Women’s Contribution in the Union Army

The Civil War not only led to the end of slavery, but it also led to the emancipation of women.   Early America was a country of men who determined that the women’s place was at home. Married women had no right to own property. The husband owned everything she inherited or earned. She cannot enter into any contract and she could not vote. Women belonging to the more prosperous families spend their time learning polite manners and needlework and to play an instrument and to dance the waltz. It was a quite a struggle if one desires to acquire higher education.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the movement for the abolition of slavery was gaining ground. There were several women who figured prominently as abolitionists and among these were Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cody Stanton. They were sent to London as delegates to an anti-slavery convention.  However, they found the doors closed to them because of the old prejudice that “women belong at home.” The result of the two ladies’ indignation at such treatment was the first women’s rights convention held at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. The outcome of this was the formation of the Women’s Suffrage Association. 1

Despite this digression, Mott and Stanton remained full time abolitionists as it was with countless other women. They share the common opinion that slavery was wrong and it was their duty, both moral and religious, to have the institution abolished. The writer, Frederick Douglass had written, “When the true history of the antislavery cause shall be written, women will occupy a large space in its pages; for the cause of the slave has been peculiarly woman’s cause.” 2

This opinion had, in essence, provided a radical change in women’s attitudes due to their commitment to it. In calling for abolition, they were calling for a change in status quo in all areas be it poetical, economics, religious or social. They had to step out of their houses into streets and parlors and meeting houses to speak against slavery against slavery. They learned to reason, to discuss, to argue. In organizing settlements, they manifested their innate administrative and financial capabilities. They challenged authority and even broke laws by aiding fugitive slaves. They also challenged traditional gender roles. Women started to make their presence felt in society and in politics. Hence, their perception of self began to change as they began to feel their independence from the shadow of men.

This was the prevailing mood amongst the women of the North when the war broke out between states. While some women merely continued to work for the anti-slavery cause, some opted to work directly with the fighting men of the Union Army. Among these were Mary Livermore and Clara Barton. Both were born in 1821 in Massachusetts, both became teachers and both labored for the relief of soldiers during the Civil War.

Mary and her clergyman husband had already been active in working for the freedom of slaves. The tuning point in their decision to assist directly in the war effort was the Union’s loss in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Morale was law and casualties were high. Together with Jane Hoge, they believed that something must be done that could directly benefit the men in the battlefields. So, they joined they joined the U.S. Sanitary Commission where they were able to organize aid societies which will secure food, bandages and other supplies. Throughout the Northeast, they were able to organize such societies. Livermore visited wounded soldiers. She was able to cut through complicated bureaucracy in securing discharges or furloughs for the wounded which would have otherwise taken them till the war ended before their papers could get processed. She helped families reunite with their missing love ones by going through voluminous hospital lists. The war dragged on and it was wreaking havoc on the treasury coffers. Livermore and Hoge hit upon another great plan to assist. They will organize a fundraiser for the Sanitary Commission of Chicago. They would enjoin all patriots to donate items which can be sold or auctioned off. They aimed to raise USD25,000. The male leadership of Chicago were not very enthusiastic about the project but went along with it. The women, on the other hand, attacked it with zeal. Livermore wrote President Lincoln and asked him to donate the original manuscript of the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln sent it to her two weeks later and got in the auction block for USD3,000. After numerous letters, circulars and promotional speaking engagements together with seamless organization, the fair raised USD86,000, far ahead of anyone’s expectations. Her enthusiasm had earned her the moniker Unionist Joan of Arc. 3

Clara Barton, on the other hand, went into the hospitals and into the battlefield to nurse the wounded soldiers. She worked outside government jurisdiction in bringing food to the wounded, aiding fallen soldiers and spending countless hours to write to the relatives of the dead and helping relatives to find out what happened to their missing family member. After the war, she set up an agency for finding missing men. She also went on to establish the Red Cross in the United States. 4

Over 8,000 women worked as nurses during the Civil War on the Union side alone. They came from backgrounds from the working-class women to those from the middle-class who had never worked a day in their lives. They were either volunteers, members of the local aid committees, relatives of the wounded or former slaves. Most did not have any education or training. Only a few were tasked to assist in amputations or the change dressings.  I narrative Hospital Pencillings by Elvira Powers, she explained her role:

she had “charge of the diet,” covered crutches and procured pads for amputated limbs, filled petitions for furloughs and back pay, wrote letters and read to patients, organized sing? alongs, baked an occasional cake, arranged prints for the walls, and “tried to have something on a little stand, which should represent or bring to mind a cabinet, to make them think of home. In short, have tried to make my ward look as Miss B. expressed it, `as if there was a woman in it.’ 5

Nurses were generally called upon to           to offer moral and spiritual support which seemed mundane but worth a great deal to the wounded

Dorothea Lynde Dix was almost sixty when she offered her serices along with about 3,200 volunteer nurses. She was already well-known by that time because of her tireless effort ser to bring about better conditions for people suffering from mental illness. Kindness soon began to take place of brutal treatment and hospitals intended exclusively for their care was built. The Union Army gave her a military commission as Superintendent of United States Army Nurses on June 10, 1861 and under her abler able supervision, hospitals got built and volunteer groups of women throughout the North were sent to work. 6

Another famous nurse was Mary Ann Bickerdyke. She did not have much of an education and had a rather strong earthy yet callous and unrestrained style. She refused to be hindered by the rules and regulations that could get in the way of her determination and dedication to the welfare of her patients. A memorable anecdote was when she ordered the breastworks of the tent hospital taken down and burnt like firewood  just to keep the severely wounded men from freezing to death. She had been subjected to threats of arrests and various complaints. However, she had a patron in the person of Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman who declared that, “Mother Bickerdyke outranks everybody, even Lincoln.” 7

Women also contributed to the war effort by going behind enemy lines. Several had been documented to have served as spies for the North and fed them information. Among these were Pauline Cushman, an actress and a spy under the Union’s secret service. She got caught and was meted the death sentence but was saved from the noose by fortuitous events. Harriet Tubman, known for her affiliation with the Underground Railroad, also organized spy network and expeditions that once led to the capture of 800 slaves from their white owners. Elizabeth Van Lew resided in Michigan. She clothed and fed the Union prisoners and was able to put a spy in Jefferson Davis’ home. Mary Elizabeth Bowser served as a maid in the Confederate White House. Sarah Emma Edmonds was a private in the army. She claimed that it was Gen. George B. McClellan who recruited her to spy for the North. At one time, she even pretended to be a Negro to be better able to spy on the Confederates. 8

Sarah Edmonds was not the only one to dress up as a man to get into the Union Army. In a diary entry dated May 9, 1862 by Sarah Morgan, she exclaimed, “O if I was only a man! Then I could don the breeches, and slay them with a will!” 9 This was a sentiment desired not only by a handful of women, it seems. In fact, evidence can prove that there were at least 240 women who pretended to be men. There was Sarah Rosetta Wakeman alias Lyons Wakeman, Jennie Hodgers alias Albert D.J. Cashiers and Sarah Emma Edmonds alias rankling Thompson.  Edmonds service in the army under the Second Michigan Infantry had her as a nurse, mail and dispatch carrier. It earned her a pension and membership in the Grand Army of the Republic where she was the only female member. There were also accounts about Maria Lewis, an African American woman who not only pretended to be a man, she pretended to be a white man. Out of the thirty five cavalry troopers who served under Col. Henry C. Gilbert, five of them were said to be women. 10

The fact remains, however, that women were forbidden to enlist in the army. Therefore, deception was necessary to gain entry and participate in the war through direct combat. Their true identities were discovered only by accident or because they were casualties. Mary Owens alias John Evans was discovered when she suffered a wound in her arm after serving for eighteen months. She went home amidst press publicity and a warm welcome. Mary Seaberry alias Charles Freeman, a private with the Fifty-second Ohia Infantry was discharged from the service when her gender was discovered after getting admitted in a hospital for serious fever. Sarah Edmonds preferred to desert when she contracted malaria than face the risk of discovery.

There were others who disclosed it in a memoir like Lt. Henry Buford otherwise known as Loreta Velasquez. Safronia Smith Hunt’s army stint in the Iowa Regiment was disclosed in her obituary. Albert D.J. Cashier’s identity was not discovered until 1913 in the Illinois Soldiers Home by the in-house surgeon. She enlisted in the Union Army in 1862 when she was only nineteen. She spent her entire adult life passing off as a man. No one suspected that she was not who she claimed to be. 11

The reasons for “donning breeches” vary from woman to woman. It could be that they wanted to fight side by side with their husband or brother. It could be due to economic reasons and the promise of a regular paycheck. They could be looking for excitement. What is sure, nonetheless, was that they were primarily motivated by patriotism. Their enlistment was voluntary. They knew the risks and yet they persisted in contributing to the war effort in the only way they knew how.

According to Blanton, the woman soldier’s contribution to the war may not be significant to the point of altering its course, but it is significant that women even fought. They went against their upbringing and challenged the prejudices existing at that time. They

defied the unequal treatment accorded women as mandated by society just to be able to fight for their state. Their actions were revolutionary as well as noble. 12

The abolition conflict that led to the Civil War and then the war itself opened opportunities for women to discover themselves through wage earning work, aid societies, volunteering as nurses and even enlisting in the army. It transformed the women’s domestic and civic roles. This is contradicted by Nina Silber, however, by stating that this was actually “an inhospitable environment for women” as it “stems from patriarchal and nationalistic emphasis of the Union War effort” and continued dependence on the male-run bureaucracy was evident. 13

However, the events following the Civil War proves her wrong. The women’s rights groups grew stronger. It gained more members after the war and had made much headway in their demand for rights and the male-dominated government displayed more tolerance to their demands. Mary Livermore summed up her wartime experiences and attributed her transformation and her passion to the events during the war.

It was not [feminist] Lucy Stone who converted me to Woman Suffrage,” she told an audience of woman’s rights activists in 1870, “nor even my own husband, who had been talking it to me for fifteen years. It was the war and the strength of character which it developed in our women…. Knowing, then, the qualities of woman and her courage and bravery under trials, I can never cease to demand that she shall have just as large a sphere as man has. 14

The actions of the women during the Civil War made them realize their power and independence. Women’s contributions were both patriotic and timely to the call for legal and political rights.

;nbsp;