Nursing prior to the Civil War had been a profession that women really only had in the home. Most professional nurses were men. That changed after the Civil War, when nursing became a public profession, and the women who had served as nurses during the war forged that path for later women.
Clara Barton, of course, is the most famous Civil War nurse. She supplied her own wagon and drove out to the field of battle to tend to wounded soldiers. She did this without any permission of the War Department, but she was so successful, and the rate of soldiers returning to duty who had been under her care was so great, that the War Department later authorized her to be on the field of battle wherever she could get to.
Other women went to the camps because they didn’t want to be separated from their loved ones. And so women were in the camps nursing their husbands. They were doing the laundry for the soldiers. And some women decided that they were going to pick up a gun and they were going to shoot back at the enemy.
The army, whether Union or Confederate, didn’t want women in the ranks of soldiers, so the women who chose that path cut off their hair, put on men’s clothing, and passed themselves off as men so that they could enlist in the Union and Confederate armies. We estimate that, perhaps, up to 1,000 women were serving incognito in the ranks.
One of the most famous women soldiers was Sarah Edmonds. She was Canadian by birth, and had made her way to the United States to escape an arranged marriage. She took on the persona of Franklin Thompson, and served for two and half years in the Second Michigan Infantry. Her service was cut short only because she contracted malaria. She was afraid that if she went to the hospital, her secret would be discovered, and so rather than be found out as a woman in the ranks, she actually deserted the Union Army. Years after the war she was, however, granted a soldier’s pension.
Now not every woman who participated in the Civil War had to leave their town or their farm. Women took over businesses. They took over the running of their farms while their men were away at war. This was a huge step forward in the march for women’s independence, because their actions during the war– in running the family business, in running the family farm, in getting the crops out of the field– showed that women were capable and could do more than Victorian society had previously guessed.