The lives of women changed dramatically during the American Civil War. They played important roles both at home and on the battlefield. On the home front, women for both sides had to manage the household while their husbands and sons were off fighting battles. On the battlefield, women helped to supply the soldiers, provide medical care, and worked as spies. Some women even fought as soldiers.
Life at Home
Managing the Home - With many of the adult men off to war, it was up to women to manage the home by themselves. In many cases this included running the farms or businesses that their husbands left behind.
Raising Money - Women also raised money for the war effort. They organized raffles and fairs and used the money to help pay for war supplies.
Taking on Men's Jobs - Many women took on jobs that had been traditionally men's jobs before the war. They worked in factories and in government positions that were vacated when men left to fight. This changed the perception of women's roles in daily life and helped to move forward the women's rights movement in the United States.
Caring for Soldiers in Camp
Women also helped to care for the soldiers while they were camped and preparing for battle. They sewed uniforms, provided blankets, mended shoes, washed clothes, and cooked for the soldiers.
Nurse Anna Bell by Unknown
Perhaps the most important role women played during the war was providing medical care for sick and wounded soldiers. Thousands of women worked as nurses throughout the war. The Union had the most organized nursing and relief efforts organized by women such as Dorothea Dix and Clara Barton. These women fed the sick, kept their bandages clean, and assisted doctors when needed.
Some of the top spies for both sides during the Civil War were women. They were typically women who lived or worked on one side, but secretly supported the other side. They included enslaved women in the South who passed on troop movements and information to the North. They also included women in the North who supported the South and were able to persuade officers to tell them important information that would help the South. Some women even ran spy rings from their homes where they would pass on information given to them from local spies.
Women as Soldiers
Although women were not allowed to fight as soldiers, many women still managed to join the army and fight. They did this by disguising themselves as men. They would cut their hair short and wear bulky clothes. Since the soldiers slept in their clothes and rarely changed clothes or bathed, many women were able to remain undetected and fight alongside the men for quite a while. If a woman was discovered, she was usually just sent home without being punished.
There were many influential women during the Civil War. You can read more about some of them in the following biographies:
Clara Barton - Civil War nurse who established the American Red Cross.
Dorothea Dix - Superintendant of Army Nurses for the Union. She also was an activist for the mentally ill.