Women in the Civil War

As you read through the short biographies on women the in the Civil War, make a chart that lists the woman's name and what role she played in the Civil War.


Belle Boyd

Isabelle "Belle" Boyd was one of the Confederacy's most famous spies. She was born in May 1844 in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia) to a wealthy family with strong Southern ties. During the Civil War, her father was a soldier in the Stonewall Brigade, and at least three other members of her family were convicted of being Confederate spies.

On the Fourth of July 1861, Belle Boyd shot a Federal soldier who insulted her mother. Eighteen and very pretty, “The Secesh Cleopatra” teased and laughed with the Yankee officers who visited her home in Martinsburg, West Virginia. When they let war secrets slip, she coded the information, tucked it inside a watch case and sent it by courier to Stonewall Jackson for his Shenandoah Valley campaign.

When Union officers used her aunt’s house in Front Royal, Virginia, as headquarters to plan a major offensive, Belle snuck inside and lay hidden in an upstairs closet, ear pressed against a floor hole. When they finished at 1 a.m., she raced her horse recklessly through Union pickets and across fifteen miles of rough, dark fields to deliver the information to a Confederate colonel. Another time, she ran across an open, raging battlefield to warn Jackson of a Yankee plan to surround and trap his army.

By the time she reached twenty-one, Boyd had been arrested six or seven times for spying and imprisoned twice. During her stay in Washington, D.C.’s Old Capitol Prison, jailed Rebels passed messages to her that were tied around rolling marbles or pushed through floor cracks and a hole they managed to drill in a wall. She hid the information in rubber balls that she tossed through the bars to a Southern admirer below.

Dorthea Dix

When the war began, a woman already well known for reforming insane asylums now faced another giant task: to select, organize and manage all women nurses for the Union armies. Though sixty years old, Dorothea Dix took on the job, complete with its back-breaking labor and harrassment from men who didn't like her.

Dorothea found military hospitals in horrible condition. For the next four years, she worked without pay every day, even when ill and confined to bed, and often missed meals or slept on warehouse floors. She worked to create more hospitals, paid for an ambulance herself, organized a public drive for dried fruit and preserves for wounded men, and opened her house to tired and sick nurses. She inspected hospitals throughout the North, demanding better diets for the wounded and courts-martial for doctors found drunk on duty. She reported every problem directly to the surgeon general and soon was hated by doctors though loved among the wounded men who took her baskets of fruit and flowers. Dorothea continued working until the war ended, and then returned to her first love, helping the emotionally disturbed.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

In 1857, an Ohio mother named Harriet Beecher Stowe sat in a church with her children, listening to a sermon. The daughter of abolitionist clergyman Lyman Beecher, she had little firsthand knowledge of slavery. But suddenly she imagined a black man—he would later be known to the world as Uncle Tom—dying from the lashes of a slave whip. Then she imagined two black overseers, made brutal by the cruelty of their white master, being awed and shamed by the gentle forgiveness of the dying man. When the church service ended, Harriet went home and wrote down the imagined scenes. When she ran out of writing paper, she finished the story on heavy wrapping paper. The final result was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a tear-jerker which gave the North stereotypes of slaves and villainous masters. It converted thousands to the anti- slavery cause.

Furious Southerners interpreted the book as an attack on their way of life, and booksellers became afraid to sell it in the South. Anyone selling a copy risked being run out of town, and among the many hate letters Harriet received in the mail was a package containing a black human ear.

But the controversy also fueled sales. Within the first year, a record 300,000 copies sold in the United States alone, and the book would outsell all others of the century. Harriet took no credit. “God wrote it,” she said.

It is said, that when Lincoln met Mrs. Stowe, he said, “So this is the little woman who wrote the book that made this big war!”

Sarah Edmonds

At sixteen, Sarah Edmonds ran away from home in Canada to escape a marriage her father had arranged. She cut off her curly brown hair, put on men’s clothes, left for the United States. After pretending to be a male book salesman, Frank Thompson for two years, she joined the Union army. It required no physical examination, and Sarah Edmonds looked and walked like a boy. Her voice was deep, and could easily slip away to bathe alone in rivers. Like others, she slept in her own tent. Her unsuspecting pals in the Second Michigan Infantry joked about Frank’s small stature, but she was tall and strong for a girl and handled a gun and horse as well as any of them. They liked “him.”
In April 1863, Sarah caught malaria. Certain that doctors would discover her secret in a hospital, she deserted the army. Many years later, as a wife and mother, she was cleared of her desertion and awarded a pension.

Emmeline Piggott

Until her Rebel sweetheart died at the Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Emmeline Piggott of Beaufort, North Carolina, was content to nurse the sick and wounded Confederate soldiers brought in from the North Carolina coastal battles.

Emmeline then decided to take up secret service work and became North Carolina’s most famous spy and smuggler. For several years, she hid secret messages in large pockets under her full skirts and carried them between Union-occupied New Bern, North Carolina, and the seaports. She was nearly captured many times, and when she finally was caught and arrested in New Bern, Emmeline chewed and swallowed an important message while being searched.

The Union soldiers imprisoned her on charges of blockade running, but finally released her without a trial and sent her home.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman was the most famous "conductor" on the Underground Railroad. She would meet a small group of slaves at the appointed spot and guide them over mountains and through rivers and forests, north to freedom along a network of sympathizers called the Underground Railroad. They traveled at night; in daylight they slept and hid from bounty hunters seeking rewards for each missing slave plus $40,000 for the woman nicknamed “Moses.”

When war came, Harriet went to work as a Union scout, spy and nurse. Often disguised as an old, hobbling woman, she slipped behind Rebel lines to gather valuable news from slaves about Confederate troop positions, population and supply sources. When given a team of nine scouts and river pilots, she led them on reconnaissance missions through jungles and swamps, penetrating Rebel defenses along river banks and conducting guerrilla raids. She never got caught.

“There was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death. If I could not have one, I would have the other: for no man should take me alive.” --Harriet Tubman

Clara Barton

Clara Barton was working as a clerk in Washington, D.C., in 1861 when a Union regiment arrived in town, bloodied from a mob attack by secession sympathizers in Baltimore. She gave baskets of towels, handkerchiefs and bandages, and then asked friends to donate food, clothes, and other supplies. For Clara, it was the start of a new career as a one-woman soldiers’ aid society.

She begged everyone she knew for food and clothes and advertised for donations of medical supplies. When her apartment could hold no more, she rented space in a warehouse. She heard about the Battle of Cedar Mountain, Virginia, and arrived two days later with a mule team loaded with supplies, just as the field hospital ran low on dressings. She worked five days and nights with only three hours of sleep, handing out supplies and carrying food and water to men still lying on the field. “She was like an angel, an angel of the battlefield,” said brigade surgeon James Dunn.

For three years Clara Barton followed army operations in Virginia and around Charleston, South Carolina. At Antietam surgeons dressed wounds with corn husks until she appeared with bandages. Later she organized a program for locating men listed missing in action. By the end of the war, she had done most of the tasks later associated with the American Red Cross, an organization she founded in 1881.

Mary Todd Lincoln

While living with her sister in Springfield, Illinois, Mary Todd met Abraham Lincoln, fell in love and agreed to be his wife. But a nervous Lincoln soon broke the engagement, sending him into a depression. Against the wishes of the Todd family, the courtship resumed one and a half years later, and the couple was hastily married in November 1842.

Mary had grown up in Kentucky and had Confederate relatives, many questioned her loyalty to the Union, But Mary was an very loyal Unionist. She raised money to help the homeless and very poor slaves who escaped as war refugees and fled into Washington. She was also a frequent visitor to the Washington hospitals filled with wounded soldiers. She once arrived at Campbell’s Hospital shortly after several legs had been amputated. Mary stayed, offering companionship and special food, though many women were unable to tolerate the odor and anguished groans.