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4 Remarkable Roles Women Played in the American Civil War

When the 'weaker sex' showed strength

By Kendra MaryaPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 4 min read

The American Civil War broke out April 12, 1861 between the North (Union) and the South (Confederates) over the issues of slavery and did not end until May 26, 1865. Most accounts are from the perspective of the male soldiers, generals, and politicians, however, there exists a force of women not only acting as supportive civilians f rom home, but also as primary participants on the front lines. Here are four roles women played in the American Civil War.

An illustration of nurses and their care in Harpers Weekly 1862


While nursing is a common career path for women in modern times, women had to fight to gain a more active role outside the duties of the home. Dorthea Dix, who became Commission's Superintendent after leading a march of women looking to aid the war effort, explained to the medical corps, that women were not only capable to work in a hospital setting, but were an invaluable asset that would help injured or dying soldiers. It is estimated that over 20,000 women volunteered to work in hospitals after Dix took up the cause. However, the initial call was for women to be “past 30 years of age, healthy, plain almost to repulsion in dress and devoid of personal attractions,” which was later retracted as more nurses were needed.

Despite society viewing women primarily as frail and of the weaker sex, they were able to succeed in the new roles they signed on for. However, one nurse, Cornelia McDonald, “struggled on her first day working in a Winchester hospital after she stumbled over a pile of amputated limbs.”

While formal training was not yet required of women nurses, duties included emptying bed pans, knitting new clothing, comforting the dying, writing letters for wounded soldiers, and assisting doctors in surgery.

Clara Barton is one of the many nurses who stands out as she later founded ‘The Red Cross’, which still exists today as a non-profit organization to help those in need and with disaster relief.

Soldiers In Disguise

Frances Louisa Clayton fought alongside her husband and witnessed his death on the battlefield. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress

It is estimated by historian Elizabeth D. Leonard, that anywhere from 500 to 1000 women on both Union and Confederate sides masqueraded as men to join the forces as soldiers and fight alongside their male family members.

During this time, middle to lower class women were exposed to the idea of cross-dressing, as it was common in theatrical performances. Women soldiers were accepted in the media at the time as modern Joan of Arc’s and a source of pride and curiosity. In the army, however, troops would become suspicious of any feminine responses and deny the reality that women were on the front lines among their brothers. Many women on the battlefield were not found out until wounded, if at all.

One woman who succeeded on the front lines was Sarah Edmonds. She was a Canadian who was looking to escape an abusive father and an arranged marriage by taking on a new identity as Franklin Thomson. She emigrated to the United States and found work, but later joined the 2nd Michigan Infantry. She filled many positions while in the army. She was a spy, and a hospital attendant, but primarily served as a mail courier, which involved riding her horse through many dangerous front lines and enemy territory to relay important messages.

Sarah Edmonds as Franklin Thomson Image Courtesy of

After contracting malaria and being denied reprieve from the army, she took off to avoid being found out and resumed her feminine identity and ‘Franklin Thomson’ was labelled as a deserter. She later showed up dressed as a woman to her infantry reunion and was warmly received, despite the army's resistance to women soldiers. Here, the desertion status was removed, she was given a pension, and was later inducted as the only woman into the Grand Army of the Republic.


The role of vivandieres, who were usually wives or daughters of the officers, was to keep the troops supplied with everyday items they would need. They would sell items such as tobacco, wine, coffee, whiskey, ham, I.D. tags, and oil lamps. Some performed services such as sewing and cooking.

Anna Etheridge wearing the Kearny Cross

Vivandieres would wear military-style uniforms and be along the side of the soldiers on the battlefield, often running in the line of fire to help the wounded and comfort the dying. One notable vivandiere is Anna Etheridge, who was rewarded for her bravery in being one of only two women in the Civil War to receive a Kearny Cross.


Women were dismissed in this era as weapons of espionage due to being largely underestimated. Many obtained information by simply eavesdropping in public or by exuding a charming demeanour with men, encouraging them to loosen their lips. Few were found out and those that were caught were rarely punished.

Harriet Tubman Image courtesy of

One spy was Harriet Tubman, an African American woman who was born into slavery and is better known for her role in the Underground Railroad. In January 1863, Harriet was given $100 from the Secret Service to pay for intel, such as Confederate troop locations.

In June 1863, Tubman became the only woman to lead a Civil War expedition when she successfully guided Union boats through a heavily Confederate territory using the knowledge she obtained through her work as a spy.


About the Creator

Kendra Marya

Campervan living Canadian with a penchant for psychological thrills and cats.

B.A. Communication & Philosophy

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