The women who went to war

As much as I am fascinated by the history of Ireland during both the War of Independence and the Civil War, there are other areas of interest to me, one being the American Civil War. One aspect of that conflict which seldom gets the coverage it deserves is the part played by women from both sides. is a brilliant resource that will inform and entertain with its articles and footage. Below is a compilation of information from that site, which I have gathered relating to women in the war.

With the outbreak of war in 1861, women from both sides organised ladies’ aid societies to supply troops with everything from food to clothing. However, thousands more also joined volunteer brigades and signed up to work as nurses. There were even those who chose the cloak and dagger world of spying through which to serve their cause.

In June 1861, the federal government agreed to create “a preventive hygienic and sanitary service for the benefit of the army” called the United States Sanitary Commission. The Commission’s primary objective was to combat preventable diseases and infections as well as to provide relief to sick and wounded soldiers.  On the Union side, nearly 20,000 women – both working-class white women and free and enslaved African-American women worked as laundresses, cooks and “matrons,” and some 3,000 middle-class white women worked as nurses.

Dorothea Dix, American medical pioneer

Superintendent of Army Nurses Dorothea Dix put out a call for responsible, maternal volunteers who would not distract the troops or behave in unseemly or unfeminine ways: Dix insisted that her nurses be “past 30 years of age, healthy, plain almost to repulsion in dress and devoid of personal attractions.” (One of the most famous of these Union nurses was the writer Louisa May Alcott.)

White women in the South threw themselves into the war effort with the same zeal as their Northern counterparts. Many Southern women, especially wealthy ones, relied on slaves for everything and had never had to do much work. However, even they were forced by the exigencies of wartime to expand their definitions of “proper” female behaviour.

Slave women never had the luxury of “true womanhood” to begin with: As one historian pointed out, “being a women never saved a single female slave from hard labour, beatings, rape, family separation, and death.”

The Civil War promised freedom, but it also added to these women’s burden. In addition to their own plantation and household labour, many slave women had to do the work of their husbands and partners too: The Confederate Army frequently impressed male slaves, and slave owners fleeing from Union troops often took their valuable male slaves, but not women and children, with them.

When it came to spying, women weren’t afraid to put their lives on the line. Though neither the Union nor the Confederacy had a formal military intelligence network during the Civil War, each side obtained crucial information from spying or espionage operations.

From early in the war, the Confederacy set up a spy network in the federal capital of Washington, D.C., home to many southern sympathisers. The Confederate Signal Corps also included a covert intelligence agency known as the Secret Service Bureau, which managed spying operations along the Mason-Dixon Line from Washington to Richmond.

Governor of Virginia John Letcher, a former congressman, used his knowledge of the city to set up a nascent spy network in the capital in late April 1861, after his state seceded but before it officially joined the Confederacy. One of the most prominent early recruits was Rose O’Neal Greenhow, an openly pro-South widow and socialite who was friendly with a number of northern politicians.

Rose O’Neal Greenhow

In July 1861, Greenhow sent coded reports across the Potomac concerning the planned Federal invasion. One of her couriers, a young woman named Bettie Duvall, dressed as a farm girl in order to pass Union sentinels on the Chain Bridge leaving Washington, then rode at high speed to Fairfax Courthouse in Virginia to deliver her message to Confederate officers stationed there. Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard later credited the information received from Greenhow with helping his rebel army win a surprise victory in the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas) on July 21.

Thanks to her success, Rose O’Neal Greenhow was one of the first Confederate spies targeted by Allan Pinkerton, the head of the Union’s Secret Service. Shortly after that southern victory in the First Battle of Bull Run, Pinkerton put Greenhow under surveillance and subsequently arrested her. Imprisoned in the Old Capitol Prison, she was released in June 1862 and sent to Richmond. Belle Boyd, another famous southern belle-turned-Confederate spy, helped smuggle intelligence to General Stonewall Jackson during his Shenandoah Valley campaign in 1862.

Like the Confederacy, the Union also made use of female spies: Richmond’s Elizabeth Van Lew, known as “Crazy Bett,” risked her life running an espionage operation out of her family’s farm, while Sarah Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a black slave to enter Confederate camps in Virginia. Women of substance indeed…

About historywithatwist

I am a journalist, author and book editor. I have published five novels - four (Tan, The Golden Grave, A Time of Traitors and Patriots' Blood) set during the Irish War of Independence and Civil War, and the fifth (High Crimes), a modern thriller. I'm a history enthusiast who loves a good yarn.
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7 Responses to The women who went to war

  1. Glynis Smy says:

    Fascinating post. I smiled at the request for plain looking nurses. Ms Dix would be in court for discrimination if she came out with those words nowadays. 🙂


  2. Very interesting! Us women can be force not to be trifled with…. Many men will shake in their shoes if a woman gives an order – memories of fierce headmistresses in their past! This is why Matron always got her way, I think. (btw, Louisa M Alcott was brought up a Unitarian, so would have been very liberal. Don’t know if she was plain!)


  3. Fascinating! But you left out one way in which women served the Civil War … a way that has been documented over 150 times. That of soldier. There were two kinds. The Vivandiers (Daughters of the Regiment) … the legal way they could participate … as gophers, but never in battle … and the women who disguised themselves as men and fought alongside their brothers. There are many non-fiction books on female soldiers of the Civil War, but as far as I know, I’m the only person to write a work of fiction with a female protagonist who purchases a Captain’s commission and commands men in the Army of the Potomac. I’m fascinated with the topic and have included four ways that women served in the Civil War. Check it out at I’ve also written about the potato famine in 1847 Ireland.


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