In her Civil War novel Gone with the Wind (1936) Margaret Mitchell wrote that “War was men’s business not ladies’ (…).” This should be contrasted with the presence in and contribution to the war by women over a range of spheres and not just on the home front. The presence of women as nurses, washerwomen, cooks, seamstresses and prostitutes placed them in immediate proximity to the front lines; some women even dressed as men and took an active part in the fighting. The presence of these women in close proximity to the conflict undermined ideas of female inferiority.

1. Nurses

"The angels of war"

Some 7000 nurses were part of the armed forces of the Union and the Confederacy, deployed in hospitals, on hospital ships and in medical columns. The Confederacy only permitted females to work as military nurses from 1862 after its casualty rate grew significantly. In the 19th century, the nursing profession was not a defined occupation and there were no institutions dedicated to their training; qualifications were based on experience. There were also very few female doctors: Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), who studied in Geneva/New York, was the first woman to complete medical training. She was awarded the title M.D. in 1849.



The majority of “lady volunteers” from the middle and upper classes acted out of patriotism. Others went to war to support male relatives. Nursing also offered widows the opportunity to be of use. The work of (female) nurses and (male) medical orderlies were defined by two differences:

  • Male orderlies were deployed on the front line. Exceptions, such as Clara Barton (1821-1912), were rare.
  • Orderlies earned an average of $ 20.50 per month plus bonuses; nurses earned an average of 40 Cents per day, amounting to $ 12 per month.

White nurses were employed almost exclusively in a non-medical role, to which the “caring character” of women was thought to be most suited. Only very few women participated in surgery. Nurses were expected to provide moral support to wounded soldiers and perform a range of practical tasks such as letter writing and domestic chores, tasks which accorded to the conception of the separate spheres of male and female life.

Although the nurse held authority over a number of subordinate staff (porters / pharmacists etc.) they were always subject to the male authority of a doctor. Despite these clearly gendered hierarchies, a range of contemporary diary entries show that life as a nurse gave women a sense of independence and empowerment. Instead of always looking to the guidance of a doctor, they worked together to achieve a sphere of independent decision-making. The increasing level of contacts between women with similar experiences of working in war lead to increasing levels of professionalization.

Black nurses were predominantly posted to negro regiments. Before deployment as a nurse, they were required to perform a range of roles in the field camp. The poor level of medical care in negro regiments meant that nurses were increasingly required to perform tasks normally reserved for doctors.

Clara Barton (1821-1912)

After an education at a good school, Clara Barton started work as a teacher in Massachusetts at the age of 15. Required to care for her seriously-ill brother, she acquired a range of basic medical knowledge. Some years later, she took a senior position in the Health Ministry.

Volunteering as a nurse at the outbreak of war, Clara Barton was one of the few female nurses permitted to tend to the wounded on the battlefield and work on the wounded carriages. The troops called her the Angel of the Battlefield.

Susie King Taylor (1848-1912)

Born in Georgia as a slave, she was one of only 5% of the black population of this state who were able to read and write. Escaping to Union-occupied St. Simons Island/Georgia in 1862, she taught at the Freedmen’s School, open to former slaves and their children. Marrying a black Non-Commissioned Officer, she became a camp follower to an unofficial negro regiment in 1862 (such units were permitted only 1863) where she taught the black soldiers, took in washing and later worked as a nurse. After the Civil War, Susie King moved to Boston, where she worked as a housemaid. Her war memoirs were published privately in 1902.

Susie Taylor King described meeting Clara Barton in 1863:

„When at Camp Shaw, I visited the hospital in Beauford, where I met Clara Barton. There were a number of sick and wounded soldiers there, and I went often to see the comrades. Miss Barton was always very cordial toward me, and I honored her for her devotion and care for those men.“

Taylor, Susie K. and Catherine Clinton. Reminiscences of My Life in Camp: An African American Woman's Civil War Memoir. Paperback Ed. Athens, Ga.: Univ. of Georgia Press, 2006, S. 67.

2. Washerwomen

"The good souls of the war"

Washerwomen, cooks, seamstresses and other camp followers moved after the fighting troops providing their services. Washerwomen required a Certificate of Good Character from the battalion quarter-master in order to do so.


Comparably good pay made a job as a washerwoman highly desirable. The majority of applicants were married women, whose men served in the army. They lived with their children in the army camp.

Life in the camp

The life of a washerwoman revolved around the washing of army uniforms and involved strenuous manual work. Life in a military camp was very hard; the damp, dirty conditions led to illness. The functional importance of a washerwoman gave her considerable social currency, which elevated her even above the position enjoyed by a visiting officer’s wife. For example, whilst the latter was required to leave the camp 24 hours after her husband’s death, a washerwoman was given 16 days in a similar event.

The camp followers also included single women, but it was rare that they found work as washerwomen. Suffering from perception of their sexual availability, they were not prostitutes, but could be pressurized into sex work in supplement to the regular prostitutes who also accompanied the army train.

Black women engaged in menial tasks ranged underneath the washerwomen in camp hierarchy; they were paid less and were employed primarily in field hospitals and kitchens. Negro regiments only employed black washerwomen.

(BETWEEN 1861-1869)

3. Female spys

"The ghosts of war"

Both the Union and the Confederacy employed an unknown number of spies, both male and female. The high number of women employed as spies was borne of the gender hierarchy:

  • Men often discussed certain issues with women that they would not raise with men.
  • Women enjoyed far greater protection from the consequences of their actions – no female spies were executed during the Civil War.
  • Women crossing the front lines were often overlooked by sentries. They could also conceal objects and communications about their person without fear of being searched.


  • Patriotism was often the first reason given by unmasked female spies.
  • A yearning for adventure, the manipulative character of individual women, enjoyment of risk, a way out of the confines of womanhood.
  • The enjoyment of dressing up and masquerade: female spies felt themselves to be primarily actresses rather than soldiers.

The African-American Union spy Harriet Tubman was motivated not by the desire for adventure, but a political reason. She hoped that her activities in support of the Union would contribute to the freedom of slaves. She did not seek to alter her identity during her missions.


There were a range of different female spies. Some emphasized their femininity to obtain intelligence whilst others suppressed it, assuming male identities and challenging existing gender dichotomies in the process.

Three well-knownfemale spies: 

(1) A white spy for the Union

Emma Sarah Edmonds (alias Franklin Thompson; 1841-1898)

As the daughter of a man with no sons, Emma Sarah Edmonds dressed up as a boy at an early age, so as to please her father. She went to war disguised as a man called “Franklin Thomas” and worked as spy. Dressed as a male slave, she coloured her skin with silver nitrate, thereby transcending the boundaries of gender, class and race. Another role involved a disguise as the wife of an Irish immigrant; from 1863, she worked as a nurse. She was later granted a veteran’s pension.

 (2) A black spy for the Union

Harriet Tubman (1820/23-1913)

Tubman was a cook, nurse and spy during the War. But the conflict did not mark any form of personal caesura. She was continuing the work that she had been performing for the cause of slave freedom over the previous twenty years. She concentrated her efforts on convincing other black slaves to trust the Union troops, especially the white soldiers. Dubbed “Moses” (itself a male name) by the African-American community, she first received public recognition for her work in old age – she was granted a widow’s pension at the age of 79.

(3) A spy for the Confederacy:

Rose O’Neal Greenhow (1817-1864)

The daughter of a poor family of Maryland planters, Rose O’Neal Greenhow grew up in  Washington D.C. After marriage to a member of staff in the State Department, Rose Greenhow hosted a salon for members of congress and officers and maintained a wide social network. Remaining in Washington after the secession, she gathered intelligence from the visitors to her house, which she passed on to the South. Put under house arrest for espionage in August 1861, she was later moved to a secure prison. She was released to Richmond in May 1862, where she received a hero’s welcome.




4. Female Soldiers

“Female warriors”

Some three million soldiers fought in the American Civil War; two million Union troops and a million for the Confederacy. Both the Southern and Northern soldier was on average 26 years old, white, born in the United States, Protestant in religion and a farmer by trade. In addition, a number of women adopted a male identity to enable them to join up and fight. The exact number of women who sought to transcend their gender in order to enter the male preserve of the soldier is unknown. Estimates vary between 350 and 1,000.


  • The wish to join their husband, brothers and sons.
  • Patriotism, and dissatisfaction with a female life: “We were about the same small size but he was made out of wool and I was made out of wire.” (Laird Hunt, Neverhome, London 2014, 7)
  • Pay: soldiers were paid almost double the wages of a washerwoman. Volunteers were also paid a high bonus.
  • The opportunity afforded for cross-dressing. War provided the opportunity for women to assume an alternative gender identity.

The majority of female soldiers were drawn from the rural lower classes. Female soldiers were thus not just used to working the land, but could shoot and drink as well as their male counterparts. As such, they did not correspond to common female stereotypes.




Female soldiers dressed as men; they wore their hair short, bound their breasts and sought to ape male behaviour. Nineteenth century gender roles were associated less with physical characteristics than clothing and appearance – voluminous frocks and long coiffured hair. A pair of trousers marked someone as a man. 

Female soldiers

Female soldiers proved themselves to be just as effective as their male comrades. They bore the same burden – wounds, illness and death – as their male counterparts without being remarked. Nevertheless, existing in close companionship with men, they lived in fear of discovery. The majority of female soldiers were discovered after being wounded; all were dismissed from the army. Females were viewed as naturally unsuited for combat.

Media interest

Far from being a taboo, female soldiers aroused considerable interest; during and even after the war, stories abounded of the lives of female soldiers. Many newspapers carried reports of women dressed as soldiers. Many of the photographs of “female soldiers” were staged.