The Civil War which began in 1861 and ended four years later in 1865, had a profound effect on the women who lived during that time. Black women felt the impact of the war on their family life. While the war would mean greater opportunity for freedom and other opportunities to rejoin relatives in other parts of the south, it also meant that the chance of separation of black families was greater because the Confederate government used male slaves as laborers to support their war effort. Slave women not only lost track of husbands and sons, but had to protect their children from hunger, illness, or even Confederate raiders who might do them harm.
White women were also affected by the war. As was the case during the Revolutionary War, domestic activities took on political meaning, but the seventy-five years since then had given women a lot of experience in how to organize their energies. Two weeks after the war began women formed thousands of aid societies to support the armies with supplies and money. In both the north and south women volunteered as doctors and nurses. Many ran farms, plantations, and businesses while the men were at war. Women in metropolitan areas found work in factories, in teaching and some found employment with the treasury department after men went to war, although the public did not approve of women working with men in the same office. Most women did end up in factories and managed to survive even under very poor conditions. Women with children generally avoided factories, and instead worked at home doing war-related piece work.
The Civil War created a situation wherein women were able to develop skills of organization that would serve them in public and political activities more than ever before in American history. One example of their efforts in the political arena was the work of the women’s rights leaders who organized the Women’s National Loyal League to petition the American congress to abolish slavery. By the end of the war they had collected 400,000 signatures. These wartime activities became newsworthy and suggested a shift in gender roles, giving women increased acceptance in the public sphere.