otherwise snubbed the invaders. In New Orleans, Louisiana, General Benjamin Butler dealt with the disrespect of Southern women with his infamous “Woman Order.” In it, he ordered disrespectful women would be “regarded and held liable to be treated as a woman of the town plying her avocation” (McPherson 1988, 551-552). His referral to Southern ladies as prostitutes enraged Confederates everywhere and earned him the nickname “Beast.”

African American women had a very different understanding of invading Union soldiers than did their white counterparts, presuming that the arrival of Union troops would lead to freedom and greeting them as liberators. Many slaves and free blacks frequently formed bread companies to carry food to the Union Army when they were passing nearby, and thousands of slaves left their plantations to seek safety behind Union lines. The arrival of Union soldiers, however, did not always lead to widespread emancipation, and some soldiers instead visited physical and sexual abuse on female slaves. Rapes of black women occurred during many Union incursions into the plantation South. Nevertheless, as the Union Army conquered and occupied much of the Confederacy, African American women took the opportunity to gain their own freedom and to track down loved ones.

Objections to War

Although most white women supported the war at its outset and urged their husbands to enlist, the realities and difficulties of wartime eventually led many women to rescind their support. Women’s objections to the course of the war or the cause that their men supported often proved equally powerful. Some white women, unable to handle the business at home on their own, urged their husbands to desert. Whether or not their husbands complied with these requests is difficult to discern, but women’s disillusionment with war goals and sacrifices changed their views of the Confederacy and the Union. Other women created underground groups of protest within their communities, such as the secret Unionist circle in Atlanta frequented by Cyrena Stone. In more drastic instances, women took to the streets to make their voices heard. In cities across the South, for example, hundreds of women participated in food riots in 1863, drawing attention to their needs in a time of shortage. That same year, many Northern women participated in draft riots throughout Northern cities.

African American women did not passively await freedom, as if it were an expected and inevitable gift. On the contrary, throughout the conflict enslaved women maneuvered to transform the war into a campaign for their own emancipation. They took advantage of the disruptions of war and the arrival of Union troops to transform their immediate conditions. They claimed safety behind Union lines, left their masters to begin the difficult process of reuniting with family members, and found various ways to expand their freedoms even while they remained slaves.

Free black women also worked tirelessly on behalf of their slave sisters—often confronting and sometimes acquiescing to the racism that permeated the nation. They, like their white counterparts, performed a myriad of tasks. They helped to raise and outfit Union regiments, served as nurses and laundresses, and formed aid societies to help African American soldiers and widows. Susie King Taylor, for example, served as a nurse and laundress for the Union’s First South Carolina Regiment.


In 1866, Frank Moore asserted that “the story of the war will never be fully or fairly written if the achievements of women in it are untold” (Moore 1866, v). The study of women’s roles during the Civil War adds dimension to early military-based explorations of the conflict. Women across the spectrum of race, class, region, and nationality helped shape the outcome of the war and in turn were shaped by the events around them. Some did the exotic, dressing up as men to serve in armies or using their feminine charms to participate in rampant espionage. Others did the more mundane, but equally essential, tasks of recruiters, political cheerleaders, nurses, fundraisers, seamstresses, cooks, laundresses, factory workers, and household managers. By performing these tasks, women fulfilled a need for labor and goods that would have otherwise drawn men from their positions on the battlefront. Often at the same time, women proved their mettle in the face of adversity as they confronted enemy troops, dealt with shortages and inflation, and became refugees. These varied experiences forced women to adapt to harsh conditions, but also allowed them the opportunity to gain confidence in their abilities and their fortitude. Women could not avoid the Civil War, even from the presumed safety of the home front. In short, the Civil War was hardly confined to the world of men—it was women’s work.