In the 19th century, America saw great changes. There was a growth in manufacturing, cities increasingly began to spring up, slavery was expanding, and wage labor was becoming more prominent. Society had to adjust to the new changes in the American lifestyle, especially women. They drastically altered their lives, many turning to public action. They wanted to seize any opportunity they had to transform the life they had come to know.
Even though the Civil War was known as a man’s fight, some women, posing as men, charged into battle alongside their husbands. Both the Union and Confederate armies may have prohibited the enlistment of women, but this did not stop them. They lived in camps, suffered in prison, and died for their cause, showing just as much heroism as any man. As many as 250 women joined the Confederate army. Though both armies were aware of the involvement of women, they (unfairly) denied that women played a role in the military.
Those who did not march off into battle took on other important roles. The jobs that were left behind by men in battle were being taken over by women. Women became an important part of industry and toiled endlessly in factories. On the home front, they began to take positions of authority. In the South, it was the women who managed their property and their slaves. When it came to children, men were typically the disciplinarians, but when the men went off to war, women found themselves in that position as well.
Then, of course, there were the women who worked as spies and nurses. The female spies provided critical information in the war. In fact, it was a young woman named Bettie Duvall who provided the Confederate army with Union battle plans, providing for a Confederate victory at the First Battle of Bull Run. One of the most famous, or maybe even notorious, female spies was Maria “Belle” Boyd. She often went to Union camps to gather information and also worked as a courier. She once said, “I was doing all a woman could do for her country’s cause.” How’s that for patriotism?
Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (Library of Congress)
Historians believe that somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 women volunteered as nurses throughout the Civil War, the majority coming from the northern states. The nurses managed the physical needs of all their patients and distributed blankets, clothing, food, and supplies that were received.
One of the most well-known nurses during the Civil War was Clara Barton. Prior to the war, nursing was considered a “lowly service” but she helped transform it into a well-respected profession. Shortly following the First Battle of Bull Run, she started an agency for obtaining and distributing supplies to wounded soldiers. She aided soldiers from both the North and the South, and after the Civil War she established the American Red Cross.