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Our History:We owe Memorial Day to Civil War women

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But its origins go back to the post-Civil War period, initiated by the Grand Army of the Republic. Women, both North and South, had been...

By Joan Brown Wettingfeld

Memorial Day is, of course, in honor of war veterans; the soldiers, sailors and airmen who were killed in wartime.

But its origins go back to the post-Civil War period, initiated by the Grand Army of the Republic. Women, both North and South, had been decorating the graves of the fallen at the end of the war, and so the earliest recognition was “Decoration Day.” Similar recognition with a special day was instituted in the South but observed on varying dates from April 26 to June 3.

Though women helped promote honoring the dead of the Civil War, their contribution to military life of the times was far from limited to that alone. Their participation in the abolitionist movement led by Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, and Sojourner Truth popularized the idea that slavery should be abolished and promoted the Union cause. The women’s organizational skills and their experiences in the abolition movement led them to help to create wartime organizations such as the United States Sanitary Commission, to nurse the wounded on the battlefield, and in some cases to act as spies and fight along with the army disguised as men.

Writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe with her book “Uncle Tom's Cabin” were influential in gaining support for abolition, and others such as Mary Louise Booth and Anna Carroll spoke or wrote to promote the Union's political cause, here and abroad.

Shortly after the Civil War began, Dorothea Dix was appointed by the Secretary of State to serve as Superintendent of Women Nurses for the Union Army to select and assign women to military or general hospitals. They were not to be employed in the hospitals without Dix’s “sanction and approval except in cases of urgent need.” Later that year Congress authorized the Surgeon General to employ female nurses at a salary of $12 a month plus one daily ration. By war's end 6,000 women had served as nurses for the Union Army, either recruited directly, or provided through the U.S. Sanitary Commission or other voluntary agencies such as the Christian Commission. More than 640 Roman Catholic nuns from 20 different communities including the Sisters of Charity nursed the Union and Confederate soldiers, while the Sisters of the Holy Cross served as nurses aboard the Navy’s first hospital ship, “Red Rover.”

Two early women doctors, Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, started the Women’s Central Relief Committee to train nurses for the battlefield, networking through the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

Dr. Mary Edwards, one of three women surgeons known to have been appointed as a surgeon to the Union Army, was captured and held as a prisoner of war. Her work in caring for fellow prisoners and her heroism on the battlefield made her the only woman ever awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor. Unfortunately this honor was revoked in 1917 when a commission decided that a Medal of Honor could only be awarded for combat. However, the medal was restored posthumously in 1976.

Clara Barton nursed the wounded on the battlefield and created a system of mule teams to carry food and medical supplies to the front, and continued her work after the War tracing missing soldiers and marking the graves of 13,000 Union troops who died in the Confederate prison at Andersonville. One week before he was assassinated, President Lincoln made Clara Barton’s job official and she became the first woman to temporarily head a department of the U.S. government. After resuming her work on the battlefield during the Franco Prussian War (1870) she returned home and was determined that our country must join the International Red Cross. President Arthur signed the treaty making the United States a member on March 1, 1882, and Clara Barton was named president and treasurer of the American Red Cross.

In the South women were also forming a relief society, The Women's Relief Society of the Confederate States, which did much of the same work as its counterpart in the North, but could not match it in size and resources.

It can only be estimated how many women fought on both sides of Civil War. Mary Livemore, active with the U.S. Sanitary Commission, held that at least 400 women disguised themselves as men and fought as Union soldiers, and at least 60 were killed or wounded. But this is merely an estimate and has been challenged by later research. It is likely that hundreds of women soldiers were casualties.

Harriet Tubman, well-known conductor for the Underground Railroad, led may of her people to freedom and served as a soldier and guide for the Union Army, taking part in a number of raids including leading a mission up the Tennessee River to gather intelligence about the strength of the Confederate forces.

In the post-war period from 1866 until the Spanish American War, work continued and the Women's Relief Corps was organized to help disabled veterans, war widows, and orphans. In the North its functions were auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic, the largest Union Veterans association. There was also a unit run by African-American women for black Army veterans. The South also had formal coalitions of its own to deal with similar problems.

By the late 1880s and into the 1890s, the Women’s Relief Corps worked on cemetery maintenance, commissioning war memorials, preserving records and memorabilia, and establishing old-age homes for veterans. In the end women’s wartime experiences and participation led them to support and lobby for May 30 to be recognized as Memorial Day, and they also lent their support to organizing suitable annual memorial tributes.

Posted 7:07 pm, October 10, 2011
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