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Civil War

During the Civil War, women on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line rose to challenge Victorian assumptions of feminine frailty and the impropriety of women in the public sphere. On the home front, northern and southern women took over households, ran family businesses, maintained farms and plantations, and provided daily care and food for their families while the men went to war. They formed aid societies or “bonnet brigades” to knit socks, and sew uniforms and flags. Women also helped organize and run public relief and sanitary commissions that gathered and distributed supplies to the armies.


Hundreds of women staffed government and regimental hospitals as nurses and matrons, and a few even worked in military hospitals as doctors. (Read about Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, the only woman ever awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.) Some accompanied the Army as cooks and laundresses, and others disguised themselves as men and served on the battlefield. They were wounded, killed and held prisoners of war.

In the North, the War Department appointed Dorothea Dix as Superintendent of Women Nurses in 1861. Dix organized and staffed military hospitals and established firm criteria for her contract nurses and matrons.

Dix discouraged single women from nursing because of the improprieties involved in close contact with strange men and hostility to their presence. Contract nurses were required to be over 30 years old, matronly in appearance, able to pay their own way, have two letters of recommendation, wear brown or black garments and be sober and self-sacrificing. They received forty cents a day plus a ration. While 500 servedunder Dix, another 2,700 provided care to Civil War soldiers during the War.

Others like Clara Barton, who later founded the American Red Cross, were so moved by the suffering of wounded and sick soldiers that they volunteered at Army camps and hospitals and on battlefields. A 39-year-old spinster working as a full-time copyist at the US Patent Office in Washington, DC, Barton had no formal nurses training but wanted to ease the suffering of Northern troops. Using her own money to purchase food and collecting hospital supplies, medicine and even whisky, Barton nursed Union soldiers at local military hospitals before obtaining passes to venture onto the battlefields of Marye’s Heights, the Wilderness Campaign, Hilton Head and Battery Wagner. (Read more about Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.)

Catholic nuns also served as nurses for both the North and South in hospitals and aboard steamships. In the beginning, they were the only source of trained nurses—male or female, because of their education and training in 28 already-established Catholic hospitals. Nine nuns are known to have died in war service.

Women in the South did not have to leave their homes to reach the front. The war, fought in large part in the Confederacy, confronted many right on their own doorsteps. An estimated 1,000 southern women nursed in hospitals. Countless others nursed the sick and wounded who marched through their regions. They faced overwhelming difficulties because of the lack of organized relief efforts in the South and an ill-equipped Confederate government.

Freed slave women and children also followed Union armies and lived on the outskirts of camp. Some obtained employment as nurses, cooks, laundresses and personal servants to white officers. The Union army also moved many African-American women onto nearby plantations to raise cotton for the northern government to sell. Wives of black soldiers qualified for widow’s pensions after the war when they “legalized” their marriages through the Union army.

Women spies often proved paramount to the development of battle strategy because they supplied information on troop movement, size and supplies, and the placement and strength of fortifications. Women sometimes traveled with information hidden in their clothing while others disguised themselves to facilitate their travel or to obtain information. When captured, they were treated as criminals rather than prisoners of war.

Women’s participation in the Civil War became a catalyst for changes in women’s roles in society. Successful Civil War nursing and relief work led to an increasing number of paid positions for women in these fields in the postwar period and to the opening of the first nursing schools for women in 1873. Finally, women’s efforts in the Civil War established a precedent for women’s inclusion in future war efforts.