War quickly permeated and transformed every aspect of life in the South in the spring of 1861. The Confederacy’s leaders realized that they could only win the war with the full moral and material support of its women. As husbands and fathers departed for the battlefield and politicians and journalists urged civilians to do their patriotic duty, white women were confronted with the strange new expectation of demonstrating authority and civic involvement.
The exigencies of war encouraged white women to develop a political outlook and prove their patriotism, in contrast to the antebellum period when they were considered too delicate and pure to become entangled in the public world of politics. Many Confederate women sewed presentation flags for local regiments or became involved in organizations that sponsored every cause from aiding soldiers to supplying hospitals to arming gunboats. Others contributed through unofficial channels, such as making and sending food and clothing to enlisted men. Some vocalized their newfound political identities in letters to government officials, newspapers, and even their husbands. A few Southern women went as far as becoming spies or disguising themselves as men and enlisting in the army to demonstrate their patriotism.
During the antebellum period, for women to become involved in these sorts of activities would have been almost unthinkable, but during the war they were permitted, and even encouraged, to do so. Most white women exercised their newfound political power in ways that helped diminish the radical implications of their involvement, such as centering their attention on traditionally feminine concerns of food and family. Enslaved women, ironically, were motivated by the same concerns to rebel against the Confederate government by a variety of means, including running away.
Another, and perhaps more problematic, effect of the war required women to assume and exert power, a position for which they had been considered temperamentally unfit during the antebellum years. With traditional male authority figures absent from families and communities, women faced the difficult task of convincing themselves and the rest of Southern society to recognize their new authority and abilities. In many cases, women took over the management of shops, farms, and plantations. Black and white mothers struggled to provide shelter, nourishment, and safety for their families, and they faced additional challenges in disciplining their children without a father’s assistance. Slaveholding women faced the additional challenge of supervising and providing for slaves. While some women enjoyed their new independence, the ever-increasing demands of the war drained the patriotism and self-confidence of many others.
The outbreak of war drastically depleted the civilian workforce. Women were the obvious replacements, and they filled positions previously held by men as well as those specially created by the demands of war. Motivated by everything from patriotism to poverty to a sense of vocation, many white women found themselves working outside the home and earning money for the first time in their lives. The Southern shortage of labor was so severe that even some black women, free and enslaved, found new opportunities to work for wages. The unpaid labor of enslaved women across the Confederacy also formed a critical component in supplying the war effort. The presence of so many women in the workplace intrinsically challenged the widely accepted doctrine of separate spheres—the male, public domain of politics and business, and the female, private world of household and family. This guaranteed that the workforce would never return to its prewar status and began a redefinition of women’s place in American society.
Class and race played crucial roles in determining which Southern women were likely to seek work outside the home and what duties they would perform. Wealthy white women often had the privilege of volunteering, rather than working for wages, and they were frequently awarded positions of greater authority. Enslaved women represented the majority of Southern women workers. Immigrants, working class women, and free women of color constituted the majority of paid workers, primarily because they desperately needed a steady source of income. Black women, both enslaved and free, held positions subordinate to white women and generally performed the more unpleasant and physically demanding tasks.
Medical work was one of the most significant ways that Confederate women contributed to the war effort. Women rarely worked as nurses outside the home in the antebellum period, but numerous wartime factors, including the lack of available manpower and Confederate women’s close proximity to battlefields, demanded their increased participation. Although the precise number of women in the South who volunteered or hired their services is unknown, thousands of black and white women nursed, cooked, cleaned, sewed, and did laundry for military hospitals during the war.
Most Confederate nurses were working class and enslaved women who endured the grisly and dangerous conditions. A relative minority of middle- or upper-class Southern women left their homes to become nurses. These women typically had the leisure to volunteer their services, usually temporarily at hospitals established in homes and churches. Some founded and operated hospitals, such as the celebrated “Captain” Sally Tompkins, who opened Robertson Hospital in the home of Judge John Robertson in the Confederate capital at Richmond, which had the lowest mortality rate of any military hospital during the Civil War. Of women who made nursing a profession, only those with the calmest stomachs were appointed to field hospitals by surgeons familiar with their skill and conduct under pressure. Most women, however, worked or volunteered in established military hospitals at military depots and near battlefields. In Virginia, where so much of the war was fought, there were many such opportunities, both temporary and for the duration of the war, for dedicated women to provide essential physical and psychological care to sick and wounded soldiers.
The most genteel and well-paid positions were reserved for middle- and upper-class white women. The Confederate government, particularly in Richmond, hired them to sign banknotes at the Treasury, sew uniforms for the Clothing Bureau, and sort letters at the post office. Schoolhouses and academies across the Confederacy hired them to nurture and instruct children and youths. Some were embarrassed to admit they needed a paycheck, while others reveled in a newfound sense of achievement and independence.
Working class and poor women, both black and white, often entered into occupations that their wealthier counterparts considered distasteful. Factories in larger cities—particularly Richmond, also the industrial capital of the Confederacy—employed hundreds of women, whose small hands and presumed manual dexterity were considered ideal qualifications for tasks such as making ammunition. Prostitution constituted a major source of employment anywhere that soldiers were stationed. Although women generally gained little prestige or wealth by engaging in such professions, they were united with working women across the Confederacy in finding ways to survive amid tumultuous economic conditions and in broadening the scope of women’s work.
The majority of Southern women eventually withdrew or altogether denied their support from the Confederate government. For the duration of the war, enslaved women sought to escape or subvert slavery. Many poor, working class, and even some middle- and upper-class white women came to believe that the Confederate government did not protect them or represent their interests, or simply that the cost of continuing the war was too great. This erosion of Southern women’s support for their government ultimately undermined the war effort and contributed to the fall of the Confederacy.
Some women were opposed to the Confederacy from the beginning of the war, and demonstrated their dissent in a variety of ways. Many enslaved women thwarted their owners’ efforts to use their labor by doing everything from slowing their work to running away. Some women remained loyal to the United States throughout the war, and many expressed their Northern sympathies by feeding and quartering Union soldiers, hiding escaped Union prisoners, or, like Elizabeth Van Lew, even serving as spies. As women suffered increasing privations on the home front, many previously loyal Confederates began voicing their discontent in diaries, newspapers, and letters to the Confederate government and loved ones on the battlefront. Their actions revealed not only the depth of their restlessness, but their insistence that government take action to alleviate their suffering.
This development was perhaps most dramatically illustrated by the Richmond Bread Riot. On April 2, 1863, a group of Richmond women, most of them poor and many of them wives of volunteer soldiers, marched to the Governor’s Mansion. They demanded to speak with Virginia governor John Letcher and insisted that he do something to help provide food, which was costly and scarce. Some women were armed with axes, clubs, and knives, and someone began chanting, “Bread or blood!” Letcher’s response did not appease them and they swept down the city’s main thoroughfares, smashing into shops and stealing bread and anything else that caught their fancy. The riot raged for several hours until Letcher (not Confederate president Jefferson Davis, as incorrectly identified in some accounts) called out the Public Guard to disperse the mob. The event was widely publicized and sparked similar riots across the Confederacy. It spurred the Confederate government to take action and establish a state-sponsored welfare system to address the needs of its poorest citizens, and provided evidence of the growing level of civil discontent.