When Johnny went marching off to war their women stayed home to fight


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016
"Oh have you heard the joyful news?
Virginia has Old Abe refused,
Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!

Virginia joined the Cotton States” {1}


“Ah! the stars and bars we'll fling on high,
And for our homes we'll fight or die,
Hurrah! hurrah! hurrah! hurrah!” {1}

On April 17, 1862 the City Council in Nashville meets to pass a resolution. It begins with the Mayor of Nashville instructed to have the flag of the United States placed upon all public property. Additionally, all male teachers are requested to take the oath of allegiance or resign their positions; the council gives “thanks” for the officers and soldiers of the Union Army and pledge their “hearty” cooperation; and then it discusses a “female” teacher in the district. This teacher had been teaching her young students a song and it’s time to stop her activities. ​

“Our cause is right—our quarrel just—
In the God of battles we will trust,
Hurrah! hurrah!

We'll die for old Virginia.” {1}

A petition to the Council relieves her of her job, and in this particular situation, they do not even offer her a chance to sign any oath of allegiance to the United States. Then the Council adjourned their work for the evening.​

“Your Country Calls”

They were the not-so-quiet warriors in the Civil War. They had no legal power, could not make contracts, wills or control the wages they earned. They could not own property nor could they vote. What could they do? They could get their men to fight and do it very well.

Before we can understand the ladies of the Confederacy, we must take a look at the culture of the Antebellum South. Since the formation of the United States Constitution there was great debate and trepidation over the subject of slavery. Slavery was an accepted practice from the early founding of the country but as time went by the North was drawn away from the practice while the South financially flourished in its system. As time continued it was inevitable there would be a confrontation by those on both sides.

For women residing in the South and within its culture there was an expectation of certain “cardinal virtues” that must be maintained to be accepted in their society. These virtues were: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity” {3}. There was also an accepted class structure among Southern women. Education opportunities were limited and if one could afford to attend a school, a young lady’s educational pursuits were geared toward how she would grow up to be a socially accepted wife and mother. An education in the arts and languages was accepted but it was rare for a girl to be encouraged into other avenues of education.

By 1859 the bubbling cauldron of conflict was ready to be spilled throughout the land and it finally reached the tipping point upon the election of Abraham Lincoln. During the winter of 1861-1862 a pandemic was raging throughout the South: secession fever. The women looked to the North as the invaders that were out to financially ruin their way of life. Southern women were well acquainted with two little words: “States Rights” and by the time the first shot of the Civil War was fired off the South Carolina coast, women throughout the soon to be Confederate States were finding their voices. When a “call for arms” was ordered, women became the cheerleaders for their families. As this woman wrote:

“Your country calls... I am ready to offer you up in defense of your country’s rights and honor; and I now offer you, a beardless boy of 17 summers, not with grief, but thanking God that I have a son to offer.” {3}

On July 14, 1862 the “Nashville Daily Union” a pro-Union newspaper printed this story titled “New Orleans She-Rebels”:

“A gentleman informs us that he heard a woman, a professed Christian, say, the other day: ‘If a son of mine were to desert the Confederate army, I would make him go back." Aye, go back to toil, to hardships, to filth, to hunger, and to disease. Go back to nights of anguish and days of sorrow. Go back to rebellion, to treason, and to certain death. May God forgive that unfeeling, unmotherly mother! What madness is this rebel frenzy’!” {4}

Frank Leslie’s May 23, 1863 edition illustrates the mentality of the “She-Rebels” when they captioned this illustration “Southern Women Hounding their Men to Rebellion”.​


(LOC Photo - No Known Copyright)

While women in the North were thought to be less politically motivated and under the impression (from their husbands) that war would never come and if it should happen the more powerful industrial North would overpower the agriculture economy of the South. Like most people at the beginning of the war they believed it would be a short war but attitudes quickly changed and Southern women were enthusiastically ready to arm their men as this article from the May 11, 1862 “Nashville Daily Union” reported:

The Louisville Journal says that the New Orleans papers were boasting of the female troops organized there, and expresses its astonishment that the Crescent City was taken without a terrible battle. This may be easily explained by the fact that the she-rebels are building gunboats at Savannah and other points. The Amazons are merely changing their tactics. They are baring their breasts for a terrible naval engagement!" {1}


The Preachers from their Pulpits

The South believed that God was on their side and that God would prevail in the forming of this new “Christian” nation. Their national motto Deo Vindice (“God will Avenge”) only served to reinforce this belief. “To recognize our dependence upon God . . . [and] to supplicate his merciful protection” {5} were words uttered by Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

After their victory at the Battle of Manassas July 21, 1861, people attending St. John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond Virginia heard a special thanksgiving sermon preached by William C. Butler in which he said:

“God has given us of the South today a fresh and golden opportunity—and so a most solemn command—to realize that form of government in which the just, constitutional rights of each and all are guaranteed to each and all. … He has placed us in the front rank of the most marked epochs of the world’s history. He has placed in our hands a commission which we can faithfully execute only by holy, individual self-consecration to all of God’s plans.” {5}

The results of this passionate preaching from the pulpit made “Southern women ferocious in their opposition to the North and their insistence that their men keep fighting”. So firm in their belief that they would be held accountable before God for the wars outcome that: When they went to work in the mills and factories left unmanned by war, when they took over the roles of protector and provider at home, they understood themselves as vital players in a divine experiment of Christian nationhood. And when they suffered the afflictions of northern armies in their backyards and growing numbers of war dead, they strengthened and consoled themselves with the knowledge that they were doing God’s work on earth.” {5}

It’s no wonder when General Sherman marched through Georgia he felt justified “in inflicting enormous civilian damages against the South” [as] “the southern women’s sense of outrage and their religious determination to hold out against the North forfeited the protection that decency and the rules of war afforded ‘civilians’.” {5}

The ladies were in “the front rank of the most marked epochs of the world’s history”, and it was a fight they were ready, willing and able to enlist and to use whatever means necessary to win.​

When all else fails . . . use your “feminine wiles “ to accomplish the mission

Rose Greenhow knew all about “feminine wiles” and how to exploit them. The Washington based Confederate spy literally gave the Rebels their first victory at Manassas when she used sixteen year old Bettie Duvall as her courier. The young lady that had been called: “one of the most beautiful spies known to General P.G.T. Beauregard” just sashayed her way through Union lines while carrying the important missive in her hair. It was reported when she appeared before Beauregard she let her beautiful hair down to retrieve the message, at which point the general was “entranced”.

Union officers were not immune to the beauty of one particular lady. Hetty Cary was described as “the invincible beauty of the day” and she was a fervent supporter of the Southern cause. The Baltimore Belle once managed to smuggle and wave a Confederate flag to troops as the Union Army was marching by her home. When an officer turns and asked his Colonel if he should have her arrested the reply came back: “No, she is beautiful enough to do as she pleases”. {7} Sometimes the battles between male and female are so predictable!

And how fortunate the fashion of the day included hoop skirts - the perfect hiding place. The bell-shaped structure made it possible for ladies to pack as many supplies as possible to supply their boys much needed items and the “delicate” fact that it made searching a young lady rather uncomfortable created a popular hiding spot. Most young men that were on the picket lines were taught to respect a “ladies modesty” and were usually too embarrassed to rummage around under a ladies’ skirt. Antonia Ford, a Confederate spy, tells of a time when her home was searched by Union soldiers. They suspected she was guilty of carrying contraband. When one of them requested she stand up from the chair she was sitting on so he could look around (as her hoop skirt covered the area by her chair) she replied: “I thought not even a Yankee would expect a Southern woman to rise for him.” {8} Duly chastised he left never knowing that she was guilty of carrying important papers that day.​


(LOC Photo - No Known Copyright)

Sadly, beauty is fleeting as seen in this humorous anecdote printed in the “Nashville Daily Union” in May of 1862:​

“ ‘What abominable lies we have been told!’ exclaimed an uncombed, unwashed and uncomely Newbern damsel of forty-five summers, as Burnside's gallant boys were filing past. ‘Why, they said the Yankees were after 'beauty and booty,' but they haven't touched me yet’!” And she lifted up her voice and wept that she had been so deceived.” {1}

Facing a Harsh Reality

The Civil War changed women in the south. As their men left they found their new life. They were suddenly without their men to help and protect them and now they had to rely on themselves to determine which direction to turn. Some became nurses others became spies; some sewed battle flags for their loved ones while others gathered supplies and necessities for their men; some ran their husbands businesses and farms others changed their appearance to join the Confederate army. They did whatever was necessary to further their cause . . . until . . .

“As time passed, many women found that the hardships created by war forced them to redefine their patriotic obligations. For most women, fulfilling the needs of their families superseded their duty to their government. . . Many Southern women found that the struggle to keep their children alive demanded that they openly protest the Confederate government’s expectations of them.” {4}

In 1891 a paper was read before the Commandery of the Loyal Legion of Illinois. In addressing the Southern women during the war the following was read:

“No pen or tongue can describe the suffering and destitution of the Southern women - proud, aristocratic, unaccustomed to work, always living in luxury, with slaves at their bidding, the war they incited as much as the men, came to their very doors, and hundreds of thousands of women and children either fell into the hands of their dreaded invaders, or were compelled to flee as our army advanced. This loyalty and zeal to their cause has no parallel. The fire-eaters of the South kindled the fire that started the rebellion, and the women kept it blazing hotly to the very close of the war. When our armies had possession of their country, they never faltered in their devotion to the stars and bars. For years without male protection, destitute, and sometimes nearly starving, they were always, and under all circumstances, female rebels, true to their fathers, brothers and lovers in the field; and whether right or wrong, they suffered as no intelligent woman ever suffered before, and went through all the hardships and privations one can go through and live. And now, being sisters of whom we are proud, we can, at this time and for all time, admire and praise them for their loyalty for those they encouraged to go to battle for the perpetuity of slavery. Who can but admire that chivalrous people, thought they did precipitate a terrible war upon us? They thought their cause was right, and none ever sacrificed so much and lost all.” {2}



[It was going to be a long war and attitudes would eventually change, but the Southern women were not broken YET as they continued to send their men to the battlefield - - as we will see in the second installment - - General Butler arrives in New Orleans.]

* * * * *

1, https://scholarworks.uttyler.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1091&context=cw_newstitle
2. https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433079007864&view=1up&seq=270
3. “Altars of Sacrifice: Confederate Women and the Narratives of War” by Drew Gilpin Faust
4. “Women During the Civil War: An Encyclopedia” by Judith E. Harper
6. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/7055179/bettie-webb
7. http://www.vagenweb.net/dinwiddie/simmons/sim11.htm
8. https://www.clarabartonmuseum.org/spies/
All Photos in the Public Domain or otherwise noted
(*) Young Folk’s History of the Civil War, by Mrs. C. Emma Cheney

NH Civil War Gal

Forum Host
Feb 5, 2017
‘What abominable lies we have been told!’ exclaimed an uncombed, unwashed and uncomely Newbern damsel of forty-five summers, as Burnside's gallant boys were filing past. ‘Why, they said the Yankees were after 'beauty and booty,' but they haven't touched me yet’!” And she lifted up her voice and wept that she had been so deceived.” {1}
Love this bit! :bounce:

connecticut yankee

First Sergeant
Jun 2, 2017
Boy, you sure gave a a great post @DBF ! You leave us with no doubt as to southern women's influence on the war. We continually debate here how various military tactics on the part of the South prolonged the struggle. But you have aptly shown the profound effect the southern women's tireless efforts had on the continuance of the war, tactics notwithstanding.