Women of the Civil War: A narrative


The record of our nation’s bloody conflict in the mid-19th century is replete with studies about the accomplishments of Union and Confederate commanders and officials, as well as the soldiers and civilians who served their respective causes. The role of women during these troubled times, however, has received less attention.

Over the past several years, this column has featured a number of women who made their mark in a variety of ways. One of the first females discussed was a Quaker woman from Wilmington named Anna Ferris, who kept a diary that historians find valuable for its portrayal of Delawareans’ beliefs and concerns during this period.

Patty Cannon received attention because of her notorious reputation as a slave catcher. She profited by returning runaway slaves to the South, before local authorities arrested and incarcerated her for her cruel treatment of those vulnerable people.

Next in the spotlight was Sophie Madeleine DuPont, the wife of Adm. Samuel Francis DuPont of the Union navy. Sophie supported her husband’s naval career, even though she was often home alone for lengthy periods while “Frank” DuPont was at sea.

Varina Davis was the spunky young wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. She was an independent-minded woman who tolerated and survived her domineering husband’s personality.

Milford Delaware’s Mary Currey married Georgetown native Alfred T. A. Torbert, who served the Union as both a cavalry and infantry officer. Following the war, Alfred and Mary received assignments to diplomatic posts abroad.

Varina Anne Davis, or “Winnie,” was the daughter of President Jefferson Davis and his wife Varina. Winnie’s romance with a young man of Northern birth and sentiments led to a “Romeo and Juliet” ending.

Edwina B. Kruse was a heroine of African-American children living in 19th-century Delaware, a time when the state legislature refused to fund schools for blacks. She led the way to build schools and hire teachers so that those children would have an education.

Harriet Tubman is renowned for her service to the enslaved black community in Maryland. An escapee herself, she returned to Maryland frequently to lead others to freedom along the Underground Railroad that ran through Delaware into Pennsylvania.

These articles are available online at http://www.coastalpoint.com/12128/category/civil-war-profiles.

Future columns will focus on other women who contributed to the war effort for their respective sides; both Union and Confederate. Among these will be Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln, whose life was filled with triumph, as well as tragedy.

Mary Custis Lee will also be featured. She, the wife of Gen. Robert E. Lee, was an heiress who had difficulty adjusting to the rough-and-tumble life of an army bride.

Others will include Julia Dent Grant, who married Ulysses S. Grant despite her father’s misgivings about her being the wife of an army officer, and who is a study of adaptability in wartime conditions. She was the anchor in Gen. Grant’s turbulent life.

We will examine the “May-September” marriage of LaSalle “Sallie” Corbell Pickett and her husband, Maj. Gen. George Pickett, who became an internationally-known figure after his attack on the Union lines at Gettysburg, known as “Pickett’s Charge.” Sallie was dedicated to perpetuation of Gen. Pickett’s image long after his death.

Also on this list will be Northern wives Margaret Sergeant Meade, Elizabeth “Libby” Bacon Custer, Elizabeth Keckley and Elizabeth Blair Lee, as well as Southern wives Mary Anna Jackson, Lizinka Campbell Brown, Mary Chestnut and Sarah Woolfolk Wiggins. These articles will offer information on the female perspective about the long and costly Civil War.

Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign,” available at Bethany Beach Books, Browseabout Books in Rehoboth, and Cardsmart in Milford. His latest book, “Lee is Trapped, and Must Be Taken: Eleven Fateful Days after Gettysburg, July 4-14, 1863” is due out in August 2019, and can be pre-ordered on Amazon.com. Contact him at pennmardel@mchsi.com or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.

By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point