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Early Years: the Civil War
  Jennie Hodgers, in uniform as Albert D.J. Cashiers, fought for three years with the 95th Illinois Infantry Regiment. After the war, she maintained her identity as Cashier, working as a farmhand and participating, in uniform, in patriotic events. Her identity was not discovered until 1913 during a physical exam after a household accident.  

During the Civil War, women on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line rose to challenge Victorian assumptions of feminine frailty and the impropriety of women in the public sphere. On the home front, northern and southern women took over households, ran family businesses, maintained farms and plantations and provided daily care and food for their families while the men went to war. They formed aid societies or bonnet brigades to knit socks, sew uniforms and flags. Women helped organize and run public relief and sanitary commissions to gather and distribute supplies to the armies.

Medical Services

In more official capacities, women staffed government and regimental hospitals as nurses and matrons, served disguised as male soldiers fighting at the front, as laundresses and cooks, as spies—and at least one, as a doctor. (Read about Dr. Mary Walker, the only woman ever awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.) They were wounded, killed, held prisoners of war and forced from their homes as refugees.

In the North, the War Department appointed Dorothea Dix as Superintendent of Women Nurses in 1861. Dix organized and staffed military hospitals and established firm criteria for her contract nurses and matrons.

Dix discouraged single women from nursing because of the improprieties involved in close contact with strange men and hostility to their presence. Contract nurses were required to be over 30 years old, matronly in appearance, able to pay their own way, have two letters of recommendation, wear brown or black garments and to be sober and self-sacrificing. They received forty cents a day plus a ration. Over 3,200 served.

  In addition to her nursing services, Clara Barton began a program for locating those missing in action during the Civil War.  

Clara Barton, later the founder of the American Red Cross, served as a volunteer in the Patent Office when the war began. When Barton learned that many of the wounded from First Bull Run had suffered, not from want of attention but from need of medical supplies, she advertised for donations and began an independent organization to distribute goods.

In 1862, Barton was granted permission to deliver supplies directly to the front, which she did without fail for the next two years. She followed army operations through the Virginia theater and the Charleston, SC, area and her work caring for casualties from the Battle of the Wilderness near Fredericksburg, Virginia, and other sites attracted national notice. At this time she formed her only official Civil War connection with any organization when she accepted appointment as served as superintendent of nurses in the Union army.

Catholic nuns, too, served as nurses for both the North and South in hospitals and aboard steamships. In the beginning, they were the only source of trained nurses—male or female, because of their education and training in 28 already-established Catholic hospitals. Nine nuns are known to have died in war service.

Women in the South did not have to leave their homes to reach the front. The war, fought in large part in the Confederacy, confronted many right on their own doorsteps. An estimated 1,000 southern women nursed in hospitals. Countless others nursed the sick and wounded who marched through their regions. They faced overwhelming difficulties because of lack of organized relief efforts in the South and an ill-equipped Confederate government.

  Rose Greenhow is perhaps the most notorious female spy for the Confederacy. Even when imprisoned, she managed to get messages back to the South. During the latter part of the War, she traveled in Europe developing sympathy for the southern cause.  

Support Services

Freed slave women and children also followed Union armies and lived on the outskirts of camp. Some obtained employment as nurses, cooks, laundresses and personal servants to white officers. The Union army also moved many African American women onto nearby plantations to raise cotton for the northern government to sell. Wives of black soldiers qualified for widow's pensions after the war when they “legalized” their marriages through the Union army.

Women spies often proved paramount to the development of battle strategy because they supplied information on troop movement, size and supplies, and the placement and strength of fortifications. Women sometimes traveled with information hidden in their clothing while others disguised themselves to facilitate their travel or to obtain information. When captured, then were treated as criminals rather than prisoners of war.

Women's participation in the Civil War became a catalyst for changes of women's roles in society and in the military. Successful Civil War nursing and relief work led to an increasing number of paid positions for women in these fields in the postwar period and to the opening of the first formal schools of nursing training for women in 1873. It established a precedent for women's inclusion in future war efforts.

Women in the US Military - Civil War Era