For more than a century after the Civil War, historians rarely made room for the wartime history of Black women. Even in the wake of the rise of women’s history, as scholars began to pay more attention to white women North and South and their roles in the conflict, Black women were ignored. As late as her 2018 Robert Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture, given on the anniversary of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, historian Thavolia Glymph could say, “The history of southern women in the Civil War remains white-centered, mirroring wartime and postwar accounts that placed white women at the forefront of the battle for the home front.”
Lost Cause mythology, Jim Crow-era monument building, The Birth of a Nation (1915; based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 novel, The Clansman), Gone with the Wind (1936 book, 1939 movie), and racist historiography that spilled over into textbooks right through the 1960s all left a legacy of portraying white womanhood as the heart and soul of the South.
But what Glymph describes as the “resistance, patriotism, and unionism” of enslaved and freed Black women in the midst of the Confederacy is an epic story, one that’s infinitely more interesting than Gone With The Wind’s romanticization of a woman suddenly bereft of her slave-based family wealth and position.
“Southern black women unionists played a large and significant role in the Union war and in the emancipationist turn the nation took over the course of the war,” writes Glymph. “Having made spaces for themselves in the Union’s war, which from the outset they saw as inextricably tied to the slaves’ war, in freedom black women worked to build out and extend those spaces.”
Slavery confined and narrowed the options for Black women, but they struggled to turn “the policed and cramped quarters of the slave community into spaces of resistance and life, spaces conducive to the development of an antislavery politics that took a multitude of forms.” The war went some way in expanding their options—they didn’t have to head to Canada when Grant or Sherman were in the next state or even county.
“On plantations and farms; in towns, cities, and factories, and on the battlefield, black women fought and prayed for the Union cause and the cause of emancipation. They sacrificed their lives and their children and husbands and fathers,” Glymph explains.
For the US military, they worked, often thanklessly, “as spies, regimental cooks, nurses, and laundresses, [and] on hospital transports and naval gunboats.” They often had excellent vantage points for intelligence-gathering: just hours after Robert E. Lee took tea with a white family in Gloucester County, Virginia, for instance, Lee’s location and troop complement became known to Union forces thanks to an enslaved woman in the household. Black women also sheltered and cared for Black and white Union soldiers in their cabins and even hid Southern whites evading Confederate conscription.
Support for the Union, with its implied—until manifest in the Emancipation Proclamation—promise of freedom, came in many different forms. The one Glymph begins with is the reimagining and repurposing of a Confederate song. “The Bonnie Blue Flag” was first adopted from white Texas slave-holders by Confederate troops. Black women rewrote it into a “battle song for black woman unionists.” Their version song had the lines, “Yes, I’m a radical girl/And glory in de name—/Hurrah fo’ de home-spun dresses/Da de colored wimmen wear.”
Home-spun fabric was long associated with sacrifice for the nation. “Condemned by law and custom to dress in the cheapest fabrics, they recast that fabric as a political expression, giving it new meaning during the war,” writes Glymph.
But while Black women saw “themselves as as unionist women,” on the literal front lines of war, “few other Americans at the time did, which had material and political consequences” both during and after the war. There were exceptions, but in general, the US military saw Black unionist women as little more than a refugee problem. White southern unionist women, in comparison, were given much more respect and assistance.
Black unionist women forged and contributed “a powerful notion of unionism, citizenship and belonging that, in the end, even most white northerners were not prepared to accept or endorse”—to the detriment of the nation for years to come.