The Civil War placed a terrible emotional burden on women on both sides of the conflict. Those who were left at home worried constantly about the safety and comfort of the husbands, fathers, and sons they had sent to battle. They followed reports of the war in the newspapers and waited anxiously for word about their loved ones. Throughout the war years, women often gathered at train stations across the country to hear the names of the dead called, and to comfort those who were grieving afterward. The endless fear and sadness took a heavy toll on them. As diarist Mary Boykin Chesnut (1823-1886) wrote, "Does anybody wonder why so many women die? Grief and constant anxiety kill nearly as many women as men die on the battlefield."
Many women found that keeping busy helped ease their anxiety. In the North, some women passed the time by sewing and knitting furiously in order to produce warm clothing for the soldiers. Some formed aid societies, which were groups that raised money and collected food, clothing, medicine, and other supplies for the troops or for wounded soldiers and their families. Other Northern women took jobs outside the home in order to support their families and contribute to the war effort. Since many men had left factory jobs to enlist in the army, over one hundred thousand industrial positions opened up for women during the war years. Thousands more women became "government girls" by taking office jobs as civil service workers (employees in government administration). Free black women formed groups to help former slaves who had escaped to the North.
The Civil War was more difficult for Southern women in some ways, because most of the major battles took place on Southern soil. "Although women in both camps shared many of the same problems and experiences, one very important distinction existed," Massey explained. "This 'woman's war' was being fought by Southerners on their own doorsteps and the women had to battle the enemy as best they could." In addition to worrying about the safety of their loved ones, Southern women also had to worry about protecting their homes and getting enough food for their children.
During the course of the war, Northern troops conquered many major Southern cities, including Nashville, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Richmond. When some of these cities were captured, particularly towards the end of the war, large numbers of women and children were forced to leave their homes and become refugees. The Northern troops often took whatever food and valuables they could find, either for their own
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To make matters worse, basic necessities of life such as food and clothing were in very short supply throughout the South during the war years. Northern ships had blocked the flow of goods into Southern ports, and many farmers either left their fields unplanted or saw their crops seized for the war effort. Prices rose quickly on the goods that were available. Southern women had to be very resourceful in order to make ends meet. Some traded fancy dresses, jewelry, and
[flS® Receiving the i^^tfl Dreaded News
Many women who remained at home during the war lived in constant fear of receiving bad news about the fathers, husbands, and brothers who served as soldiers in the conflict. In Reminiscences of the Women of Missouri during the Sixties, Mrs. P. G. Robert of Richmond, Virginia, described the shock one of her young neighbors experienced upon learning that her new husband had been killed in action:
A bride of six weeks, going to the door on her way out, returned to tell her mother that the next door neighbor's son had been killed and was being carried into the mother's house. Her mother hastened with her to the door, only to find that the soldiers had mistaken the house, retraced their steps, and were coming up their own steps, bearing the groom who but six weeks before, in the pride and strength of manhood, went to join his regiment; although he held in his pocket a furlough [leave of absence] for several days, he could not let his regiment go into active service without him. The mother, taking in the incident, caught her daughter in her arms and bore her into the parlor and laid her on the floor on the identical spot where six weeks before she had stood as a bride.
other items for food. Others set up small businesses in their homes, making soap or candles.
Life was difficult for black women in the South, too. Many chose to remain with their masters even though the Emancipation Proclama tion had technically set them free. Most of these women stayed where they were because they felt safer in familiar surroundings than in a war zone. Some continued to work in the fields, while others cooked or cleaned for Confederate troops.
Because many battles were near their homes, Southern women also came into more direct contact with the horrors of war than did most Northern women. For example, major fighting took place just outside of Richmond, Virginia, in May and June 1862. During this time, twenty-one thousand wounded Confederate soldiers were brought into the city for medical attention. "We lived in one immense hospital," a Richmond woman said. Churches, hotels, warehouses, barns, and even homes throughout the South were turned into temporary hospitals, and hundreds of women were pressed into service as nurses.
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