One of my favorite sayings is an oft-quoted one by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich- “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” This quote not only makes me feel better when I do things others consider wrong or strange, but it also has inspired a great deal of the research I’ve done both as a college student and now here at Conner Prairie. Let me explain a little more.
Every year, on the Thursday and Friday before our Civil War Days weekend,
which is May 19 & 20, Conner Prairie hosts a Civil War School Program. During the program, students visit six different stations where they learn about a variety of Civil War topics.
Last year I created a new session for the Civil War School Program, and choosing the topic for the session was easy. When I was in college I wrote my undergraduate thesis on a Confederate spy named Belle Boyd. Since discovering Belle in my research a few years before, I became fascinated with just how many women served as spies in the Civil War. Because of the way people thought about women at that time (that they were virtuous and innocent and would never hurt a fly), women made particularly good spies. They were able to gather information and send it on to the men they knew in the armies. Even if they were caught, the punishments they faced were far less than what male spies received, and so they could continue their work beyond the point where most men would have stopped.
There are stories about women who hid information in the layers of their dresses or the coils of their hair, because no one would ever demand to search a lady. Belle became notorious for charming information out of Union soldiers and then sharing it with Confederate generals like Stonewall Jackson. Another woman, Elizabeth Van Lew, lived in Richmond, Virginia, but she supported the Union.
She ran a Union spy ring out of her home, sent secret messages with invisible ink, and allowed Union soldiers escaping from Confederate prisons to hide in her house. Emma Edmonds enlisted in the Union army disguised as a man, and then volunteered to become a spy. She had several alter egos, including a young male slave named Cuff and an Irish peddler woman named Bridget O’Shea. I could go on and on.
This year, we’re adding another new session to our Civil War School Program about nurses. Before the Civil War, most nurses were men. The high number of casualties on the battlefield soon demanded additional help in hospitals, and women stepped up to fill that need. Despite criticism from many doctors and government officials, who thought a military hospital was no place for a woman, women began serving as nurses. By war’s end, literally thousands of women had helped to care for sick and wounded soldiers on both sides of the war.
It is so exciting to me that we get to now share the stories of these incredibly courageous women with our students. Many people in their own times told them their behavior was wrong or out of bounds, but they had the audacity to fight, in their own way, for what they believed in. And they made history.