1832 - 1877 A Nation Divided

Unidentified African American woman in uniform, 1861. New-York Historical Society Library.

Key Ideas

1. Women were active participants in all parts of the history of the long Civil War.

2. The experiences of women in this period varied widely based on race, class, age, gender identity, and geographic region.

3. The full history of the American Civil War cannot be properly understood without considering the perspectives, experiences, and contributions of women.

Introduction

Alison Saar, Maquette for “Swing Low: A Harriet Tubman memorial,” 2007. New-York Historical Society, Purchase.

The Civil War looms large in the American historical narrative for good reason. Coming only 85 years after the United States declared its independence from England, the war laid bare the unfinished business of the American Revolution. At the heart of the conflict was the question of whether a nation founded on liberty and equality could continue to enslave over four million people to power its economy. This central question fueled further debates over what kind of country the United States was going to be as well as how to balance the power between federal and state governments. In 1861, these heated debates boiled over into an armed conflict that left approximately 750,000 U.S. soldiers and untold civilians dead.

Women in the United States were involved in and affected by every phase of this history. From the earliest debates over the legality of slavery to post-war grappling over how the country should reconcile and reconstruct, women of all races and social classes participated in the politics of the conflict despite not being allowed to vote. For example, women produced supplies for soldiers, nursed the wounded and sick, and took up arms to fight for their cause. After the war ended, women of all backgrounds found their lives forever altered and engaged in the work of rebuilding a country that had nearly torn itself apart.

A Nation Divided, 1832–1877 provides resources to allow you to easily discover and teach the history of the Civil War—from the early formation of abolitionist groups to the end of Reconstruction—through the lens of women’s history. The unit contains three sections: Antebellum, which examines the activities of women in the United States from 1832 through the eve of the war; Civil War, which covers the activities of women in the Union, Confederacy, border states, and territories; and Reconstruction, which focuses on how women responded to and were affected by the major social and political changes that swept the nation after the war ended. The resources in each module illustrate the experiences of a wide range of women across race, gender, age, social, and economic spectrums. You will meet women who worked in agriculture, participated in politics, ran business empires, and did all they could to survive the cataclysm of the war. Some resources tell inspiring stories about the accomplishments and ingenuity of women, while others confront the everyday oppression and exploitation women faced. Many of these resources can be easily plugged into your existing lesson plans. Others introduce new ideas and avenues for exploration. The resources intersect in interesting ways, allowing students to compare and contrast women’s experiences across geographical, political, and social lines.

This unit focuses on the events surrounding the American Civil War. This history also runs parallel to a number of other important aspects of U.S. history, including Westward Expansion, Indian removal, immigration, American imperialism, industrialization, women’s suffrage movements, and more. These topics will be covered in Expansions and Inequalities, 1828-1869 (coming November 2022) and Industry and Empire, 1866-1898 (coming November 2021).

To get started, you can explore the 50 resources that make up this unit by “section,” which is how the unit was designed, or by “theme.” Each resource comes with background information, a vocabulary list, and suggested activities for how you might integrate it into lessons. Resources can be printed out individually or with the various supplements included, depending on how you want to utilize them. There are also links included on each resource page that will connect to other resources by topic or theme, so you can follow interesting threads.

Unit Essential Questions

1. How did women engage with and participate in the events of the long Civil War?

2. How did women’s experiences vary as a result of race, class, age, gender identity, and geographic region?

3. Why is it important to consider women’s stories and perspectives when learning about the history of the American Civil War?

Explore by Section

Antebellum

In the decades before the Civil War, women in the North and South took active roles in the ongoing debate over slavery.

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Civil War

Women of diverse races and social classes pushed social and political boundaries as they contributed to the Union and Confederate war efforts.

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Reconstruction

After the cataclysm of the Civil War, women remade their own lives while advocating for their vision of what the rebuilt nation should be.

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