The Civil War Connections Blog

Women in the War, pt. 1

Prior to the Civil War, women in the United States of America had a clearly defined role within society. For the majority of women, this meant remaining in the private sphere and caring for their families. Even one of our founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson, believed that the role of women was to “sooth and calm the minds of their husbands returning ruffled from political debate.”[1] However, with the outbreak of violence in April 1861, the roles in which women fulfilled shifted drastically to support the war efforts of both the Union and the Confederacy. As men went off to fight, women assumed more responsibility within the house, or provided their services to their respective armies. As the nation faced its greatest internal struggle yet, women’s freedoms expanded to allow for their assistance to benefit the war effort. Women became nurses, spies, and even outlaws in an attempt to help in any way that they could. For today’s blog and next week as well, I have a two part series for you, focusing on the roles that women filled during the Civil War.

One of the ways in which women helped the war effort was through nursing. Initially, the armies had turned away women nurses, or asked for homely looking women for fear that relationships would develop between the soldiers and their caretakers. However, as the number of casualties rose, the armies chose to accept all the help they could receive and more women flooded the ranks of nurses. Nurses flocked to battlefields and nearby hospitals, providing both armies with the care necessary to keep them engaged in conflict. Through nursing, women found themselves in positions that allowed them to help benefit the war effort, while also providing themselves with opportunities to step outside of their specified female roles within society.


Clara Barton, accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Clara Barton, accessed through the Library of Congress online.


Potentially one of the most prominent nurses of the Civil War was Clara Barton. Barton was at many of the major battles of the war, including those of Second Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg.[2] After the war, Barton was sent to Europe to recover from all of the work and labor she had provided within the war. [3]However, her reputation was well known internationally, and she was requested to join the Red Cross as the Franco-Prussian War raged on. When Barton returned home from Europe, she negotiated the politics of the Geneva Treaty, ensuring that the United States acceded to the treaty, and sub sequentially established the American Association of the Red Cross.[4] In doing so, Barton set an example for the achievements of women. The dedication of the aid and care she provided to soldiers in the Civil War gave her access to a world of potential that women had never seen before.


Unidentified woman in shawl, possibly Mrs. Rebecca Pomroy. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.

Unidentified woman in shawl, possibly Mrs. Rebecca Pomroy. Accessed through the Library of Congress online.


In the case of Rebecca Pomroy, her service as a nurse gave her the ability to impact multiple lives, including that of President Lincoln. While working at Columbia College Hospital, Dorothea Dix recommended Pomroy to President Lincoln to help care for his entire family, whom all were very ill. Pomroy cared for the Lincoln’s and nursed them back to help, earning the respect and friendship of President Lincoln himself. When offered a favor by the President, Pomroy only asked that President Lincoln come boost morale among her boys at the hospital. President Lincoln obliged, even meeting the African American workers providing the food for the nurses and patients. For more than three and a half years, Pomroy alternated working at the hospital caring for wounded soldiers and caring for the Lincoln family with her nursing abilities. She even encouraged the occasional Confederate soldiers that she cared for to give up the rebellion and take an oath of allegiance, which at least one did.[5]

Both of these women’s services propelled them out of the traditional private sphere and into more public roles during the Civil War. Pomroy and Barton both achieved more attention and appreciation as a result of their service, along with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Barton became internationally renowned for her services, while Pomroy was given the opportunity to server her nation by serving both its army and its commander-in-chief. The Civil War, while tearing the nation apart and turning traditional family roles upside down, provided women opportunities to support the nation and their families in nontraditional ways. Additionally, if you thought nursing was a way for women to challenge the status quo, next week’s blog post is about female spies during the Civil War. Talk about rocking the boat…

[1] Thomas P. Lowry, Confederate Heroines: 120 Southern Women Convicted by Union Military Justice, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006), viii.

[2] Mary Gardner Holland, Our Army Nurses: Stories from Women in the Civil War, (Edinborough: Edinborough Press, 1998), 19.

[3] Jane E. Schultz, Women at the Front: Hospital Workers in Civil War America, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

[4] Holland, Our Army Nurses, 21.

[5] Holland, Our Army Nurses, 212.