Approximately four hundred known cases of women serving as Civil War soldiers on either side–and an unknown number of ladies who slipped away or died without detection– subjected themselves to possible criticism from the general public and their comrades.
Society and the military were critical of women soldiers who didn’t accompany a male relative such as a husband or brother. The general public was not ready for unmarried women on the front lines.
A Southern journalist categorized women in Confederate military camps in three ways: families of officers, laundresses and cooks, and prostitutes. So how did he classify female soldiers, scouts, and nurses?
The wives of officers living in army camps generally maintained the military’s respect. Union General Ulysses S. Grant sometimes had his family in camp.
The motivation of other women’s presence in army camps puzzled the public. There was a tendency to doubt the female soldier’s conduct. Some endured unjust accusations of misbehavior.
There were also female visitors in camp who came to see loved ones. Most parents refused to allow their young, unmarried daughters to visit army camps. They sometimes sneaked in anyway.
Many women simply wanted to be near their men.
Prostitutes followed the camps. Government records show that camp followers numbered in the thousands around army camps. Some bootlegged liquor and acted as spies.
Hundreds of women, including female soldiers, became pregnant in army camps.
The military and the public knew all this. Unfortunately, those experiences affected how men viewed women soldiers.
The women who served as Civil War soldiers endured many obstacles. Public opinion during and after the war was one of them.
In my Civil War novel, A Musket in My Hands, two sisters have no choice but to disguise themselves as men to muster into the Confederate army in the fall of 1864—just in time for events and long marches to lead them to the tragic Battle of Franklin.
-Sandra Merville Hart
Abbott, Karen. Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War, Harper, 2014.
Blanton, DeAnne and Cook, Lauren M. They Fought Like Demons, Louisiana State University Press, 2002.
Massey, Mary Elizabeth. Women in the Civil War, University of Nebraska Press, 1966.
Silvey, Anita. I’ll Pass for Your Comrade: Women Soldiers in the Civil War, Clarion Books, 2008.
Velazquez, Loreta Janeta. The Woman in Battle: The Civil War Narrative of Loreta Velazquez, Cuban Woman & Confederate Soldier, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2003. (Previously published 1876)