Civil War: Valor and Lace


In recognition of National Women’s History Month, this article is dedicated to the ladies – both North and South – who, without a voice and without a vote, made their presence known, proving their worth alongside their male counterparts, in ways never before imagined.

The Civil War was the first war in which women could take such an active role without the fear of losing their status as “ladies.” One must remember that during that day and time the women of the 19th century had the unique perspective of being more or less spectators of the world in which they lived, while men ruled and made the decisions.

When war came, Southern women, in particular, found themselves observers in a patriarchal society – one that was suddenly missing its patriarchs. With their men off to war, perhaps because of their previous “observer role”, these women were quick to recognize what was needed, what was necessary, and what was lacking in their society. When war came, it brought the opportunity to act on their observations, to step in quickly and efficiently, to fill very competently many roles which were previously non-existent And, they were involved in just about every aspect of the war effort.

Finding documentation on women of the 19th century was difficult in itself. One historian wrote that a woman of that period was usually mentioned only three times in her life – when she was born, when she was married and when she died. There is unfortunately some truth in this. Unless she kept a diary, or her family preserved letters over the years, there is very little on record of the average woman. The exception was when she was married to a prominent husband and was mentioned indirectly through his doings. The roles of women vary, but they all seem to have the same common denominators — their patriotic love of country, faith in God and dedication to their families.

Women were movers and shakers
“So, you’re the little woman who started this big war!” President Lincoln supposedly said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, upon meeting the author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Although this statement cannot be documented, oral tradition too strong and too old to ignore makes a most compelling argument that these were Lincoln’s words.

Harriet Beecher was born in 1811 in Connecticut. In 1832, her father moved the family to Cincinnati. Three years later, Western Magazine offered a $50 prize for the best story submitted and Harriet easily won. Thus began her work on a series of fictional letters, which she took great pains to make appear authentic and make the readers believe were genuine, since fiction was not widely accepted at that time. She said, “I smoked it to make it look yellow, tore it to make it look old, directed it and scratched out the direction (address), postmarked it with red ink, sealed it and broke the seal – all this to give credibility to the fact of its being a real letter.”

After her marriage to Professor Calvin Stowe, the couple remained in Cincinnati where Calvin taught at her father’s seminary. She could not have found a more perfect mate, for he encouraged her to continue writing. Like her husband, Harriet was intensely interested in educational reform; and, like her father, she took a hands off attitude toward the pressing question of the day – the abolition of slavery. Harriet was the mother of seven children by the time Calvin was offered a position at Bowdin College and the family moved to Maine. But the years in Cincinnati had made quite an impression and would shape her future writing. In spite of strong emotional reactions against mob violence and the awareness of the plight of slaves living just south of the Ohio River, Harriet was not an emotionally charged abolitionist. She was first a writer, looking for an emotionally charged subject, and after moving to Maine, she found it.

During a very cold Maine winter, she began experimenting with a story in which slavery took a central theme. She was looking for something that would sell and she thought antislavery advocates would probably buy a book, which depicted the horrors of slave life in the South. Unfortunately, she had no first hand knowledge of the subject, had never lived in the South, had very limited knowledge of the culture as well as of the region, and was limited to the scant reading she had done, which included a few amusing anecdotes of runaway slaves who were in Cincinnati, the first stop on the Underground Railroad.

The first draft of the first chapter described the death of a central character, named Uncle Tom. An antislavery magazine in Washington heard about her potential novel depicting the brutality of slaveholders and the horrors of life as a slave and offered her a deal, running it in serial form. The first chapter that ran in the National Era in April of 1851 told about the life and death of a slave and a little child. It ran in serial form for a year, and in March of 1852 two publishers were willing to take a chance and print it in two volumes, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Life Among the Lowly.” Harriet hoped to get enough money from this venture to buy herself a new silk dress. But within five years after the two-volume book came off the press, it was in 500,000 American homes.

In reality, despite the success of the books, any teacher of a college course in literature could have torn the book to shreds. It had no well-structured plot, and was much too long. A lot of the book, which dealt with the “lowly life” it claimed to depict wasn’t even close to reality. But passion was ignited, no matter how unbelievable the incidents. And, most of all, Harriet’s books had a message. Readers who managed to wade through both volumes were seldom neutral about the issue of slavery, the plantation system, or the rights of oppressed Americans. More than any other single factor, these novels helped transform the long-simmering feud between the North and South into a great moral battle. Her novel was a conspicuous factor in helping fan the flames of this sectional rivalry and hatred that cost the lives of 623,000 fighting men.

Women were angels of mercy

Phoebe Yates Pember, the Charleston born daughter of wealthy Jewish parents and herself a recent widow, began official duties for the Confederacy on Dec. l, 1862 when she accepted the post of head matron of the immense Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond.

The name originated when the residents of Richmond, offended by the “distinctive odors and powerful stench resulting from rotting filth and gangrenous wounds” dubbed the fumes simply “Chimborazo.” Confederate leaders determined that much of the institution’s problems were caused by male nurses, many of whom were soldiers themselves, recovering from wounds or illness, and not strong enough to return to their units, yet either unknowing or unable to perform adequately in these assigned tasks. The Confederate Congress had taken a bold but necessary step to rid the city of this awful odor when it actually set aside money to hire female nurses in September of 1862. There were thousands of men in the hospital wards and Phoebe was expected to oversee the “entire domestic economy of 15 buildings … take charge of the administration of medicines, see that food was properly cooked, and supervise subordinates in such a fashion that bed and bedding will be clean and orderly … and to attend to all such other duties as may be necessary.”

It was estimated that more than 78,000 men passed thru Chimborazo, at least 17,000 of whom were critically wounded. Oddly, in official papers this immense installation was referred to an army post, rather than a general hospital.

Phoebe kept immaculate records regarding the 75 wards, each ward grouped into five divisions, and each named for a seceded state. As head matron for a division, she was responsible for 600-900 men at a time. Surgeons soon noticed a “remarkable change in the atmosphere”; and, “more than 8,000 beds and the rooms in which they sat were now clean and tidy, meals were delivered on time, and formerly despondent men began to smile as a result from having a bedside visit from the head matron.”

On April 2, 1865, as Union soldiers approached Richmond for the Federal takeover, there were 1, 453 patients being cared for at Chimborazo. However, when the evening check was made on the day the bluecoats moved into the Confederate capitol, there were only 644 beds that were still occupied.

Phoebe wrote: “Every man who could crawl had tried to escape a Northern prison. Beds in which paralyzed, rheumatic and helpless patients had lain for months were empty. … Those who were compelled to remain were almost wild at being left in what would be the enemy’s lines the next day.. I gave all the comfort I could, and with some difficulty, their supper also, for my detailed nurses had gone with General Lee’s army and my black cooks had deserted me.”

Phoebe Yates Pember probably didn’t know it at the time, but she was the last Confederate holding an official position to leave conquered Richmond.

Two decades later she published her memoirs, “A Southern Woman’s Story,” which explicitly details hospital life and surgical procedures in layman’s terms. She also included a recipe for the “curious gourmets” unlike any other ever put on paper by a cultured and educated woman. “The rat must be skinned, cleaned, his head cut off and his body laid upon a square board, the legs stretched to their fullest extent and secured upon it with small tacks, then baste with bacon fat and roast before a good fire, quickly like canvas-back ducks.”

This most unique “tasty tidbit” speaks for itself in telling the real story of dealing with ravenously hungry men in the nation’s biggest hospital in the 19th century.

Dorthea Dix served as the Civil War’s only Superintendent of Women Nurses, a post newly created just for her by the War Department in 1861, to oversee the needs of the wounded. For the first time in our nation’s history an army would be cared for by a nursing corps of “mature and experienced women who would serve without pay.”

Prior to the onset of the Civil War, Dix had worked tirelessly in her pioneer crusade for the humane care of the insane. But, with the very real prospect of having to deal with a large number of sick and wounded soldiers, Dix recognized the need for additional hospitals, supplies, and nurses. She saw the shortage of everything and knew she had to do something to help relieve as much suffering as possible. Although the U.S. Army used only male nurses, she knew there would not be nearly enough to wipe up all of the spilled blood when war came. She began preparations, running an ad in several newspapers in the northeast asking for donations of receiving shirts, blankets, sheets, canned goods, etc.” and even turned her home into a “receiving station for hospital supplies.”

Finally, after numerous attempts and meetings with other officials, her visit to U.S. Secretary of War Simon Cameron paid off and the War Department decided to accept her services and created a special post for her. This was on April 23,1861. Dix began an immediate search for properties in and around the Capitol that could be turned into infirmaries. Her idea was for each regiment off about a thousand men to have its own hospital, a surgeon and two assistants.

She also sent out a call for women, making it clear that only those who met her criteria would be accepted: “No women under thirty need apply to serve in the government hospitals. All nurses are required to be plain looking women. Their dresses must be brown or black, with no bows, no curls, no jewelry, and no hoop-skirts.”

In July of 1861, the first major battle of the Civil War occurred and despite the foresight and preliminary preparations, Dix soon learned that the infirmaries were inadequate to handle the huge volume of sick and wounded soldiers. And, many military doctors treated Dix coldly and made it clear that if they had to put up with female nurses, then they wanted to pick their own. Further, there were a limited number of women who had the financial means to fill these volunteer jobs.

Dorthea Dix served primarily as an organizer of hospitals, fundraiser, and supply depot manager and it was through her efforts that scores of new hospitals sprang up, and were staffed by hundreds of volunteers, all women whom she had recruited. Tens of thousands of sick and wounded men who were treated had no idea that because of the efforts of a woman more than 60 years old, their suffering was lessened and they received the best care possible at the time.

The women of Murfreesboro and Rutherford County were angels of mercy as well. Following the Battle of Stones River, virtually every house and building in the area was turned into a hospital. Everything was in short supply.

Confederate Soldier James Searcy (Jackson’s Division, Breckinridge’s Division) noted: “The ladies are untiring in their exertions for our wounded.”

And Lt. Asbury, a wounded soldier of the 45th Mississippi, wrote from his bed in the Methodist Church: “I lay in the corner next to the door. … I was often visited by the Ladies viz Mrs. Sallie Lawing, Miss Mollie and Mattie Dolle, Miss Emma Ledbetter, Miss Bedford and others who … would invariably bring some delicacies with them … which would be thankfully received … for several days rations were quite scarce and I fared some what badly. But I done the best I could on the good given by the Ladies.”



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