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Civil War Women: The roles of black and white women during the American Civil War

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Throughout time, history has proven to be rather discriminatory in terms of color, gender, religion, and sexual orientation. To this day, there are numerous societies which are still plagued by racial prejudice, unfair and unequal treatment. The conflicts arising from misperceptions related to physical, moral or personal differences have become more and more common. The ethnic violence that marked the early days of 20th century Africa, especially in countries such as Somalia, Rwanda, or Burundi, only prove that despite the evolution of society and the legal emancipation of the slaves, the emancipation of the human perception has yet to be fully achieved in our own country. While there are still cases of mistreatment today, most examples of discrimination and unfair treatment were primarily found in pre-modern societies, such as the United States before the American Civil War.

The struggle for equal rights and the abolition of discriminatory practices is an important segment of American history, and one of its episodes unfolded during the Civil War as women, despite the common expectations of their place in society, played an essential role in supporting the war effort. In their struggle to make a difference and to contribute to the changes taking place in society they had to face all sorts of obstacles, from gender inequality to social disregard and color discrimination. In the end, however, history acknowledged their part in the overall development of the events making up the crucial moment of the Civil War, despite the fact that their contributions did not earn them the respect, politically and socially, of the male lawmakers.

The Civil War era is representative of American history because it marked a time in which the nation was facing one of the most important identity crises of its existence. As Glenda Riley points out, “two major questions were at issue: the continuation and extension of the black slave system and the political unity of the northern and southern states.”[1] These coordinates also determined the overall image of the role women played in this context. Their presence raised issues related to slavery; on the one hand, women’s status in the society and in relation to the man, and finally their political and social roles. Consequently, the actions of women during the Civil War were touched and influenced by all of these aspects.

In order to fully see the relevance of the role women played in this period of American history, it is important to take into account several additional aspects of the period that make up the general conditions under which women took action. This may, after all, also represent a proof of the contribution that women made to the shaping of the political, economic and social life of the United States, an achievement that had been denied to women in particular prior to the Civil War.[2] Therefore, is is essential to have a brief presentation of the general background of the era, followed by a particular emphasis on the condition of women during this time. The Civil War was an occasion for women to address their double discriminatory situation; in this case, a black woman for instance was rejected by her fellow white women for the color of her skin, and at the same time by her fellow black men for being a woman. Therefore, it is important to consider the challenges facing women during this time, with a particular emphasis on the actions and reactions to their defying attitudes. Most importantly, however, for the argumentation of the actual role of women in the Civil War would be the precise and concrete presentation of deeds and activities in which women, black and white, were engaged in throughout the Civil War.

The historical background of the time was determined by the political, economic, and social situation of the North in relation to the South.  The political aspect differed greatly between the two regions. While the North was seen as liberal and the proponent of a confederate system of rule, the South was determined to keep and promote a unionist solution. From this perspective, the war broke out between two different views over which political system would bring the United States into the next decade and century. From an economic point of view, the differences were extremely noticeable as well. The South was a region that had flourished due to the cotton and tobacco plantations that occupied most of its territory, and therefore was an agricultural region; however, this could not have been achieved without the systematic use of slave labor. Georgia was considered to be one of the most representative states in terms of the use of black slave labor. The North, by contrast, was a region focused more on the industrial side of economic development, as they relied more on the evolution of technology rather than the use of human labor force. This differentiation in economic practices led in the end to the creation of two distinct economic blueprints that eventually confronted each other in the most awful way: war. Socially, the overall image was also split. While the society in the South was dominated by property owners and local slave-owners due to the economic specificities of the area, the North, as a consequence of the development of more liberal crafts and production activities, enjoyed a modern and more opened social environment, based on liberal ideas such as free trade and competition. This distinction attracted a major differentiation between the two sides that resulted in open clashes[3].

In this broad context, women were reserved a special place within each society, North and South. On the one hand, “the customary images of women as primarily wives and mothers not only persisted, but were enhanced by a highly developed doctrine of women’s sphere”[4]. They were sincerely convinced that their most important and first duty was childcare and they engaged in creating a moral and elevated climate for their children. Thus, the expectation that woman was alone responsible for the everyday chores and the education of children remained the axis of every pertinent judgment on the place of women in the society. Even more, “professional and entrepreneurial men preferred to have their wives and daughters remain at home as symbols of their own ability to support their family.”[5]  The promotion of this exclusivist image, sometimes in relation to other types of female images such as the innocent interiorized maiden defined by the Cult of White Womanhood[6] or the puritan type[7] added to the limitation of perspectives over the role women could actually play in the development of their society.

On the other hand, however, the evolution of the economic conditions, together with the increasing need for additional income, determined that some women had to expand their range of activities. Thus, “the actual activities and the employment of women were challenging the traditional concept of separate spheres (…”) Among other things, industrialization transformed household production, created social classes of women, and drew huge number of women from their homes into paid employment.[8] Accordingly, women were present in factories for carding and spinning yarn, working in shoe factories, the needle trades or in new emerging mill towns. Even so, the discriminatory behavior soon surfaced as women were obviously paid less than men, despite performing at a similar level.[9]

This perspective offers a general framework for the evolution of women’s status in terms of the challenges they faced and the obstacles they were forced to overcome. Generally speaking, women had to endure the negative treatment of men based on the historical consideration of the fragility of their sex. This is the argument often invoked when justifying the limits imposed on women who were prevented from engaging in male dominated activities such as those undergone in mines or hard labor. Even so, this attitude continuously reached new heights and the denial of the possibility of women taking part in social and political life was soon to be justified through the use of this argument, especially taking into account the fact that women, as a result of such a mentality, were limited to the activities surrounding the household. This in turn negatively affected the opportunities for any eventual improvement of women’s skills, which in the end resulted in the inability of most women to tackle politics or other socially related activities.

 Indeed the time of the Civil War was strongly influenced by discriminatory attitudes, of both race and gender. This is why there were different attempts to reduce the gap between people. Still, the discrimination towards women was relatively distinct.  Proof of this fact was Congress’s decision to adopt a series of legislative initiatives that still failed to resolve the issue in its entirety; relevant to the point is “when Congress passed the 14th amendment in 1866, its provision extended political privileges to white and black men but not to women.”[10]

There is another aspect that marked the situation of women in the Civil War period, an element that made the participation of women in the relief activities even more important for the overall evolution of the female condition in this society. Despite the fact that neither Northern nor Southern women were privileged enough to have an easy time during the war, it was the black women that were faced with an extra pressure, given the circumstances of their social existence. Throughout time, black women had to face a double injustice, being discriminated for being a woman in her black community, and for being black in the company of their white counterparts[11]. The distinction between white and colored women manifested even during the war years but, unlike the previous decades when white women benefited from the support of their husbands, during the Civil War they had to cooperate in helping the soldiers. Thus, the distinction between the white and black women was rapidly surpassed and, out of necessity, many white females came to appreciate and honor the qualities of their fellow black women[12].

Despite its large number of casualties, the Civil War was an important opportunity for women to affirm their abilities and their importance in the society. The conflict came as a relatively unprepared for event, and therefore the victims and the duration of the war made it essential for additional care, but at the same time for a reorientation of the balance of activities conducted by women in their society. Firstly, it must be pointed out that, no matter the soldiers they supported, women had an intrinsic respect for the value of human life and therefore decided to intervene not so much in support of one of the armies, but rather oriented their actions towards helping the needs of those affected by the war. L. P. Brockett, Mary C. Vaughan, and Zeigler, in the introductory analysis to “McCurdy Woman’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience”, presented the same idea. They referred to the women present in the book as having “inevitably lost the benefits of privacy, by the largeness and length of their public services, and their names and history are to a certain extent the property of the country.”[13] Therefore, there is a general opinion that indeed women managed to play an essential role in the evolution of the war, through different means and by making use of the limited resources at their disposal.

The actions women took can be seen from a multitude of perspectives. For instance, L. P. Brockett considered their initiatives as an expression of patriotism[14], while others saw them as both a duty towards the society and one to the entire community. Taking these aspects into consideration, women followed different courses of action. From the onset of the war, women were engaged in different types of organizations and committees that enabled them to support the war efforts of their husbands. In this respect, they continued certain activities that had been already underway from the start of the century as the symbol of women’s emancipation. Thus, giving the fact that “from the 1790s on both black and white women had been organizing voluntary associations, at first religious and charitable, but some with more overtly political intent by the antebellum period”[15], the organizational experience was already developed and rather efficient, an element that contributes to the success of their war initiatives. Such initiatives materialized in the form of war committees such as The New York Central Association of Relief or Weldon Pennsylvania. The latter, for instance, registered an important contribution, as “these women’s groups sent tremendous quantities of supplies to the front. Organized in 1862, the, society contributed $17, 000 in goods in one year”, aside from the quantity of clothes, shoes, and additional material necessary to those on the front lines.[16]

This practical approach to the activities women took during the war was the embodiment of a general trend, which responded to the basic needs of any country confronted with civil war. As the conflict raised momentum, both Northern and Southern women “began to congregate in homes, hotels, and churches to preserve fruits (…) and organize charity fairs and other fund raising events to collect money with which to buy supplies.”[17] This was an additional example of their involvement in raising financial resources for supporting the soldiers who were fighting in the Civil War.

Every armed conflict is eventually faced with a crisis at the level of victim care. In some cases, the situation can surpass the expectations and the gravity of the result in terms of casualties. This was the case with the Civil War, whose evolution was plagued by the controversy of questionable decisions from the commanding generals and was prolonged outside the time limits first taken into consideration. This is why there was an increased need for medical support and assistance. Thus, “from the very beginning of the Civil War, women were drawn into the war effort by requests for huge amounts of foodstuffs, bandages, and other sanitary.”[18] Moreover, refreshment salons in the north and wayside homes in the south were set in place to aid passing military personnel.

The hard conditions on the warfront determined that some women had to get involved in the improvement of nutrition in the camps as part of their participation in and contribution to the war. Thus, women such as Annie Turner Wittenmyer set in motion a campaign meant to promote the serving of proper, healthier food to the soldiers. In addition, she became interested in the human aspect of the war, especially concerning children who lost their parents in the fighting and would remain orphans after the war. Her initiative proved rather successful as by “1865 (she) persuaded the federal government to give several new buildings and many hospitals supplies to the newly organized Iowa Orphans Home Association in Davenport, Iowa”[19].

The philanthropic nature of wives and sisters during the war also materialized in the form of their actions to help nurse and heal the wounded[20]. However, this was not an easy task, as at the time there were few nursing schools and many applicants for a place on the front were rejected due to a lack of experience or the youth of the applicant.[21]  Because of the great need for medical assistance, however, many of them acquired the experience on the front; still, in 1861 Dr. Elisabeth Blackwell had established a training program for nurses in response to the crisis created during the war. Another result of the hard conditions women saw on the front, Clara Barton, one of the leading figures of the war aid efforts, “began to crusade for the establishment of the American Red Cross in the 1870’s (because) The Civil War had taught her about corruption, lack of supplies, and carnage”. [22]

At the same time women were not involved just in medical and fund raising activities, they were also involved in the more dangerous aspects of the Civil War. There are a number of known cases of active participation in the fighting on the front lines. Even more, there were also women on the front “disguised as men, about 400 women who fought in the Civil War (…) other women served as spies, couriers, guides, scouts, saboteurs, smugglers, and informers.”[23] This can be explained by the fact that most often women had more physical advantages than other men did under cover and thus, making use of their personal charm, they were successful in managing secret information. On the other hand, however, there were also dangerous aspects of the participation of women in the actual fighting, especially in the perspective of the guerrilla warfare that played a significant role in different regions such as Missouri.[24]

The war resulted in a lack of male support in the domestic environment, and all the responsibilities related to the household were now the exclusive concern of the wife. In their attempt to maintain continuity, women both in the North and in the South tried to take hold of all farming activities, while at the same time not neglecting the traditional duties related to the education of children and regular house chores. From this perspective, it can be said that their determination to keep a sense of normality around the house is an additional effort made in support of the war.

Overall, it is fair to say that women, black and white, played an important role in the economy of the Civil War. They were essential factors in the relief aid and in the process of caring for the sick, the victims, and the dying. At the same time, women throughout the country tried to maintain the fragile equilibrium between their traditional activities and the ones that had been the men’s responsibilities until the outbreak of the war. Despite this, however, there was little political will to formally acknowledge the role women played in the war, a fact which only came to prove the efforts they would have to make in the future for political and social recognition.

Works cited

Banta,  Martha. Imaging American women: idea and ideals in cultural history. Columbia University Press, New York, 1987.

Boritt, Gabor S. Why the Civil War Came. Ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Brockett, L. P. and Mary C. Vaughan,. Woman’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism, and Patience. Philadelphia: Zeigler, McCurdy, 1867.

Conway,  Jill K., Linda Kealey, and Janet E. Schulte. The female experience in eighteenth and nineteenth century America: a guide to the history of American women. Garland Publishing, New York, 1982.

Fellman, Michael. “Women and Guerrilla Warfare,” In Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War. Ed.  Clinton, Catherine and Nina Silber, 147-165. New York: Oxford University

Press, 1992.

Jenkins, Philip. A history of the United States.  New York: Palgrave, 1997.

Riley, Glenda. Inventing the American woman: a perspective on women’s history. Harlan Davidson, Illinois, 1987.

Schultz,  Jane. Women at the front: hospital workers in Civil War America. UNC Publisher: New York, 2004.

Women’s International Center. Women’s history in America. Available from http://www.wic.org/misc/history.htm; internet; accessed 7 March 2007.

[1] Riley, Glenda. Inventing the American woman: a perspective on women’s history. (Harlan Davidson, Illinois, 1987), 121.
[2] Conway, Jill K., Linda Kealey, and Janet E. Schulte. The female experience in eighteenth and nineteenth century America: a guide to the history of American women.( Garland Publishing, New York, 1982), 191
[3] Jenkins, Philip. A history of the United States.  (New York: Palgrave, 1997).
[4] Riley, Glenda. Inventing the American woman: a perspective on women’s history. (Harlan Davidson, Illinois, 1987), 63.
[5] Idem, 67.
[6] Idem, 67.
[7] Banta,  Martha. Imaging American women: idea and ideals in cultural history. (Columbia University Press, New York, 1987),  46-65.
[8] Riley, Glenda. Inventing the American woman: a perspective on women’s history. (Harlan Davidson, Illinois, 1987), 63.
[9] Idem, 66.
[10] Idem, 127.
[11] Women’s International Center. Women’s history in America. Available from, from http://www.wic.org/misc/history.htm; Internet; accessed 7 March 2007.
[12] Schultz, Jane. Women at the front: hospital workers in Civil War America. (UNC Publisher: New York, 2004), 1-2.
[13] Brockett, L. P. and Mary C. Vaughan, Woman’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience. (Philadelphia: Zeigler, McCurdy, 1867), 39.
[14] Idem, 49.
[15] Boritt, Gabor S. Why the Civil War Came, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 34.
[16] Riley, Glenda. Inventing the American woman: a perspective on women’s history. (Harlan Davidson, Illinois, 1987), 122.
[17],Idem,  121.
[18] Idem.
[19] Idem.
[20] Schultz, Jane. Women at the front: hospital workers in Civil War America. (UNC Publisher: New York, 2004), 4-5.
[21] L. P. Brockett, and Mary C. Vaughan, Woman’s Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience (Philadelphia: Zeigler, McCurdy, 1867), 55;
[22] Idem, 111-115.
[23] Idem, 124.
[24] Fellman, Michael, “Women and Guerrilla Warfare”, in Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War, ed. Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), ch. 9

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