At the outset of the Civil War, the Union established a blockade around the Confederacy. This prevented the Confederacy from trading for many of the supplies needed to survive the war. Skilled blockade-runners could make it through the lines of Union ships, but they could only carry a small portion of the goods needed by a country at war.
Confederate women took on the role of smuggling for the Confederacy. Nineteenth-century social conventions led Union soldiers to assume that all women were innocent noncombatants. This made it easier for Confederate women to transport medicine, letters, food, and other much-needed supplies across the border. It was only in 1863—two years into the war—that the Union Army fully recognized the threat and began to crack down on women’s movements in war zones.
This Harper’s Weekly article recounts a smuggling incident in Washington, D.C., in January 1863. A group of Confederate women who had been stranded in the U.S. capital when the war broke out asked the Union government to help them return to their husbands and families. The government agreed to arrange the journey and cover their expenses. Instead of packing their belongings, the women filled their luggage with medicine, food, and shoes. They were discovered when their luggage was inspected. The U.S. government confiscated the goods, but the women were allowed to continue on their journey. The humorous tone of the article indicates that the Union public did not yet take the threat of women smugglers seriously.