Women and Gender Roles in Civil War Illinois and the North

 

Drew E. VandeCreek, Northern Illinois University

The Civil War proved a great burden to many Illinois families by taking the husbands, fathers and brothers who provided their support away from their fields and workbenches. But the conflict also provided many women with new opportunities for responsibility and leadership, and led them to consider a new identity for themselves. For decades women had taken important posts in the nation's voluntary associations for charity and reform. Now these organizations proliferated and grew to unprecedented size in response to national and community crises.

Many women and children took to the fields in order to maintain family farms. Women had long performed farm labor, from cooking, washing and cleaning to taking part in the planting and harvesting of crops. In 1862 a Department of Agriculture report concluded that "in the civilization of the latter half of the nineteenth century, a farmer's wife, as general rule, is a laboring drudge… on three farms out of four the wife works harder, endures more, than any other on the place…" 1

Rural women often lived amidst great loneliness. Without even their husbands' company, these women labored on isolated farms. Women's increased responsibilities in wartime led some social critics to object that hard work would demean the fairer sex, harden their bodies, and disrupt American gender roles. Women responded that the demands of war and family represented a higher calling than such notions.

Northern reformers worried that the absence and death of bread-winning men would lead dependent women into poverty and vice. The noted author and reformer Harriet Beecher Stowe asked "Will anyone sit pining away in inert grief, when two streets off are the midnight dance houses where girls of twelve, thirteen, and fourteen are being lured away into the way of swift destruction? How many of these are daughters of soldiers who have given their hearts blood for us and our liberties?" Like other northern women, Stowe came to believe that activism, and not mere sympathy, was the solution. 2

Women without farm responsibilities found some new opportunities during the Civil War. The enlistment of store clerks and other white collar workers provided a few openings for educated women in town. Women often took the lead in organizing voluntary associations in Illinois communities, and across the North, in order to provide for those left without support. Socialites organized balls and other events to raise funds for relief. But in most communities women worked in these new organizations, as well as with church groups and established charitable societies, together to provide for one another.

The war also provided women with new opportunities in the field of medicine. The Chicago Hospital for Women and Children opened in 1863 with Dr. Mary H. Thompson as director. Mary Bickerdyke, a Galesburg nurse, served in hospitals at Cairo and with western armies in the field. Mary Safford, a woman who could speak both German and French, proved especially helpful with immigrant brigades. "Mother" Sturgis and "Aunt Lizzie" Aiken helped to form the Peoria Soldier's Aid Society, which later became the Women's National League. 3

Mary Livermore, whose service in medicine brought her into direct contact with Illinois recruits, stated that a considerable number of women became soldiers during the conflict. One, who called herself Albert D.J. Cashier, served in the 95th Illinois and participated in several battles, was found long after the war had ended to have been born Jennie Hodgers and emigrated from Ireland. 4

Illinois women also took the lead in organizing new groups to provide for soldiers still on the home front. Chicago churchwomen rented and renovated an old hotel for use by soldiers passing through Chicago. Shortly organizers took up the building of an even larger structure on Chicago's lakefront, and another Soldiers' Rest in Cairo. The Chicago Sanitary Commission provided doctors to inspect camps and hospitals in Illinois, and provided them with medical supplies.

By 1863 the United States Sanitary Commission had grown into a national organization. On October 27, 1863 Chicago hosted the Northwestern Sanitary Fair, which raised money for the group. The United States Christian Commission took up the nationwide mission of providing every soldier with a Bible. Women found large responsibilities in these organizations, yet their emphasis upon humane living conditions and religious evangelism largely mirrored women's antebellum sphere.

War often challenged women's ideals of Republican Motherhood. In the antebellum era many northern women had found a new identity by raising virtuous children able to sustain the young republic. One historian has argued that "The influence women had on children, especially sons, gave them ultimate responsibility for the future of the new nation." 5

Yet sons' and husbands' enlistment in Union regiments subjected women to wrenching anxieties. Sons and husbands also wrestled with the image of the broken family in an era of domesticity. "Just before the battle, mother, I am thinking most of you," intoned one popular northern war song. 6

For young men, the Civil War often represented a coming of age. Sidney Little of Illinois wrote to his mother that "my coming into this war has made a man of your son." For most able-bodied men, failure to enlist represented a lack of courage. One soldier demanded that drafted men who hired a substitute immediately "wear petticoats." 7

The battlefield tested many young men. Some found the poise necessary to thrive amidst chaos and death. Others began to doubt themselves after panic under fire. Still others came to a new understanding of masculinity and its conventions after holding martial ideals up to the reality of war.

Some soldiers escaped small town morality to a world of brothels, camp followers, drink and even the opium dispensed in field hospitals. But others reasoned that they fought the war for this very sense of civilization. Military life instilled a sense of virtuous self-discipline familiar to the evangelical Protestant Whigs of the North. Trained soldiers always obeyed orders, and did not flee under fire. Many struggled to extend this discipline to their hours and days away from battle.

Combat also asked men long a part of the northern culture of domesticity, and often the denizens of offices and stores, to face up to violence and death. Military discipline demanded that soldiers in combat turn away from wounded comrades and keep fighting. This directly countermanded an American sense of civilization increasingly built around the development of a tender conscience and isolation from the realities of suffering. 8

Many northerners came to think of the Union as a family. One soldier concluded that "if our country was to endure as a way of life planned by our fathers, it rested with us children to finish the work they had begun." 9 Many thought of southerners as disobedient children who needed to be taught a lesson. When the war concluded this metaphor took hold as well. Despite the conflict's ferocity, most northerners embraced the South as wayward brethren returning to the family.


1. Philip Paludan, A People's Contest (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996) 157.

2. Philip Paludan, "Religion and the American Civil War," Religion and the American Civil War, ed. Randall M. Miller, Harry S. Stout and Charles R. Wilson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 26.

3. Victor Hicken Illinois in the Civil War Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1966, 23.

4. Hicken 9.

5. Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic (Chapel Hill: North Carolina, 1980): cited from Reid Mitchell, The Vacant Chair: The Northern Soldier Leaves Home (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993) xii.

6. Mitchell xiv.

7. Mitchell 12.

8. Mitchell, chapter 1.

9. Mitchell 14.