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Sherri Richards, Published February 24 2013

Civil War women: 150 years after war, more is known about role women played


What: Minnesota and the Civil War exhibit

When: March 2 through Sept. 8

Where: Minnesota History Center, 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul

Info: (651) 259-3000

ST. PAUL - Elizabeth “Lizzie” Bowler was a Civil War woman. While her soldier husband, James Madison Bowler, fought with the Third Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment and 113th U.S. Colored Infantry, she held down the farm in now-defunct Nininger, Minn., near Hastings.

Minnesota native Frances Clayton was also a Civil War woman, dressed like a man to fight on the front lines alongside her husband at the battles of Shiloh and Murfreesboro, where he died.

As America marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, more is known today about the role women played in the conflict between the states, says David Silkenat, a North Dakota State University professor and Civil War historian.

More women are Civil War historians today, Silkenat says. The understanding of the Civil War has grown to encompass the role of women and African Americans, especially compared with its centennial, when tributes focused on bravery of the battlefield.

“What we’ve learned since then is how important the home front is for both the Union and the Confederacy throughout the war … in how soldiers conceptualized the war, in maintaining morale, in maintaining the war effort on both sides,” Silkenat says.

This is clear in a soon-to-open exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

“Minnesota and the Civil War” explores the 1861-1865 war through the lens of Minnesotans involved. Their stories are told through artifacts, photographs and first-hand accounts.

There is little local history regarding the Civil War, as the Red River Valley had little white settlement at that time, says Mark Peihl, archivist for the Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County.

However, Minnesota was a newly minted state, and the first to volunteer troops. The war changed Minnesota, and fostered state and national pride, says Wendy Jones, who is in charge of public and educational programs for the Minnesota History Center.

Jones says “Minnesota and the Civil War” gives a larger view of the Civil War through one state’s experience.

Similarly, the role of women in the war can be understood through its microcosmic examples, like Frances Clayton and Lizzie Bowler.

Clayton’s story of disguise and battlefield feats is not a common one. An estimated 400 women disguised themselves to fight in the war, Jones says.

Silkenat says it’s a difficult number to pinpoint, as the known stories tend to be women who were caught. But considering the difficulty in communication and transportation then, he says, “the idea of wanting to keep loved ones close by is in some ways not surprising.”

More common is the story of Elizabeth Bowler.

Lizzie and Madison Bowler wrote nearly 300 letters to one another during the war. In them, they talk about love, their new baby, and they argue over differing ideas of duty.

“You feel this tension emerging between the two of them,” Jones says.

Madison felt he was providing for his family by serving his country. As the war goes on, Lizzie feels his extended absence is doing a disservice to their family, Jones says.

This storyline fits well into more recent scholarship on the role of women in the war. Silkenat says research of the last couple decades points in two simultaneous, contradictory directions.

“One is that many women struggled a great deal on the home front with their husbands and sons gone. So we have some scholarship that suggests women have a powerful impact on causing men to desert from the Army, particularly in the South but some indications of that in the North as well,” he says.

However, another thread points in the opposite direction. “Women were a powerful source of nationalism. That both Northern women and Southern women reinforced ideas about why the war was important and why soldiers should continue the war effort,” Silkenat says.

Women were actively involved in relief efforts in the North and South, making supplies for soldiers like blankets and socks, he says.

Jones notes that the federal government did not yet have the infrastructure to support troops in national warfare. Instead, women working through volunteer aid societies supported them. A Yankee pride quilt in the historical exhibit illustrates local war efforts and women’s patriotism, she says.

Women also engaged in nursing soldiers, up to that point a predominantly male occupation, Silkenat says.

This is an example of how the Civil War helped change the role of women in society.

During the Civil War, women entered the workforce in other new ways – agrarian versions of Rosie the Riveter, managing plantations and working as clerks in government offices.

Women were considered voices of moral authority, Jones says, and began expressing themselves in a more public sphere. They increasingly had access to the day’s media. While not featured in the exhibit, Jane Grey Swisshelm, a newspaper editor in St. Cloud and staunch abolitionist and suffragist, is a fascinating example, Jones says.

After the war, the suffrage movement gained momentum, much like women’s rights came to the forefront following World War II, Jones says.

Jones also points out how relevant the stories in the exhibit are even today.

Elizabeth Bowler’s story parallels the hardships long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have put on modern military families, she says.

Clayton’s service on the front lines can be juxtaposed with the Pentagon’s recent decision to lift its ban on women serving in combat.

“Women have been fighting on battlefront for long time,” Jones says. “Now they’re acknowledged.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5556.