Women in both the North and South played active parts in the war; primarily to tend to the home while the man of the house was away at war. They were the school teachers, farmers, store keepers, and plant workers; all jobs performed by men before the war. Women on both sides were actively involved as nurses as well as in sewing uniforms and raising money and supplies for the troops.
Among the more famous women who participated on the Northern side were Dorothea Dix who served as a nurse and later was prominent in the campaign for reform of the treatment of the mentally ill; and Clara Barton, who was the first Superintendent of Women Nurses and later was instrumental in founding the American Red Cross. A rather sad story about Ms. Barton illustrates the horrors of war. At Antietam, she was tending to a wounded soldier when a bullet tore through the sleeve of her dress and killed the soldier. Such is war.
Many women in the South had a difficult time dealing with domestic chores. Few served as nurses, and few could sew, knit or cook, as these were considered menial chores to be performed by slaves. More than one white woman was murdered by slaves when the master was away at war. Such killings were largely the result of cruelty by the white woman directed at slaves, particularly if the white mistress suspected her husband of an illicit relationship with a female slave. She could not punish him, so she vented her anger on the poor slave who took revenge when the opportunity presented itself.
On both sides, the roles of women within the home was changed forever by the war. Having been forced to assume such great responsibilities during the war, many were reluctant to returning to the dutiful and submissive wife role she had previously occupied. Their participation in the war gave fuel to the women's rights movement.
By far the greatest contribution of women on both sides of the war was sending their husbands and sons into battle, many of whom did not return. One mother from North Carolina lost seven sons at the Battle of Gettysburg. The authenticity of Lincoln's famous letter to Ms. Bixby has come into question recently; but it illustrates the supreme contribution of so many women who were left only with
[T]he cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice on the altar of liberty.