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In the South, because manpower was in such short supply and because so many young men were away at war, women had the difficult, often unheralded responsibility and challenge of maintaining homes, businesses, plantations and farms almost singlehandedly, and for years. In addition they had to deal with wartime shortages from the tightening blockade, and a diversion of national resources from civilian to military use, and a food supply that was meager at best, at worst confiscated or destroyed by Union troops.
Yet they managed to survive, raise and provide for families and make do as best they could, and still manage to contribute to the war effort. They sewed uniforms, rolled bandages, and even distilled their own urine for gunpowder.
The most significant contribution in my mind made by women, both North and South, was to volunteer, staff and run the scores of military hospitals needed to administer care to the wounded and dying. Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, Mother Bickerdyke and Phoebe Yates Pember were just a few of the better-known women. Thousands served long hours for no pay, picking up the pieces of each battle and scrubbing the bloodied floors, arranging for dignified burials, and dictating letters and wills for soldiers in their last moments, no longer able to write on their own. Dix in particular established sanitation standards in Union hospitals long before we actually knew about the cause of infections, saving untold numbers of American lives.
Add to this the more rare contribution of women who served as spies, especially for the Confederacy, mingling among northern cities and military units gleaning what information they could, or those who smuggled weapons and supplies in their own hoopskirts into areas under Union control. Then there were women like Mary Chesnut, who kept meticulous diary entries throughout the war, giving us an important, complete primary source accounting of what life was like at the upper echelons of southern society during the Civil War.
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