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.
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.
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.
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?