Examining the Impact of Women on the American Civil War
Women's Wide-scale Influence on the Civil War
By Ashley Whitehead Luskey
In recent years, historians have shed new light on women’s myriad and diverse contributions to the Civil War. For four years, women in the North and South—white and African-American, enslaved and free—employed their talents as nurses, hospital cooks, spies, undercover soldiers, social reformers, writers, charity fair organizers, and members of sewing circles who supplied soldiers, widows, and orphans alike with the necessities of daily life in a war-torn country. Other women took up jobs as clerks and office workers within the Treasury and Quartermaster Departments, while poorer women and immigrants of Irish and German ancestry found employment in government factories and munitions laboratories. Still other women even took upon themselves the unique task of soliciting their fellow countrywomen for donations of scrap metal in order to construct a female-funded gunboat (the CSS Richmond) to go into battle on their behalf.
From medical icons such as Union Superintendent of Nurses Dorothea Dix, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, and Confederate hospital matron Phoebe Pember; to social reformer and poet Julia Ward Howe; to notorious southern spies Belle Boyd and Rose O’Neal Greenhow; to African-American abolitionists, philanthropists, teachers, and writers Sojourner Truth, Susie King Taylor, and Charlotte Jenkins; to First Ladies and leading political hostesses Mary Lincoln and Varina Davis, women played critical roles in the ways that the war was waged, experienced, and remembered, both on the battlefield and on the home front. The legacies of their contributions still echo amongst us today. In some instances, these women challenged longstanding conceptions of domestic Victorian womanhood by entering new sectors of the public workforce for the first time, assuming positions of employment and authority theretofore denied to women, and becoming vocal political advocates, and alternately critics, of various administrations and causes. In other instances, however, these women embraced traditional notions of nineteenth-century femininity and respectability, championing themselves as patriotic “republican mothers” of their respective nations.
Four additional women, in particular, stand out for their contributions to the war and its legacy, as well as for the ways in which they navigated complex gender and/or racial norms to create such contributions:
Mary Chesnut, the famed South Carolina diarist, socialite, and husband of the prominent senator James Chesnut, used her elite class and gender position to perpetuate cherished cultural rituals that sought to preserve, in the face of constant threats from below, the political authority of the Confederate ruling class and the social hierarchy upon which the foundations of the fledgling nation were built. Equally as important, this model of southern female respectability used her social standing and her pen to craft a powerful historical record of southern society and its ruling class. Specifically, her diary sought to paint a definitive picture of the Confederate cause as rooted firmly in an unwavering dedication to the preservation of the honor, piety, gentility, and righteousness that (for her) defined the Old South. Chesnut, along with several other southern female diarists and postbellum leaders of the Confederate monument movement, helped to establish a lasting cultural narrative of the Confederate nation that has dominated many Americans’ historical memory of the Civil War for generations.
In contrast to Chesnut, Mary Jackson, the financially struggling young wife of a Richmond sign-painter, made her mark on the Confederate capital by taking to the streets on April 2, 1863 as a leader of a 300-woman-strong bread riot. Armed with a hatchet, Jackson led the mob through the business district of the city to the cry of “bread or blood!”, smashing not only into government commissaries, but also into jewelry stores, bookstores, newspaper offices, and dry goods stores owned by renowned local speculators. Jackson’s riot was not merely a violent protest against unscrupulous business owners and rampant inflation in the name of war-induced hunger. It was a vocal critique of the Confederate government and the failed promises of paternalistic protection of southern womanhood and respectability that the government and its male leaders had promised their women at the start of the war. The unseemly masculine dress, actions, and outspoken political commentary of Jackson and her fellow rioters deeply unsettled Richmonders who acutely felt their society and everything it stood for unraveling at the seams. The bread riots in Richmond, and those that followed in other southern cities, haunted Confederates throughout the rest of the war, forcing them to reckon with the dangerous realities of the war’s impact on the home front, and holding them more closely accountable for those under their protection whom they had for too long neglected.
Elizabeth Van Lew
Meanwhile, staunch Unionist, abolitionist, and spy, Elizabeth Van Lew, took to the streets of Richmond much more surreptitiously in the hopes of aiding the Union war effort. Armed with coded messages carved into books and other unassuming materials, and assisted by a cadre of carefully selected couriers, Van Lew used both her social standing as a wealthy and respectable southern lady and her womanly wiles with the guards at the infamous Libby Prison in order to gather Confederate military intelligence, as well as secretly pass information between Union prisoners of war and northern generals such as Ulysses S. Grant. After (rightfully) suspecting Van Lew of having ties to a larger Richmond Unionist spy ring, Confederate authorities began tracking her movements, and fellow Richmonders increasingly harassed her with threats of violence. By the end of the war, in addition to assisting the Union army with multiple military campaigns, Van Lew had successfully helped numerous Union prisoners escape from local prisons, and had spent nearly her entire family fortune assisting slaves in escaping northward to freedom. President Grant later thanked her for her service by bestowing on her the unique position of Postmaster of Richmond. Ultimately, Van Lew’s wartime actions would result in her complete alienation from Richmond society, with numerous residents labeling her a traitorous “witch” and shunning her entirely on the streets. Van Lew died an impoverished social outcast in 1900, her gravestone financed by one of her few friends—a former wartime acquaintance who had been imprisoned in a local Richmond jail—Union Colonel Paul Joseph Revere, of Boston.
In Washington, D.C., former slave-turned-seamstress Elizabeth Keckley spent the war in the employ of Mary Lincoln, both clothing the First Lady for all of her official public appearances and serving as friend and confidant to the often troubled and distraught Mary. Having purchased her freedom and that of her son in 1860, Keckley had become a successful independent businesswoman and seamstress in Washington. She used her reputation as an educated and respectable lady to found the Contraband Relief Association in 1862 (later called the Ladies’ Freedmen and Soldier’s Relief Association), soliciting thousands of dollars from wealthy white and black donors to help provide food, clothing, shelter, and support to freed slaves and convalescing soldiers. The association not only helped to establish standards for the care of contrabands, but also created a sense of community, pride, and independence within the local African-American community. After the war, Keckley remained close with Mary Lincoln, assisting her through numerous financial struggles, as well as the emotional aftermath of her husband’s assassination. In 1868, Keckley published a memoir entitled Behind the Scenes in which she presented detailed accounts of her life with the First Family in an attempt to boost her own status as a respectable, mixed-race member of the black middle class. This ”unseemly unveiling” of the First Family’s private life, combined with several other public episodes involving Keckley’s and Lincoln’s financial dealings, created a significant rift between the former First Lady and Keckley from which the two never fully recovered. Many wealthy whites shunned Keckley, who later turned to teaching Domestic Arts at Wilberforce University as her primary source of income. Although one of her dress exhibits was featured at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, she ultimately fell into a life of seclusion and depression, dying alone in 1907. Today, Keckley’s memoir is considered one of the most illuminating records of the complex racial, gender, political, and social dynamics of the Civil War era and their evolution over the course of the nineteenth century.
Karen Abbott, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. (New York: Harper Perennial, 2015).
Michael B. Chesson, “Harlots or Heroines? A New Look at the Richmond Bread Riot.” The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Vol. 92, No.2 (Apr., 1984), pp. 131-175.
Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1996).
Judith Giesberg, Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front. (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2009).
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley, Behind the Scenes; or, Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South. (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2010).
Nina Silber, Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
Elizabeth R. Varon, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Spy in the Heart of the Confederacy. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).
C. Vann Woodward, editor. Mary Chesnut’s Civil War. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981).