These strong women in history ditched their subservient roles and fought for the cause.
Despite their subjugated status in society, strong women in history played vital roles in the Civil War, often serving as nurses, soldiers, civil rights activists, women’s suffragists, abolitionists and even spies. Others formed aid societies sewing uniforms, canning food and providing soldiers with necessary medical supplies, blankets, socks, shoes and bandages. Gathered below are just four of the many strong women in history who proved vital to the causes they fought for.
1. Susie King Taylor (1848 – 1912)
Born Susan Baker, Susie King Taylor was the first Black nurse in the Army. For four years during the Civil War, she served the First South Carolina Volunteers 33rd Regiment (an all-Black troop), acting as a nurse for the Union while also teaching off-duty Union soldiers to read and write. Taylor was also the first Black person to teach openly in Georgia, having learned to read as a child while attending secret schools where she was educated by two young white people (a practice that was illegal at the time). On one occasion (in February 1863), Taylor nursed wounded men during a smallpox outbreak, insisting on providing care for the suffering soldiers, even ignoring the doctors’ orders. She continued to serve as a nurse for the United States Army until the end of the war in 1865. In 1902 she published her memoir, Reminiscences of Life in Camp, revealing her wartime experiences.
2. Sarah Edmonds (1841 – 1898)
Born in Canada in December of 1841, Sarah Emma Edmondson spent her young adulthood trapped in an abusive arranged marriage. Determined to escape, Edmondson left home (changing her name to Edmonds). For approximately a year she worked in the town of Moncton, but because she feared her father would discover her, she decided to emigrate to the United States. In order to travel undetected and to secure a job, she disguised herself as a man and assumed the name Frank Thompson. For a time she found work in Hartford, Connecticut, as a traveling Bible salesman. When the war began, she enlisted in Company F, 2nd Michigan Infantry, a volunteer infantry company in Flint, Michigan. For more than a year, she was able to convince others she was a man, even taking part in the Battle of Blackburn’s Ford, the First Battle of Bull Run, and the Peninsular Campaign of April–July 1862. Aside from serving as an aide to Colonel Orlando M. Poe at Fredericksburg in 1862, she also participated in intelligence missions behind Confederate lines. During the spring of 1863, while Edmonds and the 2nd Michigan Infantry were assigned to the Army of the Cumberland and sent to Kentucky, Edmonds contracted malaria and requested a furlough, which was denied. Because she feared that seeking medical attention would reveal she was in fact a woman, Edmonds fled and was subsequently charged with desertion. Following her recovery, she began working as a nurse for the United States Christian Commission until the war ended. Years later she even published a scandalous memoir of her experiences as Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. Edmonds donated the profits from the memoir to various soldiers’ aid groups. After marrying Linus Seelye in 1867, she moved frequently, living in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio, Louisiana, Kansas and Texas. Shortly before her death, the charge of desertion was removed from her military records and she was awarded a pension. Edmonds died at her home in La Porte, Texas, on September 5, 1898. She was buried with military honors at Washington Cemetery in Houston.
3. Mary Jewett Telford (1839 – 1906)
Mary Jewett Telford was among the thousands of strong women who served as volunteer nurses during the Civil War. Initially the U.S. Sanitary Commission rejected her request to serve as a nurse, stating that she was too young. Eventually, though, the governor of Michigan (a friend of Mary’s father) granted her a special permit that allowed her to serve. Her nursing career began at Hospital No. 8 in Nashville, where she was the only woman in a hospital serving more than 600 soldiers. In addition to attending to the soldiers, Mary also actively wrote letters for soldiers who were unable to do so on their own. Beyond her role as a nurse, she was also a leader of the state Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) and a suffragist. She served as a delegate at the national convention of the Prohibition Party, was nominated for the state assembly by members of the party, and was selected to serve as the candidate for lieutenant governor. Mary was also a charter member of the Woman’s Relief Corps (WRC), an organization dedicated to assisting veterans and their families. She was also appointed to the Child-Saving Work Committee on the Board of Charities and Corrections. In addition to her work for the WCTU and the Woman’s Board of Missions, Telford was also a teacher. She died in Hinsdale, Illinois, at the age of 67.
4. Dorothea Dix (1802 – 1887)
Born in Hampden, Maine, in 1802, Dorothea Dix spent her childhood living with her grandmother. Though she’d attended school only sporadically, by early adulthood she had become a schoolteacher, establishing an elementary school in her grandmother’s home. Shortly after, she published a small book of facts for schoolteachers, titled Conversations on Common Things. The book was directed primarily toward young women in the teaching profession and acted as a guide, advocating that women should be educated to the same level as men. By 1865 the book had received popular acclaim and had been reprinted 60 times. Dix published several additional works, including fictional texts containing moral lessons as well as collections of religious poetry.
Throughout her life Dix suffered from depression, and she became a mental health advocate. While volunteering as a teacher in East Cambridge Jail, Dix witnessed inmates with mental illnesses who’d been neglected and treated inhumanely, and she became determined to improve the conditions at the jail. In 1843 she submitted a “memorial” (or pamphlet) to the state legislature, drawing attention to the inhumane treatment of mentally ill people in prisons, asylums and other institutions, and promoting the value of kind, compassionate care.
When the war began, Dix organized and managed nurses for the Union armies. In addition to organizing a public drive for wounded men, she also opened her house to tired and sick nurses. In 1861 she became the Union’s superintendent of female nurses, volunteering her services and quickly becoming a role model for nurses for the rest of the Civil War. Appalled by the horrible conditions of the military hospitals, she worked tirelessly to create more hospitals, inspecting locations throughout the North, demanding better diets for the wounded and even recommending courts-martial for doctors who were drunk on duty. Dix’s authoritative personality caused clashes with administrative officials and doctors, earning her the nickname “Dragon Dix.” However, as a result of her efforts, nursing care and working conditions for nurses improved significantly. Dix spent the remaining years of her life in a state legislature–designated private suite at New Jersey State Hospital, an institution she’d helped establish more than three decades earlier. She died on July 18, 1887.