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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S
by Janelle Collett

All is Fair: Women and the American Civil War

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, women turned their attention, and their considerable energy, to the conflict. In both the North and the South, women gathered in aid societies, circulated petitions, and, at home, took over the masculine duties of running the household. (i) While these activities kept the women at home busy, many women wanted to support their causes closer to the battlefield.

Rather than face low-paying, grueling factory work or even prostitution, poorer women followed their husbands, brothers or fathers to camp. Slave women also found protection in camps. These women, in particular, were vulnerable to the horrors of war, often forced to protect themselves and their children from Confederate raiders who might rape, kill, or capture them. Escaping to a Union camp was often their most promising option. (ii)

Many of the poor and middle-class women who joined the troops worked as nurses, or even as soldiers. Throughout the war, about 10,000 women served as nurses on either the Confederate or the Union side. (iii) Smaller numbers of zealous women enlisted with the troops, disguised as men. Cautious estimates place approximately 250 Confederate and 400 Union female soldiers on the battlefields. (iv)

For both the nurses and the female soldiers, their jobs required forgoing the modesty and innocence attributed to white women at the time of the Civil War. No illusions of feminine weakness could be sustained in the face of the day-to-day hardships of war. There existed, however, yet another option for patriotic women who wanted to work for their cause -- spying. This option could allow a woman to not only maintain her femininity, but also greatly capitalize on it.

Perhaps the greatest example of femininity as a powerful weapon comes from the infamous Belle Boyd, who made a wartime career of spying for the Confederacy. Charming and flirtatious, Belle Boyd masked her fierce will with innocent smiles and coquettish conversation. Her dark ringlets and flashing eyes, as well as quick wits and deep determination, led her to become a great menace to the hapless Union army. One major even informed her, �You will do more harm to our cause than half the men could do.� (v)

Belle began her career at the age of seventeen, when she shot a Union soldier for using offensive language when speaking to her mother. Instead of punishment, she was absolved of guilt by Union officers who agreed that a lady had a right not to hear offensive language. Less than a week later, Union officers pardoned her yet again, this time for soliciting information from Union soldiers and passing it on to Confederate officials. (vi)

The infamous spy continued her work throughout the war, completing such feats as capturing Union cavalrymen as her prisoners (they agreed to escort her back to the Confederate line after her horse ran into the Union line.) (vii) In fact, the charming Belle Boyd is credited with having enabled Jackson�s troops to capture Front Royal, Virginia from the Union. In order to deliver information about the Union movements in the impending battle, Belle had to pass through the Union lines in Front Royal. She accomplished this feat, as usual, with the gracious aid of a Yankee official. After sending Union Colonel Fillebrowne a nice bouquet of flowers, Belle attached a note requesting his permission to return to Front Royal. Permission was granted, and Belle�s useful information gave the advantage to Jackson�s troops. (viii)

Belle Boyd�s exploits have become a thing of legend. Her manipulation of gender expectations allowed her the freedom to aid her beloved Confederacy while claiming blamelessness. Though the Union eventually imprisoned her, the confinement lasted only two months, during which time she received special treatment, became friends with the superintendent of the prison, and became engaged to a fellow prisoner. (ix)

The American Civil War dramatically altered the roles women played in American society, if only temporarily. Gender roles became malleable as even white, middle-class women stepped out, or were forced out, of their traditional private sphere. At home, they took over the duties of running the household previously performed by their husbands. On the battlefront, they bandaged wounds or fought side by side with men. Somewhere in between, one particular woman enchanted men with her femininity, bewitchingly betrayed them, and consoled herself that �All was fair in love and war.� (x)

i. Sara M. Evans Born for Liberty. (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997) p.117.
ii. ibid., p.113.
iii. Linda Grant DePauw Battle Cries and Lullabies, Women in War from Prehistory to the Present. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998) p.156.
iv. ibid., p.151.
v. Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention, Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996) p.217.
vi. ibid., p.215.
vii. ibid., pp.215-216.
viii. ibid., p.217.
ix. ibid.
x. ibid., p.216.

1. DePauw, Linda Grant Battle Cries and Lullabies, Women in War from Prehistory to the Present. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
2. Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1997.
3. Faust, Drew Gilpin Mothers of Invention, Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Questions about this column? Please e-mail me at [email protected].


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