Gender Roles

Blue and gray clad soldiers engaged in epic struggles on the field of battle is the image that comes to many people’s minds when they think of the American Civil War. Women often are relegated to a role on the sidelines by this version of the story. They are celebrated as stalwart keepers of the home fire, bandage rollers, and occasionally as nurses – all work that was directly in line with their domestic role as homemakers, wives, and mothers. Occasionally, Women also are portrayed as victims of wartime deprivations and violence at the hands of enemy forces. In reality, women’s part in the war is much more complex than the images suggest, especially in the trans-Mississippi theater where their contributions were vital to the war’s outcome.

White women’s experiences of the war largely depended on their geographic location and their own and their family’s political decisions. Although there were always some individuals who supported the other side, most citizens of Kansas were loyal to the Union, while those in southern Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas sided with the Confederacy. Missouri and northern Arkansas were deeply divided, however, resulting in a toxic mixture of those who supported the Union, those who favored secession, and some who attempted to remain neutral. By mid-way through the war, the Union army controlled large areas of the trans-Mississippi West, forcing the Confederate civilians who remained to accommodate to the constraints placed on them by military occupation. Throughout the region, even in locations relatively untouched by the war, such as Texas, women’s lives changed dramatically.

Women expanded their domestic role and put their labor and talents to use on behalf of the war cause. In many cases this work fit well within mid-nineteenth century Americans’ ideas about proper gender roles. The middle and upper class women of St. Louis, many who had roots in northeastern states, went to work for both the Western Sanitary Commission and the Ladies’ Union Aid Society. Both organizations were involved with the care of wounded Union soldiers and Unionist refugees, including former slaves. They raised money to fund these efforts by organizing tableaux and bazaars, including the Grand Mississippi Valley Sanitary Fair of 1864. Both Union and Confederate women spun, wove, sewed, and darned for their enlisted relatives and neighbors and they occasionally worked for the army for pay doing piece work or as laundresses. Other women, including the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, worked as nurses both in St. Louis military hospitals and on hospital boats sent to western battlefields by the Western Sanitary Commission. Confederate women also worked as nurses both within the Confederacy and in Union occupied areas, although the federal army sometimes attempted to stop this activity. Even though women’s war work sometimes took them from their homes and allowed them to exercise “masculine” skills, in most cases this work was not seen as political but instead was viewed as an appropriate expansion of women’s domestic sphere. An exception was the overt political activities of some Kansas women, such as Clarina Nichols, who labored on behalf of the cause of both Union and freedom, as they aided fugitive slaves who were pouring over the border from Missouri, and in the process began to advocate for their own rights as women.

Many other women stepped outside of their traditional domestic role and assumed the work of the men who had left to fight or had fled to safer locations. Women took men’s place on the farms and in family businesses and when necessary entered the public realm to conduct business or legal transactions. Many slaveholding women also managed the family’s slaves in white men’s absence. Women, children, and the elderly were often left to protect the family’s property, and as the war progressed, those who remained behind frequently suffered both from material want and wartime deprivations. The situation became especially acute in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas when they were cut off from Confederate supply lines after the Union army and navy gained control of the Mississippi River corridor in 1863. Especially vulnerable were the women and children who lived on the region’s many small farms, which often operated on slim economic margins even during peacetime.

Distinctions between the public world and the private household broke down as women increasingly were drawn into, and in fact often actively engaged in, the conflict. In the summer of 1861, the federal army moved to secure Missouri for the Union. Invading troops often encountered women who were passionately loyal to the Confederate cause as they attempted to occupy and secure large expanses of the trans-Mississippi region. A secessionist guerilla insurgency quickly emerged in response to what many saw as the harsh treatment of pro-southern civilians. Marauding gangs of men from both sides roamed the Missouri and northern Arkansas countryside, pillaging, burning, and killing, but the situation was particularly brutal along the Kansas and Missouri border. Women reported countless incidents of guerrillas or soldiers demanding food at their rural homes, although they often were happy to serve men whom they knew personally or with whom they shared political sentiments. In fact, secessionist women were crucial to the success of the guerrillas because they functioned as their supply line, providing the men with food, clothing, shelter, and fresh horses. It also might be the enemy who knocked on the door, however, and women, such as Elvira Scott of western Missouri, knew that it was best to comply with armed men’s requests. Both soldiers and guerrillas routinely helped themselves to the fruits of family’s labors, scouring the countryside looking for crops and livestock to confiscate. Hundreds of homes were looted of everything from clothing to guns, and many were ultimately ransacked and burned. Lizzie Brannock described the situation in western Missouri: “Our country is desolate, indeed almost entirely a wilderness, robbery is an every day affair so long as their [sic] was anything to take our farms are all burned up, fences gone, crops destroyed no one escapes the ravages of one party or the other.” White women generally did not suffer serious physical violence at the hands of guerrillas or soldiers, but they often witnessed the deaths of their husbands, fathers, and sons, as well as suffered a reduction in their circumstances, as their homes were destroyed and their property and livestock stolen. As the war progressed, many women also had to learn to operate their homes and farms without the labor of their slaves, who were enlisting in the Union army or fleeing to the surrounding free states.

As the Union army invaded deep into hostile territory, from New Orleans to central Missouri secessionist women increasingly became engaged in the struggle against enemy forces. Union soldiers frequently were confronted by southern women who did not behave as they believed “a Lady Ought.” The women waved Confederate flags, wore secessionist cockades, and “huzzahed” for Jefferson Davis. Women, who before the war by and large were considered outside the realm of politics, were suddenly held accountable for their personal political views and activities and were occasionally harassed, fined, or arrested. At the least officers believed that secessionist women were stepping outside of their proper role and engaging in politics and at the worst were aiding the enemy or inciting men to violence. In New Orleans, General Benjamin Butler issued his infamous 1862 General Order Number 28 in which he suggested that those women who did not desist from insulting soldiers would be treated as a woman of the town “plying her avocation.” And in Missouri, Union officers arrested and even banished secessionist women who spoke “treasonable language” or who were accused of aiding the enemy through their mail running, smuggling, and spying activities. Even though women at the time could not vote or hold political office, the federal government explicitly recognized women’s ability to hold independent political views when they required that they take formal oaths of loyalty to the United States. In addition to the activities of secessionist women, Union military officers also were concerned about the many women who engaged in the illicit sex trade that inevitably developed near garrison towns, believing that the women posed a threat to both the health and the morals of the soldiers.

One of the greatest tragedies of the Civil War occurred on the heels of the arrest of secessionist women who were accused of aiding Confederate guerrillas. In 1863, four female relatives of rebel guerrillas were killed, and a number severely injured, when the makeshift Kansas City jail in which they were incarcerated collapsed. William Quantrill and his band of bushwhackers used the deaths of the women as the justification for their bloody raid on Lawrence, Kansas, during which they killed more than 150 men and boys, most of them civilians. The women of Lawrence were left to bury the dead and rebuild their destroyed town and shattered lives.

General Thomas Ewing, the commander of the Western District of Missouri, understood that a network of civilian households—made up of guerrillas’ female kin and friends —supplied these irregular forces. He reasoned that the only way to stop the violence was to root out the guerrillas’ supporters and supply lines. Partly in response to Quantrill’s infamous raid on Lawrence, but mostly because of his concerns about civilians’ support for guerrillas, Ewing issued General Order Number 11 in August 1863 to virtually depopulate the Missouri counties bordering Kansas south of the Missouri River. This extremely unpopular measure did little to stop the violence and only served to turn thousands of women, children, and the elderly, into refugees.

Missouri and northern Arkansas became such an unpredictable and violent place that many residents fled their homes altogether. Families on both sides of the conflict sold out and moved west. Nan Cooper and her family moved from Lawrence County in southwestern Missouri to Oregon in 1863. She explained that nonslaveholding Unionists left their home because “[a]t that time we had no thought of being abolitionists, but the rebels treated us as such.” Southerners often headed for Texas believing that their families and slaves would be safer deep within the Confederate interior. Some fled to their relatives’ homes in eastern states, often leaving most of their belongings behind. Mrs. Silliman observed that many of the western Missouri women whose husbands were in military service were “going back to other States to their relatives, some on foot carrying their little children, the others following with their bundles in their hands, women driving an ox team, with what little furniture they dare [sic] to stop long enough to tumble in, to flee for their lives from the bushwhackers.” Others waited out the war in safer locations, such as St. Louis, and came home after the fighting had ceased, but many rural residents, especially those who hailed from the burned-over district along the Kansas border, never returned.

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