Author: David V.M. Smith
The Civil War separated families in unprecedented numbers and freed women to assume many new roles. With the departure of many men into the military, women entered many occupations previously reserved for men only: in factories, shops, and especially, the expanding civil service, where women took jobs as clerks, bookkeepers, and secretaries. A number of women also served as spies (like Rose O’Neal Greenhow (1814-1864), a Confederate spy in Washington) and even as soldiers (like Albert Cashier, whose real name was Jennie Hodgers).
But it was as nurses that women achieved particular prominence. Louisa May Alcott and Clara Barton were among thousands of women, North and South, who carried supplies to soldiers and nursed wounded men on the battlefield and in hospitals. Through organizations like the Christian Commission (formed by the North’s YMCAs) and the U.S. Sanitary Commission (one of whose founders was Elizabeth Blackwell, the first American woman to earn a medical degree), women agents distributed medical supplies, organized hospitals, passed out Bibles and religious tracts, and offered comfort to wounded or dying soldiers.
The following soldier’s letter, written by a private in the 12th New Jersey Volunteers, suggests some of the strains caused by the wartime separation of spouses.
…We have not been paid anything since I was at home and I don’t know when we will get paid but as soon as I get it I will send it to you. And if you will try to do as near Right as I think I am trying to do there will be no dispute between us and may God of heaven help us to say & do as near Right as we possibly can and find fault with one another with we know there is no cause when then the less we do of it the better. We have everything a going on here that was ever thought…but I cannot see any pleasure in playing cards and myself therefore I have not had a game of any kind for I made a promise to myself…that I would not do anything of the kind while was I was in the Army and I intend to live up to it. We have had and have now several men and I suppose they would like to be called men one of them has to carry his knap sack filled with stones for one week 2 hours in each day, one has to walk two hours each day with a flour barrel; one head of the barrel is out and the other head has a hole in it just big enough to let the man’s head through; one is marched through the camp with a board on his back & 1 on his breast–with the word theif [sic] on each by 12 solders and a band playing the Rogues march. There is a number of other but I will not mention any more.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: Private David Smith (12th New Jersey Volunteers) to his wife, Elizabeth