Women Who Served in the Civil War
The sacrifice of heroines, physically, socially, and psychologically.
Posted Feb 19, 2020
As a college graduate many years ago, I was an art major with limited awareness of women’s history or military history. According to the norms of the time, I expected to graduate, marry, and start a family. However, I found I wanted to do something else. I applied for the American Red Cross Supplemental Activities Overseas (SRAO) program in a far-off land and was accepted. I had no clue of where Vietnam was nor what war was like. True cognitive dissonance. It was an intense life-altering education. My experiences were much like that of many women when they decide to join the military or go off to war.
Recently, I dug deeper into the social identities of the many women who were at City Point, Virginia from 1864 to 1865 during the American Civil War. City Point was a Union army encampment and hospital on the James River in central Virginia. Some of the women had lived there prior to the Union occupation while many more arrived to see and be seen or to offer their services as an assortment of caregivers. Many were simply dubbed “nurses” but in reality, their roles were more specific.
City Point, Virginia was first occupied back in 1613. By 1635, Captain Eppes owned much of the area. The old village had several docks for boats coming up the river and became a town in 1826. There also was a rail line so supplies could be sent on to Petersburg or Richmond. During the Civil War, the Union Army under General Grant had fought its way to Cold Harbor, Virginia, on the northern side of the James River. Grant needed to cut off supplies reaching Confederate locations. To facilitate the process, he moved the Field Headquarters of The Army of the Potomac to City Point. The facility had two primary purposes: supplies for the massive number of military personnel in the area and to be a staging location for large Depot Hospital.
Additionally, there were five other hospitals at City Point and The Army of The James with General Butler was right across the Appomattox River. As an illustration, the Depot hospital initially had 12,000 tents for the approximately 29,000 sick and wounded. Half of the sick and wounded were eventually sent north so there was always considerable motion. Nurses and caregivers were needed to help with all the diverse needs of the wounded, to console the soldiers, and to help individuals seek someone who was unaccounted for. In addition, City Point had to accommodate all the personnel with a large laundry facility, massive bakery, and thousands of animals for transportation and for food adding to the constant movement and confusion.
As a broad generalization feminine behavior varied from culture to culture but prewar women’s roles were very restrictive and home-based. Men dominated the household and women behaved accordingly. Most learned and implied social behaviors were controlled. Women could interact within the community but venturing out of the group or community generally was frowned upon. As an illustration, gloves were worn out in public and shaking hands only transpired after meeting someone at least three times. With the upheaval of war and the departure of many men, women had to undertake new roles.
From the Union perspective, the soldiers were saving the country. Although many families and towns felt the loss of individuals and the need for supplies was a distant event. For women in the South they too had to assume charge of the home and many economic functions. They felt the loss of individuals and the need for supplies, but the war came to their doorsteps and often destroyed their homes. The physical and psychological impact was significant for women on both sides of the conflict.
Social identities were noticeable by the roles they played at City Point. As an illustration, government nurses were hired by Superintendent Dix. They were closely controlled and restricted. They were told to stay with their own group and not to mix with the others. Their attire was mandated, an age limitation was strictly established, and their physical appearance was not to be distracting. The nurse had to strictly obey orders and respect the chain of command regardless of how they felt personally. When they were short on supplies, they had to patiently wait until the supplies came in.
In contrast to the government nurse, independent nurses were contracted by individuals or other physicians. They had significant flexibility and could write to those back home for supplies, or openly purchase them, or simply go out and scrounge them. Although similar in attire to the government nurses, they could adapt their appearance as need be, for example, independent nurses might have their own riding attire. In the wards, they might befriend a patient and provide special care or speak up to a ward nurse or doctor when they felt it was appropriate. The independent nurse could socialize with others and make friends throughout the various locations. The differences were equally noticeable among the Christian and Sanity Commission, women and the state agents. However, the groups cared deeply about the soldiers and wanting to help in the war effort. Furthermore, that depth of caring stayed with most of them for the rest of their lives.
Having made the deliberate decision to take part in the war, their previous norms changed while they assimilated the new behaviors and knowledge. As an example, some married men who had been soldiers and went to live in states other than the ones they had come from. And the prewar family and community structures changed. Although they continued to practice conventional feminine social skills the women developed a stronger schema or personality. Having been in chaotic situations they learned to network and organize concepts or tasks quickly for the desired outcome. Finally, the war gave them a strange new social community of men, not always their husbands or family, facilitating a new social acceptability in the population at large.
The women were not afraid to speak their mind and refused to simply take a back seat. They had developed a ‘can do’ spirit. After the war, some created and ran organizations or businesses with staffs composed of both men and women. They were not hesitant to lead others as they may have been prior to the war.
When we think of the women who served their country, then or now, they were and are heroines because they utilized their strong beliefs, and sacrificed themselves physically, socially and psychologically, dedicated to a cause and motivated by compassion. It is clear that women who experienced war in any era and in any place are “changed”. The experience gave them ingenuity, determination, fearlessness and a willingness to lead. They are "tough as nails.”
The Women of City Point, Virginia, 1864-1865: Stories of Life and Work in the Union Occupation Headquarters