by Sarah Emanuel
Before the Women’s Liberation movement of the early twentieth century, women of the nineteenth century were making liberations of their own. When the Civil War came along, many ladies were not content to sit home and make bandages, or set up fund-raisers for the cause, or even nurse the sick and wounded in hospitals. The movement was theirs: from spies to soldiers, women took a more active, romantic roll during an era when action was reserved for the gentlemen.
Spy networks were primarily made up of men, employed by the government to do official work. Employing a woman for such tasks was scandalous, and so female spies created their own jobs and worked outside the government ring. In most cases, the information retrieved by women spies was more accurate than that obtained by their male counterparts. A young Canadian nurse with a flair for dramatics, Emma E. Edmonds, went under cover as a black man and snuck behind Confederate lines. She was able to give the Union reliable information on troop placements and strength, and managed to reveal a Southern spy working for the Union. Later in the war, she enlisted as a soldier, Frank Thompson, and penetrated the Confederate side several more times. After killing a Confederate captain, she reasoned that it was time to pull out of the spy network and became a detective in St. Louis.
Women frustrated by their limitations in society, but slightly less daring to become embroiled in the ruthless world of espionage, entered into the army either as soldiers or vivandiers. Approximately 400 women untied their hoops and pulled up pants to serve beside husbands, brothers, or to aid the cause. Marie Tebe joined with her husband and became a vivandier, a female water-carrier out on the battlefield. Though it sounds less glorious, Marie’s career was not. Aside from carrying water, Marie sold "contraband" goods — tobacco, and above all, whiskey — brought in a soldiers pay, and was wounded in the ankle. She endured the tortures of the battles of Gettysburg, Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, and Cold Harbor. Her bravery on the battlefield earned her the "Kearny Cross," a medal awarded exclusively for heroism.
Though the women of the Civil War are best remembered for their colorful hoop skirts, tenderness at the bedside, holding up the homefront, and sitting on the porches of illustrious plantations, very few ever consider the spy, the soldier, or the vivandier. Women had a lot more guts than they were ever credited for, and were not prepared to sit back and watch the war go on without them. They were women of a different generation, the lady spies and valiant soldiers.
The Fairer Sex
What History hasn’t revealed about the Civil War’s Women.
By Sarah Emanuel
Ladies throughout history have been depicted as genteel, pretty creatures, lacking the strength or intelligence to do much for our country. Of course, there have been the marvelous exceptions: Harriet Tubman, Betsy Ross, only Betsy never existed, Deborah Sampson, and so forth. There have been extraordinarily independent women, like Annie Oakley, but the majority of the unconstrained, courageous, violent acts have been attributed to men.
In reality, women were among some of the most forceful movers and shakers in history, especially during the Civil War. They claimed for themselves the role of soldiers and spies, took control of their homes, and spent time and energy healing the sick and wounded. Yet, strangely enough, the most violent actions of women did not take place in battle, but in their daily lives, and sometimes, without warning. Young Emma Edmonds was sent out to collect supplies for a hospital when she was suddenly shot at by a Confederate widow who had just given Emma supplies. Wheeling around on her horse, she sent a round through the widow’s hand; the woman fell unconscious, and not daring to risk her life any further, Emma wrapped a belt around the widow’s wrist and dragged her along behind the horse until she woke up. Emma then brought the widow to a hospital, where the wound was healed, and the widow became a nurse.
Kady Brownell was also a nurse, as well as a color-bearer, serving with the Fifth Rhode Island during the war. One day, she came to the aid of a Confederate engineer lying wounded in a puddle of muddy water. After she had dragged him to dry land, he began to curse and threaten her, calling her a "damn Yankee", and so forth. Kady became enraged and grabbed a rifle, and was seconds away from plunging the bayonet into the ungreatful rebel’s heart, when another soldier intervened and grabbed the gun away.
In 1863, a lady by the name of Mrs. Bickerdyke was put in charge of a hospital in Memphis. One morning she arose and made her daily rounds, and upon entering a ward for severely wounded, she found that the surgeon had not yet risen and made up the list of the special foods for the soldiers. It was nearly noon, and the men, already near the brink of death, were starving. Mrs. Bickerdyke became immediately furious; her temper only worsened when she learned that the surgeon had been out drinking the night before. Upon finding the surgeon, she tore at him verbally, and when he laughed, she had him discharged. The surgeon went to see General Sherman, and explained his case. Sherman asked who the lady was, and the surgeon replied that it was Mrs. Bickerdyke. Sherman merely replied, "Well, if it was her, I can do nothing for you. She ranks me."
These three women are but examples of the courageous acts that hundreds of women performed during the Civil War. They were not afraid to step up and take action, and many of them never received the credit they deserved.