Women in the Civil War


When we think about the Civil War there are a few women's names that pop in our minds like Harriet Tubman and perhaps nurses like Clara Barton and Louisa May Alcott. Today I am going to delve into the lives and accomplishments of other women in the Civil War that you may not have heard of. There were many women who worked on the homefront, fundraising, making uniforms, etc., but the women I am sharing about today did even more. The Civil War was a war that made it easier for women to disguise themselves as men and fight. In fact it is estimated that there were more than 400 women who did so. Some were discovered when injured or died and others never were. They were of different races and worked for the North or the South. Each had her own courageous adventure in the war. As with the other Women in Wars posts I will share books for kids to learn more about the women when I can. To begin this post I am going to share books that have multiple women in them. I have personally found Women in the Civil War by Kari A. Cornell and Heroism Begins with Her by Winifred Conkling extremely useful and used both as sources for this post. All of the women featured in this post are featured in these books or in the Famous Women of the Civil War by Peter F. Copeland which is a coloring book.

The Union

Before the Civil War nursing had been a male field. Women were inspired by Florence Nightingale to help with it. Several women made a big difference in the nursing field including Clara Barton and Dorothea Lynde Dix. 

Clara Barton

Clarissa "Clara" Harlowe Barton was born on December 25, 1821 in Oxford, Massachusetts. She was the youngest of five kids. As a teenager she had to take care of her brother, David. He was seriously ill. Her family encouraged her to become a teacher. She founded a school at her brother's mill for the worker's children when she was 24. In 1852 she established a free school in Bordertown, New Jersey. It was the first one there. When she discovered a man had been hired for twice her pay at the school she left saying she would never work for less than a man. In 1854 she worked as a clerk for the U.S. Patent Office. She made the same amount as her male colleagues, but a year later the Secretary of the Interior changed the policies and demoted her. She quit the job when the Civil War began. She made it her duty to bring supplies to the Union soldiers. In 1862 she received permission to bring supplies to the battlefields. She was at every major battle in Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina. She was known as the "angel of the battlefield" when she tended the wounded on the battlefield. She was named the head nurse, even though she had no medical training, for one of General Benjamin Butler's units. She also helped slaves prepare for freedom. After the war Clara traveled to Europe and in Switzerland learned about the International Red Cross. When she returned to America she began to prepare for the creation of the American society of the Red Cross. Additional Source: Michals, Debra. "Clara Barton." National Women's History Museum. 2015.

There are many books about Clara Barton. Here are a few that I found at Amazon and our local library. 

Dorothea Lynde Dix

Dorothea Lynde Dix c1850-55

Dorothea Lynde Dix was born in 1802 in Hampden, Maine. At a young age she moved to Boston to live with her grandmother. It is believed this may be due to abuse by her father. In Boston she attended school and tutored kids. She had several bouts with serious illnesses. She went to Europe on a doctor's suggestion and there she saw how doctors were changing treatment of mental illness. When she returned to the United States she fought to change the treatments here and opened several asylums. When the Civil War broke out she dedicated herself to the Union side. She was designated as the Superintendent of Army Nurses for the Union Army. She set high standards for the nurses but was very successful. She really pushed for training for the female nurses. She appointed more than 3,000 of the Army nurses. She was known for tending to soldiers on both sides. She spent her life improving hospitals and working for nurses rights. Additional Source: Norwood, Arlisha. "Dorothea Dix." National Women's History Museum. 2017.

Here are some books I found on Dorothea Dix.

Susie King Taylor

(Susie King Taylor, known as the first African American Army nurse) (LOC)

Susan Baker was born into slavery on August 6, 1848 in Georgia. When she was seven the plantation master allowed Susie to live with her free grandmother in Savannah. She went to secret schools where she learned to read and write. In April 1862 Susie escaped slavery with her uncle. She lived on the Union-occupied St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. At age 14 she was teaching other Black people to read and write.  She became the first Black woman to openly educate Black students in Georgia. That same year she married Edward King. He was a Black officer in the 33rd United States Colored Infantry. She followed him and became a nurse and laundress for his unit. She had no medical training but learned on the job. She taught soldiers to read and write during down moments. She also learned to handle a musket during this time. She served as a nurse at a hospital for Black soldiers in Beaumont, South Carolina. It was during this time she met and worked with Clara Barton. Susie served the Union military for four years and three months without pay. After the war she and Edward moved to Savannah where Susie opened a school for Black students. Edward died a few months before the birth of their first child. Susie struggled to survive on her educator's salary and eventually became a domestic servant for a wealthy family. She moved with the family to Boston in the early 1870s. In Boston she met and married Russell Taylor. In Boston she also served with the Women's Relief Corps. She also wrote a book about her experiences. In 1902 her memoir was published. She is known as the first Black army nurse. Additional Sources: "Susie Taylor." 

Here are some books I found for kids about Susie King Taylor. She lived such a remarkable life!

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker

Mary Walker. Photograph by Elliott & Fry. Wellcome V0027302

Mary Edwards Walker was born on November 26, 1832 in Oswego, New York. She was the fifth daughter born to abolitionists. She was encouraged to think freely and allowed to wear "bloomer" pants instead of skirts and corsets as was the societal norm of the time. Her parents started the first free school in Oswego so their daughters could be educated as their son was. All the children also did work on the family farm. She attended Falley Seminary in Fulton, New York. After graduation she became a teacher in Minetto, New York. She knew she wanted to be a doctor. She saved her money to attend medical school. She attended Syracuse Medical School and received her medical degree in 1855. She was the second American woman to receive her medical degree. (The first was Elizabeth Blackwell.) After graduation she married fellow medical student, Albert Miller. They started a medical practice together but it failed since the public was not ready to have a female doctor. When the Civil War began Mary wanted to serve the Union. She went to Washington but was denied because medical officers could not be female. She volunteered to be an unpaid surgeon at the U.S. Patent Office. She was not allowed to be a surgeon and had to take the position of a nurse. She organized the Women's Relief Organization that helped families of the wounded when they were visiting the hospital. In 1862 she moved to Virginia to a hospital near the front lines. Her request to become a spy was denied but in 1863 her request to be an Army surgeon finally was approved. She became the first U.S. Army surgeon and worked in Ohio. In April 1864 she was finishing helping a Confederate doctor with surgery when she was captured by the Confederate troops as a spy. She was held in prison for four months and refused to wear women's clothing during that time. She wore men's clothes most of her life because she thought women's clothes at the time were less hygienic. She also wore pants under her wedding dress. When she was released from prison she became assistant surgeon of the Ohio 52nd regiment. After the war she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor (sometimes referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor) by President Andrew Johnson. She is the only woman who has ever received this honor. She also was fought for women's rights with everything from dress reform and voting. In 1916 her award was taken away with the claim that she was not qualified for it. President Jimmy Carter legally restored it. Additional Source: Alexander, Kerri Lee. “Mary Edwards Walker.” National Women’s History Museum. 2019.

I only found one book for kids about Dr. Mary Walker. 

Two other nurses with Elmina Spencer and Annie Etheridge should also be checked out. I found one children's book on Annie Etheridge. And of course Louisa May Alcott who also volunteered as nurse in Washington. Here is a book about her experience

As I mentioned in the introduction many women disguised themselves as men to fight in the war. Here are some of the women who made a name for themselves as soldiers. 

Sarah Emma Edmonds

Sarah Edmonds lg sepia
Sarah Emma Edmondson was born in December 1841 in New Brunswick, Canada. Her father was a farmer and wanted a son. He mistreated his daughter because of her gender so she ran away. She changed her name to Edmonds. After a year of hiding in Canada she decided to go to the United States since she feared being found by her father. She decided to disguise herself as a man to make travel easier and went by Franklin Thompson. She found work in Hartford, Connecticut as a Bible salesman. When the war began she was in Flint, Michigan. She wanted to support the Union and decided to enlist under the name Franklin Thomson. She joined the 2nd Michigan Infantry. Her unit helped with the retreat of the Battle of First Manassas. She stayed behind to nurse the wounded. In March 1862 she was assigned as the mail carrier for the regiment. A month later the regiment was shipped out to Virginia and took part in the Siege of Yorktown. It was during this time she was asked to be a spy. Although there is no proof of her being a spy she shares about it in her memoirs. On May 5, 1962 her regiment was under heavy fire in the Battle of Williamsburg. She fired a musket with her comrades as well as being a stretcher carrier for over an hour in the pouring rain. In the spring of 1863 her regiment was sent to Kentucky. It was there that she contracted malaria. She requested a furlough but was denied. She feared getting medical treatment so she left and never returned to her regiment in mid-April. Franklin Thompson was charged with desertion. After recovering from malaria, Sarah worked with the United States Christian Commission as a female nurse. After the war she wrote and published her memoirs. Proceeds from the book were donated to various soldier funds. In 1867 she married Linus Seelye and they had three children. In 1876 she attended the reunion of the 2nd Michigan Infantry. The members welcomed her and helped her to remove the desertion charges. In 1884 the charges were dropped and she received a military pension. In 1897 Sarah Emma Edmonds was admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic. She was the only woman member. She died a year later. Additional Source: "Sarah Emma Edmonds."

Here are some books I found to teach kids about this amazing woman.

Sarah Rosetta Wakeman


Sarah Rosetta Wakeman was born on January 16, 1843 in Bainbridge, New York. She was the eldest of nine children in a poor farming family. In August 1862 she decided to leave her family home as a man. She signed on as a boatman on a coal barge in the Chenango Canal. After her first trip she enlisted under the name Lyons Wakeman in the 153rd New York Infantry Regiment. The regiment left for Washington, DC in October. One of the things that made Sarah's experience special is all of her letters were preserved by her family. This gave the first hand experience to all. Her regiment went on fighting and then on May 3, 1864 she reported to the regimental hospital with chronic diarrhea. She was transferred to a hospital in New Orleans on May 22nd. She was gravely ill and died at the hospital on June 19, 1864. There is no record of her gender being discovered. She was buried in a grave marked as Private Lyons Wakeman near New Orleans. Additional Source: "Sarah Rosetta Wakeman."

I only found one book and it is not a children's book about Sarah Wakeman.

Cathay Williams

Cathay Williams

Cathay Williams was born to a enslaved mother and free father in Independence, Missouri in 1844. She worked as a house slave on the Johnson plantation on the outskirts of Jefferson City, Missouri. In 1861 Union forces occupied Jefferson City and captured slaves were forced to work for the Union military. Before her voluntary enlistment she worked as an Army cook and washerwoman. On November 15, 1866 Cathay enlisted under the name William Cathay. She was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry Regiment. Shortly after her enlistment she contracted smallpox. She joined her regiment in New Mexico when she recovered. She however suffered during this time and had frequent trips to the hospitals. Her gender was discovered and she was discharged on October 14, 1868. After her discharge she signed up with an emerging all-Black regimentthat would eventually become part of the Buffalo Soldiers. Throughout her life she suffered from injuries and issues related to her time served. She was denied a disability pension after being examined by a doctor even though she had diabetes, neuralgia, and had all her toes amputated and walked with a crutch. Her story was told by a St. Louis Daily Times reporter in the newspaper on January 2, 1876. She is believed to be the only Black woman to have enlisted in the Army during this time. She is also the only known female Buffalo Soldier. Additional Source: National Park Service. "Cathay Williams." Cathay Williams (U.S. National Park Service) (

Again I didn't find many books about Cathay. The books I found were not children's books.

There were over 400 women who disguised themselves as men and fought on both sides of the war. Many of the stories we do not know anything or much about. Here are a few more I have found in the books I listed above. 

Frances Hook fought along the side of her brother. After suffering the loss of their parents the two were inseparable. She used the name Frank Miller. Her brother died in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. She reenlisted several times suing different aliases.

Jane Short fought as Charley Davis. She was injured during the Battle of Shiloh. She did not seek medical treatment in fear of her gender being discovered. Later she became ill as a result of her wound. In the hospital her gender was discovered and the Army immediately discharged her. 

Another role women took on was as a spy. 

Elizabeth Van Lew

Elizabeth Van Lew by Philadelphia photographer A. J. De Morat

Elizabeth Van Lew was born on October 12, 1818 in Richmond, Virginia. Both of her parents were born in the North, however they fit right into the Richmond society. Elizabeth was sent to a Quaker school in either Pennsylvania or New Jersey. She returned to Richmond to be presented to society. Although unmarried she was very active in the Richmond society. Both she and her mother were antislavery. They allowed their slaves to live elsewhere and work for money. One Black girl "owned" by the family was baptized at the family church and sent for an education in New Jersey. The family funded her five-year missionary trip to Liberia. Elizabeth and her mother straddled the anti-slavery movement and Richmond society. When the war broke out Elizabeth and her mother convinced General John Winder to allow them to bring water and food to the prisoners in Libby Prison. This enabled them to pass messages to and from the prisoners, get the prisoners extra food and water as well as help the prisoners escape through much financial loss to the Van Lew family. The women also would stage times of helping the Confederate soldiers and even boarded the prison warden in their house so they would not be suspected to be Union sympathizers. In December 1863 General Benjamin Butler asked Elizabeth to be a Union spy. She recruited twelve people both Black and white to be a spy ring to help her collect information on the Confederates. The group included the "slave" mentioned above. General Ulysses S. Grant acknowledged her efforts with the war and she was given a small stipend that did not cover her expenses. She was branded a spy and never gained her standing in the Richmond society again. Some even called her crazy, eccentric, and mad and gave her a nickname of "Crazy Bett". Additional Source: "Elizabeth Van Lew." Elizabeth Van Lew | American Battlefield Trust ( 

Here are some of the children's books I found featuring Elizabeth Van Lew.

Harriet Tubman

Carte-de-visite portrait of Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman is well known for her work with the Underground Railroad. Did you know she was a Union scout, spy, cook, and nurse during the Civil War? In June 1863 she served as a key adviser under the leadership of Colonel James Montgomery for an operation in Combahee, South Carolina. She accompanied a regiment of soldiers that set fire to a plantation, forced Confederate soldiers to retreat, and used gunboats to free over 700 enslaved people. Harriet served the Army for three years but only received $200 for her work. This was a fraction of what males in her role earned. There are many interesting stories beyond the Underground Railroad about Harriet Tubman. I hope you will explore them more. Additional Source: Errick, Jennifer. National Parks Conservation Association. "5 Facts You Might Not Know About Harriet Tubman." (1 Feb 2021)

There are many children's books about Harriet. Here are a few to get you started.

Mary Elizabeth Bowser

Mary Bowser

Mary Elizabeth Bowser was born on a plantation owned by the Van Lew family in Richmond, Virginia. When John Van Lew died, his wife, Eliza, and their daughter Elizabeth (same as Elizabeth Van Lew above) freed their slaves including Mary. I believe Mary Bowser is the slave I mentioned above but am not completely sure. With the war coming Elizabeth suggested to Mary that she get a position in the Davis household. Mary did this and proved to be an important Union spy. Davis and his cabinet members assumed she was a slave and discussed everything in front of her. They also assumed she was illiterate and left papers out around her. Mary passed the information on to Elizabeth Van Lew as well as other Union informants. Little is known about her work though since the government destroyed any record of her work (as well as of other spies). There is also no records of what she did after the war. Additional Source: Ohio State University Department of History. "Mary Elizabeth Bowser." Mary Elizabeth Bowser | eHISTORY (

I found a couple books on Mary Bowser.


Now we move to the South. I did not find as many women with big stories on the Confederate side but I am sure there are more. Many of the women who stayed home had to deal with much more than the Northern women since the war was being fought there. Here are the few stories I found.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez

Loreta Janeta Velázquez as herself (right) and disguised as Lieutenant Harry T. Buford (left)

Loreta Janeta Valazquez claimed to have been born on June 26, 1842 in Havana, Cuba. She claimed her father was a Spanish government official in Cuba and that her mother was the child of a French naval officer and a wealthy American merchant. She was the sixth child. When she was two her father quit her job and the family moved to Texas which was part of Mexico at the time. The Mexican-American War broke out and her father fought for Mexico. He sent his family to the West Indies for safety. When the war ended their property was destroyed and was in the part that went to control of the United States. Her father refused to live under control of the United States so he moved his family to Puerto de Palmas, Mexico where he made a fortune on sugar, tobacco and coffee trades. Loreta had an English governess but in 1849 she was sent to live and study with an aunt in New Orleans. She attended a school run by the Sisters of Charity. Her family had arranged for her to be married but instead she eloped with United States Army officer named William. Her father was furious and cut her off. She was only 14. The couple moved around between posts in the west. She gave birth to three children, but all of them died during infancy. When the Civil War broke out, William resigned for the U.S. Army and joined the Confederate Army. Loreta wanted to disguise herself as a man and join as well, but William wouldn't allow her to. She waited until he left for the front when she ordered two uniforms and enlisted as Henry T. Buford. She recruited 236 men and marched them to Pensacola and presented them to her husband and revealed herself to him. She stayed with William in Pensacola. Shortly after her arrival though he died. She traveled with some of her husband's friends to Virginia. She had her first combat experience at the First Battle of Bull Run. Loreta changed back to her female clothing and made her way to Washington, D.C. There she learned some Union secrets and passed them along to the Confederates. There is some debate as to whether her story is true, but it is an interesting one. Additional Source: Women & the American Story. "Loreta Janeta Velazquez." Life Story: Loreta Janeta Velazquez (1842 - ca. 1897 or 1923) - Women & the American Story (

I only found one book about Loreta although apparently she wrote her own memoir as well.

Mary Ann Clark joined the Confederate Army after her husband left her and their two children to marry a woman in California. She was heartbroken and left her kids to fight.

Sally Tompkins

Sally Louisa Tompkins was born on November 9, 1833 at Poplar Grove in Matthews County, Virginia. She lived a life of privilege. By the outbreak of the war her father had died and Sally and her mother lived in Richmond. After the First Battle of Manassas, Sally dedicated her life and inheritance to help the Confederate soldiers. She acquired and converted the home of Judge John Robertson into a hospital. She and the women of St. James Episcopal Church staffed the hospital. Apparently the hospital was so well run and the women treated the wounded men with kindness. The soldiers begged to go to the Robertson Hospital. However since some of the Confederate soldiers were hiding in the hospitals to avoid fighting or chores, an order went down that all hospitals must be run by the military thus closing private hospitals. Sally appealed to President Jefferson Davis. He commissioned her a captain of cavalry in the Confederate Army. She refused the pay that went with the commission. This position also allowed her to get supplies from the military. She also was the only woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Confederate Army as a woman. Her soldier patients gave her the nickname Captain Sally. The hospital was open for 45 months. It treated 1,333 patients and lost only 73. She was sent some of the harder cases due to the reputation of her hospital yet maintained an amazing survival rate. She lived into old age and was almost penniless having spent her inheritance to run the hospital. She died one day after her 83rd birthday. Additional Source: Soodlater, Rod. "Civil War's Unstoppable 'Captain Sally' Committed Herself to the Wounded." (May 2019) Civil War's Unstoppable 'Captain Sally' Committed Herself to the Wounded (

I found a few books featuring Sally.

Belle Boyd

Belle Boyd

Maria Isabella "Belle" Boyd was born on May 4, 1844 in Martinsburg, Virginia to a wealthy family. At age 12 she attended the Mount Washington Female College of Baltimore. She graduated when she was 16 and returned to Martinsburg. Martinsburg fell to the Union a year later. Her father joined General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's Troops. Belle helped raise funds and sew uniforms for the Confederate soldiers. Then a Union soldier invaded their home and assaulted her mother. During the assault Belle shot him dead. She was acquitted of the crime. Belle used her feminine ways to gain Union secrets and shared them with Confederate generals. At first the Union soldiers did not expect a woman to be intelligent enough to betray them this way. Her flirting seemed to be the main way she gained intelligence. She was arrested six times. She was imprisoned on July 29, 1862 in Old Capitol Prison which is now the location of the Supreme Court. She was later banished to the Confederate capitol of Richmond.  While arrested she apparently flew the Confederate flag and sang dixie while in prison. She also found ways to communicate with her supporters outside. She was arrested again and banished to Canada but she went to England. She also married a Union naval officer, Lieutenant Sam Hardinge. In England she wrote her memoir and found success on stage. When she returned she was a widow and mother. In 1869 she married John Swainston Hammond. After sixteen years of marriage and four children, she divorced him. Two months later she married Nathaniel High, Jr. She died in poverty while on tour in Wisconsin. She was known as one of the most notorious Confederate spies. Additional Sources: American Battlefields Trust. "Maria 'Belle' Boyd." Maria “Belle” Boyd | American Battlefield Trust ( Michals, Debra. "Belle Boyd." National Women's History Museum. 2015.

I was able to find some books on Belle.

So this concludes our exploration of the women in the Civil War. I know there are more to explore but I will end this here. Join us next week as we look at women in World War I.  Be sure to check out our post on Women in the Revolutionary War and our introduction of women in wars with bits about women from all over the world throughout history.