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Portraits of women in war

Women in War

The Role of Women in America's Wars

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American Heroines

The upheaval of the American Revolution and the Civil War profoundly altered women’s lives, opening new paths and allowing them to take on roles previously held largely by men. Nursing, which had been a male profession, is the best-known example.

In hospitals across the country thousands of women stepped in to serve as nurses. The treatment they provided to sick and wounded soldiers saved countless lives. During the Civil War, Kate Cumming and Phoebe Pember tended to hundreds of soldiers in the South. In the North, women like Mary Livermore and the indefatigable Clara Barton made their voices heard in the highest halls of power, successfully advocating for reforms based on their experiences as nurses during the war. These reforms had a lasting and positive impact on the quality of medical care in the United States.

It was not just in health care that women took on an increasingly assertive role during America's founding conflicts. During the American Revolution, women like Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren were able to influence politics and policies in meaningful ways.

In the decades leading up to the Civil War, a growing movement for women’s rights developed in the North as an off-shoot of the anti-slavery movement. Courageous activists like Abby Kelley and Sojourner Truth continued to fight for the cause throughout the Civil War, while at the same time advocating for abolition and the Union.

Southern women were no less important or outspoken. Rose O’Neal Greenhow and other female spies provided invaluable intelligence to the Confederacy, making a real difference on the battlefield. Southern diarist Mary Chesnut’s keen insights continue to fascinate readers more than a century-and-half later.

Women, both North and South, also ventured onto the battlefield, many changing their appearance so they could fight incognito for the cause they believed in. African American women like Harriet Tubman often took on especially dangerous roles, operating behind Confederate lines as Union scouts.

While the American Revolution, War of 1812, and Civil War may be remembered by many as a conflict between men, American women knew that it was their fight too.