The American Civil War was the bloodiest war in American history, resulting in more than 600,000 deaths. While most people are familiar with the military leaders, they know little or nothing about the women who did their part during the fighting. All of the women of that era served on the home front, but some chose to put their lives on the line in actual battle. A good way to commemorate this year’s 150th anniversary of the Civil War is by visiting one of the many sites and museums to learn about the women who answered the call of duty on both sides of the conflict.
Women Heroes of Tennessee
On Nov. 30, 1864, Carrie McGavock, mistress of Carnton Plantation, was witness to the Battle of Franklin, one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. At the end of five hours, nearly 10,000 soldiers had been killed, most of whom fought for the Confederacy. Carnton became the largest Confederate field hospital in the area with Carrie and the rest of her family helping in a variety of ways.
Today on a tour of the pristine and beautiful plantation house it is hard to envision injured soldiers occupying every available space and body parts piled up outside the second-floor window where the operations were performed. The dead were scattered on the lawn. The floors of Carnton are still stained with the solders’ blood, but most impressive is the McGavock Confederate Cemetery, now on the National Register of Historic Places.
The graves of the fallen soldiers from the Battle of Franklin were in danger of deteriorating into oblivion when Carrie, with family and friends, disinterred nearly 1,500 Confederate soldiers and reburied them on their property to create a dignified permanent resting place. Robert Hicks has immortalized Carrie McGavock in his novel “The Widow of the South.”
On the Civil War Walking tour of nearby Franklin, it’s possible to learn about the Petticoat Spies, so called because they secreted messages under their voluminous undergarments. At that time no gentleman would have thought of searching a lady.
The very nature of spying means that many of the Petticoat Spies have remained unknown and therefore have received no recognition. However, Sallie Carter was a staunch secessionist and the first in Franklin to fly the Confederate flag. When 25,000 Union troops occupied Franklin and the surrounding area, the courthouse became the headquarters of the provost marshal.
At 38, Sallie was twice widowed with several children, but she did her part. From the roof of her house she watched the Union activities. Then, using her wiles as an attractive female, she invited Union officers to dine in her home. Plied with a fine meal, music and plenty of whiskey, Union tongues became loose. Sallie wrote all the information on paper and stuffed it into a hollowed-out corncob stopper of a whiskey bottle.
Next she gathered food and medicine in bags that she tied around her waist so that they were hanging down around her knees and were well hidden under her hoop skirt. She obtained a pass and delivered her message and goods to the nearby Confederate army.
Another story shared on the tour is that of 16-year-old Ninny Stith. When she heard that Union troops were marching from Nashville, she set fire to the bridge into Franklin.
Women Soldiers at Bull Run
Sarah Emma Edmonds disguised herself as a male — easier to do in those days since physical exams were not part of the induction process –and fought in several battles, including the two at Bull Run in Manassas, Va. Dressed as Frank Thompson, she enlisted in the 2nd Michigan Infantry. She first served as a field nurse, but when a friend acting as a Union spy was discovered and executed by a firing squad, she took his place.
Traveling into enemy territory she disguised herself in many ways, including using silver nitrate to dye her skin black to pass as a black man. Another time she acted as an Irish peddler. When a packet of official papers fell out of a Confederate officer’s jacket, she promptly delivered it to Union generals.
Edmonds is probably the most famous of the women who soldiered dressed like a man, but so did Loretta Velasquez, who, after her husband, Harry Buford, was killed in battle, disguised herself and served in his place. There were also at least nine women who fought as men at Gettysburg.
Women have always nursed soldiers, but few women had become doctors at the time of the Civil War. In 1855, Mary E. Walker was the only female graduate of Syracuse Medical College. During the war she served as a contract surgeon, tending to sick and wounded soldiers in the field and in hospitals continuing her doctoring during her four months as a prisoner of war. She served in many different battles, including the battles of Bull Run and Fredericksburg in Virginia, and Chickamauga, Ga. Andrew Johnson awarded her the Medal of Honor in 1865 for her bravery and heroism in battle. She was the only woman to receive the medal; however, it was rescinded in 1917, along with nearly 1,000 others. It was restored by President Carter in 1977. Currently it is on display in her hometown of Oswego, N.Y.
Esther Hill Hawks, a graduate from New England Medical College for Women in 1857, was also an army physician. She was a contract surgeon and with her doctor husband joined the U.S. Colored Troops in Beaufort, S.C.
Many other women also did their part including Harriet Tubman, who led slaves to freedom and then became a spy during the war. Clara Barton, a Civil War nurse, went on to establish the American Red Cross. The women were courageous and willing to put themselves in death’s way for a cause in which they believed.
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