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Parasols & Crinolines: Women in the Civil War

Report by John Murray

The guest speaker at this year's Annual lunch, which was again held at the Royal OverSeas League, was Angelique Fernandez, who took a look at the female, mainly civilian perspective of the conflict.

Many women at the time had an idealised sense of romance relating their work at home with needles to their menfolk's work at the front with their bayonets. The media emphasised the concepts of honour and duty and there was an element of bad taste to have a lover who was not with the army.

Sewing socks and participating in knitting circles would not have been thought of in the South prior to the war. Southern women began saving string and saving buttons. The North experienced its problems too, with draft riots in New York (15 soldiers ironically killed there after Gettysburg) and the slogan "poor man's blood for rich man's war".

Angelique quoted often from the writings of Mary Chesnut and discussed some of that writer's background. Chesnut had witnessed the fall of Sumter in April 1861 but seemed to have an idea of what was coming. Her husband had been a Senator and was one of the first to resign following the election of Lincoln. Whereas Mary Chesnut was an abolitionist, her husband was a slave owner. "Poor women .. poor slaves.." Mary Chesnut wrote.

Angelique turned to the topic of nursing. Women in the North worked in volunteer units - there were networks in place. There was the US Sanitation Committee with the aim of avoiding the dreadful Crimean War conditions. Angelique referred to the work of several well-known women in the field of nursing such as Mary Livermore, Mary Ann Bickerdyke and Clara Barton (eventual founder of the American Red Cross) who travelled with the troops and was notable for her efforts at Antietam.

In contrast the South had no Sanitation Committee. Sally Tomkins, however, employed black and white, slave and free, to staff her own private hospital.

Women also acted as spies, smugglers and saboteurs. Some women carried arms under their hoops. Perhaps the best known of the female spies was Belle Boyd with six arrests and two incarcerations. On ship to England she was arrested but managed to escape.

Among Negro women, notable was Harriet Tubman, known as the "Moses of her people", who operated the Underground Railroad for runaway slaves. She herself was a runaway slave from Maryland. She was poorly rewarded for her efforts, dying in 1913 in poverty and obscurity.

As the war continued, life on the home front, particularly in the South, got harder with bread riots in Richmond. But not for all. Angelique compared the hardship felt by all in Vicksburg in the weeks and months after its fall with the sumptuous Christmas day 1863 menu of Mary Chesnut.

Civilians became the refugees particularly after events such as the burning of Atlanta. The impact of the war on civilian populations was far reaching in other respects. The 1870 census, for example, showed there to be more women in Georgia and North Carolina. Women in the South had learned their own economic self-sufficiency and business skills and they continued their involvement in nursing and teaching after the war, eventually giving rise to the suffragette movement.

Following Angelique's interesting talk on a sometimes overlooked aspect of the conflict, there was the return of the annual quiz held by Basil Larkins. The quiz gave some members of the Round Table the opportunity to display what can only be described as their awesome knowledge of the Civil War.

© ACWRT (UK) 2002


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