Woman's Work in the Civil War

Book Excerpt

Background Notes

During the Civil War, women held a variety of jobs in order to make valuable contributions to the war effort. Much of their work was done domestically, which included responsibilities such as the sewing of individual items to be shipped to soldiers, increasing home production, or refraining from purchasing extra luxuries. Many women also worked for organizations in support of the war effort: the Soldiers’ Aid Societies, the United States Sanitary Commission, the United States Christian Commission, or the Ladies’ Hospital Aid Society.

More often than not, individuals attribute the term “war heroes” to male soldiers who sacrifice their lives in battle, but according to this publication, women earned this title as well as they engaged in self-sacrifice for the greater good. Woman’s Work in the Civil War by L.P. (Linus Pierpont) Brockett, published after the war in 1867, was an obvious attempt to give women acknowledgment for their contributions to the war effort.  Although many of the women had the aforementioned domestic responsibilities, there were also numerous amounts of women who had more active roles. For instance, many women became nurses in the army. The transcription to follow describes Cordelia A. P. Harvey, a woman who took on this role. Before devoting the rest of her life to this vocation, Mrs. Harvey was a Wisconsin woman and a one-time school teacher. When her husband, Wisconsin Governor Louis P. Harvey, drowned during an expedition working to aid Union soldiers wounded in battle, Mrs. Harvey decided to finish her husband’s relief work that he had left undone. Mrs. Harvey is described as a strong, passionate woman, as she did not spend her life in grief after this tragic occurrence. Instead, she used her sentiments as motivation to devote her life to the aid and comfort of others in distress even if it meant being surrounded by sickness and death.

Women also obtained even more dynamic roles during the Civil War when they fought alongside men as soldiers, which was more common than generally understood. Madame Turchin, whose story occupies the latter half of the transcriptions below, is a woman who fell under this category. As the daughter of a Russian officer, she was reared in military camps and was accustomed to military life. Thus, when her husband, General Turchin, fell ill, she was well-prepared to take his place by leading the Union regiment in battle. It is important to note that the author makes it clear that Madame Turchin kept her female identity as she performed her active duties, unlike some women who concealed their identities and disguised themselves as men, which was seen as an extremely unfavorable break from femininity.

It is also interesting to note that this compilation of biographies lauding women’s efforts during the war was written by a man. L.P. Brockett (1820-1893) was a popular biographer in the nineteenth century, his subjects also including soldiers of the Civil War, Generals Grant and Sherman, and Abraham Lincoln.

Transcription of Primary Source


            The state of Wisconsin is justly proud of a name, which, while standing for what is noble and true in man, has received an added lustre in being made to express also, the sympathy, the goodness, and the power of woman. The death of the honored husband, and the public labors of the heroic wife, in the same cause- the great cause that has absorbed the attention and the resources of the country for four years- have given each to the other a peculiar and thrilling interest to every loyal American heart.

            It will be remembered that shortly after the battle of Shiloh, Governor Harvey proceeded to the front with supplies and medical aid to assist in caring for the wounded among the soldiers from his State, after rendering great service in alleviating their sufferings by the aid and comfort he brought with him, and reviving their spirits by his presence. As he was about to embark at Savannah for home, in passing from one boat to another, he fell into the river and was drowned. This was on the 19th of April, 1862, a day made memorable by some of the most important events in our country’s history….

            Looking back now, it is easy to see how much this bereavement had to do in fitting Mrs. Harvey for her work. It is the experience of sorrow that prepares us to minister to others in distress. At home none could say that they had given more for their country than she, few could feel a sorrow she had not known or with which she could not sympathize, out of something in her own experience. In the army, in camps and hospitals, who so fit to speak in the place of wife or mother to the sick and dying soldier, as she, in whom the tenderest feelings of the heart had been touched by the hand of death?

            With the intention of devoting herself to this work, she asked of the Governor permission to visit hospitals in the Western Department, as agent for the State, which was cordially granted, and early in the autumn of 1862, set out for St. Louis to commence her new work….

            At that time St Louis was the theater of active military operations, and the hospitals were crowded with sick and wounded from the camps and the battle-fields of Missouri and Tennessee. The army was not then composed of the hardy veterans whose prowess has since carried victory into every rebellious State, but of boys and young men unused to hardship, who, in the flush of enthusiasm, had entered the army. Time had not then brought to its present perfection the work of the Medical Department, and but for the spontaneous generosity of the people in sending forward assistance and supplies for the sick and wounded, the army could scarcely have existed. Such was the condition of things when Mrs. Harvey commenced her work of mercy in visiting the hospitals of that city, filled with the victims of battle and disease. How from morning till night for many a weary week she waited by the cots of these poor fellows, attending to their little wants, and speaking words of cheer and comfort, those who knew her then all well remember. The work at once became delightful and profitable to her, calling her mind away from its own sorrows to the physical suffering of those around her. In her eagerness to soothe their woes, she half forgot her own, and came to them always with a joyous smile and words of cheerful consolation….

            Hearing of great suffering at Cape Girardeau, she went there about the 1st of August, just as the first Wisconsin Cavalry were returning from their terrible expedition through the swamps of Arkansas. She has last seen them in all their pride and manly beauty, reviewed by her husband, the Governor, before they left their State. Now how changed! The strongest, they that could stand, just tottering about, the very shadows of their former selves. The building taken as a temporary hospital, was filled to overflowing, and the surgeons were without hospital supplies, the men subsisting on the common army ration alone. The heat was oppressive, and the diseases of the most fearfully contagious character. The surgeons themselves were appalled, and the attendants shrank from the care of the sick and the removal of the dead. In one room she found a corpse which had evidently lain for many hours, the nurses fearing to go near and see if the man was dead. With her own hands she bound up the face, and emboldened by her coolness, the burial party were induced to coffin the body and remove it from the house. Here was a field for self-forgetfulness and heroic devotion to a holy cause; and here the light of a woman’s sympathy shone brightly when all else was fear and gloom. Patients dying with the noxious camp fever breathed into her ear their last messages to loved ones at home, as she passed from cot to cot, undaunted by the bolts of death which fell around her thick as on the battle-field. She set herself to work procuring furloughs for such as were able to travel, and discharges for the permanently disabled, to get them away from a place of death. To this end she brought all the art of woman to work. Once convinced that the object she sought was just and right, she left no honorable means untried to secure it. Surgeons were flattered and coaxed, whenever coaxing and flattering availed; or, failing in this, she knew when to administer a gentle threat, or an intimation that a report might go up to a higher official. One resource failing she always had another, and never attempted anything without carrying it out….

            Happy indeed has she been in her truly Christian work, begun in sadness and opening into the joy that crowns every good work. The benedictions of thousands of the brave and victorious rest upon her, and the purest spirits of the martyred ones have her in their gentle care! May America be blest with many more like her to teach us by example the nature and practice of a true Christian heroism….



            The number of women who actually bore arms in the war, or who, though generally attending a regiment as nurses and vivandieres, at times engaged in the actual conflict was much larger than is generally supposed, and embraces persons of all ranks of society. Those who from whatever cause, whether romance, love or patriotism, and all these had their influence donned the male attire and concealed their sex, are hardly entitled to a place in our record, since they did not seek to be known as women, but preferred to pass for men; but aside from these were not a few who, without abandoning the dress or prerogatives of their sex, yet performed skillfully and well the duties of the other.

            Among these we may name Madame Turchin, wife of General Turchin, who rendered essential service by her coolness, her thorough knowledge of military science, her undaunted courage, and her skill in command. She is the daughter of a Russian officer, and had been brought up in the camps, where she was the pet and favorite of the regiment up to nearly the time of her marriage to General Turchin, then a subordinate officer in that army. When the war commenced she and her husband had been for a few years residents of Illinois, and when her husband was commissioned colonel of a regiment of volunteers she prepared at once to follow him to the field. During the march into Tennessee in the spring of 1862, Colonel Turchin was taken seriously ill, and for some days was carried in an ambulance on the route. Madame Turchin took command of the regiment during his illness, and while ministering kindly and tenderly to her husband, filled his place admirably as commander of the regiment. Her administration was so judicious that no complaint or mutiny was manifested, and her commands were obeyed with the utmost promptness. In the battles that followed, she was constantly under fire, now encouraging the men, and anon rescuing some wounded man from the place where he had fallen, administering restoratives and bringing him off to the field-hospital…. In all the subsequent campaigns at the West, Madame Turchin was in the field, confining herself usually to ministrations of mercy to the wounded, but ready if occasion required, to lead the troops into action and always manifesting the most perfect indifference to the shot and shell or the whizzing minie balls that fell around her. She seemed entirely devoid of fear, and though so constantly exposed to the enemy’s fire never received even a scratch….

Curator Notes

Exact Title: 
Woman's work in the Civil War: : a record of heroism, patriotism and patience
L. P. Brockett (Linus Pierpont)
Zeigler, McCurdy & Co. and R.H. Curran (Boston)
Place of Publication: 
Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, and Boston
American Antiquarian Society
Catalog Code: 
E576 B864 W867