In recognition of the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln and National Women’s History Month, take this opportunity to meet or become reacquainted with women who made history during the Lincoln presidential years. Those who paved the way include abolitionists, soldiers, spies, nurses and organizers.
Among the most famous of the Lincoln-era women are two former slaves. Although she never learned to read or write, Sojourner Truth commanded attention by her physical appearance and her communication style. A muscular, six-foot-tall woman, she frequently addressed anti-slavery meetings, recounting tales of slave children being forcibly taken from their mothers and sold off. The mother of 13 children, Sojourner Truth spoke about that terrible pain from experience.
In physical contrast to Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman was only about five feet tall. Harriett Tubman was about 30 years old when she escaped to the North. She then became a conductor on the Underground Railroad for eight years, making nearly 20 trips to lead slaves from Maryland and Delaware to freedom. Her efforts earned her the appellation “Moses,” after the biblical character. An antislavery and women’s rights speaker, Harriet Tubman asserted, “I never ran my train off the track, and I never lost a passenger.” During the Civil War, she worked as a nurse and a scout for the Union Army.
Harriet Beecher Stowe began writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a weekly series in The National Era, an antislavery newspaper published in Washington, D.C. Although she planned to write only three or four episodes, as a result of popular demand, some 45 episodes were published. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in book form in 1852. More than 1 million copies were sold in the U.S. and England within a year. Shortly thereafter, the book was translated into at least 10 languages, including French, German, Italian and Portuguese.
Born into an upper-class family in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1800s, Angelina Grimke grew to abhor slavery and left the South at age 24, moving to Philadelphia. There she joined the antislavery movement, and even wrote a pamphlet directed to Southern women. The pamphlet sparked outrage and was publicly burned in Charleston. Well into her golden years, Grimke continued to help the newly freed slaves by speaking at meetings and collecting funds. In the late 1860s, Grimke learned that she had three nephews who were her brother’s sons by a slave woman, among them Archibald and Francis Grimke. She helped to pay for Archibald’s tuition at Harvard Law School and for Francis’ at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree. Recognizing that the Union Army had no organized supply distribution system, in April 1861, she organized thousands of women in New York City into the Women’s Central Association of Relief (WCAR). Although it had no official status, this volunteer organization planned to collect all types of donations from citizens and distribute them to soldiers. In addition, Dr. Blackwell taught training courses for nurses. Several months later, the Union established the U.S. Sanitary Commission, and WCAR came under its umbrella.
Mary Livermore and Jane Hoge were involved with the Chicago office of the Sanitary Commission. While the organization successfully distributed thousands of boxes of supplies, transportation funds were in short supply. The two organized a regional fair to raise funds to meet those expenses. Livermore, Hoge and other women solicited contributions of goods and money from leaders in several states. The fair was a huge success, raising nearly $100,000. Similar fairs in other major cities followed.
Perhaps best known as the founder of the U.S. Red Cross, Clara Barton was the first woman ever hired for a government job in Washington, D.C. She was a teacher at age 15 and opened her own school by the time she was in her early 20s. A reputed organizational genius, Clara Barton became involved in the war effort when some of her former students were injured and killed in battle near Washington. She helped set up a provisional hospital in the U.S. Capitol. She gathered warehouses full of provisions needed by the Union Army and distributed them to camps and battlegrounds around Washington. Clara Barton was credited with being the first nurse to arrive at Antietam in Maryland. She is said to have nursed wounded soldiers following that battle, where more than 20,000 were killed or injured, working outside the official system. Barton continued to use her superlative organizational skills after the war. Realizing that thousands of soldiers died in prison camps and more than half of the Union dead were buried in unmarked graves, Barton asked President Lincoln to authorize her to conduct official searches on behalf of the families of soldiers who did not return home. Once she had that authorization, Barton spent her own money to locate the fallen. She appealed to veterans, published in newspapers and posted names in public places. After four years of searching, Barton learned the fate of more than 22,000 Union soldiers.
During the Civil War years, nursing became a new profession for women, and it is estimated that more than 3,000 women answered the call. Shortly after the war began, the U.S. government appointed Dorothea Dix superintendent of women nurses. Her responsibilities included screening volunteers and establishing rules for hospital duty. Prior to her appointment, Dix had gained a reputation as a reformer of mental hospitals. She concentrated her efforts on investigating the treatment of the mentally ill in the U.S and England and worked to improve conditions in asylums.
Among the women nurses was Louisa May Alcott, who volunteered at the Union Hotel Hospital. She oversaw a ward of 40 beds, reading newspapers to the injured, helping them write letters, easing their distress, distributing medicines and treating wounds. Shortly after arriving at the hospital, Alcott became ill with typhoid fever. She recovered from the illness but never fully regained her strength. Alcott later gained fame as the author of Little Women.
At about the same time that Alcott became ill with typhoid fever, the illness took the life of the hospital’s head nurse, or matron, Hannah Ropes. Prior to her death, Ropes had frequent battles with the head surgeon regarding the hospital’s management and conditions. Being unsuccessful with the surgeon and his superiors, Ropes took her concerns to U.S. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who removed the head surgeon and ordered an official inspection of the hospital.
Mary Ann Bickerdyke cared for soldiers at 19 battle sites. She nursed thousands of Union soldiers and was named matron of a hospital in Cairo, Illinois. Bickerdyke discovered surgeons and others were stealing food and supplies from the hospital. Her confrontation of the chief surgeon was unsuccessful, so she took matters into her own hands. She placed a medicine that would induce vomiting into some food that was later stolen and eaten by the thieves. She had the satisfaction of seeing the results of her attempts to deter future thefts reach fruition.
In the South, Sally Tompkins of Richmond established a 22-bed hospital. The facility was so well-acclaimed that Confederate President Jefferson Davis awarded her the rank of captain.
In addition to nursing, the Civil War allowed women to enter other non-traditional professions—such as soldier and spy. Dozens of women were discovered disguising themselves as men and fighting in the armies of the North and South. Among them were Franny Wilson of New Jersey, who fought in the Union Army for 18 months before she was wounded at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and Amy Clark, who fought for the Confederate Army to be near her husband and continued in uniform even after he was killed. Jennie Hodgers avoided discovery for decades after the war. She fought in an Illinois regiment for four years as Albert Cashier and maintained her male disguise until she was injured in a car accident in 1911. Sarah Edmonds also escaped detection. As Franklin Thompson, she enlisted in the Second Michigan Volunteer Infantry as a male nurse and later became a Union spy. Her identity was revealed some 20 years after the war, when she sought assistance in getting a military pension.
Women used their social position to spy for the South and North, as well. Rose O’Neal Greenhow was a wealthy, Southern widow who lived in Washington, D.C. A society hostess, she entertained senators, government officials and military leaders, gathered intelligence and passed it on to Confederate commanders using elaborate codes. She drowned on a return trip from Europe to raise funds for the Confederacy.
Known as “Crazy Betsy,” Elizabeth Van Lew lived in the Confederate capital of Richmond and spied for the Union Army. She assisted in having a former slave installed in the home of Confederate President Jefferson Davis and made her own mansion a refuge for those who escaped from Confederate prisons. As a reward for her services, after the war she was appointed postmistress of Richmond.
Tens of thousands of slaves sought refuge behind Union lines. These slaves became known as “contrabands.” The largest groups made their way to Washington, D.C and South Carolina’s Sea Islands. In 1862, teachers began arriving to the Sea Islands to educate the contrabands. Among the teachers was Charlotte Forten, a free black woman who came from a family of abolitionists in Philadelphia. Forten devoted her life to teaching a working for civil rights. In 1878, she married Francis Grimke, nephew of Angelina.