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The Importance of Women in the Civil War
Column published: 02 December 2006 - Updated 14 August 2012
By: Shirley Gage Hodges   Biography & Archived Articles

Since I consider myself first and foremost a Civil War history buff and one of my genealogical interests is tracing females I have always been fascinated by the stories of women who lived through that period. The Civil War was the first total war, meaning war was not only inflicted on soldiers, but civilians, land and cities as well. The role that women played in this terrible four-year conflict was very important. Unlike any war prior, women played an enormous part in the lives of the soldier's family and home life. They play a significant part in how the War progressed and eventually ended.

We need to always remember for every man who endured the rigors of the civil war, someplace there was perhaps a mother, sister, wife or sweetheart who worried and grieved for him. The great suffering and frustration of the war was shared by everyone who lived during that time.

Mary Ann Bickerdyke, Civil War nurse
Mary Ann Bickerdyke was a famous Civil War nurse. Source: American Library of Congress
I had never thought about the desperation that some of the families faced. If the man was gone and there was no way for the woman to earn a living.... what was she to do? Many women went with their husbands and pitched in as nurses, did camp chores and some participated in military drills and marches.

The records strongly suggest that women played a much greater role in combat during the Civil War than has ever been recognized.

We should be proud of all of our ancestors who lived through the Civil War, both male and female. The part played by our female ancestors whether on the home front, in the hospitals, or in the battlefield is something that should be investigated and remembered.

How the war impacted women:
    Some women disguised themselves as men
  • they were left behind to carry out the man's duties at home
  • many women of the South had to take on the work of the slaves
  • some saw the War as an opportunity to be leaders in the fight for abolition and equality
Roles occupied by women during the Civil War:
  • gave their sons, husbands, and fathers to the war
  • spies for both sides
  • some disguised themselves as men and served in both the Union and Confederate Armies
  • messengers
  • nursing (over 3,000 Union women became unpaid nurses during the conflict)
  • provided aid and comfort to the sick and wounded soldiers
  • ensured sanitary conditions
  • visited the hospitals (Mary Todd Lincoln, the first lady brought flowers and food to the soldiers)
  • fought for causes that men were unable and possibly unwilling to fight for
  • Vivandiers (Daughters of the Regiment)
  • made ammunition and uniforms needed at the front
Suggested Reading:
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  • The Women and The Crisis: Women of the North in the Civil War by Agatha Young. Published by McDowell , Obelensky, New York, 1959
  • Reveille in Washington, by Margaret Leech, (Harper & Brothers, New York, 1941
  • My Story of the War by Mary A. Livermore pub. by A. D. Worthington and Company, Hartford, Conn. 1881
  • Civil War Women: The Civil War seen through Women's Eyes in stories by Louisa May Alcott, Kate Chopin, Eudora Wletay, and other great women writers, 1st Touchone ed., Simon and Schuster, New York, 1990
  • Cyclone in Calico: the Story of May Ann Bickerdyke , by Nina Brown Baker, Little, Brown, Boston, 1952.
  • Edmonds, S. Emma E. - Nurse and spy in the Union arm : comprising the adventures and experiences of a woman in hospitals, camps, and battlefields , Hartford, Conn.: W.S. Williams, 1865, 404 pgs.
  • Women of the war: their heroism and self-sacrifice, Hartford, Ct.: S.S. Scranton, 1866, 606 pgs.. The activities of approximately forty Union women during the Civil War are described in this book on women's contributions to the Northern war effort.
  • Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe; Alfred Kazin (Introduction). President Lincoln referred to this as the book that started the Civil War. It certainly portrayed slavery in the U.S. South dramatically enough to fire up Northern enthusiasm!
Suggested Web Pages: Shirley Hodges, biography & genealogy lectures; email:

Editor's Note: Shirley Hodges is the author of the popular Guide to United States Census, 1790-1930

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