HSM #4: War and Peace – Project Revealed

I heard back from Karen Abbott, who was on the road travelling, with permission (thank you!) to quote her article posted on Military History Now. I’ve added images to help set the scenes. I hope you find this bit of women’s history as interesting as I do.

Union soldiers pausing on their march through Frederick, Maryland, in 1862.

Union soldiers pausing in Frederick, Maryland, 1862.


Heroines, Smugglers and Spies – The Forgotten Contributions of Women to the American Civil War

There was work for everyone during the American Civil War… even women—especially women. Mothers, sisters and wives had to adjust quickly to the sudden absence of men. And while women had no vote, no straightforward access to political discourse and no influence in how the battles were to be waged, they did take control of America’s homes, businesses and plantations.

Pauline Cushman (born Harriet Wood) 1833-1893 - Actress and Union Spy

Pauline Cushman (born Harriet Wood) 1833-1893 – Actress and Union Spy

Women on both sides fueled their states’ war efforts. They raised money for weapons, supplies and materiel through the aid societies they founded and ran. Others rolled bandages, sewed banners and made uniforms. And some—privately or publicly, with shrewd caution or gleeful abandon—chafed at the limitations society set for them and determined to change the course of the war, or at least the course of their own lives.

Smugglers in Skirts

A southern woman unloading boots, which she attempted to wear across Union lines.

A southern woman unloading boots, which she attempted to wear across Union lines.

Some women famously brought fashion into the war effort. Ladies clothing of the era included crinoline, the rigid, cage-like structure worn under skirts that, at the apex of its popularity, could reach a diameters of six feet. Some patriotic women capitalized on their cumbersome and cavernous garments, using them to concealing all manner of goods as they passed through enemy lines.

On one occasion, a Southern woman managed to conceal inside her hoop skirt

  • a roll of army cloth
  • several pairs of cavalry boots
  • a roll of crimson flannel
  • packages of gilt braid and sewing silk
  • cans of preserved meats
  • and a bag of coffee

—quite a tally of contraband.

Belle Boyd, confederate spy and smuggler (1844-1900)

Belle Boyd, Confederate spy and smuggler (1844-1900)

A network of rebel women, led by Confederate courier and spy Belle Boyd, crept about Union camps, gathering thousands of unattended sabers and pistols and tying them to the steel coils of their hoop skirts. One day the 28th Pennsylvania Regiment, encamped near Harpers Ferry, discovered a cache of 200 sabers, 400 pistols, cavalry equipment for 200 men, and 1,400 muskets, all stashed inside barns and outhouses and buried underground, awaiting transfer to Southern lines.


You can probably see where I’m headed with this…welcome to HSM #4: War and Peace – “The Case of the Contraband Crinoline.”

"The Lady and the Dress" Punch Magazine, August 1856

“The Lady and the Dress” Punch Magazine, August 1856