During my decades as a female financial advisor working with female clients, I have seen the battles waged by women for female monetary independence. As such, I am an advocate for women and I like to write about women’s contributions to American society. Through Financial Coaching, Retirement Planning, and Investment Management, my clients know their future is brighter.
Women have contributed much to society, including their roles in the American Civil War. There is no way to properly convey the confusing, harrowing, and heart-wrenching times of the American Civil War. From 1861 to 1865, you were just as likely to lose a husband, son, or father to war as you were any other malady. However, the men were not the only ones placed in danger. This was a passionate war surrounding land rights, ownership of property, and, most importantly, the civil rights of human beings based on the color of their skin.
From the history books and blood-soaked battlefields, our museums and monuments are filled with the faces of well-known men. Yet, amidst the chaotic backdrop of extreme change were the rebellious faces of American women. These individuals were resilient, determined, and brave, often sacrificing their personal safety for the well-being of those they had never met. Let’s discuss how women played such an essential role during this pivotal time in U.S. History.
Pre-War Content: The “Cult of True Womanhood”
Long before the first shots of the Civil War echoed across the land, American culture was deeply rooted in a strange set of ideals (especially from the benefit of today’s 20/20 hindsight). This was known as the Cult of True Womanhood.
In this cultural norm, a woman’s place was in the bedroom, kitchen, or with the children. She was the caregiver who focused on the well-being of the family while her “big strong man” brought home the bacon.
In large part, this restrictive mold had to do with rights. Property ownership, voting, and education were still far away from the power of women. Yes, there were exceptions, but that was still the common perception. To put it simply, a woman in Civil War America was expected to embody virtues of piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness – especially to their husbands. It was the conflict of war that forced many of these “true women” to redefine their roles in American society.
The Broad Spectrum of Women’s Roles
Before I mention any of the individual women whom history should be celebrating, let’s discuss the types of roles women would play during the Civil War.
- Supporting Troops: The majority of women fell into this category. Whether for the love of the people leaving home or for patriotic duty, the home became the hub of wartime activity. Ladies Aid Societies cropped up everywhere, dedicating time to mending blankets, socks, uniforms, and all kinds of materials for the front lines. Fundraising campaigns and even local community gardens became mainstays along supply channels, supporting troops when army supplies ran low. Women were the logistical backbone of the military.
- Healthcare Pioneers:Inspired by figures like Florence Nightingale (whose tales from the Crimean War made waves in U.S. papers), American women were eager to step up health centers out of their homes. Combatting diseases and infections grew from women’s hard work, especially when the United States Sanitary Commission began. Women stayed at the forefront, advocating for improved conditions in army camps and hospitals. Many a man can thank his life to the care of women.
- Taking Charge at Home:Like so many other wars, once men left – women were forced to pick up the slack. Women began working in shops, industries, and managing vast family estates to ensure produce for food and businesses remained afloat. We can thank women for the economic stability that occurred, even if it was so much slower than what we think is average today. And remember, most women would never know legal ownership of what they were maintaining.
- Covert Operations: Not all women decided to abstain from fighting. There are many tales and proven examples of women dressing as men to fight. Some even delved into smuggling and spying. Because women were not considered equals to men, they could easily sneak into the unlikeliest of places, making them unsung heroes of espionage critical to the war effort on both sides.
The Influence of Race and Class on Women's War Experiences
We cannot discuss the Civil War and not bring up race. While the North and South portions of the country were divided, so much so were people of color. The kaleidoscope of individual experiences is reflected through the prisms of race and class.
For white women, the Union side of the question was buoyed by relative economic stability. This would lead them to rally community support, organize charitable drives, pen letters on behalf of leaders, and be the cogs to the industrialized military machine.
Being white in the confederacy (known as Southern Belles) brought an existential challenge. Scarcity altered the luxurious lifestyles many were used to, forcing them to adapt and learn how to manage estates and supervise slaves they would never have interacted with before.
It was an entirely different story for Black women. The war was both a beacon of hope and a storm of uncertainty. If you were living in the South and faced the chains of oppression, you saw the effort as a potential path to freedom. As the daily struggle to handle additional workloads due to men being conscripted for battle, you found subtle ways to resist and even aid the Union cause.
Freedwomen in the North passionately supported the Union’s cause. However, still had to deal with societal racism that frequently undervalued their contributions. That being said, you can hear many tales of black women regiments, nurses, community organizers, and supporters.
Notable Women of the Civil War
I don’t know how to whittle down a list of so many impressive women. Consider how challenging it must have been to be a woman in a society that pretty much viewed you as property for notoriety and baby-making. Even worse if you were a person of color trying to just enjoy a walk without being cursed, spit, or flogged for your insolence. Here is a quick list of some of the women I find to be incredibly inspiring.
- Harriet Tubman:Far beyond her renown as the Underground Railroad's conductor, Tubman showcased unparalleled valor. Not just an emancipator, she became a scout, spy, and even led a military raid for the Union. Her contributions blurred the lines between soldier and savior, making her one of the most iconic figures of the era.
- Elizabeth Blackwell:In an age where medical professions were dominated by men, Blackwell shattered the glass ceiling. Earning the title of the first female doctor in the U.S., she paved the way for countless others, emphasizing that care and healing knew no gender.
- Loreta Janeta Velázquez:Velázquez's story reads like an adventure novel. A LatinX woman who donned a disguise to become a Confederate soldier, she didn't stop there. As a spy, she navigated both sides of the conflict, her tale offering a unique perspective on loyalty and identity during the war (and needs to be made into a movie!).
- Clara Barton:Before she founded the American Red Cross, Clara Barton was known as the "Angel of the Battlefield." Unwavering in the face of danger, she provided crucial medical supplies and care to wounded soldiers. Her compassion and dedication during the Civil War laid the groundwork for her future humanitarian endeavors.
- Susie King Taylor:Born into slavery, Taylor found her freedom when Union forces arrived in Georgia. She became the first Black Army nurse, tending to an all-Black troop. Beyond her medical duties, she also taught soldiers to read and write, emphasizing the importance of education.
- Sarah Emma Edmonds:Masquerading as a man named "Franklin Thompson," Edmonds enlisted in the Union Army. Her roles varied from soldier to nurse to spy. After the war, she penned her experiences in a memoir titled: Memoirs of a Soldier, Nurse, and Spy, shedding light on the challenges and adventures of her time in disguise.
With their distinct narratives, each of these women carved out spaces in history, becoming beacons of inspiration for generations to come.
Where Do We Go Next?
The lasting impact and post-war ramifications on women during this crucial time in American history cannot be overemphasized. It seems like every time someone cleans out an old attic or recovers a building believed to have been lost, there is another story of women doing all kinds of incredible things based on this wartime experience.
Probably the most critical lessons from wartime have to do with business ownership and women’s suffrage (right to vote). As more women experienced the power of being “in charge” of their own lives while the men were away, we began to ask ourselves – why give it back?
Today, we see that same instinct reflected in the many clients my team at Meyers Financial Services works with on a daily basis. Women who have experienced heartbreaking conditions in the workplace, personal relationships, or overcoming stories that would tug on every heartstring you have left.
It is our honor and joy to help uplift women of all creeds, backgrounds, and needs. If it wasn’t for the sacrifices of those brave souls in the Civil War, we may never have been able to establish our business, uplifting today’s goddesses and tomorrow's female leaders.
Lillian Meyers CFP®, CDFA®, EA is a Financial Planner for Women helping clients live their best life through the use of financial planning, investment management, and other sophisticated financial options.