Women in the Civil War (Class)8:50 PM
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The Civil War expanded women’s responsibilities within the traditional sphere of home and family. Women were forced to manage estates in husbands’ absences, sew bandages and clothes, and nurse soldiers. Even the whitest hands did not hesitate to write to revered friends, brothers, fathers, and cousins fighting in the battle. Women helped raise important funds for troops. Rising prices, invading soldiers, and food shortages did not daunt these women; so remember the ladies.
Many women managed—and protected—property in their husbands’ absences. Women often hid valuables and livestock from the all-too-eager hands of invading soldiers. Mrs. Burge, the wife of a plantation owner, wrote in her diary, “We were just rising from breakfast when Ben Glass rode up with the cry: ‘the Yankees are coming, Mrs. Burge, hide your mules!” Another quote from Mrs. Burge’s diary reads: “The report is that the Yankees have left Covington for Macon, headed by Stoneman, to release prisoners held there. They robbed every house of its provisions, sometimes taking every piece of meat, blankets, and wearing apparel”. Women such as Burge hid valuables, livestock, and even resting Confederate guests.
Women became farming and financial gurus, managing budgets and sometimes working alongside slaves in the fields. Despite the fact many women were “not cut out” for physical work, farming became a “necessary evil” for many. A distasteful chore became a patriotic duty. Financial wisdom became an essential part of surviving in a world where coffee beans could sell for seventy dollars per pound.
Even the belles of the ball did not shirk writing. One of the few activities considered “ladylike” before and during the Civil War, writing was not only a rest from the grueling activities of wartime, but a gossip page and a vehicle of emotions. Letters were a major part of every war-family’s life, sending and receiving. Louisa May Alcott portrayed this in Little Women, making “the letter from Father” (a “chaplain” in the army) a major part of the sisters’ lives. Many soldiers looked at writing letters as ways to get news. “It is with the utmost diffidence that I commence a letter to you so soon after forming your acquaintance without first having asked your permission. But Chum is in Page and I have no correspondent in Augusta to give me news from you.” Clinton Hatcher, the author of the letter, was later killed in battle. Letter-writing was a service to the soldiers, a way to share news of home and keep up morale.
Some women aided soldiers by becoming nurses. Many hospitals at the time of the Civil War were makeshift and unsanitary, making life an unlikely draw in many cases. Mary Ann Bickerdyke, Louisa May Alcott, Clara Barton, and Dorothea Dix were some of the most important nurses at the time of the Civil War. Nursing was not only limited to the battlefield. The following quote from the Staunton Spectator, a community newspaper in Virginia’s Augusta County, illustrates this. “We have been requested by the ladies of Staunton to meet this Tuesday evening at five o’ clock in the basement story of the Lutheran church, for the purpose of adopting ways and means to provide for the relief and comfort of the soldiers.” At home, bedsheets, pillowcases, and rags were mercilessly snipped and sewn for bandages and clothes for soldiers.
Raising money for soldiers was an important activity for women. Raising money for soldiers replaced donations that had once been given to temperance societies, charitable work, church bazaars, and other social events. The Republican Vindicator noted this about women raising money for the troops-“They immediately, in obedience to their instinct of fervent patriotism, resolve to raise all the money they can.”
The war made life anything but glorious. Prices could skyrocket overnight. Houses could be ransacked by soldiers, leaving occupants homeless and hungry. Trade routes and roads were often cut off by soldiers, making transporting goods difficult. Many doubted the stability of Confederate dollars; in the Union, the secretary of the treasury introduced paper money not backed by gold. Luxurious clothing was a doubtful idea. High-class women could be plunged into jobs they had almost no experience in. Neighbors could be kidnapped while girls sewed bandages in the assumed safety of home. Despite the troubles of Civil War life, women persisted and proved that they were anything but second-class citizens.