by Stephanie McCurry

Historians in the News
tags: books, Civil War, military history, book reviews, womens history

Statues of men in uniform, Union and Confederate, astride their big horses, still dotthe landscape of the North and the South: Brave men, no doubt, but where were the women during those bloody years? Consider not just what women suffered during the Civil War—bad enough—but what they did. Recall the famous ones, like the intrepid nurse Clara Barton, and the lesser known but just as determined, like Arabella Barlow, who darted so often through the Virginia countryside to scare up supplies that her Union comrades dubbed her “the Raider.” After the Battle of Antietam, when she located her husband, Francis, a colonel in the Army, languishing in a military hospital, she nursed him back to health, and at Gettysburg, learning that he’d been critically wounded again—and left for dead—she presumably crossed Confederate lines to find him. In 1864, though, while working at the City Point Hospital, she contracted what appeared to be the typhus that killed her. 

Not surprising: Nurses routinely died during the war. Hannah Ropes, head nurse at the Union Hotel Hospital in Washington, succumbed to typhoid pneumonia, and Louisa May Alcott, who had worked by her side, was similarly infected, though luckier. Alcott’s father traveled all the way to Washington from Massachusetts to fetch her, because when female nurses fell ill, Alcott later said, the doctors disappeared. But women did more than succor the sick and wounded. Sarah Edmonds was a nurse, yes, but also a soldier, who participated in the First Battle of Bull Run and in the Peninsula Campaign; one general later wrote, “her sex was not suspected by me or anyone else in the regiment.” Edmonds was also a spy. Not surprising, either; so were a number of women. Take Mary Bowser, the freed slave in Jefferson Davis’s home who, with her photographic memory, recited the details of various government documents to Union officers nearby and recounted for them the conversations she’d overheard at the Davis dinner table.

Of course, such spies as Rose Greenhow were more notorious. A prominent Washington hostess before the war, she headed an espionage ring in the capital once the fighting started; she warned General Beauregard before Bull Run of Union General McDowell’s intentions, which helped in no small measure to ensure a Confederate victory. Imprisoned for a year, in the spring of 1862 she was deported to Richmond, where Jefferson Davis soon packed her off to England and France in order to raise money for the Confederacy. On her way home, the blockade runner she traveled on ran aground; she then convinced several men to row her to shore near Wilmington, North Carolina, but she drowned; the boat capsized, and it was said the gold sovereigns she was carrying back to Davis had weighed her down.

Read entire article at The New Republic

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