Brave Women Of South

Southern women faced big challenges during the Civil War.
By Ned Harrison
Date published: 12/29/2007

THE U.S. CENSUS of 1860 shows that we were a nation of 31,443,321 souls. Roughly, 22 million lived in the North and about 9 million lived in the South. Of these, about 3 million were slaves, so that left a white Southern population of about 5 million.

Statistics in those days are a sometime thing, but the numbers we have tell a story: Department of Defense figures estimate that about 900,000 men served in the Confederate armies (the range goes from 600,000 to 1 million.) When Confederate men left for the battlefront, they left their women at home so we can assume that the white female population of the Confederate states was roughly 2,750,000 (half of the Southern population of 5 million.)

These women supported their men and supported their cause, raised their children, ran their farms, taught their schools, staffed their stores and tended their wounded through four bitter years of some victories–but even more defeats.

It was a terrible struggle, doing the work of two–but the women of the South persevered and met the challenge and became true heroes of the Confederacy.

Stories have been passed down in every Southern family about how the women coped, tentatively at first, but then with a drive for doing right and keeping things as much as possible the way they were until their men came home to assume their places. The women became the heads of their households as well as the rocks the men could count on when needs arose.

Staffing hospitals

Southern women also took responsibility beyond the home: They uniformed their armies, and tended the wounded that battles produced.

The Confederacy built six hospitals in the Richmond area during the war. The capacity was more than 20,000 beds and the hospitals were staffed largely with women.

There are estimates that Winder Hospital in Richmond at a capacity of 4,300 beds was even larger than Chimborazo, although Burke Davis in his book, "The Civil War: Strange and Fascinating Facts," writes "Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond is said to be the largest hospital ever built in the Western hemisphere, and to hold that distinction to this day."

No matter–for both Chimborazo and Winder Hospitals and other hospitals in the Confederacy, Southern women staffed them all. They also rolled the bandages for wounded soldiers.

One of the best was Robertson Hospital in Richmond. It was run by Sally Louisa Tompkins, and she had trouble with the men who were in charge of medical care in the Richmond area. Determined to run her own hospital her own way, she appealed directly to President Jefferson Davis.

When he reviewed her work, and noted that she returned more wounded men to active duty than any other hospital in the Richmond area, he granted her an immediate commission as a captain in the Confederate army.

Even Mary Boykin Chesnut worked at Robertson Hospital, along with "Mrs. Mary Jones, wife of a Richmond attorney, James Alfred Jones; and Mrs. Martha Milledge Carter, widow of Dr. John Carter of Augusta."

Uniforms were a constant Southern problem. With little manufacturing capacity, most of what Johnny Reb had to wear were homespun and hand-sewed butternut uniforms, made by Southern women. (Shoes were a critical problem, especially for an army that had to march to battles. The Confederate soldier often wore shoes from captured or dead Yankees. But his uniform itself was sewed by his family.)

Food shortage

Southern women coped all during the war. Inflation was rampant in the South and necessities were soon priced out of the market. Pay for a Confederate Army private started at $11 a month, and although soon raised to $16, was hardly enough to support a family when inflation by the beginning of 1863 made it cost "$7.00 to buy what had cost only $1.00 two years earlier."

In a further comment on inflation, Dr. James McPherson explains in his fine text, "Battle Cry of Freedom," "The worst problem on many farms was the shortage of salt (the only way of preserving meat) and its catastrophic rise in price–from only $2.00 a bag before the war to $60.00 in some places by the fall of 1862."

A further recognition of the problems faced by women: "Although farm families grew much of what they consumed, the absence of adult males from many of the farms reduced crop yields and caused severe hardship." The shortage of food all during the war was almost as evident on the farms as it was on the front lines.


It wasn’t until about halfway through the war when Southern women, frantic to feed their families, revolted against the treatment they were receiving.

Richmond was a special case because, as the capital of the Confederacy, its population had more than doubled since 1861. Food supplies around the city had been reduced by increasing demands–in fact, one of the reasons the Confederate High Command had settled on the Gettysburg raid in summer 1863 was to allow Southern horses to feed on the abundant grasses and grains of Pennsylvania.

The civilian food supply was similarly stretched. In April 1863, several hundred women overwhelmed the town, marched to the governor’s mansion and demanded "Bread, bread!" In fact, the plan was to go to the bakeries, and each woman would take one loaf of bread to "feed our starving children."

Jefferson Davis himself had to confront the women and order them home. A few of the ringleaders were arrested, but were quickly released.

But the women had made their point: We need food. The government subsequently distributed food to the needy and prices dropped by half.

Confederate women–a force to be recognized and accepted and appreciated. They bore the responsibility on the home front with determination and valor. They were true heroes of the Confederacy.

Copyright 2008, The Free Lance-Star Publishing Co.

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