is Fair: Women and the American Civil War
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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,
vi. ibid., p.215.
vii. ibid., pp.215-216.
viii. ibid., p.217.
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.
about this column? Please e-mail me at [email protected].