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Each week on the Junior Curators blog, we travel back in time to a different place in Tennessee history. Stories may be about a famous person, place or event from Tennessee’s past. They will include things like priceless artifacts, pictures, videos, and even some games. Be sure to better understand the story by answering the questions at the end of each post.
After learning the story, be sure to share what you've learned with your parents, family, or friends. Try making your own exhibit about it, shooting a movie, or writing a story about it. Let your creativity run wild!
by Jennifer Watts
Tennessee women played a big part in the American Civil War. Even though they were not allowed to fight, they found other ways to serve. They worked in their homes and towns, clothed soldiers, and became nurses. Some even worked as smugglers and spies. Other Tennessee women broke the social rules and disguised themselves as men to serve as soldiers in the war.
Back then, traditional women’s roles included jobs done in the home like cooking, cleaning, sewing, and taking care of the children. Although they were not allowed to do much else, they wanted to participate in the war effort. But, how could they help?
Photograph of Serepta Jordan, Courtesy of Customs House Museum.
Sewing was one way women helped. Serepta Jordan of New Providence, Tennessee wrote in her diary about how sewing supported the war. On April 25, 1861, she wrote about meeting with the Ladies of New Providence to form an association to aid soldiers from their hometown. They called it the Volunteer’s Friend Society. Their job was to sew uniforms for soldiers nearby. Communities across Tennessee had associations like Serepta and her friends. Other women sewed flags for their brothers, husbands, and sons to carry into battle. One of those flags was made by the women of Lebanon, Tennessee and can be seen today at the Tennessee State Museum. This was how women served while still working from their homes.
Handbill from the Soldiers Relief Society of Tennessee.
Nursing was another way that women helped. As the war continued, more men were injured in battle or became ill with disease. The number of women who served as nurses grew, too. In Tennessee, women like Annie Bell and Mary Jewett Telford volunteered to care for the hundreds of injured and sick soldiers in Nashville. African American women, many formerly enslaved, also worked as nurses.
Mary Jewett Telford, Library of Congress.
More women also began to challenge their traditional roles. They got creative and used the fashion of the time to their advantage. Serepta wrote on June 27, 1861, about women using their hoop skirts to get guns and bullets to the troops. Women were also known to carry medicine and other supplies as they traveled from one place to another. Women were able to move more freely across enemy lines than men. They were also less likely to be stopped and searched by soldiers.
Dress belonging to Keziah Whiteside Burcham.
In Rhea County, Tennessee, a group of young women formed a cavalry unit. It was the only female unit on either side of the war. They rode across the countryside bringing important supplies to friends and family. They formed in 1862 and named their group the Rhea County Spartans. In April of 1865, many of them were arrested by the Union for spying for the Confederacy. They were sent to Chattanooga but returned home soon after. The group broke up at the end of the war.
These are only a few ways Tennessee women served during the war. Even though they were not allowed to fight, they found other ways to aid the war effort.
Smugglers - a person who moves goods and supplies secretly.
Traditional - a common belief or practice passed down over time.
Association - a group of people who have the same interests.
Cavalry - a unit of soldiers mounted on horseback.
Spying - to watch secretly and tell other people what you saw.
What are ways women helped during the Civil War?
What are the names of two women who served as nurses to soldiers in Nashville?
Why do you think women would make better spies in the Civil War?
If you wanted to help soldiers that were fighting today, what are some things you could do?
Follow the link below to learn more about women during the American Civil War.
Follow the link below to learn more about the Rhea County Spartans.
Jennifer Watts is an Educator at the Tennessee State Mueseum.