Social Education 58(2), 1994, pp. 77-79
National Council for the Social Studies

Roles of Women in the American Revolution andthe Civil War

Linda Grant De Pauw
Women participate as a group and as individuals in every war, but they are rarely acknowledged in history books or commemorated with monuments. Part of the reason is that, until recently, only a small number of women have participated in war as soldiers on the battlefield. However, limiting a consideration of women's roles in war to battlefield performance gives a false sense of their involvement in conflicts. It is important to acknowledge the variety of roles they have played to gain a better understanding of the relationship of women to war.
In United States history, women were especially involved in the two wars fought exclusively on American soil: the American Revolutionary War for Independence and the Civil War. Since these wars were fought metaphorically and often literally in their own backyards, women participated in an especially wide range of roles in them. To illustrate the extensive involvement of women in these wars and call attention to these vast new areas for historical research, I will here give an overview of nine roles women played.

Role number one is victim. This is the traditional woman's role in war, just as the traditional male role is that of warrior. In the medieval tradition that underlies western heroic military tradition, the warrior fights to protect the "fair lady" victim. At the same time, the enemy warrior sees the "fair lady" as a "bad woman," an enemy fit to be raped or killed. Failure to protect one's women becomes a humiliation to the warrior and damages morale.

Because of the absence of usual male protectors and providers during the course of these wars and, for some, especially in the South, the actual destruction of home and lands and occasional personal assaults, women were adversely affected by these wars. However, often real women's experiences did not fit the "fair lady" stereotype. Many women did not sit around weeping, waiting for their "knights" to return, but worked actively to survive and to rebuild.

Role number two is what Sue Mansfield (1984) has called the cheerleader. This is the active face of the victim, the "fair lady" who needs protection but actively encourages men to go into battle for her sake. Revolutionary War women were less likely to fit this role than were women of the Civil War, probably because wars with the French, Spanish, and American Indians had been occurring virtually continuously throughout the colonial period. These women often knew that war was nothing to cheer about. Instead of being able to count on civilian women as cheerleaders, General Washington was aware that their sad stories about hardships on the homefront often encouraged his men to desert.

Three-quarters of a century later, few Americans had much direct experience of combat. Women, as well as men, thus brought mythic and romantic preconceptions into the Civil War. Women on both sides enthusiastically encouraged men to enlist, snubbed young men who refused to put on a uniform, prayed for those who went off to fight, and wrote thousands of letters to men at the front. These letters, tinged with the nineteenth-century fascination with death, reveal women on both sides playing their cheerleader part in the drama of war.

In the third role, as providers, women gave logistical support to the armies. During the Revolution, such items as gunpowder and shot were manufactured by women in home industries.

Later, in the nineteenth century, more items could be purchased from professional suppliers. But many items used in the Civil War-particularly clothing, food, and medical supplies-came from private household production. In the North, the Sanitary Commission coordinated women's efforts to produce everything from socks and mittens to hospital stores and then to deliver them to the Union armies. In the South, women's efforts were less efficiently coordinated, but they provided extraordinary quantities of similar articles as well as most of the food by keeping farms going after husbands, sons, and slaves left.

Wives and Prostitutes
The fourth role for women in these wars was as wife or prostitute--that is, to essentially serve as sexual partner. During the Revolution, there appears to have been scarcely any military prostitution in the American camps, partly because of the poverty of American soldiers and partly because of the religious idealism that underlay the Revolutionary ideology. The common law wives of soldiers appear to have been treated with respect, and wives of high-ranking officers regularly accompanied their husbands both in camp and on the march.

During the Civil War, however, officers' wives who went to camp with their husbands might find their reputations sullied as a result. And at the other end of the social scale were the wives of black soldiers. Under antebellum law, these women could not be legally married. Those who followed their men to the Union lines often worked for the army, but many were confined in contraband camps under appalling conditions. Only rarely could the black soldiers "protect their women" (Bardaglio 1992).

Many people who know nothing else about women in war are familiar with Civil War General Joseph Hooker's "hookers." Nevertheless, there has been remarkably little study of military prostitution in any context. Unfortunately, until very recently the subject has tended to invite snickers rather than serious research. It appears, however, that there was less prostitution among the armies of the South than of the North. The Union soldiers were better able to pay for sexual services, and so it was noted that when armies moved, the prostitutes would scurry to keep up if the Union forces were leaving, but stay put if they were moving in (Leech 1941; Wiley 1978).

Campfollowers and Nurses
Campfollowers are the civilians who follow an army selling goods and services and performing support functions. Wives and prostitutes may have worked as campfollowers, but the categories were by no means identical. During both the Revolution and the Civil War, campfollowers had extensive duties because many support functions that would later be performed by military personnel were assigned to civilians. These included such work as cooking, maintaining cleanliness in camp, doing laundry, and nursing.

Military nursing underwent significant changes in the mid-nineteenth century. At the time of the American Revolution, nursing was considered an innately female talent: any woman could do it but men could not for they were believed to be too impatient, insensitive, and clumsy. During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale had led the movement to replace the traditional women nurses, who were untrained soldiers' wives, with educated, middle-class, single women.

During the Civil War, male soldiers were assigned to be nurses, and many proved to be impatient, insensitive, and clumsy. Soldiers' wives, however, by this time had the reputation of being dirty and immoral, thanks in part to the efforts of Florence Nightingale to demean them while building up the reputation of nurses. In place of the wives, thousands of "respectable" women volunteered as hospital nurses, and as many as 2,000 were paid for their services. But all nurses had to confront the hostility of physicians and the belief that no decent woman would nurse a man outside her immediate family. Because the women nurses were civilians, they were outside the military chain of command. Some were able to take advantage of this situation to assert their own authority over that of military officers. In the South, a few women who ran military hospitals were commissioned as captains of cavalry, which put them under military control (Kalisch and Kalisch 1976).

A sixth role for women is defender. Although the myth of war assigned to the warrior the role of protector, he is chiefly identified with successful offensive warfare. When the warriors are retreating or far from home, it has never been considered inappropriate or unwomanly for a mother to protect her children. During both the Revolution and the Civil War, women organized home guard units and trained with weapons for defensive warfare. More than a few found occasion to use a weapon to protect not only their children but husbands as well when enemy soldiers broke into the home. Stories of women attacking soldiers with everything from hatchets and rifles to pitchforks and kettles of boiling lye abound in volumes of local history.

Covert Operatives
Since Delilah, some women have demonstrated talents in the area of espionage, sabotage, smuggling, and assassination. Many of the most spectacular tales of female heroism during these American wars involve such activities, often performed by very young girls whose age as well as their gender made them free of suspicion.

Battlefield Anomalies
An eighth role for women I will call "battlefield anomalies." This category includes women who are not enlisted as regular soldiers, but somehow end up in the thick of the &Mac222;ghting. A woman living on a farm that becomes a battlefield will be in such a position. During the Revolution, which was largely a war of small skirmishes rather than formal battles, women and uniformed soldiers might operate together. Both men and women, for example, might be attacked by enemy forces while out foraging for hay or potatoes and then combine to defend themselves. Another example of a battlefield anomaly would be the mythical "Molly Pitcher," who spontaneously filled an artillery position when her husband fell while she was bringing him a pitcher of water, or Madam John Turchin, who moved beyond the role of wife when she took command of her husband's regiment during a Civil War cavalry skirmish (Livermore 1972).

Campfollowers often were drawn into combat. Women enlisted as vivandieres or "daughers of the regiment" as well, and are visible in photographs made at the Battle of Gettysburg-- easily identi&Mac222;ed because of their long curled hair and peculiar skirted uniforms. A few of these women held official rank. Kady Brownell was color sergeant of a Rhode Island regiment in which her husband also served. Other women associated with the armies received decorations for valor.

The ninth role in which women were found during the Revolution and the Civil War is the role of warrior. Women who served as warriors usually gave up their gender identity in order to fight. Sometimes they disguised themselves and kept their true gender secret--in some cases, for decades after the war was over. Others enlisted with the tacit approval of recruiters desperate for manpower who were glad to have a strong farm woman who knew how to use a rifle. Sometimes women enlisted together with their husbands, not trusting them to go to war alone.

Women who wore the regular uniform passed as men with surprising ease. Short, delicately built, even pregnant women, managed to pass. When a captured Confederate officer bore a son while in prison, a newspaper reported that "he was undoubtedly not a man" (Wiley 1975).

The Importance of Knowledge About Women's Roles
The many roles women played in the Revolutionary and Civil wars were not unique. It is impossible to find a war in which women have not been involved in most if not all of these roles. But the mythology of warfare, which recognizes only male warriors and female victims and prostitutes, has difficulty assimilating a story that involves laundry, bedpans, and women who fight. Consequently, during every war, heroic women are discovered with astonishment, applauded briefly, and then quickly forgotten after the guns are silent.

Is there anything wrong with this? Aren't all of these women's roles really marginal to the study of military history? They certainly are when military history is narrowly defined as being limited to weapons and battlefield strategies. By the narrow definition, even such subjects as military medicine as practiced by male physicians are excluded.

While it is important to recognize the existence of women who played all of the roles summarized here, the failure of many to recognize the existence of women warriors is particularly deplorable. This is not because there is anything glorious in fighting, but because there is a great deal that is glorious in the mythic figure of the warrior. When the myth of war embodies sharp gender distinctions, all men may identify with the role of warrior and all women must identify with the role that is left over: that of helpless victim.

The ultraconservative Brian Mitchell (1989) is eloquent on the subject of psychological satisfactions to be derived as a result of maintaining gender distinctions. He describes how men "derive a profound sense of personal importance from their role as protector." He insists that even today, when the impersonal carnage produced by modern weapons has shaken most professional military men free of fantasies, "men are attracted to the military by its intensely masculine and deeply romantic character. The uniforms, the rank, the danger, the purposefulness, the opportunity to earn the respect of men and the admiration of women, all contribute to the military's enduring hold on the imagination of men and boys" (185).

Where does this stirring scenario leave women and girls? With a profound sense of insignificance and personal helplessness. It is to counter the images of insignificance and personal helplessness that, despite the relatively small number of women warriors, it is important for youth to know of both civilian and military women.

In April 1862, after the battle of Shiloh, there was among the thousands of bodies buried in Union uniform in the mass graves one that was found, many years later, to have been a woman. In July 1863, after the battle of Gettysburg, a burial detachment reported the internment of the body of a woman in the uniform of a Confederate private. Neither of these soldiers changed the course of history or drew attention to her gender as she gave her life in battle. But it makes a difference to our understanding of warfare to include all roles women have played historically and to know that women have also volunteered to defend and die for their country.

Bardaglio, Peter. "The Children of Jubilee: African American Childhood in Wartime." In Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War, edited by Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.Kalisch, Philip, and Beatrice J. Kalisch. "Untrained But Undaunted: The Women Nurses of the Blue and Gray." Nursing Forum 15, no. 1 (1976): 4-33.Leech, Margaret. Reveille in Washington, 1860-1865. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941.Livermore, Mary A. My Story of the War. New York: Arno Press, 1972.Mansfield, Sue. "In the Shadow of Andromache's Loom." Minerva Quarterly Report on Women and the Military 2, no. 4 (Winter 1984): 62.Mitchell, Brian. Weak Link: The Femination of the American Military. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, Inc., 1989.Wiley. Bell I. Confederate Women. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1975.Wiley, Bell I. The Life of Billy Yank: The Common Soldier of the Union. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1978.

Linda Grant De Pauw is professor of history at George Washington University and founder of the Minerva Center, which provides information and inspiration to those interested in women and the military. She is author of numerous award-winning books, including two for young adults. She is currently working on Battle Cries and Lullabies: A Brief History of Women in War, which will be published by William Morrow, Inc. in 1995.