An award-winning senior paper from the 2012 National History Day competition. An excerpt of this article appeared in the December 2012 issue of Civil War Times.
There were just shy of 400 documented cases of women who served as soldiers during the Civil War, according to the records of the Sanitary Commission. Women from both sides chopped off their hair, traded in their dresses for guns and fought for the side they believed in. Their contemporaries often looked upon them as outcasts in a society where men and women had completely different roles. People were quick to say that the only women who would have enlisted were mentally unbalanced or prostitutes. In 1865 The United States Service Magazine stated that “those who generalize on the impropriety and unladylikeness of such conduct, are unquestionably in the right, according to the practical parlor standard of life.”
Women during the 19th century filled a specific role in society. In this time period, historians called women’s place in society the “cult of domesticity.” Acceptable tasks for women often if not always confined them to the house. Historian Barbara Welters referred to a woman of this time period as the “hostage of the home.” From an early age females learned to cook, clean, sew and raise children, domestic duties that gave women a supposed elevated position in society. The cardinal virtues of true women were seen as piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity.
But in 1866 Frank Moore, author of Women of the War, noted, “other wars have furnished here and there a name, which the world delights to repeat in terms of affection or admiration, of some woman who has broken through the rigidity of custom…but our war has furnished hundreds.” Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Matilda Gave took female soldiers quite seriously in their multivolume History of Woman Suffrage, published beginning in 1881. They showed that women could serve valiantly in the army; therefore an inability to serve in the army was not grounds to prohibit women’s suffrage.
At a time when society saw women soldiers as either unbalanced lesbians or erotic patriots who wanted to be Joan of Arc, some women did espouse a passion, on occasion described as “unadulterated patriotism,” for their country, not unlike many men who served beside them. However most women soldiers wanted to accompany family members into battle instead of enduring the separation that often comes with prolonged warfare. They included wives who, serving with their husbands, became pregnant while in ranks. One woman sergeant fought at the [December 1862] Battle of Stone’s River while she was five months pregnant—without anyone learning she was a woman. Another woman soldier was not discovered until she gave birth on January 19, 1864.
When the Civil War broke out, men from all over the country joined the ranks, leaving behind jobs and duties that women quickly filled. The war gave women an opportunity to be involved in national affairs and function with a type of independence foreign to most of them. Sarah Rosetta Wakeman, a female soldier from the 153rd Regiment serving the New York State Volunteers, was one of the few who openly wrote home about her gender and the struggles she faced in the course of the war. In one letter she wrote her family “I am as independent as a hog on ice.” She saw the war as a source of freedom from her strict home.
Not all women had to be soldiers to experience this new independence. Women on the home front ran businesses, joined national organizations and supported the cause through any means possible. Many were excited to leave behind the strict restrictions of society and do something for the cause. For them as for Little Women author Louisa May Alcott, who served as a nurse, there was an urge to contribute. She wrote in the beginning of her Hospital Sketches: “I want to do something.”
The women’s rights movement had been gathering a following shortly before the war, and it resumed after the war’s conclusion. The image of female empowerment in wartime brought the movement new energy. Women were now getting recognition, as when President Andrew Johnson wrote a letter praising Sarah Thompson, who served as a Union spy, calling her a woman of the “highest respectability.”
The war had given women a chance to control their own lives, earning their own money and managing their own finances. Some women were no longer complacently filling the roles they had filled before the war. In 1881 Scribner’s Monthly Magazine published an article by a woman who wrote: “I want—I don’t know what I want; I’m tired of everything; I’d like to be a queen or something—no, a bearded king….We girls are such poor creatures slaves to circumstance and fate. Denied the warrior’s glory and the conqueror’s splendid state.”
Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross, said that the Civil War caused “fifty years in the advance of the normal position” of women. History may differ in its interpretation of the motives or mental state of the women who chose to serve, but their service supported not only their cause, but also the women’s rights movement.