Women's changing roles during the Civil War

September 16, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

There were 23,110 casualties at the battle of Antietam.

The Civil War - skirmishes, battles and disease - took the lives of more than 610,000 Union and Confederate soldiers.

Beyond the mind-numbing numbers are the personal stories of families and communities affected by the fighting. What effect did the war have on women - the wives, the mothers, the sisters, the friends of those soldiers?

The war's impact on some women of the period is well-known.

Clara Barton was called the "angel of the battlefield" by a surgeon at Antietam.

The Massachusetts native had become a teacher at the age of 18, in an era when most teachers were male. In 1852, she established the first free public school in New Jersey and moved to Washington, D.C., in 1854. She was one of very few women who worked for the federal government, earning $1,400 a year as a clerk - the same salary as the men in her office. Because the Secretary of the Interior was opposed to women working in government offices, her job was reduced to copyist; her pay to 10 cents per 100 words copied, according to information on the Clara Barton National Historic Site Web site at


Although she tended the wounded at several Civil War battles, Barton was not a nurse, says George Wunderlich, director of education at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md. But she was a fabulous administrator - adept at allocating resources and cutting through red tape, he says.

She founded the American Association of the Red Cross and became its first president in 1881. Her monument at Antietam National Battlefield is the only one at the park honoring a woman, says Park Ranger Stephanie Gray.

Other women played prominent roles in wartime.

Dorothea Dix was appointed superintendent of army nurses in the Union army in 1861, according to Rebecca Heise, continuing education instructor at Hagerstown Community College.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, who always wore trousers under her skirt, was appointed a contract surgeon to the Union Army in 1863. The Congressional Medal of Honor awarded her in 1865 was rescinded in 1917 but posthumously reinstated in 1977.

Women served as spies during the Civil War - Belle Boyd of Martinsburg, W.Va., and Rose O'Neal Greenhow, born in Montgomery County, Md., - among them.

But what of the women who did not go to the battlefield? The Civil War altered everyday life for many American women.

"It changed everything," Heise says.

As early as the 1830s, textile mills in the North hired "factory girls," Heise says, but women working in industry became more common during and after the war.

On the farm, women had long shared the workload of daily life, Heise says.

The war brought economic hardship. Food was scarce and more expensive. Between 1861 and 1865, the price of a pound of bacon increased from 12 and a half cents per pound to $11 to $13. The cost of cornmeal rose from $3.50 in 1862 to $400 a bushel in 1865, Heise says.

Only one of four Southern families had slaves, but even before slaves were freed, even before the war ended, women in slave-holding families had the new experience of authority in managing their properties because the men were off to war.

Southern women also had to discipline children, a role traditionally assumed by men before the war, Heise says.

Marriage changed. It was not unusual for women in the pre-war South to wed men considerably older than themselves. Neither was it rare before the war for women whose husbands died to remain widows for life, Heise says.

After the war it was more common for women to wed younger men and to remarry, she adds.

Sex outside marriage is an interesting Civil War topic, Heise says. Prostitution, sometimes referred to as "horizontal refreshment," was common, most prevalent in Washington, D.C., she says. And although the term "hooker" preceded the Civil War, Union Gen. Joseph Hooker's name was given to prostitutes associated with his command.

The federal army legalized prostitution in 1863 to try to control the spread of venereal disease, Heise says.

By war's end, nearly 170,000 Union soldiers had contracted syphilis or gonorrhea, according to information provided by George Wunderlich, director of education at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Md.

Life, though changed by war, went on. What did women wear?

Some local examples are on display through mid-November at the Miller House, the downtown Hagerstown headquarters of the Washington County Historical Society. The finer dresses - made of silk and taffeta and well-preserved - belonged to upper class women, says Jennifer Dintaman, curator. But there also is a simple everyday dress - probably of a teenager - in the exhibit.

The women were small. Corsets - which could squeeze ribs and displace organs- made them even smaller, says Mindy Marsden, executive director. Size 0 dress forms were required to display the dresses, she says.

When metal or bone for skirt hoops became scarce, grapevine was used, Heise says.

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