Nursing wasn’t the only role that women played in the American Civil War. Women on both sides of the conflict organized soldier’s aid societies, effectively transforming homes, schools and churches into small-scale factories and shipping warehouses in which they made and collected food, clothing and medical supplies. Eighty years before Rosie the Riveter, they worked in munitions factories, loading paper cartridges by hand. In the north, hundreds of women took over desk jobs in the growing Federal government, freeing up men to fight.*
Other women stepped even further outside of social norms. Several hundred women cut off their hair, disguised themselves as men, and enlisted to fight. Others used society’s assumptions about what women can/should/don’t/shouldn’t do as an effective cover for spying
In Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy, Karen Abbott tells the stories of four very different women who went undercover during the Civil War. Seventeen-year-old Belle Boyd, described by a contemporary as “the fastest girl in Virginia or anywhere else for that matter”, was a courier and spy for the confederate army, using her feminine wiles and her lack of maidenly modesty to manipulate men in both armies. Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a “merry widow” who formed a Confederate spy ring in Washington.** Her Union counterpart was Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy maiden lady in Richmond who was a known abolitionist and Union sympathizer. Disguising her actions under the guise of proper ladylike behavior, she ran an extensive and daring information network under the nose of her Confederate in-laws, with whom she shared a home. Emma Edmondson had disguised herself as a man for personal reasons two years before the war and traveled as a Bible salesman. When the war broke out, she enlisted in a Michigan regiment as Frank Thompson.
Taken together, their stories explore the boundaries of nineteenth century assumption about the roles of women. Which sounds ponderous. Trust me, in Abbott’s hands it’s anything but dull. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War is a rollicking good read.
*Unlike Rosie the Riveter, many women kept their new jobs after the war was over. One of the things that we tend to forget about war is the holes left by the men who don’t come back, not only in families but in society as a whole.
**I’ve always found it difficult to understand why a man in possession of critical military information doesn’t have warning lights flash in his head when the woman he’s having an illicit affair with wants to talk troop movements.
***Which is a big assumption, because I realize that people discover this blog and individual posts long after the fact. If you’re new here, welcome!