Though the experience between women in the North and the South during the Civil War varied at times, many women in the South took up the same roles as those of Northern women once the men left the work force to fight. Some women joined organizations that would help and raise funds for their soldiers and care for them, though these organizations in the South were less organized than their northern counterparts. Many women became nurses, though the amount was less than in the North, though these nurses were more important because the bulk of the fighting took place on Southern soil. Northern women had to travel away from their homes in order to nurse successfully for an army, whereas women in the South had the fighting come to them. Also, because of the fact that the fighting came to their homes, women in the Confederate states faced greater hardships than Northern women.
Women often joined in riots over the shortages of food in the South, caused by the Union armies’ success in parts of the South that cut off supply lines. The Union army’s constant closeness to Richmond, Virginia continuously hampered supply lines and caused many problems for the citizens and Confederate armies there. Women wrote in protest to the Confederate government pleading for help, and many women were so overwhelmed that they wanted their husbands to return home and stop fighting so that things could be normal for them again.
For the women that had to endure the invading Union armies, they became make-shift defenders of their husbands’ property. They used their homes as places where men could come for treatment and as hospitals. Because Southern citizens were farmers by nature, they had to protect their crops and animals from invading Union troops who would look to take or destroy them. As the troops invaded from the North, it caused many women to become refugees who had to flee their homes. Many fled their farming homes and plantations to cities that they believed would offer them more protection, and this migration during the war boosted the population of most cities in the South. If refugees did not flee to the cities they thought were well protected, they fled to areas they thought would not be invaded by the Union, such as deeper into the Confederacy. Most women and their families lived in constant fear during the war, more-so than the safer Union families.
Throughout the war, more men in the Confederate military died during battles and due to complications after the war. Nearly one-quarter of the men who went to war left their wives widows, and many more men still were wounded to the point where they could not do a widespread amount of profitable work, especially small farmers who could not afford to own slaves and now could not work their own farms. Women, who at the beginning of the war represented a little less than 50% of the population, were now outnumbered men by great amounts and many had to take up family responsibilities that men used to have, including being the head of the household. The most successful group of women in the Confederacy during the Civil War, though they, too, faced tremendous hardships, were black women.
Once slavery was abolished in the former-Confederate states, it was obvious that blacks nationwide had made significant gains as a result of the Civil War and Radical Republicans in the North who fought to bring the abolition of slavery as a Northern aim during the war. With the end of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, most black women, who could now legally marry, moved to the more traditional sphere in the household, escaping their former lives as slaves working in the fields. Black women were able to have their own families in their own homes for those who could afford and chose to do so. Women as a whole, not just black women, also made significant gains during the Civil War.
With most of the men called to fight in the Civil War, women had to take up the jobs the men left behind. Whereas the medical field before the war was overwhelmingly populated by men, even nurses, women had taken large steps in closing this gap and opening more female opportunities in the medical profession. Some women during the war even fought in the war, though they had to disguise themselves as men. They did this for a number of reasons: they truly believed in their country’s cause, which were few and far in between, they wanted to follow their husbands, or they were prostitutes for the army camps. Women who did not directly fight in the war but wanted to support the war effort directly became spies or followed the army camps to follow and support their husbands. Despite the hardships in both the north and the south, women as a whole made significant gains and support they would use in years to come during the women’s suffrage movement.
“Divide Houses: Gender and the Civil War” edited by Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber, with commentary from historian James McPherson
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