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Women In The Cival War And The Roles They Played On The Battlefield And Home Front

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Women in the Civil War and the Roles They Played on the Battlefield and on the Home front

By: VM

HIST 1301


The Civil War, which lasted for four long years, was a "total war" involving every aspect of society. During this time in one of the bloodiest of wars, northern and southern women were as equally involved as their male counterparts, if not more. Because of this war, women were forced to abandon their traditional roles of the 19th century, and participate in the war effort. Some fearless women disguised themselves as young men, and took on the role of soldiers, in order to show their patriotism. Some of the more cunning women freelanced as spies outside the government sphere, so that they could participate in the war. Others supported the war effort by taking on the roles of nurses who risked their lives on the battlefield; however, most of them worked in hospitals located in the rear. No matter how big or small the role they played during the civil war, the significance of their effort and support broadened beliefs about the abilities of women and what they could achieve outside of the home.

One of the more significant roles that women played during the civil war was that of a soldier. Both Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women, so those that wanted to enlist, crossed gender boundaries and disguised themselves as young men and assumed masculine names. This war was not only a man's fight, but it was also a woman's fight. Female civil war soldiers, like the male soldiers, lived in camps, suffered in prisons and died for their respective causes. They were wounded prisoners of war, and killed in action. Going to war was strictly by choice and they were all aware of the risks involved. Many had never fired a rifle before much less contained the understanding of the army way of life, but nevertheless, they still managed and some were very successful.

It was estimated that 400 women rolled up their pants, bound their breasts, and cut their hair, in order to enlist with the fighting forces. Among those that joined the Confederate Army ranks was Mrs. Amy Clarke, "who enlisted with her husband and continued service after he was killed at Shiloh. It was not until she was wounded a second time and captured by the Federal that Mrs. Amy Clarke's gender was detected". Female soldiers had plenty of guts; they did not faint at the sight of blood, nor did they swoon in unbearably hot weather. They endured the same physical and mental hardships as their male counterparts. Taking on soldiers roles' in the Union or Confederate Armies, was one of the many ways women could show their patriotism for what they believed in.

Another significant role that was taken on by women during the Civil War was that of a spy. This option allowed a woman to keep her femininity and capitalize on it. A perfect example of such a women was Belle Boyd. She 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 helpless Union army". Belle Boyd began her career as a spy at the age of 17, when she shot a union soldier for using offensive language when he spoke to her mother. Surprisingly, she was pardoned instead of punished by the Union Officers. She continued her work during the civil war as a spy by completing such feats as capturing Union Calvary men as her prisoners, and helping Jackson's troops to capture Front Royal, Virginia from the Union. Another example of a successful female Confederate spy was Mrs. Rose O'Neal Greenhow. Mrs. Greenhow was a social prominent widow from Washington D.C., who used other methods to gain access to secret information. She used her social connections to gather exclusive and secret information on Federal plans, which later led to her arrest and imprisonment by the Federals. In her diary, My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, displays the strength of her will and determination for the confederate cause. "The useless series of torments and provocations to which I was subjected - the changes in my place of imprisonment, and the many attempts to entrap me into a betrayal of myself or the Confederate cause. Hence the long and wearisome captivity, to beak my spirit, or to goad me into undignified bursts of indignation - in all of which I trust I may flatter myself that they signally failed". By manipulating gender expectations, both Boyd and Greenhow obtained the freedom to aid their beloved Confederacy while claiming blameless. However, female spies were not limited to just working for the Confederacy, the Union contained a successful arsenal of their own. An excellent example of a successful Union spy is Elizabeth Van Lew. Elizabeth Van Lew worked for four years as a dedicated and resourceful spy. She was outspoken, rebellious, and a little eccentric. Unlike Belle Boyd who used her good looks to obtain information, Elizabeth Van Lew was quite the opposite. Lacking in beauty, charm, coquette's air, and a lush figure, Van Lew accomplished her tasks by resorting to other methods. She relied on her gentleness, eccentricity, and flattery to get what she wanted. For example, "after the war started, Elizabeth Van Lew openly supported the Union. She took items of clothing and food and medicine to prisoners at the Confederate Libby Prison and passed information to U.S. General Grant, spending much of her fortune to support her espionage. She may also have helped prisoners escape from Libby prison. To cover her activities, she took on a persona of "Crazy Bet", dressing oddly; she was never arrested for her spying". "Crazy Bet" was so bold and daring somehow she managed to penetrate the home of President Davis by convincing one of her former servants to secure a position in the Davis household staff. The techniques that Miss Van Lew developed are still used in espionage today. She was smart enough to tear messages into several pieces and send them out with different couriers, so if one of those couriers were caught the message could not be deciphered. Another technique she used was invisible ink in her messages. In order to make decoding that much more difficult,



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