Women and the Civil War

In many ways, the coming of the Civil War challenged the ideology of Victorian domesticity that had defined the lives of men and women in the antebellum era. In the North and in the South, the war forced women into public life in ways they could scarcely have imagined a generation before.


In the years before the Civil War, the lives of American women were shaped by a set of ideals that historians call “the Cult of True Womanhood.” As men’s work moved away from the home and into shops, offices and factories, the household became a new kind of place: a private, feminized domestic sphere, a “haven in a heartless world.” “True women” devoted their lives to creating a clean, comfortable, nurturing home for their husbands and children.

Did You Know?

More than 400 women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Union and Confederate armies during the Civil War.

During the Civil War, however, American women turned their attention to the world outside the home. Thousands of women in the North and South joined volunteer brigades and signed up to work as nurses. It was the first time in American history that women played a significant role in a war effort. By the end of the war, these experiences had expanded many Americans’ definitions of “true womanhood.”

Fighting for the Union

With the outbreak of war in 1861, women and men alike eagerly volunteered to fight for the cause. In the Northern states, women organized ladies’ aid societies to supply the Union troops with everything they needed, from food (they baked and canned and planted fruit and vegetable gardens for the soldiers) to clothing (they sewed and laundered uniforms, knitted socks and gloves, mended blankets and embroidered quilts and pillowcases) to cash (they organized door-to-door fundraising campaigns, county fairs and performances of all kinds to raise money for medical supplies and other necessities).

But many women wanted to take a more active role in the war effort. Inspired by the work of Florence Nightingale and her fellow nurses in the Crimean War, they tried to find a way to work on the front lines, caring for sick and injured soldiers and keeping the rest of the Union troops healthy and safe.

In June 1861, they succeeded: The federal government agreed to create “a preventive hygienic and sanitary service for the benefit of the army” called the United States Sanitary Commission. The Sanitary Commission’s primary objective was to combat preventable diseases and infections by improving conditions (particularly “bad cookery” and bad hygiene) in army camps and hospitals. It also worked to provide relief to sick and wounded soldiers. By war’s end, the Sanitary Commission had provided almost $15 million in supplies–the vast majority of which had been collected by women–to the Union Army.

Nearly 20,000 women worked more directly for the Union war effort. Working-class white women and free and enslaved African-American women worked as laundresses, cooks and “matrons,” and some 3,000 middle-class white women worked as nurses. The activist Dorothea Dix, the superintendent of Army nurses, put out a call for responsible, maternal volunteers who would not distract the troops or behave in unseemly or unfeminine ways: Dix insisted that her nurses be “past 30 years of age, healthy, plain almost to repulsion in dress and devoid of personal attractions.” (One of the most famous of these Union nurses was the writer Louisa May Alcott.)

Army nurses traveled from hospital to hospital, providing “humane and efficient care for wounded, sick and dying soldiers.” They also acted as mothers and housekeepers–“havens in a heartless world”–for the soldiers under their care.

Women of the Confederacy

White women in the South threw themselves into the war effort with the same zeal as their Northern counterparts. The Confederacy had less money and fewer resources than did the Union, however, so they did much of their work on their own or through local auxiliaries and relief societies. They, too, cooked and sewed for their boys. They provided uniforms, blankets, sandbags and other supplies for entire regiments. They wrote letters to soldiers and worked as untrained nurses in makeshift hospitals. They even cared for wounded soldiers in their homes.

Many Southern women, especially wealthy ones, relied on slaves for everything and had never had to do much work. However, even they were forced by the exigencies of wartime to expand their definitions of “proper” female behavior.

Slaves and Freedwomen

Slave women were, of course, not free to contribute to the Union cause. Moreover, they had never had the luxury of “true womanhood” to begin with: As one historian pointed out, “being a women never saved a single female slave from hard labor, beatings, rape, family separation, and death.” The Civil War promised freedom, but it also added to these women’s burden. In addition to their own plantation and household labor, many slave women had to do the work of their husbands and partners too: The Confederate Army frequently impressed male slaves, and slave owners fleeing from Union troops often took their valuable male slaves, but not women and children, with them. (Working-class white women had a similar experience: While their husbands, fathers and brothers fought in the Army, they were left to provide for their families on their own.)

A Women’s Proper Place?

During the Civil War, women especially faced a host of new duties and responsibilities. For the most part, these new roles applied the ideals of Victorian domesticity to “useful and patriotic ends.” However, these wartime contributions did help expand many women’s ideas about what their “proper place” should be.



Want to know more about some of these women??


Frances Clalin  was a woman who fought in the Union as a man named Jack Williams. She served in cavalry and artillery units, but it is unknown what unit she served in. The newspapers that reported her story told conflicting information, but most said that she and Elmer L. Clayton, her husband, had enlisted together in a Missouri regiment the fall of 1861, even though they were from Minnesota. Frances was born in Illinois and married Elmer who was born in Ohio, so both were from the North. They had a farm in Minnesota and Frances did housework until she enlisted for war. Frances and Elmer were also to have had three children. Elmer and Frances served side by side during the American Civil War until 1863, when he died in battle.

By doing these things, Frances increased her manly character so that she would fit in and others wouldn’t see past her disguise. This plan was clever and effective, as some news reports state that Frances was never discovered to be a woman, but instead was discharged when she confronted her superiors.

Frances was also a said to be a good ‘horse-man’ and ‘swordsman’, and the way she carried herself in stride was soldierly, erect, and masculine. She was well trained and knew her duties well, but was also a respected person who commanded attention in the way she acted. It was said of Frances in one report that she did her duties at all times and was considered to be a fighting man. Frances was engaged in seventeen battles other than Fort Donelson, including the Battle of Murfreesboro December 31, 1862, where her husband died. The Battle of Murfreesboro was referred to as Stones River by the Union. Elmer was only a few feet in front of Frances when he died, but she didn’t stop fighting. She stepped over his body and charged when the commands came. There are two stories about how Frances was discovered to be a woman. One is that after this battle at Stones River, Frances decided to let her true identity become known and she was discharged a few days later in Louisville 1863, but the other is that Frances was wounded in the hip at Stones River, and was discharged after being discovered that way. Frances did fix the mistakes, but this error creates doubts about what really happened. After being discharged Frances tried to get back to Minnesota, and then decided to collect the bounty owed her deceased husband and herself, as well as to get some of Elmer’s belongings.


Harriet Wood (aka) Pauline Cushman (1833-1897)

Union Spy

Pauline Cushman was born Harriet Wood in 1833. Raised in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at the age of eighteen she made her way to New Orleans, Louisiana to become an actress with a traveling theater group. Years later, in New York City, Harriet began using the name Pauline Cushman as a stage name.

Shortly after the Civil War began, Pauline was in Confederate held Louisville, Kentucky when the theater for which she worked fired her. She immediately reported to Union commanders with a request to become a spy. Her beauty and fame as an actress allowed her to move freely among Confederate commanders and acquire their battle plans. It was agreed upon by the Union commanders and she returned to Louisville. It is not known how much data was ever acquired however it is known that she was captured by Confederates and sentenced to hang. The hanging would never take place and the war would end shortly after her sentencing.

After the war Pauline spent a brief time being featured by P.T Barnum in New York. In the years to follow she traveled to San Francisco where she settled as a seamstress. She would receive a pension for her service during the war and was buried with honors in the National Cemetery in San Francisco.  


Elizabeth Van Lew was one of the most daring and successful spies of the American Civil War. During the war, she ran an extensive intelligence operation in the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. She was so skilled at what she did that Union General Ulysses S. Grant would later write to her, "You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war."

Miss Van Lew, as she was commonly known, helped Union prisoners escape and hide, communicated directly with Union Generals, planted a network of spies throughout Richmond, and much more. In one instance, she was even involved in stealing a dead Union officer's body and sneaking it away from Richmond to be buried under the care of a Union sympathizer.

You may be wondering, how does one of the most prominent daughters of Richmond become a super spy for the Union? Well, it's a pretty good story...


Elizabeth Van Lew was born in October of 1818 in Richmond, Virginia. During her childhood, Elizabeth was considered to be the most stubborn of the three Van Lew children. Her parents were John and Eliza Van Lew. 

John Van Lew had come to Richmond at the age of sixteen, and by his mid thirties had built a successful hardware business. His new-found wealth made the Van Lew family one of the most prominent in the city.

As a teenager, Elizabeth was sent to a Quaker school for girls in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There, she became convinced that slavery was wrong and should be abolished. She took this belief back to Richmond, where it became her most defining feature.

Despite advocating for the abolition of slavery, Elizabeth did not consider herself to be an 'abolitionist,' “I was never an abolitionist. Abolitionists are fanatics who will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. I have always spoke out against slavery, for which I paid dearly in the loss of many friends. But I was never a fanatic.”

Despite her urging, her father refused to free his slaves. He passed away in 1843, and after much insistence from Elizabeth, her mother agreed to free their slaves, but Elizabeth was only beginning her work...

Upon her fathers death, Elizabeth inherited about 10,000 dollars (roughly equivalent to 200,000 dollars today). She immediately spent all of it buying and freeing relatives of her family's former slaves.

When civil war seemed imminent, Elizabeth Van Lew advocated strongly that Virginia not leave the Union, but her efforts were of no avail. When war broke out, she determined to do what she could to aid the Union cause...

Civil War Spy

Initially, Elizabeth Van Lew simply worked to aid the Union prisoners being held in Richmond. She first got permission to bring food and other comforts to the prisoners at Libby Prison. There, she used buttermilk and gingerbread to gain the "kind feelings" of the prison commander, Lieutenant David H. Todd (half brother of Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln's wife).

Many citizens of Richmond did not approve of her efforts to aid the enemy, and the uproar reached such levels she was banned from visiting the prisons. 

Elizabeth Van Lew then appealed to Richmond Provost Marshal, General John H. Winder. She was successful in using his vanity to regain permission to visit the prisons, and later remarked, "Oh, I can flatter almost anything out of old Winder; his personal vanity is so great."

Along with bringing comfort to the Union prisoners she aided, she also aided them in their efforts to escape. It is believed that she often hid escaped prisoners in a secret room in her attic (left). These efforts soon led to a more active role as a Union spy...

In 1863, Miss Van Lew and her Richmond network of Union sympathizers helped two Union soldiers escape from prison and get back through Union lines. These two men told stories of what all she did right under the noses of the Confederate leaders. Soon, Union General Benjamin Butler heard the stories, was impressed, and sent a man to recruit Miss Van Lew to spy for him. Thus began her career as a spymaster.

Butler's man instructed her to send any information she gathered in coded dispatches. She was taught how to write her messages in a colorless ink which would only become visible after it was soaked in milk. Sounds kind of like a cheesy movie doesn't it? ...but its all true!

Elizabeth Van Lew soon established a five station relay line by which her messages were quickly carried from her home (the stately Van Lew Mansion, pictured below) in Richmond to the Union high command. One popular story concerning her message-line, tells that she would sometimes deliver fresh flowers and a Richmond morning paper directly to General Grant.

She often used her former slaves to carry her messages. Sometimes they would be hidden in a shoe, sometimes sewn into the work of a seamstress, sometimes hidden in a hollowed out egg in a basket of regular eggs. Whatever the case, her messages always got through unmolested.

After the war, Miss Van Lew requested that the War Department return to her all the messages she had sent. When they had complied, she quickly destroyed all the messages in an effort to hide the extent to which she had helped the Union during the war. Because of this, only one of her dispatches has survived, and it is believed that this dispatch triggered the infamous Dahlgren Affair: 


"DEAR SIR, -- It is intended to remove to Georgia all the Federal prisoners; butchers and bakers to go at once. They are already notified and selected. Quaker [a Union man whom I know] knows this to be true. Are building batteries on the Danville road  ... Do not underrate their strength and desperation. Forces could probably be called into action in from five to ten days; 25,000, mostly artillery. Hoke's and Kemper's brigades gone to North Carolina: Pickett's in or about Petersburg. Three regiments of cavalry disbanded by General Lee for want of horses. Morgan is applying for 1,000 choice men for a raid."


This message was sent at the end of January, and on March second, Union forces attempted a Cavalry raid on Richmond to free those prisoners. Unfortunately, secrecy had not been maintained, and the raid was crushed. While trying to escape, the leader of one of the units participating (21 year-old Colonel Ulric Dahlgren) was killed.

Perhaps out of guilt for having triggered the failed raid, Elizabeth Van Lew formed a plan by which Dahlgren's body was stolen from a Richmond graveyard, smuggled past Confederate pickets, and buried on the farm of a Union sympathizer. A problem arose, however, when Dahlgren's father, a Union Admiral, asked that the body be returned, the Confederates couldn't find it. As a result, the father did not get to bury his son until after the war was over and everything could be sorted out.

Miss Van Lew's Richmond spy network was extensive. It had grown to include clerks in  both the Confederate War and Navy Departments. Also, she posted some of her former slaves at strategic points around the city to gather whatever information was possible. Perhaps her most impressive feat as a spymaster, however, was placing someone in the Confederate White House itself...

One of her former slaves was Mary Bowser, a very intelligent young lady whose schooling Miss Van Lew had paid for before the war. Somehow, Mary Bowser managed to get a position as a servant in the Confederate White House.

There she was able to read secret papers, and listen in on important meetings. All the information that she gathered in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis was passed, through Miss Van Lew, straight to the Union high command. These ladies were probably the most successful and effective spy team of the Civil War. It is even believed that the two worked together to try to burn down the Confederate White House on one occasion.

After the War

As it became clear that the Confederacy was about to fall, Elizabeth Van Lew had a Union flag smuggled into the city of Richmond; and when the Confederates abandoned the city, she raised the giant (18 ft x 9 ft) flag over her home. It was the first United States flag to fly in the city since Virginia had seceded. 

But she was not content to rest on her laurels. When General Grant sent a special guard to protect Miss Van Lew, they found her in the Confederate Capitol Archives going through papers to see if there was any valuable information to be gathered.

During the war, Elizabeth Van Lew was somewhat of an outcast because of her anti-secession, pro-Union positions; but when it became known that she had been a Union spy, she was treated as a complete social pariah. She once wrote, "No one will walk with us on the street, no one will go with us anywhere; and it grows worse and worse as the years roll on."

Having spent all her family's money to support her espionage efforts, Miss Van Lew soon found herself penniless, with no friends to help her.

Luckily, General Grant remembered her service to the Union Army, and when he became President, in 1869, he appointed Elizabeth Van Lew as Postmaster of Richmond. Unfortunately, when President Rutherford B. Hayes succeeded Grant in 1877, she was not retained as Postmaster.

Once more, she found herself destitute, friendless, and with no hope of providing for herself. Then, some family and friends of a Union officer whom she had helped during the war heard of her plight. These folks put together an annuity which supported Miss Van Lew for the rest of her life.


Elizabeth Van Lew was one of the most proficient American Civil War Spies, and one of the bravest American Civil War Women. 

All in all, she was a true American Civil War hero...





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