Women and the Civil War

Do you like stories about mystery, intrigue and suspense? Women’s involvement in the Civil War has it all! This year marks the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War.  As Women’s History Month draws to a close, I thought I would highlight just some of the interesting contributions that women made to that war effort.

The conventional gender roles during the Civil War that are usually taught in school do not tell the whole story.  When one studies the Civil War, you learn about the men’s fight – the generals, the battles, with women’s roles relegated to support efforts.  While women were instrumental as nurses, laundresses, matrons maintaining households, some women chose more cloak and dagger roles and fought in the war.

Both Confederate and Union armies denied women the right to enlist in combat roles.  However, that didn’t stop some women from posing as men and joining the battle.  Estimates of the numbers of women soldiers known to serve is just under 400, with estimates of women in the ranks of the Confederate Army at as many as 250.  It is difficult to know if a larger number of women disguised themselves as men and enlisted in the service, because women soldiers were only revealed by accident or casualty.  A few examples of women soldiers include Mary Owens, Loreta Velazquez and Frances Clayton.  Mary Owens from Pennsylvania served for 18 months as John Evans and was discovered to be a woman when she was wounded in the arm.  Loreta Velazquez served the Confederacy as Lt. Harry Buford, a self-financed soldier not officially attached to any regiment.  Her memoirs revealed her service as a woman soldier.  Another example is Frances Clayton who served many months in the Missouri artillery and cavalry units.  The existence of women soldiers was no secret during or after the Civil War, as numerous newspaper articles and obituaries testified.

Other women, known as “vivandieres” followed their men to war, wearing women’s uniforms and serving in combat with their units.  Vivandieres were recruited into “Zouaves”, the European style regiments of the American Volunteer Army, which sported French-inspired uniforms. These women who served openly in front line units were extremely rare.  Mary Tepe, also known as “French Mary” was a famous Vivandiere of the Civil War and the only woman who served in the battle of Gettysburg.

Eventually, several women who served in the Union Army were officially recognized for their meritorious heroic acts with receipt of the Kearny Cross, a military decoration of the U.S. Army.  Annie Etheridge of Michigan, Marie Tepe, and Mary Taylor of Philadelphia all received the decoration.

Another woman that should be noted is Mary Edwards Walker, who is the only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor.  Prior to the Civil War, she earned her medical degree and then volunteered with the Union Army and served as a female surgeon.  She was captured after crossing enemy lines to treat wounded civilians and arrested as a spy.  She was held as a prisoner of war until released in a prisoner exchange.

The Confederate Medal of Honor, first awarded in 1977, has also been awarded to only one woman – Juliet Opie Hopkins.  She was a nurse cited for her valor in the Battle of Seven Pines, where she was wounded while rescuing casualties.  General Robert E. Lee praised her work with the wounded and she is buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Getting information about the opposition was important to both sides in the Civil War and women were involved as spies for both the Union and Confederate Armies. Sarah Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a man to serve in the Union Army, and sometimes “disguised” herself as a woman — or as a black man — to spy on the Confederate troops. After her identity was exposed, she served as a nurse with the Union.  Harriet Tubman, better known for her 19-20 trips into the South to free slaves, also served with the Union Army in South Carolina, organizing a spy network and even leading raids and spy expeditions. Belle Boyd, a Confederate spy, provided valuable information to Stonewall Jackson, who gave her captain and honorary aide-de camp positions.  Mary Elizabeth Bowser served as a maid in the Confederate White House — and, ignored while important conversations were held, she passed along important information from those conversations and from papers she found.

As Women’s History Month concludes and the United States is involved in military actions overseas, let us remember those women who bore arms and charged into battle and like the men, lived in camps, suffered in prisons and died for their respective causes…in the Civil War and in all the other wars and conflicts since.

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