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Women and the American Civil War (December 2015): Northern Perspective

by Elizabeth A. Novara

Northern Perspective

Northern women’s perspectives and experiences during the Civil War have received less scrutiny than those of Southern women.  Northern women certainly experienced the war differently because they did not necessarily live in contested territory.  However, the wartime experiences of Northern women are also very important to document, and interesting to compare to women’s perspectives in other regions.  Most studies of Northern women continue to focus on white, middle-class, and/or elite women.

In Neither Ballots nor Bullets: Women Abolitionists and the Civil War, Wendy Hamand Venet explores women’s political activism and challenges the idea that women were politically quiescent during the war.  Elizabeth D. Leonard’s Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War asserts that women are central to Civil War history.  She writes about three women’s efforts to establish themselves—one as a professional nurse, one in benevolence work, and one as a commissioned medical officer—and then demonstrates how gender prejudices prevented each woman from achieving her ultimate goals.  In Busy Hands: Images of Family in the Northern Civil War Effort, Patricia Richard shows how Northern women—white and black, middle and working class—created aid societies for the war effort and also used moral suasion to keep solders from falling prey to the social ills of prostitution, gambling, and alcohol.  Nina Silber also argues for women’s increased political and social roles in Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War, and demonstrates how women moved closer to citizenship with changes in their everyday lives.  Silber notes that with male relatives away at war, women entered the paid workforce, participated in politics more frequently, and ran households, but also found their new roles frustrating in a society that limited women’s political rights.

In The Colors of Courage: Gettysburg’s Forgotten History: Immigrants, Women, and African Americans in the Civil War’s Defining Battle, Margaret S. Creighton studies three often-underrepresented groups in Civil War history and provides a glimpse of women in the North dealing with a battlefront experience in their own backyards.  She attempts not only to uncover the history of women during the battle, but to look at the way they were remembered as well.  Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, by Judith Giesberg, is the first book-length study to look seriously at black and white working-class women’s experiences in the wartime North.  Giesberg argues that as women took on new roles, such as working outside the home, they were able to make more demands from federal officials in order to better their lives, such as demands for a living wage or safer working conditions.

Two collections of transcribed letters that provide good context for white Northern women’s perspectives are Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Elizabeth Blair Lee, edited by Virginia Jeans Laas, and Wanted—Correspondence: Women’s Letters to a Union Soldier, edited by Nancy L. Rhoades and Lucy E. Bailey.  Love amid the Turmoil: The Civil War Letters of William and Mary Vermilion, edited by Donald C. Elder III, is another document collection that offers an interesting perspective on a Civil War soldier and his wife living in the Midwest during the war.  The book offers both sides of the correspondence and explores regional political views in Indiana and Iowa.  A less successful marriage is explored in Peg A. Lamphier’s study of a Northern elite couple.  Her book Kate Chase and William Sprague: Politics and Gender in a Civil War Marriage provides much-needed insight into politics and power struggles within a lesser-known political marriage.  Chase endured physical abuse and the numerous affairs of her husband, only to be sentenced to a life of poverty after the marriage ended  in divorce.  Chase’s struggles illustrate the difficulties faced by nineteenth-century women in social and political institutions that favored men against the backdrop of the Civil War.

Works Cited