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Women in the Civil War

The stories of women in the Civil War are perhaps even more varied than those of the men who served on the front lines. Women of all classes experienced the war in some way, whether through deprivation, loss of loved ones, disintegration of social norms, a renewed sense of patriotism, or, in at least a few hundred documented cases, actual battlefield experience. While the curiosity of women serving on Civil War battlefields has attracted some attention, the women featured here each contributed to the Union or Confederacy in her own fashion.

For most women, assuming the vestments of battle and joining a regiment were not viable options. One noteworthy way that women aided the war effort at home, however, was just as necessary as the service of any of their male counterparts. In Nashville and other cities, women created hospital associations to offer material and hands-on aid for wounded soldiers. Records from the Tennessee Hospital Association of Nashville, featured in this online collection, provide details about how this organization assisted the cause through fundraising, sewing clothing and other items, and helping staff area hospitals.

While this unit of the Tennessee Virtual Archives (TeVA) features a variety of documents relating to women’s involvement in the Civil War, excerpts from the diaries of three Tennessee women provide the core. Rachel Carter Craighead, Nannie Haskins, and Lucy Virginia Smith French were women whose privileged lives afforded them the leisure and education which they used to comment on domestic and national events.

Rachel Carter Craighead’s diaries reflect the experiences of an affluent, urban woman before, during, and after the Civil War. Of note, Craighead’s diary provides details about General Grant’s use of her family’s Nashville home (near the site of what is now the Hermitage Hotel) as his headquarters during the Federal occupation.

Virginia-born Lucy Virginia Smith French offers the perspective of an affluent, educated woman with roots in the literary world. She had worked as a teacher in Memphis and published a variety of works in newspapers and magazines. French’s articulate and often witty journal entries were penned at her family’s homes in McMinnville and Beersheba Springs, Tennessee. While she initially opposed secession, French soon switched her loyalty to the Confederate cause, even mentioning in her musings of June 26, 1865, that she is “so sick of the present Press of strong Unionism and feeble intellect!” However, she was still heartbroken over the rift in the country as evidenced by her entry of July 17, 1862. In it she writes: “Did I ever think to see the old ‘stars and stripes,’ a captive banner and not weep over it?”

If the tone of Nannie Haskins’s diaries seems rougher than Craighead’s and French’s, this may be due to her age. Only 16 when her entries begin, she is the youngest of the trio of women diarists featured here. Nannie speaks with the voice of an average teenager, declaring on February 28, 1863, that “Some people are old fogies.” And, incorporating a version of the modern day teen’s favorite catchphrase, OMG, into her journal on June 12, 1864, when she writes: “I despise my self – I wish I never had been born. Oh! My God.” Despite her age, Haskins nonetheless exhibits grace and depth in many of her entries. Ruminating on the suffering of a Union soldier at the hospital near her home, Haskins writes on July 24, 1863, that she “feel[s] that when they are sick or wounded they are no longer enemies.”

Though the ladies describe events of the day with some accuracy—word from the front, emancipation of slaves, and the assassination of Lincoln—they also reveal the inadequacy of news dissemination in the mid-19th century. Lucy Virginia Smith French acknowledges this issue in an entry dated May 4, 1862: “I never could have imagined it possible for one to live in the midst of a revolution and know so little of the real manner in which it is conducted; we feel the effects of war—yet we see but little of its modus operandi.” While Craighead, Haskins, and French may receive different news reports and live in different areas of the state, their contemporary observations give insight into the way facts as well as rumors were spread to the home front.

In contrast to the lives of privilege revealed by the Craighead, Haskins, and French diaries, a letter from Pvt. Joseph D. Thompson, Co. L, 38th Tennessee Regiment, CSA, to his wife, Mary, paints a completely different reality of women’s wartime experiences. Thompson describes one of several “Bread Riots” that occurred in Mobile, Alabama. He reports that flour is $400 a barrel there and that many soldiers’ children are crying for bread. Thompson illustrates a “raid” of women (soldiers’ wives, sisters, and mothers), all in a starving condition, making their way through the streets in a large procession numbering in the hundreds. The women were armed with knives, pistols, sticks, etc. and carried a large banner inscribed with the words “Bread or Blood.”

In addition to letters and diary excerpts, this collection includes images of other women who played roles, in large or small ways, in the Civil War period. Mrs. John Jordan Crittenden, a Kentucky senator’s wife, personally experienced the “brother against brother” phenomenon that became a trademark of the war: two of her sons fought on opposing sides. “Aunt” Lizzie Aiken and Mary A. “Mother” Sturges served as nurses in Memphis during the war. Carrie McGavock tended the Confederate cemetery at her family’s plantation, Carnton, for years; she was popularized in the novel “Widow of the South.” Perhaps the most well-known of the individuals pictured here, Harriet Tubman altered history for the hundreds of slaves she spirited to freedom. 

The stories of other women documented in this collection are heightened by the power of legend over the years. Pauline Cushman was a Louisiana actress who grew up in Michigan. She served as a Union spy and was nearly executed by Confederates in Shelbyville. Cushman famously saluted Jefferson Davis on a Louisville stage in her first act of espionage. The “Rhea County Spartans,” a group of female spies chronicled in a 1911 issue of Confederate Veteran, were said to have created their own military regiment; they apparently raised enough concern that they were arrested and shipped to Chattanooga for imprisonment. Also included here is an image of the Vine Grove Methodist Church, where the ladies were initially held as prisoners.

The effect of women’s roles and accomplishments continued in the decades following the Civil War. Patriotic societies, such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Daughters of Union Veterans, were formed to preserve the memory of those who served and died in the war. Many women, such as Annie Cole Hawkins of McKenzie, Tennessee, penned memoirs years after the South had surrendered at Appomattox. The legacy of the women featured here, complemented by other Civil War resources in the Tennessee Virtual Archives, provides a more complete perspective on this important age in American history.

Bibliography

Bradford, Sarah H.  Scenes in the Life of Harriet Tubman.  Auburn, NY:  W. J. Moses, 1869.

Brock, Darla K.  Battles of Their Own: Memphis’s Civil War Women.  Thesis.  Memphis State University, 1994.

Edmonds, George.  Facts and Falsehoods Concerning the War on the South, 1861-1865.  Memphis, TN: A. B. Taylor & Co., 1904.

Forrest, Mary.  Women of the South Distinguished in Literature.  New York: Charles B. Richardson, 1865.

Gardner, Sarah E.  Blood and Irony: Southern White Women’s Narratives of the Civil War, 1861-1937.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004.

Garrison, Webb.  Amazing Women of the Civil War: Fascinating True Stories of Women Who Made a Difference.  Nashville, TN: Rutledge Hill Press, 1999.

Hall, Richard.  Patriots in Disguise: Women Warriors of the Civil War.  New York: Paragon House, 1993.

Janney, Caroline E.  Burying the Dead But Not the Past: Ladies’ Memorial Associations and the Lost Cause.  Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Lowry, Thomas P.  Confederate Heroines: 120 Southern Women Convicted By Union Military Justice.  Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2006.

Massey, Mary Elizabeth.  Bonnet Brigades.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966.

Meriwether, Elizabeth Avery.  Recollections of 92 Years, 1824-1916.  Nashville, TN: Tennessee Historical Commission, 1958.

Moore, Frank.  Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice.  Hartford, CT: S. S. Scranton & Co., 1866.

Worthington, C. J.  Story of the Civil War, Or, The Exploits, Adventures, and Travels of Mrs. L. J. Velasquez.  New York: Worthington Co., 1890.

 


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