Keeping the family together

Conference examines women's roles during the Civil War

Conference examines women's roles during the Civil War

July 25, 2008|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. -- There's a general misunderstanding about the women of the Civil War.

Yes, social rules placed them in charge of children and family. Yes, it was taboo for them to be on society's forefront as business owners and community leaders. Yes, women had limited opportunities.

But it doesn't mean that women were delicate creatures, "sitting in parlors, being Victorian," said Juanita Leisch, president of the Society for Women in the Civil War.

"A lot of women did what they had to do," Leisch said.

The Society for Women in the Civil War is billing its yearly conference around the topic of women's roles during the Civil War. The conference is at Wilson College, starts today and will continue through Sunday, July 27. Researchers will give presentations on several topics -- women who dressed and fought as men, the struggles nurses faced in the pension system and the importance of letter writing.


Leisch said the point of the conference is to encourage more people to research women's roles during the war. While there's a lot of information available about women in the Civil War, Leisch said women's contributions are misunderstood by the general public.

Women and social change

Two important social movements were going on during the decades before the Civil War: women's rights and abolition. The majority of women weren't involved in either movement, Leisch said, because they were caring for basic needs -- raising children and running the household.

Married women had to live up to the early 19th-century ideal of the Republican mother, Leisch said. This was not about political parties, but about the republic of the United States. It was women's patriotic duty, historians say, to educate their children and raise them to be virtuous American citizens.

During the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865, women had to take on yet on another role -- they had to become heads of their households.

When husbands went off to fight in the war, women picked up the slack, running farms and family businesses on top of fulfilling their duties as Republican mothers and supporting their loved ones.

Some provided more direct contributions to the war effort. An estimated 60 percent of the workers in tent-making factories were women, Leisch said.

Active duty

Documented evidence suggests that as many as 700 women secretly dressed as soldiers during the Civil War, Leisch said.

"Women felt the need and desire to do it, but they were not honored for it," she said.

A lot of women soldiers started by following a loved one fighting, "but they found they were needed to do more than give water," Leisch said.

Hari Jones, curator of the African American Civil War Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.'s historic Shaw neighborhood, pointed to a documented account of a black woman being arrested for posing as a soldier.

Jones, who said he was planning to attend the Civil War Preservation Trust Teacher Institute in Hagerstown this weekend, said research on black women's efforts during the Civil War was easy to come by.

He mentioned Harriet Tubman, one of the better known women of the time. Tubman was paid by the Union Army for her services during the war, Jones said. She led a raid in 1863 that destroyed South Carolina rice farms, which were needed to feed Confederate soldiers and to serve as a cash crop during the war. The raid emancipated 830 slaves, earning her the title as "the Moses of her people," Jones said.

Human intelligence

Jones also spoke of black servants who risked their lives as spies.

Mary Touvestre was a freed slave who worked as a housekeeper for a Confederate engineer. She overheard engineers talking about an ironclad ship they were going to use as a weapon against the Northern blockade. She stole the plans and delivered them to Northern military officials. Because of her warning, the Union sped up the building of its own ironclad vessel.

Another woman, Mary Elizabeth Bowser, was a servant in the White House of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. She picked up information easily because her employers assumed she was illiterate.

"She's one of the highest placed spies in the war," Jones said.

Mary Ann Schad Carey was active in the women's suffrage movement and abolitionist movements. She was the first woman to graduate from Howard Law School.

"She always saw that the fight to end slavery and the tyranny women faced went hand in hand," Jones said.

If you go ...

WHAT: Women and the Civil War, research conference hosted by the Society for Women in the Civil War.

WHEN: Today through Sunday, July 27. Registration today starts at 11 a.m. workshops are scheduled from 8:15 a.m. to 12:20 p.m. There will be trips to Gettysburg, Pa., and Emmitsburg, Md., between 12:30 and 5 p.m. See the Web site of the Society for Women in the Civil War for the full schedule,

WHERE: Most activities will be scheduled at Wilson College, 1015 Philadelphia Ave., Chambersburg, Pa.

COST: Full registration costs $250; $225 for SWCW members; $240 for a family member accompanying a SWCW member or speaker. Registration costs vary for single-day and half-day registrants. See for more information.

MORE: For more information about the conference, visit the Society for Women in the Civil War online, at

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