Women’s Experiences during the American Civil War

Lucy Higgs escaping slavery from Grays Creek, Tennessee to the Union lines, June 1862 (Kathy Grant, artist)

In the winter of 1863 and 1864, with the Civil War entering its third year, two women living in Southeastern Virginia’s Greensville County waged their own iteration of the national struggle. Dorothy Flythe, a fifty-year-old widow, held four people in bondage, including a woman named Candis and her unnamed “small child” (who was less than three years old). That winter, Candis exploited the destabilizing presence of United States forces occupying nearby portions of North Carolina and fled to one of the refugee camps that dotted the coast. In doing so, she sought not only protection, but the chance to build a new community and to claim the blessings of freedom. Her moment of hope, however, proved short-lived. Not long after her escape, agents acting either for Flythe or for the Confederate government penetrated Union lines, “arrested” Candis as a fugitive from bondage, and, in a tragedy only barely noted in the historical record, “accidentally” killed her child. But the battle continued. Arguing that retaining Candis would be “unsafe” given that she would surely seize “the first opportunity that presented itself” to escape again, Flythe sold her for $4,500. In response to Candis’s assertion of freedom, Flythe reasserted the power of slavery, bolstering her corner of the institution against the war’s corrosive effects. Her victory ultimately proved more tactical than strategic given that it could not forestall the broader victory of enslaved women’s antislavery politics. It did, however, demonstrate that enslaving women’s countervailing aims could blunt their effects in individuals’ lives and in the nation writ large. 1

Their contest was one of innumerable Civil War battles fought not on well-known and since-hallowed ground like Gettysburg, Antietam, or Vicksburg but in homes, fields, cities, and refugee camps far from the contending armies. Shockwaves rippling outward from the war’s military clashes overtook virtually all of America’s female inhabitants—encounters Thavolia Glymph documents in The Women’s Fight: The Civil War’s Battle for Home, Freedom, and Nation. Glymph incorporates existing studies of women’s wartime experiences but moves past a historiography that tends to emphasize the realities women of a particular race, class, or region confronted. Acknowledging and weaving together their disparate lives and divergent goals, she details both the ways that battlefield violence penetrated the home and how women adapted to this violence (and, in some cases, exploited it) to their own political ends. While the work has synthetic elements, it is also richly grounded in original archival sources and formidably argumentative in its own right. The wartime experiences of American women—Black and white, rich and poor, Northern and Southern—were linked, Glymph claims, only in that they confronted a “shifting landscape of power” altered by a conflict spiraling toward total war that destabilized institution after institution (6). This instability brought the fight into the domestic sphere, where it in turn sparked new conflagrations with wide-ranging effects and transformative potential.

Glymph has productively mined portions of this ground before, and readers familiar with her work will certainly see echoes of her classic Out of the House of Bondage, particularly in the discussion of strife between slaveholding women and their enslaved counterparts. But The Women’s Fight embraces a much broader scope and offers a more complex tale, a narrative that recalls nothing so much as it does a Hobbesian war of every woman, against every woman. Solidarities based on a shared gender, region, economic status, or even, in many cases, set of war aims either failed to materialize or proved decidedly limited; instead, women from an array of backgrounds imbued the war with their own politics, rendering the conflict often solitary, regularly poor, nasty, and brutish, and anything but short. Women’s encounters with the war could be matters of life and death, particularly for those (Northern and Southern) whose economic and social situations were already precarious. For these, the demands of war proved an awful strain, which in turn made reconciling their commitment to the war’s aims and their material and communal circumstances a serious challenge. The war also threatened elite Southern women, driving many from the homes from which they derived their identities. Others (like Dorothy Flythe) confronted unprecedented challenges to the social and racial hierarchies that defined their existences. Their prolonged and active defense of these structures, moreover, fed an ever-escalating conflict, which in turn undercut the gendered protections they supposedly enjoyed and further exposed their homes to the ravages of war. Wealthy Northern women, though less vulnerable to the direct effects of the conflict, sought to canalize the flood of changes the war unleashed. Some flexed their authority over lower-class Northern women; others went South, looking to remake the postwar order in their own images. A politics shaped by gender, class, and region thus combined with women’s material circumstances to shape their responses to the Civil War.

While white women of all stripes came to grips with a world altered by the conflict, the ways that enslaved women leveraged and endured the Civil War sits at the heart of Glymph’s inquiry—for the changes they pursued were the most profound, most fraught, and most costly. Women held in bondage, she argues, understood the Civil War as an unprecedented opportunity to force a reluctant nation to engage with the radical antislavery politics they had long espoused. Glymph details the revelation of new “political identities taking shape in slave cabins and cotton fields,” transformative postures through which formerly enslaved women claimed their place within the bounds of American womanhood (89). The collective weight of hundreds of thousands of battles like those Candis waged against Dorothy Flythe “transformed personalized, individual, and plantation- and neighborhood-based struggles against slavery into a massed movement to destroy it.” The sheer number of enslaved women who lived out their antislavery politics also forced United States officials into an ongoing confrontation with the questions they’d raised regarding “freedom, citizenship, dignity, and” Black women’s “rights as refugees” (106).

Exploiting the chaos of war, enslaved women fled in untold numbers to refugee camps throughout the Confederacy, where they rekindled existing ties and built new ones. These links, Glymph suggests, “form[ed] the ballast for black people’s survival” and demonstrated “the particular strengths that women brought to the struggle for freedom and Union” (248). The dangers in doing so were myriad and extensive. Those escaping from bondage faced the wrath of recalcitrant enslavers bent on preserving themselves and their status through continued control over Black bodies, as well as physical, psychological, and sexual abuse from their would-be allies in Union blue. As Candis’s experience suggests, moreover, slipping the immediate bonds of captivity was no guarantee of freedom; Glymph documents thousands of women who, like Candis, found their newfound liberties erased by Confederate raiders and neglectful Federal authorities. Apathy (and sometimes antipathy) toward Black women’s “race, gender, and statelessness,” sometimes laundered through the language of “military necessity,” sapped Union soldiers’ and officers’ willingness to offer them protection, though mounting pressure from refugees gradually forced a grudging expansion of Americans’ conceptions of national belonging (248). Even when refugee camps kept Rebel marauders at bay, the politics espoused by now-freedwomen collided with those of elite Northern reformers—male and female—who patronized and derided them even as they sought to mold them for inclusion within the nation on terms defined less by an antislavery ethos than by bourgeois morality. Nevertheless, against obstacles and countervailing politics that often deflected their full force, “black people staked their ground on revolution to bring about a new union based on universal freedom” (258).

The Women’s Fight effectively navigates a diverse range of gendered histories of the American Civil War. Reckoning with the breadth of women’s experiences and delving into many well-chosen case studies with a striking array of voices drawn from a wealth of seldom-used sources, Glymph demonstrates both the extraordinary possibilities and latent reactionary tendencies present in moments of rupture. Rather than a single experience defined by their gender, American women experienced the war as a series of overlapping crises—shaped, of course, by their gender, but also by the centrifugal forces of race, class, and national identity. They struggled not only against the forces of entropy, but against one another in contests that shaped their places at home and in American life for decades to come. In bringing these stories together, Glymph has broadened our view of the war, expanded once again the cast of characters we must see as central to its experience, and compelled us to reconsider tendencies to re-enact in historical practices the exclusionary practices of the generation that lived and fought it. A comprehensive understanding of the war—one that centers African American women’s voices and moves outward along threads that span from solidarity and empathy to hostility—offers a chance to reconsider a conflict, the experience, effects, and memory of which redound in our contemporary life.

  1. Complaint, May Court, 1864; Commissioner’s Report, Dorothy Flythe vs. Administrators of Solomon Flythe, Greensville County Chancery Causes, 1867-002, Library of Virginia; “Solomon Flythe,” Slave Schedule, Greensville County, Virginia, Census of 1860.
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Robert Colby

Robert Colby is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Center for American Studies at Christopher Newport University. He is a historian of slavery, emancipation, the American Civil War, and the nineteenth century United States. His research explores the domestic slave trade during the Civil War. Follow him on Twitter @rkdcolby86.

Comments on “Women’s Experiences during the American Civil War

  • I deeply appreciate Glymph’s book. I came to it most interested in the chapters on African American women, which focuses on their agency in attaining freedom. But what was most surprising were the sections on northern white women whose participation in supporting the war effort, and even in some cases in anti-slavery activities, depended on the financial security of their family’s wealth, which was often was the direct or indirect result of profits made from slavery, trading, etc.

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