The Forgotten Women of the Civil War

By: Elizabeth Robertson

Los Altos High School Class of 2013

2nd Place Prize Winner, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History 2012 National Civil War Essay Contest.

Elizabeth Robertson

It was an afternoon in November, 2011 and our Advanced Placement US History Class had just finished watching the final segment of Ken Burns’ amazing documentary The Civil War. I leaned back in my chair to think about what we had covered in class during these past couple of weeks: the events leading up to the war, the key battles, the start of post-war reconstruction.  We had seen examples of incredible bravery and sacrifice, and heard many stories about individuals – both leaders and common people.

However, the question that I had asked myself weeks ago had remained unanswered: what were women doing during the Civil War? Not the heroic, “larger than life” individuals like battlefield nurse Clara Barton and Union spy Sarah Emma Edmonds, or the few women who disguised themselves and fought alongside men.  I wanted to know about the millions of other women whose lives were turned upside down by the war.  When the men went off to fight, what did the wives and sisters and daughters left behind do? In our textbook, there was no mention of women’s activities at all.  Our class had briefly talked about women’s roles, but only in terms of those women who had learned nursing skills “on the job”  in army hospitals full of injured and sick soldiers.

In my search for answers, I began with those nurses and I discovered that their story was much larger: over twenty thousand women across Union and Confederate territory worked in hospitals – as nurses, cooks and cleaners!  Next, I went on to learn about the work of hundreds of thousands of other women, who came together in creative and effective ways to provide support to soldiers and their families during the war.   On the Union side, for example, women from ten thousand aid societies worked together collecting and distributing funds and supplies totaling more than $1 billion in today’s dollars for Union troops!  They worked for a branch of the United States Sanitary Commission; however, as the Commission leaders were men, it is less well known that this was a huge program organized and managed by women!  Many of these women, who had transformed themselves “overnight” into nurses and supply managers and business leaders, left emotional accounts of their challenges and experiences in the form of diaries and letters.  They fought rigid military hospital rules and male chauvinism. They knew that taking these new roles would change the way they viewed their world and their future.

My curiosity about this subject took me through many primary sources, including official records, personal accounts, photographs and periodicals of the day.  I went to the archives at Butler Library at Columbia University to read the actual letters of Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, known as the first female physician in the United States and a founder of the Union women’s organization described above.  I saw how the images of women in the magazines of the day like Harper’s Weekly and Godey’s Lady’s Book changed during  the war: antebellum drawings showing women sitting in their “home sphere” with children were replaced by pictures of active women organizing fund-raising fairs and tending to injured soldiers.

This past spring, I wrote about my research on Union women’s contributions for the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s annual Civil War Essay Contest. (The Institute provides educational resources for the study of American History, including seminars, traveling exhibits, fellowships, lectures and prizes for scholarship, and has an extensive collection of primary sources.) My essay, “The Union’s ‘Other Army’: The Women of the United States Sanitary Commission” won second place, and our high school is using the prize money to help establish our first History Week in January 2013.

I will soon be visiting American History classes at my high school and our local junior high to talk about women’s roles during the Civil War.  I would like to see schools’ curricula developed to better include and honor the important contributions of women during this period in our history.  As we study the past, it would be wonderful to get to the place where no one ever has to ask, “Where were all the women?” In the meantime, I hope that students – and young women in particular – will be inspired to investigate these types of “gaps” in the historical record.   Almost always, there are amazing facts about women and their accomplishments just waiting to be discovered!

For more information about the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History click here.

One Response to “The Forgotten Women of the Civil War”

  1. Congratulations, Elizabeth! I have a complete bibliography for a book on Civil War women that I probably never will publish. If you e-mail me, I’ll send it to you.

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