Women Soldiers in the Civil War, Part 1: Going Behind the Gender Lines

Teachers frequently ask us about the experts who work with the Library’s collections. March has been set aside as Women’s History month, so we arranged this guest post from Kristi Conkle, women’s studies specialist at the Library of Congress. This is the first of two posts on women soldiers in the Civil War.

“The home guard” White Mountain rangers, ca. 1861

Women filled a variety of roles in the Civil War. In addition to women who served as spies, daughters of regiments, cooks, laundresses, and nurses, approximately 400 posed as male soldiers. So, who were these hundreds of women soldiers? Why did they join? And how did they manage to do it?

The women soldiers of the Civil War were mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters and were found in the armies of both the Confederacy and the Union. Some joined to be near a family member—a father, brother or husband. Others answered the recruitment calls found in newspapers and sheet music. The war was an opportunity to demonstrate their strongly held patriotism and beliefs. Some found freedom from strict gender roles.

Were Feminine Warriors, from The Washington Times, Oct. 21, 1894.

The promise of bounty and pay were enough to encourage some women to join. In at least a few documented cases, some of these women soldiers were already living as men prior to joining the army primarily for financial reasons. Unlike today, no proof of identity or social security number was required. This allowed almost anyone, except those most obviously women and children, to join the ranks.

The best way to remain undetected as a woman soldier was to behave as any soldier would when on the battlefield. Women who fought in the Civil War as male soldiers flouted the societal ideal of a mid-19th century woman by using skills such as physical strength, intelligence and bravery—traits that were rarely associated with femininity at the time.  Some lasted years while others were quickly discovered when they attempted to join. One woman was undone by her skilled sewing.

The typical uniform was sufficiently ill-fitting and layered to hide many physical traits, and soldiers rarely changed uniforms. According to one account, a woman “…being infatuated with a young man who had gone into the service, made up her mind to follow him. She cut her hair, put on man’s clothing and …for two years she marched by this young man, shouldering her musket, and performing every duty required of men.” However, at least two women gave themselves away when they put on their shoes and stockings in an “unmasculine” way.

It also worked in their favor that the required physical examination was brief and in some cases it did not require the removal of clothing.

However, some unique facts of women’s biology couldn’t be hidden indefinitely. At least a few pregnant women soldiers managed to remain in disguise until they gave birth–one shortly after having received a promotion for her actions on the battlefield.

300,000 more, c. 1862

To learn more, your students might:

  • Study and analyze the image of “The home guard” White Mountain rangers. Ask students, working alone or with a partner, to form a hypothesis about whether the women actually expected to fight. What evidence do they see in the photo to support the hypothesis?
  • Read “Were Feminine Warriors,” published in The Washington Times in October, 1894. What patterns do they see in the descriptions of the women soldiers? The article was written about 30 years after the war ended. How do they think an article on women soldiers written immediately after the war would have been different?
  • Were Feminine Warriors” has a long description of  Miss Ford, of Fairfax, Va. Ask them to compare the text to this political cartoon depicting her.
  • Study the lyrics to the sheet music calling for “300,000 More!” to determine who was answering the call to join the army.  Ask them to imagine how a woman soldier might have responded to hearing that song.

The next post will look at the experiences of some particular women soldiers. What did your students notice as they looked at the primary sources highlighted in this post?

9 Comments

  1. Rey Moore
    February 20, 2013 at 7:35 am

    Do you have any primary sources for women in the Revolutionary War?

  2. Carol Randall
    February 20, 2013 at 9:46 am

    I teach technology to k-5. The ability for the students to actually hear the information, music, etc. would be helpful.

    Thank you,
    Carol

  3. Julie Miller, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress
    February 20, 2013 at 9:56 am

    The best-documented woman soldier of the American Revolution was Deborah Sampson, who called herself Robert Shurtliff. This portrait: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2002725275/ was in a biography published in 1797 by Herman Mann with this very long title:

    The Female review, or, Memoirs of an American Young Lady, Whose Life and Character Are Peculiarly Distinguished, Being a Continental Soldier, for Nearly Three Years, in the Late American War : During Which Time She Performed the Duties of Every Department, into Which She Was Called, with Punctual Exactness, Fidelity and Honor, and Preserved Her Chastity Inviolate, by the Most Artful Concealment of Her Sex : with an Appendix, Containing Characteristic Traits, by Different Hands, Her Taste for Economy, Principles of Domestic Education, &C.

    The Library of Congress has several copies of Mann’s book in its Rare Book and Special Collections Division. There is also a modern biography of Sampson: Alfred F. Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (2004).

    There were other women soldiers in the Revolution, and also women spies. More common, however, were women who supported Washington’s army (and also the other side) as seamstresses, laundresses, servants, and sellers of produce, wine, groceries, dry goods, meals, and more. The George Washington papers at the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division contains the receipts Washington kept of his purchases during the Revolutionary War, many of which are from women. For one example, a 1776 receipt from Martha Morris, a New York laundress, see: http://blogs.loc.gov/teachers/2012/01/experiencing-history-from-behind-the-scenes-martha-morris-and-george-washington/

  4. ABell
    February 20, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Marissa Moss has written two children’s books about Sarah Edmonds, who served in the Civil War under the name Frank Thompson. I heard her tell about her research (including Edmonds’ memoirs) for these books at a recent conference. The YA chapter book is A Soldier’s Secret, and the picture book is Nurse, Soldier, Spy. Some interesting background on Sarah Edmonds can be found at http://blogs.loc.gov/law/2011/02/civil-war-sesquicentennial/

  5. Kristi Conkle
    February 20, 2013 at 11:05 am

    In addition to the items my colleague Julie Miller mentioned, within the United States Statutes at Large is the text of the act that approved Sampson’s pension http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=006/llsl006.db&recNum=836. The Prints and Photographs Catalog also contains some depictions (much after the fact, of course) of Molly Pitcher, another woman who participated in the American Revolution, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/search/?q=molly+pitcher&fa=displayed%3Aanywhere&sp=1&sg=true.

    Should you or your students need some secondary sources for context, there is an American Memory Timeline about the Revolutionary War on the Homefront http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/presentationsandactivities/presentations/timeline/amrev/homefrnt/homefrnt.html, and a webcast about a book on women at Valley Forge at http://www.loc.gov/today/cyberlc/feature_wdesc.php?rec=5082.

  6. Joyce
    February 20, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    Women in this Victorian era were suppose to fit the feminine mold required of them by society and men. One who didn’t fit the mold was the only woman surgeon in the Civil War, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker from Oswego, NY. She is also the only woman to receive the Congressionsl Medal of Honor .

  7. pie
    May 7, 2013 at 3:50 pm

    this is good but were does it say anything about pregnant women during the civil war they never put things we search for up

  8. jackie
    October 29, 2014 at 5:14 pm

    I really like the political cartoons and pictures. I have the children’s book of Emma Edmonds and I hate how it ends. It leaves the reader hanging about the rest of her life so I would like to use pictures and the text of her life and have students create the rest of the story with primary source pictures. They would not need to be pictures of her, but of women or places or circumstances that fit her situation.

    I also really like students to analyze political cartoons so incorporating those in a compare and contrast setting with other political cartoons regarding women would be interesting.

  9. Joan Davis
    November 5, 2014 at 10:24 am

    “Were Feminine Warriors”_Looking for patterns between spies reaches out to students with pattern recognition abilities. Students will address the common patterns between spies in the article (Friends, Trust, and Rewards of service…). In addition, students will address the fact that the article was written 30 years after, and discuss how it would differ if written immediately. This activity would address two concepts, how a writer uses patterns to organize information and how time laps affects perspective on events.

    “Were Feminine Warriors” compared to political cartoon, address the concept of comparisons between mediums. Student (group or individual) analysis of the description of Miss Ford of Fairfax, Va. could result in a drawing a portrait. Next, students compare their drawing with the cartoon using a Venn diagram to assist analysis, and then, write a comparison paragraph. Including pictures, helps many students visualize the concepts.

    Music reaches students who need rhythm to learn concepts. This song, “300,000 More!” could be used to address persuasive techniques, such as, repetition (chorus), emotional words (Freedom’s sake, brother’s bones, Treason’s savage…), and bandwagon technique (everyone is meeting the call: “You have called us, and we’re coming…”). After analysis, students can be more specific in discussions on how this song would affect males vs. females.

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