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Women in the Civil War Essay

“Historians agree that World War II changed life for American women in the 20th century. The Civil War had just as great an impact on the lives of American women in the 19th century.” (http://www.defenselink.mil) Staying at home, women could help the war effort by running businesses, making clothes, and taking care of their farms, but some women wanted to do more. Some women went to become nurses and helped wounded soldiers, some became spies, and still others posed as men and enlisted in armies, almost all women did their best to help during the civil war.

“Over 3,000 women served as nurses between 1861 and 1865. Since nursing schools were not established until 1873 they had no formal training. Many had no work experience outside the home.” (http://www.northnet.org) As nurses, women worked in hospitals taking care of wounded soldiers. The novelist Louisa May Alcott described the soldiers as “riddled with shot and shell” and “torn and shattered”. Two famous nurses were Mary Edwards Walker, who earned a Congressional Medal Honor for her medical service, and Clara Barton. Clara Barton was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield,” she used her home as a warehouse to store medical supplies, and with the help of her friends, she distributed them to troops. When the government began to send adequate supplies, she began an organization to locate missing soldiers. In 1869, she founded the American Red Cross, after traveling abroad. Dorthea Dix, who originally worked towards improving the care of mentally ill people, was recruited as the superintendent of the Union army nurses.

She made hospitals, oversaw sewing societies, helped get medical supplies, and recruited and trained women to be nurses. “Her requirements in a nurse were strict – not too young, not too pretty, and of strict moral character. She preferred farm women accustomed to the sight of blood. Nurses wore only plain brown or black dresses with no hoop skirts, jewelry, or accessories and no curls.” (http://www.northnet.org) Many women became nurses to care for loved ones who had been injured in battle. Maria Eastman Olmstead Eldred, Ellon McCormick Looby, and Alvira Beech Robinson were a few nurses who left their homes to care for their injured husbands. (http://www.northnet.org) Many of the nurses were unprepared for the challenges and horrors that would face them. However, surrounded by death, confronted with the mangled bodies of soldiers and piles of loose limbs,┬áthey persevered.

Other women took a more active role in helping with the war and became spies. Two such women spies were Ginnie and Lottie Moon. They were two sisters who spied for the Confederates during the war. They were born in Virginia but moved to Oxford, Ohio when they were young. Their home, “The Moon House” is a historic site in Oxford. Emmeline Piggott was another spy and smuggler. She carried supplies and messages in large pockets under her full skirts. After doing this many times, she was caught, arrested, and imprisoned. However, she was released and sent home eventually. Elizabeth C. Howland was another successful Confederate spy. She sent her young son and daughter to carry messages. The young children, appearing innocent, were allowed to pass through enemy lines. (http://userpages.aug.com) One of the most famous female spies was Belle Boyd. After the war, she became an actress and was know on stage as “La Belle Rebelle”.

Her real name was Isabelle Boyd, she was born in Martinsburg, West Virginia in 1844. Near the beginning of the war, she helped in traditional ways, rolling bandages and raising money for the Confederate forces, but that soon changed. Union soldiers occupied Martinsburg in July of 1861; Boyd mingled with Union officers and learned some of their plans. She told the Confederate forces all that she had heard. Boyd continued to spy for the Confederates and delivered messages for Maj. John S. Mosby. She was arrested by Union forces and held in Washington until she developed typhoid and was paroled in a prisoner exchange. Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union spy, accomplished much more than Boyd. Born in Richmond, Virginia, she despised slavery. She freed all of her family slaves and even bought other slaves to free them as well. She often visited Union prisoners held in Richmond, she took them food and medicine. Many of the prisoners had heard Confederate plans after they were captured, and Van Lew invented a code to send what they knew to Union forces.

Her neighbors called her “Crazy Bet,” and she decided to act the part. She talked to herself, dressed in old and battered clothes, and did not comb her hair. All of Richmond thought that Crazy Bet’s sympathy for the Union was part of her madness. Van Lew also got one of her former slaves, Elizabeth Bowser, a job as a house servant for Jefferson Davis. Together, they collected and passed a great deal of information to the North. (http://www.defenselink.mil) Nancy Hart┬áserved as a Confederate scout, guide, and spy; she carried messages between Southern Armies. She went to isolated Federal outposts, pretending to be a peddler, to report their strength, population, and vulnerability to General Jackson. Hart was twenty years old when she was captured and jailed, with guards constantly patrolling the building. “Nancy gained the trust of one of her guards, got his weapon from him, shot him, and escaped.” (http://userpages.aug.com)

“You will see by this paper that on the 15th day of November 1866 I enlisted in the United States army at St. Louis, in the Thirty-eighth United States Infantry Company A, Capt. Charles E. Clarke commanding.” (http://www.buffalosoldier.net) Cathay Williams or “William Cathay” was a former slave, liberated by the Union who wanted to help in the war effort. She joined the war but before her three years were finished, she decided that she wanted to leave the army and complained of pains in her side, and rheumatism in her knees. The doctor who examined her discovered that she was a woman and she was discharged. (http://www.buffalosoldier.net)

Other women who served as men were Sarah Emma Edmonds, alias Franklin Thompson, Jennie Hodgers who served and fought for three years as Albert Cashier, and “a woman known only as Emily, who ran away from home at 19 and joined the drum corps of a Michigan Regiment.” (http://userpages.aug.com) She was shot and her sex discovered, while dying she at first refused to give her real name but eventually agreed to dictate a letter to her father in Brooklyn. “Forgive your dying daughter. I have but a few moments to live. My native soil drinks my blood. I expected to deliver my country but the fates would not have it so. I am content to die. Pray forgive me…… Emily.” (http://userpages.aug.com)

I think that if women had not helped as much as they did during the Civil War, it could have been completely different. These women greatly expanded the scope of expected persona of women in the 19th century. From “La Belle Rebelle” to 19 year old Emily, everyone helped in their own way.

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