Women did more during the Civil War than just sit at home waiting for their husbands, brothers and sons to come home. Some helped out behind the scenes and sometimes on the battlefields. Some of these women became famous for their efforts, while others intentionally tried to keep their work secret. Women’s wartime efforts often broke from the traditional role of housewives and mothers.
Women served as spies for both the Confederate and Union armies. Some of these spies gathered information by flirting with male soldiers during social gatherings and eavesdropping as they discussed important war information. These women often transported supplies, weapons and documents under their large hoop skirts. One spy, Emeline Pigott from North Carolina entertained Union soldiers, who were occupying her town as they advanced South, with parties and dinners in her home and then passed along important information about the Union army’s daily plans to the Confederate army, according to the National Women’s History Museum web site. She passed along this information by leaving notes and letters in nearby hiding spots or passing through enemy lines and hand-delivering them. The Union army eventually caught onto her and she was arrested and jailed.
About 2,000 to 5,000 women served as nurses on both sides of the Civil War. These jobs were grim because the women saw up close the horrifying injuries, deaths and disease that affected both sides of the army. These nurses cleaned and bandaged wounds, fed soldiers, handed out medications and helped doctors during operations and medical procedures. One famous nurse at the time was Clara Barton. Barton worked as a clerk in the U.S. patent office when the Civil War began. She started showing up at nearby battlefields with medical supplies to help nurse the wounded which earned her the nickname the “Angel of the Battlefield.” She later went on to found the American Red Cross in 1881 at the age of 60, according to the Red Cross website.
War Relief Workers
War relief efforts consisted of sewing circles or meetings where women made clothing and gathered hospital supplies, food, bedding and delivered them to local military encampments and hospitals. Women also organized fundraisers and charity events to help raise money such as the Sanitary Fair in Chicago in 1863. Donated items were often auctioned off at these fairs, which were held around the country, and the proceeds were used to purchase medical supplies and equipment.
Hundreds of women served as secret soldiers for the Confederate and Union armies. Although it was forbidden for women to serve in the military at the time, these women wore male disguises, used masculine names and were often only discovered by accident when being treated for injuries. One such female soldier was Mary Owens, who served under the alias of John Evans for 18 months and was discovered after receiving an arm injury. She was sent home to Pennsylvania after her real identity was discovered.
Jim Garamone, Civil War Spies: Good Intell Knows No Gender, U.S. Department of Defense
Clandestine Women: Spies in American History, National Women’s History Museum
DeAnne Blanton, Women Soldiers of the Civil War , National Archives
Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross, American Red Cross