Let's Learn From the Past: Women filled vital roles during the Civil War

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

Pennsylvania sent more than 350,000 men to battle during the Civil War, more than any other state in the Union except New York. But it wasn't just men who contributed to the war effort. Both on the home front and near the battlefield, women played a crucial role in aiding the Union Army.

Historians estimate that nearly 20,000 women assisted the Union Army as laundresses, cooks, nurses and other service-oriented professions. With men on the battlefield, women also helped to manufacture supplies such as shoes, blankets, uniforms and canteens.

In Pittsburgh, more than 150 girls and young women from ages 15-20 labored at Lawrenceville's Allegheny Arsenal, a manufacturing center that produced ammunition and supplies for the Union Army. They performed dangerous work, rolling paper tubes and filling them with gunpowder to produce 40,000 bullet cartridges each day.

One of these girls was Kate McBride, 15, who lived on the arsenal grounds, where her father, Alexander, served as the lab superintendent. On Sept. 17, 1862, a mysterious explosion rocked the arsenal, killing McBride and 77 others and injuring many more. It was the worst civilian tragedy of the four-year Civil War.

Other women contributed to the war effort closer to the front lines, as nearly 4,000 served as nurses who aided wounded soldiers following battles.

Sometimes women were forced to help out of necessity, such as Tillie Pierce, 15, a student who lived with her family in Gettysburg during the war. As the Battle of Gettysburg began on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, Pierce's parents sent her to stay at a nearby farm, where they thought she would be safe. Instead, the fighting unexpectedly shifted and the family farm became a field of combat during the second day of battle.

As the battle continued, the farmhouse served as a makeshift field hospital. Pierce helped by pouring water for thirsty soldiers and ripping fabric into bandages. The initial horror at the sight of amputated limbs stuck in her mind, and she later detailed the chaos of war in a memoir that became an important documentation of the Civil War's impact on Gettysburg.

Visitors to the Heinz History Center's Pennsylvania's Civil War exhibition can see lifelike figures of Kate McBride and Tillie Pierce, along with more than 150 artifacts, rare archival images and immersive settings.The exhibition, which closes Sunday, brings to life the personal stories of those impacted during the war, including women, soldiers, African-Americans and children. For more information, please visitwww.heinzhistorycenter.org/civilwar.

Join the conversation:

Commenting policy | How to report abuse
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to socialmedia@post-gazette.com and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner. Thank you.
Commenting policy | How to report abuse


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?