About the Project Subscribe Contact
View Slideshow

he first Currier & Ives print of Molly Pitcher appeared in 1848, the same year that Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminists met at Seneca Falls for the first women’s rights convention.  The “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” passed by the delegates there called for women’s enfranchisement as “this first right of a citizen.”  As this coincidence in time suggests, the discussion linking citizenship to the bearing of arms in battle was particularly intense in the United States both during and immediately after the Civil War.

Both feminists and their opponents understood the literal nature of the body politic.  When only white males were considered full citizens, commentators often noted that women’s bodies rendered them unsuitable to vote.  One popular satire of women’s emancipation suggested that women, if granted equal status to men, might give birth in the pulpit, while discharging their duties as physicians, or “in a raging tempest of battle, and then what is to become of the woman legislator, the female captain of the ship, or the female general of the army.  The idea is ludicrous beyond measure.”[i]  As an abolitionist journal reported in 1853, a Cincinnati woman who dressed like a man in order to vote was sentenced to twenty days in prison[ii].  While some Bloomer advocates recommended that women simply dress in male attire for reasons of comfort, the notion of a cross-dressing woman was obviously threatening to many—if a woman could appear to be a man, how could her inherent feminine weakness be detected?  As one writer for the Southern periodical De Bow’s Review wrote mockingly of women’s rights advocates, “at this rate, ladies, it is time to throw aside your kid gloves, and accustom yourself to something even more manlike than your satin and muslin Bloomer equipments.  Your fair hands must harden themselves to the management of Colt’s revolvers, of bombs, grenades, and whatnot?”[iii]  This suggestion was clearly sarcastic—after all, Southern courts had affirmed that, legally speaking, even self-defense in the home was an action taken only by the male head of household.[iv]

These humorous discussions of women’s physical capabilities to handle tasks of public responsibility had serious implications.  For in the debates surrounding women’s rights, feminists as well as anti-feminists tied their ideas about women’s citizenship to military service. Women’s rights advocates used a number of strategies to question the ideal of the male citizen-soldier, ranging from pointing out that soldiers sometimes made less than ideal citizens, to championing women’s pacific nature and questioning the need for warfare, to finally, and most provocatively, pointing to historical examples of female soldiers.

First, feminists stressed there were many reasons for men to go to war, many of which had nothing to do with civic virtue.  As H.H. Van Amringe pointed out at the 1850 Woman’s Rights Convention held at Worcester, military service was undertaken by men for a number of reasons, including “a passion of ambition, a love of glory, a desire for carnage, and as a means of subsistence.”[v]  In other words, the traits of good soldiers did not necessarily make for the best citizens.

Other feminists went further in rejecting the model of the citizen-soldier by claiming that women’s enfranchisement would mean the end of all wars. As Lucretia Mott pointed out, while many women throughout history had fought in wars, “more noble, moral daring is marking the female character at the present time, and better worthy of imitation.  As these characteristics come to be appreciated in man too, his warlike acts, with all the miseries and horrors of the battlefield, will sink into their merited oblivion.”[vi]   Mott, thus, looked to women’s enfranchisement to redefine the meaning of citizenship, and to sever the connection between martial valor and full civic participation.

However, it could be difficult for commentators to successfully question the ideal of the citizen-soldier.  Because of this, the female soldier was the most charged of symbols in a republican ideology that stressed male valor as the basis for citizenship.  At the Syracuse Women’s Rights Convention of 1852, a speaker pointed out that women had fought in every war, successfully playing men’s roles at every rank and taking positions of leadership[vii]. Some feminists pointed all the way back to Biblical times, invoking a long history of female soldiers as justification for women’s rights.  If women could fight as well as men, there was no reason, so this argument went, to deny them full civic rights. During a time of active public debates about women’s suitability for full citizenship, the Civil War provided an opportunity for feminists and anti-feminists to rethink the nature of women’s patriotism. Specifically, it offered a chance for women to use the gun to both embrace and redefine women’s roles.

During a time of active public debates about women’s suitability for full citizenship, the Civil War provided an opportunity for feminists and anti-feminists to rethink the nature of women’s patriotism.

While men obviously formed the vast majority of the armed patriots of the Civil War, there were a number of women as well who entered the fray as soldiers and armed spies. One contemporary commentator put the number of cross-dressing soldiers at over four hundred.[viii]  In fact many scholars today suggest that even more women fought on the battlefields, estimating that as many as four hundred soldiers fought on the Union side and two hundred and fifty on the Confederate side.[ix]

The “military heroine” was both ridiculed and extolled in newspapers:  ridiculed because of her unwomanliness;  extolled because her extreme devotion to Union or Confederacy led her to an extreme position.  Working class single women were generally treated humorously by the press.  “A Rejected Recruit,” a typical item in The Liberator, recounted the story of “a middle-aged person of Irish birth,” who upon being handed over to the police, “was suffered to depart, with the hint that the war could be prosecuted without her aid as a soldier.”[x]The Savannah [Georgia] Republican described one Minnesota female soldier as so intimidating that a man who recognized her “became shockingly frightened at her threats of vengeance upon him if he exposed her, and he decamped.” [xi]However, middle-class married women who enlisted to stay with their spouses were often described by the press as true patriots. As Lee Ann Whites notes, the women who did go so far as to enlist with their husbands were generally applauded in newspaper accounts.  The Augusta, Georgia Chronicle and Sentineldescribed local citizens, who called upon one such visiting female soldier, as “highly delighted with her agreeable manners and her heroic purpose.”[xii]  A group of women in La Grange, a small Georgia town, formed a military company during the Civil War, which they named after Revolutionary heroine Nancy Hart.  They drilled, practiced their marksmanship, and patrolled the streets of their town, while taking time out to nurse wounded soldiers and perform other womanly duties.[xiii]         


[i] New York Herald, September 14, 1852.  Quoted in Isenberg, Sex and Citizenship in Antebellum America, 42.
[ii] “Male Impersonation,” National Anti-Slavery Bugle, April 28, 1853, quoted in ibid, 48.
[iii] L.S.M. “Woman and Her Needs.” De Bow’s Southern and Western Review. September, 1852, vol. I, no. 3, 279-280.
[iv] Isenberg, 151.
[v] The Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Convention held at Worcester, October 23 & 24, 1850, 44.
[vi] Mott, Discourse on Woman Delivered at the Assembly Buildings December 17, 1849, 5.
[vii] Isenberg, 144.
[viii] Nurse Mary Livermore, in My Story of the War, 119-120, while noting that many contemporary observers “stated the number of women soldiers known to the service as little less than four hundred…I am convinced that a larger number of women disguised themselves, and enlisted in the service, for one cause or another, than was dreamed of.”
[ix] De Pauw, Battle Cries and Lullabies,151.  See also Leonard, All the Daring of the Soldier,310-311.
[x] “A Rejected Recruit,” The Liberator, vol xxxii, no. 34, August 22, 1862, 135.  For a discussion of reporting on female soldiers during the Civil War, see Blanton and Cook, They Fought Like Demons, 145-162.
[xi] Savannah [GA] Republican, June 5, 1861, p. 1, c. 3.  Quoted in “Women Soldiers, Spies and Vivandieres:  Articles from Civil War Newspapers.” http://www.uttyl.edu/vbetts/women_soldiers.htm, downloaded 9/13/05.
[xii] Whites,  The Civil War As a Crisis in Gender,40.
[xiii] Mrs. Forrest T. Morgan.  “‘Nancy Harts’ of the Confederacy.”  Confederate Veteran, vol. Xxx, no. 12 [December, 1922], 465-466.