The Civil War is one of the most notable events in American history. It is commonly associated with the abolition of slavery. However, the Civil War impacted more than just the lives of slaves. Women, in particular, were greatly affected by the Civil War in virtually every manner possible.
While Northern women didn’t experience the violence of the Civil War firsthand as many of their Southern counterparts did, all women’s home environments changed drastically. Domestic gender roles began to shift as women took on responsibilities around the home that the men previously did. Women whose households had slaves were suddenly in charge of them. However, women had to live in fear that their slaves would rise up and rebel against them or run off, leaving them without help. When this occurred, they had to step up and complete the laundry, planting and other tasks themselves. Some women had their home environments drastically altered when the opposing militia’s officers commandeered their homes as headquarters. Additionally, some homes were used as infirmaries. In a letter, Janie Smith of Harnett County, N.C., wrote of the horrors she viewed in her home when it was used as an infirmary in 1865. Her letter is now on display at the Averasboro Battlefield Museum.
Women also began to take over occupations that they previously did not perform. For example, women in both the North and the South became doctors and nurses to help provide relief to injured soldiers. In fact, the first and only woman to ever be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for bravery was Mary Walker, a surgeon who worked for the Union Army. Some women disguised themselves as men to fight in the war, and others served as spies. Many women in the North found jobs in war-related industries, making munitions and other supplies. Some women in the North took over desk positions in federal government offices that men used to hold. Women in both the North and the South had to become the primary breadwinners for their families.
During pre-Civil War days, marriage was extremely important to women. Because of the large number of male deaths during the Civil War, some women began to fear that they would not be married. In 1864, for instance, a woman who identified herself as H.R. wrote a letter to the editor of the Southern Literary Messenger voicing her fears about a shortage of men. While some women did succumb to spinsterhood, others chose to forgo marriage, opting for other opportunities, such as paid labor or higher education.
Perhaps the most significant impact that the Civil War had on women was that it paved the way for their future liberation. Because women were forced to fill men’s shoes, they learned how to provide for themselves. In doing what men did, they began to rally for political inclusion and suffrage, permanently altering the pre-conceived notions about gender roles. Drew Gilpin Faust, the president of Harvard and one of the most noted female historians, wrote a book, “Mothers of Invention,” which details how the war caused Southern women to reevaluate their roles.
- North Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial: "Where Home Used to Be": The Civil's War Impact on Women at Home; Donna E. Kelly
- American Association of the University of Women: Mary Edwards Walker
- Middle Tennessee State University: Women and the Civil War
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: National Institutes of Health: The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns
- The Mariners' Museum: The First Step: How Women were Affected by the Civil War
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