Women and the War

Women sewing Women contributed to the war effort in innumerable ways. Women's domestic work, including sewing, took on new meaning when their labors were destined to assist soldiers. Selection from "The Influence of Woman",Harper's Weekly, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

The sesquicentennial of the American Civil War provides the opportunity for our country to take another look at the history we all think we know very well. In the past, most histories of the Civil War have focused on the perspectives of white, male participants in the conflict. Black participants, civilians, women, and children were pushed to the border of the historical discussion. In recent years, however, historians have begun to explore the Civil War experiences of these important groups, and innovative scholarship in these areas is flourishing, although much of this new knowledge has not yet entered the mainstream. This exhibition endeavors to examine one of these groups previously pushed to the border by taking a closer look at women's perspectives of the war, their roles, and their contributions to the war effort and to the future of the nation.

Although women rarely participated in the war as combatants, women, as half of the population of the United States, experienced the war in various ways and made numerous contributions to the war effort. Women were witnesses, writers, soldiers, spies, nurses, cooks, laundresses, supporters, organizers, and mourners, among many other roles. Their perspectives and contributions are no less valuable than those of their husbands, sons, brothers, and fathers who fought and died on the battlefield.

Barbara Frietchie waving the American  flag over 
passing Confederate troops Barbara Frietchie waving the American flag over passing Confederate troops in Frederick, Maryland. Frietchie's legendary patriotic feat was immortalized in a John Greenleaf Whittier poem. Celia Holland Papers, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries.

Women who lived in Maryland had unique perspectives on the Civil War. Maryland represented a microcosm of the national conflict. Women in Maryland witnessed troop movements, raids, and battles more typical of a Confederate state, but they also had a shared experience with women in those states that remained in the Union. Most women's lives before, during, and immediately after the war continued to be centered around the household and family. However, social changes initiated by the war offered women the opportunity to take leadership roles at home while their husbands and fathers were away. They became more involved in public arenas such as politics, publishing, and social welfare. In addition, women's domestic roles became more politicized during the war. Sewing, for example, took on new meaning when the shirts women stitched were destined for soldiers.

While this exhibition considers the contributions of a few famous Maryland women, such as Anna Ella Carroll and Clara Barton, it does not seek to re-examine their stories completely, which have been told countless times before. Instead, this exhibition focuses on the lives and experiences of ordinary, little-known women living in Maryland during the Civil War, using their letters, diaries, other manuscripts, photographs, sheet music, maps, rare books, and other publications, as sources.

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