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The Courageous Women of the Civil War
The guns fired and cannons blasted in the Civil War. Men were lost, and survivors had to continue on to fight for their cause. What happened to the farms and businesses of those soldiers as they went off to fight? Did they fall into disrepair, or were businesses and farms ravaged by the desperate people that were starving from the rise in the prices of food? No, the women that were left behind took over those farms and businesses and kept them going strong despite the war. In this essay, I will show the way that women of the Civil War worked hard while the men were away, on the home front and the battle front, proving that they were equal in strength and intelligence.
Most men were fighting in the war, leaving behind only young boys, old men, some overseers, and women. So, while the war raged on, women took over businesses, farms, and factory jobs to sustain their families and keep everything in good shape until the men came home. These new roles were especially a surprise for women of the Confederate states, who before had hardly any rights and were allowed to do little more than take care of the home. They made use of their domestic talents, stitching together uniforms for the side they supported. Women who did not partake in the exciting jobs of spies, camp nurses, or disguised soldiers had to endure the rising prices of food, clothing, and other necessities. For the Confederates, the inflation during the Civil War was due to a few key things, one being the Union blockade, not allowing the Confederates to get many imported goods. Also, much of the Confederate’s livestock were stolen and their crops burned by Union soldiers, something that the Confederates
did as well. Drought, too, dealt a bad blow to the Southerners. As a few examples, according to the diary of Mrs. Margaret Wight, in January 1863 ladies shoes were $18 to $20, and in December of that year they were $50 to $60; in January 1863 flour is $25 per barrel, while in July 1864 it is $400 per barrel; in March of 1863 butter is $3 per pound, and in June 1864 it is $16 per pound. Women also had to deal with their homes being invaded by soldiers or having to flee their homes as the front moved closer. Many women also acted as nurses in hospitals, and occasionally, though not often by their choice, these hospitals were in their homes. Not only did women “hold up the fort” at home, they also helped on the front lines alongside the men.
One event in particular that inspired a famous painting and a poem occurred near Hanover County, Virginia. In June 1862, Captain William Latané of the 9th Virginia Cavalry was killed in J. E. B. Stuart’s “Ride around McClellan”. He was taken to Westwood plantation, owned by Mrs. William Spencer Roane Brockenbrough and family, who promised to give Latané a proper burial. The men were off at war, so the burial was left up to the women, slaves, and children of Westwood and nearby Summer Hill. The family minister was delayed, and very nearly didn’t make it to the funeral in time. As the news of the unique burial spread, Robert R. Thompson wrote a poem about the incident, and in 1864 William D. Washington created a painting of it. To further immortalize the event, Washington later had A. G. Campbell make an engraving of the painting.
Women did other things on the battle front and elsewhere in order to help their side. They became laundresses and cooks in the camps. Many women become nurses,
which previously was a man’s job, a number of them working right on the front lines. Numerous women bravely became experts in espionage, using their charm, intelligence, and large hoop skirts to smuggle information and supplies to Confederate or Union soldiers. Several women were more daring than others, such as Virginia Moon openly defying soldiers and even threatening to kill anyone who tried to search them. Some actually became soldiers themselves, disguised as men, facing the danger of discovery every day. A few women even took the secret of their true gender to their grave, such as Rosetta Wakemen. Many women also became daughters of the regiment, women who were nurses in camp. A number of the daughters of the regiment, like Kady Brownwell, also lifted the men’s spirits and fought beside them when they needed to.
The women grabbed onto their new roles with both hands, and kept the two nations going as the war continued. The fact that women were perceived as harmless and innocent greatly helped women spies and smugglers during the first years of the war. The soldiers of both sides suspected nothing for quite awhile. As soldiers began to uncover the women spies, they were shocked at their number and even their existence. Most men were also surprised at how strong and brave women really were, and that they could do the jobs of men just as well. On some occasions, women who were charged with the
crimes of spying or smuggling for the other side were released because of the fact that few believed that women were capable of doing such things.
Women worked in the farms, businesses, and factories that the men left behind. They held the two nations together while the war raged on, which frequently reached the
home front. They risked their lives countless times, as spies, as camp nurses, and as soldiers. As daughters of the regiment, or vivandieres, they rallied the troops, nursed them, and even went into battle themselves. The women of the Civil war worked hard, and proved to themselves and others that they had the intelligence and strength to do the jobs of men. Although women gained few real rights after all their effort in the war, they continued to strive for suffrage and the right to be considered equal.