On the Battlefield Many women served in combat on both sides during the Civil War, some as officers or sergeants. Dr. L. P. Bracken wrote, “The number of women who actually bore arms in the war, or who, though generally attending a regiment as nurses and vivandieres, at times engaged in the actual conflict was much larger than is generally supposed, and embraces persons of all ranks of society.”
Women had varying motives for placing their lives at risk: patriotism, independence, a sense of adventure and accompanying a loved one motivated women to enter the battlefield. While it is hard to conceive of now, nurses in the 19thcentury were men. Women, however, were often skilled caregivers due to their experiences at home. In 1861, women took their home skills outside the home to care for the soldiers, however, the word “nurse” referred to a variety of people. At the time there were no nursing schools, no diplomas, no credentials.
Nurses were “agents” of the Sanitary Commission, the Christian Commission, or a state Soldier’s Aid Commission. Or they could be women requested to work at hospitals by surgeons or a nun from the Sisters of Mercy or Sisters of Charity. Nurses were also officers’ wives who accompanied their husbands to the battlefields or women who cared for their wounded, sick or dying husbands or sons near the field or in hospitals. In the broadest terms they were often laundresses or matrons attached to state regiments who took over nursing duties in between their housekeeping chores. White women volunteered by the hundreds as nurses while slaves were mobilized as orderlies and gravediggers. Other women on the battlefield we included vivandieres, or canteen women who supplied food and water to soldiers. “Daughters of the regiment” were intended to be a regiment’s inspiration, wearing colorful uniforms and serving an ornamental role by leading soldiers in parades as well as provide other non-combat support in battle. There were also cooks and laundresses, officers’ wives and sometimes camp followers (many times prostitutes) in camp. Although these women were not soldiers, they often were in as much danger as the men during battle were.
Women who wanted to be soldiers had to dress up as men -- it was a means to an end -- so that they could strike a solid blow against the enemy, or gain a measure of economic, legal and social independence that was not available to them at the time. Mary Livermore of the U.S. Sanitary Commission wrote in her memoirs that “the number of women soldiers known to the service… [is] little less than four hundred,” although she was convinced that “a large number of women disguised themselves and enlisted in the service” never to be discovered even in death. In the book, History of Woman Suffrage, the authors noted that “army regulations” were used as an excuse to deny recognition to women soldiers and many historians fail to acknowledge their services in the war, though Hundreds of women marched steadily up to the mouth of a hundred cannon pouring out fire and smoke, shot and shell, mowing down the advancing hosts like grass; men, horses, and colors going down in confusion, disappearing in clouds of smoke; the only sound, the screaming of shells, the crackling of musketry, the thunder of artillery… through all this women were sustained by the enthusiasm born of love of country and liberty.
Some soldiers also served as spies for either the North or the South along with some civilian patriots who furthered the cause of their side. They often risked their lives and imprisonment to get the information through, and are credited for victories in battle. It is the lives of these women -- the ones on the battlefield that need to have their stories told. Since many fought in secrecy, we depend on diaries, letters and in some cases autobiographies to tell their story. It’s a story worth telling.