Women’s roles in the Civil War
Women have historically contributed to the Army in often-unseen capacities. There were “Donut Dollies” in Korea and Vietnam: women employed by the Red Cross to serve coffee, donuts, and a morale boost to Soldiers in the field. In World War I, there were the “Hello Girls,” switchboard operators who facilitated field communications for the Army. And in the Civil War, there were the “Daughters of the Regiment” or vivandières, women who performed household chores in the camp and supplemented medical care.
The United States Army’s Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is currently hosting a “Women in the Civil War” exhibit, which focuses on the contributions of the vivandières and highlights the exploits of some daring spies. Though their participation in the war was largely domestic in nature, these women played an important role in maintaining the health and morale of Soldiers at war.
Daughters of the Regiment
Women during the Civil War maintained traditional household roles, Melissa Wiford, archives collections manage with USAHEC, said.
“Even nursing at that time was considered a male profession, so one of the difficulties women during the Civil War had is to even have it recognized that they could actually work outside of the house, and actually help the war effort,” she explained.
Despite challenges, many women on either side of the conflict followed their Soldiers to war, literally. Some sold goods to Soldiers in the camp; other cooked or became laundresses for fees, Wiford said. Occasionally, the regiment would hire the women in an official capacity.
“You don’t have a lot of individual women going (along) unless you have some kind of contact (related to a Soldier in some way),” Wiford said. “Because, of course, they would be seen as women of loose morals if they were unmarried or whatever.” Many vivandières were the mothers of Soldiers, or had some kind of personal connection with a Soldier within the unit they served: daughter, sister or niece, for example. Rarely, there were single women from the area surrounding an encampment, but Wiford explained women without a direct attachment weren’t well accepted.
Not only did the vivandières’ presence help with morale, but it also helped with the survival rate of wounded Soldiers.
“I think one of the big things that women added to during this time period is the fact that they were cleaning, they were cooking food, they were nursing. We lost more Soldiers to disease and infection than we did to actual combat, so in this aspect of them cooking, cleaning, doing whatever they can to keep stuff clean, actually saved Soldiers,” Wiford said.
One such woman, Annie Etheridge, was a vivandière with the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment. She joined the Union army at the outbreak of the war to “fulfill the office of daughter of the regiment, in attending to its sick and wounded,” Linus P. Brockett said in his book “Heroines of the Rebellion: Or, Woman’s work in the Civil War, a record of heroism, patriotism and patience,” published in 1867.
Etheridge was known to carry pistols, and her patriotism and bravery made her a favorite with the Soldiers.
During the second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, Etheridge was tending to a wounded man in the field, when Maj. Gen. Phillip Kearny saw her. He promised to make her a regimental sergeant for her bravery, but he was killed before he could fulfill that promise. She was wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, after Gen. George B. McClellan ordered all women out of the camp temporarily. Etheridge had been on the front lines when McClellan ordered her to the rear. As she rode back, she shouted encouragement to the troops. A musket ball grazed her hand when she reached the rear — it was the only wound she received, despite often running through enemy fire to aid the wounded.
One man she tended in the hospital, George Hill, wrote Etheridge a letter expressing his gratitude for her kindness, which Brockett recorded: “May God bless you, both now and forever, is the wish of your grateful friend, George H. Hill, Cleveland, Ohio.”
Etheridge was one of two women from the war to receive the Kearny Cross, awarded for meritorious, heroic and distinguished acts in the face of the enemy force. She took an appointment with the government and received a pension for unpaid military service, though her health declined steadily after the war.
“(Vivandières) did ‘little’ things, making socks, making blankets, morale boosters like we talked about earlier. And while it may not seem like a military turning point, every little bit helps in the ways they supported home, or the hospital in cities,” Jessica Sheetz, archive technician, said.
Women like Etheridge filled critical gaps the government could not afford, like supplementary medical care, or extra supplies; they raised money as well as spirits, Wiford explained.
Lousia May Alcott, famed author of “Little Women,” served briefly as a nurse during the war. “It was during her time as a nurse that she became seriously ill and it was something that affected her life. It was only after she was ill (that) she started writing,” LeAnn Fawver, photograph archivist, said.
“It was just how many women assisted in the war effort, either by fundraising or by actual service in the field or in the hospital,” Fawver added. “There were also some other very interesting women,” — women who served in a very different capacity than their vivandière counterparts.
Women as spies
While most women worked as Daughters of the Regiment and stayed within their own camps, some women were recruited for spy work. They possessed the same spirit of the vivandières, but were in a better position to benefit their chosen side.
Women made effective spies because the work was not expected of them, Fawver explained. “They could use their hoop skirts, they could use their charm, their social behavior, to get away with eavesdropping and passing around notes and information, so that was a way that they used their skills to take advantage of the war effort,” she said.
“They manipulated their positions as women,” Wiford added. “That’s the basic aspect of it. Because they weren’t seen as important … men ignored them.”
Pauline Cushman, who was working as an actress in Kentucky when the Civil War began, was recruited by the Union to spy due to her southern acquaintances. She was asked to continue her covert activities because of her charm and acting ability. Ferdinand L. Sarmiento’s “Life of Pauline Cushman: the celebrated Union spy and scout,” published in 1865, was compiled from Cushman’s own notes and reflections. It describes her exploits as a spy.
Cushman, who was acquainted with two Confederate supporters, reported their declaration of devotion to the southern cause to the local Union provost marshal in 1863. The officer encouraged her to remain friendly with the men and pretend to support the Confederacy, recruiting her to spy.
“Our heroine carried out her part so well that not one there doubted for a moment she was a most virulent secessionist,” Sarmiento said.
During Cushman’s service as a Union spy, she took on several disguises, such as a young country boy or a southern gentleman. She saved several Union Soldiers from the woman who ran the boarding house she lived in. Cushman caught the landlady attempting to poison the Soldiers with arsenic, and reported her. But some of her most dangerous work was searching for guerilla fighters, Sarmiento explained.
Eventually, Cushman was transferred to Nashville, Tennessee, where she was asked to spy directly on Gen. Braxton Bragg. She was to discover his plans, insinuate herself in society and ascertain troop movements and fortification placements. She knew if she were caught, she would be put to death.
“I am not one to retreat when I am once convinced that I am right!” Cushman said to her commander. “No, sir. The worst can come — heaven forbid that it should! — Yet I say it can come and find me prepared to meet it without one regret.”
Cushman made it behind enemy lines posing as a refugee, and using her charm and position as a damsel in distress, she managed to make copies of fortification blueprints, concealing them between the inner and outer sole of her boot. During her attempt to report back to Union forces, Cushman was captured, and the documents discovered.
She was court martialed, found guilty and sentenced to hang. She fell ill, which postponed her sentence and gave the Union enough time to overtake Confederate forces. Cushman was rescued shortly after Union forces arrived.
The Union proclaimed Cushman a major of the Calvary after her service was over, and gave her a special permit so she could benefit from that rank in her retirement.
“I think what I respect about her story his how far she went,” Wiford said of Cushman. “And of course, she was captured and she was sentenced to die. So you have that aspect that you had a woman knowing how dangerous this is to do something like this, that they know if they are captured, they could possibly be executed for it, and they are still doing it. … That’s what I’ve always appreciated when you find out about these stories about women.”
Unsung, but not forgotten
Many women on both the Union and Confederate sides contributed to the war, officially and unofficially, but sometimes their official efforts went unrecognized. Some states acknowledged their women and gave out pensions based on their service with the regiments of that state, while other states did nothing, Wiford explained. Occasionally, the men of a regiment might champion a vivandière’s pension, if they were all from the same area and the men knew her.
“It’s dependent on where you are, what the case is, if she had supporting documents that she actually did work, and it is regional,” Wiford said of military recognition. Many women suffered lasting effects from their service. Some contracted infectious illnesses, which would eventually kill them, while others were neglected by their regiment and were unable to support themselves after the war, Wiford explained.
The most interesting thing about researching women’s contributions during the Civil War is that some individual’s names are still lost, Wiford added. Women wouldn’t use their first names, just their married names.
“So a lot of these women, when we look at the records and stuff, it’s just ‘Mrs. Something-something.’ Even now, we haven’t recovered all of them completely. We might have a photo of them, but it will have ‘Mrs.’ and you just can’t find their name. Even though we know their stories, they are bound to be still partially hidden,” she added.
The team behind USAHEC’s “Women in the Civil War” hopes the exhibit will draw attention to the contributions of the vivandières, spies and other women who dedicated their lives to serving their country.
“We’ll always attempt to tell women’s stories,” Wiford said.
Editor’s note: Information on Annie Etheridge was taken from “Heroines of the Rebellion: Or, women’s work in the Civil War, a record of heroism, patriotism and patience” by Linus Brockett. Attribution and information on Pauline Cushman was taken from “Life of Pauline Cushman: the celebrated Union spy and scout” by Ferdinand Sarmiento.