"A record of the personal services of our American women in the late Civil War"

Sketch of an eagle spreading its wings with a banner in its mouth

The following text is the introduction to the book Woman's Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience which was published in 1867, just two years after the end of the American Civil War. The volume is mostly biographies of Northern women who supported the Union cause in active, visible ways. Henry W. Bellows, an American minister and president of the United States Sanitary Commission, wrote this introduction, drawing on his experiences with the Commission during the war and his observations on the efforts and actions of women through that organization and other aid societies. While this is not a comprehensive and inclusive overview of women's war work during the Civil War, it offers a summary and high praise of some of the accomplishments, organizing, and contributions.


A record of the personal services of our American women in the late Civil War, however painful to the modesty of those whom it brings conspicuously before the world, is due to the honor of the country, to the proper understanding of our social life, and to the general interest of a sex whose rights, duties and capacities are now under serious discussion. Most of the women commemorated in this work inevitably lost the benefits of privacy, by the largeness and length of their public services, and their names and history are to a certain extent the property of the country. At any rate they must suffer the penalty which conspicuous merit entails upon its possessors, especially when won in fields of universal interest.

Notwithstanding the pains taken to collect from all parts of the country, the names and history of the women who in any way distinguished themselves in the War, and in spite of the utmost impartiality of purpose, there is no pretence that all who served the country best, are named in this record. Doubtless thousands of women, obscure in their homes, and humble in their fortunes, without official position even in their local society, and all human trace of whose labors is forever lost, contributed as generously of their substance, and as freely of their time and strength, and gave as unreservedly their hearts and their prayers to the cause, as the most conspicuous on the shining list here unrolled. For if

“The world knows nothing of its greatest men,”

it is still more true of its noblest women. Unrewarded by praise, unsullied by self-complacency, there is a character “of no reputation,” which formed in strictest retirement, and in the patient exercise of unobserved sacrifices, is dearer and holier in the eyes of Heaven, than the most illustrious name won by the most splendid services. Women there were in this war, who without a single relative in the army, denied themselves for the whole four years, the comforts to which they had been always accustomed; went thinly clad, took the extra blanket from their bed, never tasted tea, or sugar, or flesh [meat], that they might wind another bandage round some unknown soldiers wound, or give some parched lips in the hospital another sip of wine. Others never let one leisure moment, saved from lives of pledged labor which barely earned their bread, go unemployed in the service of the soldiers. God Himself keeps this record. It is too sacred to be trusted to men.

But it is not such humble, yet exalted souls that will complain of the praise which to their neglect, is allotted to any of their sisters. The ranks always contains some heroes braver or better than the most fortunate and conspicuous officers of staff or line—but they feel themselves best praised when their regiment, their corps, or their general is gazette. And the true-hearted workers for the soldiers among the women of this country will gladly accept the recognition given to the noble band of their sisters whom peculiar circumstances lifted into distinct view, as a tribute offered to the whole company. Indeed, if the lives set forth in this work, were regarded as exceptional in their temper and spirit, as they certainly were in their incidents and largeness of sphere, the whole lesson of the Record would be misread. These women in their sacrifices, their patriotism, and their persistency, are only fair representatives of the spirit of their whole sex. As a rule, American women exhibited not only an intense feeling for the soldiers in their exposures and their sufferings, but an intelligent sympathy with the national cause, equal to that which furnished among the men, two million and three hundred thousand volunteers.

It is not unusual for women of all countries to weep and to work for those who encounter the perils of war. But the American women, after giving up, with a principled alacrity, to the ranks of the gathering and advancing army, their husbands and sons, their brothers and lovers, proceeded to organize relief for them; and they did it, not in the spasmodic and sentimental way, which has been common elsewhere, but with a self-controlled and rational consideration of the wisest and best means of accomplishing their purpose, which showed them to be in some degree, the products and representatives of a new social era, and a new political development.

The distinctive features in woman’s work in this war, were magnitude, system, thorough co-operativeness with the other sex, distinctness of purpose, business-like thoroughness in details, sturdy persistency to the close. There was no more general rising among the men, than among the women. Men did not take to the musket, more commonly than women took to the needle.; and for every assembly where men met for mutual excitation in the service of the country, there was some corresponding gathering of women, to stir each other’s hearts and fingers in the same sacred cause. All the caucuses and political assemblies of every kind, in which speech and song quickened the blood of the men, did not exceed in number the meetings, in the form of Soldiers’ Aid Societies, and Sewing Circles, which the women held, where they talked over the national causes, and fed the fires of sacrifice in each other’s hearts. Probably never in any war in any country, was there so universal and so specific an acquaintance on the part of both men and women, with the principles at issue, and the interests at stake. And of the two, the women were clearer and more united than the men, because their moral feelings and political instincts were not so much affected by selfishness and business, or party considerations. The work which our system of popular education does for girls and boys alike, and which in the middle and upper classes practically goes further with girls than with boys, told magnificently at this crisis. Everywhere, well educated women were found fully able to understand and explain to their sisters, the public questions involved in the war. Everywhere the newspapers, crowded with interest and with discussions, found eager and appreciative readers among the gentler sex. Everywhere started up women acquainted with the order of public business; able to call, and preside over public meetings of their own sex; act as secretaries and committees, draft constitutions and bye-laws, open books, and keep accounts with adequate precision, appreciate system, and postpone private inclinations or preferences to general principles; enter into extensive correspondence with their own sex: co-operate in the largest and most rational plans proposed by men who had studied carefully the subject of soldiers’ relief, and adhere through good report and evil report, to organizations which commended themselves to their judgment, in spite of local, sectarian, or personal jealousies and detractions.

It is impossible to over-estimate the amount of consecrated work done by the loyal women of the North for the Army. Hundreds of thousands of women probably gave all the leisure they could command, and all money they could save and spare, to the soldiers for the whole four years and more, of the War. Amid discouragements and fearful delays they never flagged, but to the last increased in zeal and devotion. And their work was as systematic as it was universal. A generous emulation among the Branches of the United States Sanitary Commission, managed generally by women, usually, however, with some aid from men, brought their business habits and methods to an almost perfect finish. Nothing that men commonly think peculiar to their own methods was wanting in the plans of the women. They acknowledged and answered, endorsed and filed their letters; they sorted their stores, and kept an accurate account of stock; they had their books and reports kept in the most approved forms; they balanced their cash accounts with the most painstaking precision; they exacted of each other regularity of attendance and punctiliousness of official etiquette. They showed in short, a perfect aptitude for business, and proved by their own experience that men can devise nothing too precise, too systematic or too complicated for women to understand, apply and improve upon, where there is any sufficient motive for it.

It was another feature of the case that there was no jealously between women and men in the work, and no disposition to discourage, underrate, or dissociate from each other. It seemed to be conceded that men had more invention, comprehensiveness and power of generalization, and that their business habits, the fruits of ages of experiences, were at least worth studying and copying by women. On the other hand, men, usually jealous of woman’s extending the sphere of her life and labors, welcomed in this case her assistance in a public work, and felt how vain men’s toil and sacrifices would be without woman’s steady sympathy and patient ministry of mercy, her more delicate and persistent pity, her willingness to endure monotonous details of labor for the sake of charity, her power to open the heart of her husband, and to keep alive the flowing fountains of compassion and love.

No words are adequate to describe the systematic, persistent faithfulness of the women who organized and led the Branches of the United States Sanitary Commission. Their volunteer labor had all the regularity of paid service, and a heartiness and earnestness which no paid services can ever have. Hundreds of women evinced talents there, which, in other spheres and in the other sex, would have made them merchant-princes, or great administrators of public affairs. Storms or heats could keep them from their posts, and they wore on their faces, and finally evinced their breaking constitutions, the marks of the cruel strain put upon their minds and hearts. They engaged in a correspondence of the most trying kind, requiring the utmost address to meet the searching questions asked by intelligent jealousy, and to answer the rigorous objections raised by impatience or ignorance in the rural districts. They became instructors of whole townships in the methods of government business, the constitution of the Commissary and Quartermaster’s Departments, and the forms of the Medical Bureau. They had steadily to content with the natural desires of the Aid Societies for local independence, and to reconcile neighborhoods to the idea of being merged and lost in large generalizations. They kept up the spirit of the people distant from the war and the camps, by a steady fire of letters full of touching incidents; and they were repaid not only by the most generous returns of stores, but by letters from humble homes and lonely hearts, so full of truth and tenderness, of wisdom and pity, of self-sacrifice and patriotic consecration, that the most gifted and educated women in America, many of them at the head of the Branches or among their Directors, felt constantly reproved by the nobleness, the sweetness, the depth of sentiment that welled from the hidden and obscure springs in the hearts of farmers’ wives and factory-girls.

Nor were the talents and sacrifices of those at the larger Depots or Centres, more worthy of notice than the skill and pains evinced in arousing, maintaining and managing the zeal and work of county or town societies. Indeed, sometimes larger works are more readily controlled than smaller ones; and jealousies and individual caprices obstruct the co-operation of villages more than of towns and cities.

In the ten thousand Soldiers’ Aid Societies which at one time or another probably existed in the country, there was in each some master-spirit, whose consecrated purpose was the staple in the wall, from which the chain of service hung and on whose strength and firmness it steadily drew. I never visited a single town however obscure, that I did not hear some woman’s name which stood in that community for “Army Service;” a name round which the rest of the women gladly rallied; the name of some woman whose heart was felt to beat louder and more firmly than any of the rest for the boys in blue. 

Of the practical talent, the personal worth, the aptitude for public service, the love of self-sacrificing duty thus developed and nursed into power, and brought to the knowledge of its possessors and their communities, it is difficult to speak too warmly. Thousands of women learned in this work to despise frivolity, gossip, fashion, and idleness; learned to think soberly and without prejudice of the capacities of their own sex; and thus, did more to advance the rights of women by proving her gifts and her fitness for public duties, than a whole a library of arguments and protests.

The prodigious exertions put forth by the women who founded and conducted the great Fairs for the soldiers in a dozen principal cities, and in many large towns, were only surpassed by the planning skill and administrative ability which accompanied their progress, and the marvellous success in which they terminated. Months of anxious preparation, where hundreds of committees vied with each other in long-headed schemes for securing the co-operation of the several trades or industries allotted to each, and during which laborious days and anxious nights were unintermittingly given to the wearing work, were followed by weeks of personal service in the fairs themselves, where the strongest women found their vigor inadequate to the task, and hundreds laid the foundations of long illness and some of the sudden death. These sacrifices and far-seeing provisions were justly repaid by almost fabulous returns of money, which to the extent of nearly three millions of dollars, flowed into the treasury of the United States Sanitary Commission. The chief women who inaugurated the several great Fairs at New York, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and administered these vast movements, were not behind the ablest men in the land in their grasp and comprehension of the business in hand, and often in comparison with the men associated with them, exhibited a finer scope, a better spirit and a more victorious faith. But for the women of America, the great Fairs would never have been born, or would have died ignominiously in their gilded cradles. Their vastness of conception and their splendid results are to be set as an everlasting crown on woman’s capacity for large and money-yielding enterprises. The women who led them can never sink back into obscurity.

But I must pass from this inviting theme, where indeed I feel more at home than in what is to follow, to the consideration of what naturally occupies a larger space in this work—however much smaller it was in reality, i.e., to the labors of the women who actually went to the war, and worked in the hospitals and camps.

Of the labors of women in the hospitals and in the field, this book gives a far fuller history than is likely to be got from any other source, as this sort of service cannot be recorded in the histories of organized work. For, far the largest part of this work was done by persons of exceptional energy and some fine natural aptitude for the service, which was independent of organizations, and hardly submitted itself to any rules except the impulses of devoted love for the work—supplying tact, patience and resources. The women who did hospital service continuously, or who kept themselves near the base of armies in the field, or who moved among the camps, and travelled with the corps, were an exceptional class—as rare as heroines always are—a class, representing no social grade, but coming from all—belonging to no rank or age of life in particular; sometimes young and sometimes old, sometimes refined and sometimes rude; now of fragile physical aspect and then of extraordinary robustness—but in all cases, women with a mighty love and earnestness in their hearts—a love and pity, and an ability to show I forth and to labor in behalf of it, equal to that which in other departments of life, distinguishes poets, philosophers, sages and saints, from ordinary or average men.

Moved by an indomitable desire to serve in person the victims of wounds and sickness, a few hundred women, impelled by instincts which assured them of their ability to endure the hardship, overcome the obstacles, and adjust themselves to the unusual and unfeminine circumstances in which they would be placed—made their way through all obstructions at home, and at the seat of war, or in the hospitals, to the bed-sides of the sick and wounded men. Many of these women scandalized their friends at home by what seemed their Quixotic resolution; or, they left their families under circumstances which involved a romantic oblivion of the recognized and usual duties of domestic life; they forsook their own children, to make children of a whole army corps; they risked their lives in fevered hospitals; they lived in tents or slept in ambulance wagons, for months together; they fell sick of fevers themselves, and after long illness, returned to the old business of hospital and field service. They carried into their work their womanly tenderness, their copious sympathies, their great-hearted devotion—and had to face and contend with the cold routine, the semi-savage professional indifference, which by the necessities of the case, makes ordinary medical supervision, in time of actual war, impersonal, official, unsympathetic and abrupt. The honest, natural jealously felt by surgeons-in-charge, and their ward masters, of all outside assistance, made it necessary for every woman, who as to succeed in her purpose of holding her place, and really serving the men, to study and practice an address, an adaptation and a patience, of which not one candidate in ten was capable. Doubtless nine-tenths of all who wished to offer and thought themselves capable of this service, failed in their practical efforts. As many women fancied themselves capable of enduring hospital life, as there are always in every college, youth who believe they can become distinguished authors, poets and statesmen. But only the few who had a genius for the work, continued in it, and succeeded in elbowing room for themselves through the never-ending obstacles, jealousies and chagrins that best the service. Every woman who keeps her place in a general hospital, or a corps hospital, has to prove her title to be trusted; her tact, discretion, endurance and strength of nerve and fibre. No one woman succeeded in rendering years of hospital service, who was not an exceptional person—a woman of larger heart, clearer head, finer enthusiasm, and more mingled tact, courage, firmness and holy will—than one in a thousand of her sex. A grander collection of women—whether considered in their intellectual or their moral qualities, their heads or their hearts, I have not had the happiness of knowing, than the women I saw in the hospitals; they were the flower of their sex. Great as were the labors of those who superintended the operations at home—of collecting and preparing supplies for the hospitals and the field, I cannot but think that the women who lived in the hospitals, or among the soldiers, required a force of character and a glow of devotion and self-sacrifice, of a rarer kind. They were really heroines. They conquered their feminine sensibility at the sight of blood and wounds; their native antipathy to disorder, confusion and violence; subdued the rebellious delicacy of their more exquisite senses; lived coarsely, and dressed and slept rudely; they studied the caprices of men to whom their ties were simply human—men often ignorant, feeble-minded—out of their senses—raving with pain and fever; they had a still harder service to bear with the price, the official arrogance, the hardness or the folly—perhaps the impertinence and presumption of half-trained medical men, whom the urgencies of the case had fastened on the service.** Their position was always critical, equivocal, suspected, and to be justified only by their undeniable and conspicuous merits; —their wisdom, patience and proven efficiency; justified by the love and reverence they exacted from the soldiers themselves!

True, the rewards of these women were equal to their sacrifices. They drew their pay from a richer treasury than that of the United States Government. I never knew one of them who had had  a long service, whose memory of the grateful looks of the dying, of the few awkward words that fell from the lips of thankful convalescents, or the speechless eye following of the dependent soldier, or the pressure of a rough hand, softened to womanly gentleness by long illness,—was not the sweetest treasure of all their lives. Nothing in the power of the Nation to give or to say, can ever compare for a moment with the proud satisfaction which every brave soldier who risked his life for his country, always carries in his heart of hearts. And no public recognition, no thanks from a saved Nation, can ever add anything of much importance to the rewards of those who tasted the actual joy of ministering with their own hands and hearts to the wants of one sick and dying man.

It remains only to say a word about the influence of the work of the women in the War upon the strength and unanimity of the public sentiment, and on the courage and fortitude of the army itself.

The participation by actual work and service in the labors of the War, not only took out of women’s hearts the soreness which unemployed energies or incongruous pursuits would have left there, but it took out of their mouths the murmurs and moans which their deserted, husbandless, childless condition would so naturally have provoked. The women by their call to work, and the opportunity of pouring their energies, sympathies and affections into an ever open and practical channel, were quieted, reconciled, upheld. The weak were borne upon the bosoms of the strong. Banded together, and working together, their solicitude and uneasiness were alleviated. Following in imagination the work of their own hands, they seemed to be present on the field and in the ranks; they studied the course of the armies; they watched the policy of the Government; they learned the character of the Generals; they threw themselves into the war! And so they helped wonderfully to keep up the enthusiasm, or to rebuke the lukewarmness, or to check the despondency and apathy which at times settled over the people. Men were ashamed to doubt where women trusted, or to murmur where they submitted, or to do little where they did so much. If during the war, home life had gone on as usual; women engrossed in their domestic or social cares; shrinking from public questions; deferring to what their husbands or brothers told them, or seeking to amuse themselves with social pleasures and striving to forget the painful strife in frivolous caprices, it would have had a fearful effect on public sentiment, deepening the gloom of every reverse, adding to the discouragements which an embarrassed commerce and trade brought to men’s hearts, by domestic echoes of weariness of the strife, and favoring the growth of a disaffected, compromising, unpatriotic feeling, which always stood ready to break out with any offered encouragement. A sense of nearness of the people to the Government which the organization of the women effected, enlarged their sympathies with its movements and disposed them to patience. Their own direct experience of the difficulties of all co-operative undertakings, broadened their views and rendered intelligible the delays and reverses which our national cause suffered. In short the women of the country wee through the whole conflict, not only not softening the fibres of war, but they were actually strengthening its sinews by keeping up their own courage and that of their households, under the inspiration of the larger and more public life, the broader work and greater field for enterprise and self-sacrifice afforded them by their direct labors for the benefit of the soldiers. They drew thousands of lukewarm, or calculating, or self-saving men into the support of the national cause by their practical enthusiasm and devotion. They proved what has again and again been demonstrated, that what the women of a country resolve shall be done, will and must be done. They shamed recruits into the ranks, and made it almost impossible for deserts, or cowards, or malingerers to come home; they emptied the pockets of social idlers, or wealthy drones, into the treasuries of the Aid Societies; and they compelled the shops and domestic trade of all cities to be favorable to the war. The American women were nearer right and more thoroughly united by this means, and their own healthier instincts, than the American men. The Army, whose bayonets were glittering needles, advanced with more unbroken ranks, and exerted almost a greater moral force than the army that carried loaded muskets.

The Aid Societies and the direct oversight the women sought to give the men in the field, very much increased the reason for correspondence between the homes and tents.

The women were proud to write what those at the hearth-stone were doing for those who tended the camp-fires, and the men were happy and cheery to acknowledge the support they received from this home sympathy. The immense correspondence between the army and the homes, prodigious beyond belief, as it was, some regiments sending home a thousand letters a week, and receiving as many more back; the constant transmission to the men of newspapers, full of the records of home work and army news, produced a homogeneousness of feeling between he soldier and the citizens, which kept the men in the field, civilians, and made the people at home, of both sexes, half-soldiers.

Thus there never grew up in the army any purely military and anti-social or anti-civil sentiments. The soldiers studied and appreciated all the time the moral causes of the War, and were acquainted with the political as well as military complications. They felt all the impulses of home strengthening their arms and encouraging their hearts. And their letters home, as a rule, were designed to put the best face upon things, and to encourage their wives and sweet-hearts, their sisters and parents, to bear their absence with fortitude, and even with cheerfulness.

The influence on the tone of their correspondence, exerted by the fact that the women were always working for the Army, and that the soldiers always knew they were working, and were always receiving evidence of their care, may be better imagined than described. It largely ministered to that sympathetic unity between the soldiers and the country, which made our army always a corrective and an inspiration to our Governmental policy, and kept up that fine reciprocal influence between civil and military life, which gave an heroic fibre to all souls at home, and finally restored us our soldiers with their citizen hearts beating regularly under their uniforms, as they dropped them off at the last drum-tap. 

H. W. B.


**A large number of the United States Army and volunteer surgeons were indeed men of the highest and most humane character, and treated the women who came to the hospitals, with careful and scrupulous consideration. Some women were able to say that they never encountered opposition or hinderance from any officials; but this was not the rule.



Woman's Work in the Civil War: A Record of Heroism, Patriotism and Patience by Linus Pierpont Brockett, Mary C. Vaughan, 1867.