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Heroines of the Hearth

By Elizabeth A. Topping 

The versatility and resourcefulness of women were never more challenged than during the American Civil War. Nearly all women were affected in some way. Some leapt into the war effort working for various organizations, including the Ladies Hospital Aid Society, the Union Volunteer Refreshment Saloon, or the U.S. Christian Commission. Others engaged in activities on a more personal level such as sewing items to be shipped to soldiers they knew. The “weaker sex” offered their money, time, goods, and tears to contribute to their country’s cause. These endeavors support the concept that women fought the war in their own way at home and in doing so played a pivotal role in it.

Wives, mothers, sisters and sweethearts prepared their men for war. They spent countless hours sewing uniforms, flags and necessities for their soldiers. Sometimes they became defenders of hearth and home as enemy troops seized towns, livestock, foodstuffs, and other personal property where soldiers going off to war had all but depleted manpower. Other women served as unofficial nurses to the ailing and injured, oftentimes caring for the enemy as they would have their own kin. As nurses, women witnessed war at its worse. Braving the eminent dangers of the battlefield, they dutifully cared for the wounded and sick, some losing their lives in the process.

Vivandières, wives or daughters of soldiers dressed in special uniforms, performed various duties in military service, but rarely saw combat. Selflessly and often at their own expense, these women provided creature comforts to soldiers who would have otherwise gone weeks at a time without female association. Some courageous women disguised themselves as men and fought alongside their male counterparts in battle.

Carte de visite by J.G. Vallade of Altoona, Pa. Author’s Collection.
Carte de visite by J.G. Vallade of Altoona, Pa. Author’s Collection.

A small number of women posed as spies seeking out intelligence and reporting information directly to commanding officers. Others became smugglers bringing such items as medicines, shoes, and letters over enemy lines. Those who went undetected enjoyed successful years of service. Some were captured and imprisoned, while a select few were tried and sentenced to death.

The roles women played during the Civil War, no matter how large or small, often proved crucial. Their presence and contributions made significant difference in the lives they touched. We do not know the identities of many of these women, such as the young lady in this image, as their names are lost to history. Yet each one deserves to be celebrated as a heroine.

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