Cokie Roberts and Steven V. Roberts

What Women Won in the Civil War

When the Civil War ended 150 years ago, Washington, D.C. celebrated with parades and pyrotechnics as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife arrived fresh from accepting Gen. Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox. Greeted by booming cannons fired from forts surrounding the capital, the triumphal procession took them past buildings festooned in red, white and blue.

Only a few days later, the shocked city yanked down the colorful buntings, replacing them with black crepe. Abraham Lincoln had been murdered, adding his life to the more than 600,000 lost in the war.

Victory came at a horrible cost. But the United States, by definition, would not have become the powerful and purposeful nation it is today had that victory not been achieved. By insisting on holding together the Union and eventually abolishing slavery, Lincoln created a military and moral force. And though freeing the slaves was clearly the greatest good to come from the conflict, other advances also resulted from the more than four years of carnage. No longer these United States, as they had been before the war, the United States emerged as a more cohesive country, with a unifying railroad underway that would soon connect the east coast to the west.

And it was a country where the role of women had changed for the better.

The now-familiar image of "Rosie the Riveter," head wrapped in a bandana and mouthing the motto "We Can Do It," has educated the country about the assembly-line women who helped win World War II. And the "government girls" who poured into Washington to staff the bureaucracies running that war, plus other government programs burgeoning into being, have received some modicum of the credit due them. Their sisters from the Civil War have gone largely unrecognized, but they, too, were on the job, working for the cause -- as Cokie has learned in researching her new book "Capital Dames."

Young women toiled in the arsenals around the North, taking on the dangerous task of making munitions. In Washington, a huge explosion killed more than 20 of the hoop-skirt-wearing arsenal workers, causing the whole city, led by the president and secretary of war, to turn out to honor them.

Women in Philadelphia making uniforms and other items for the soldiers sent a delegation to meet with Lincoln to protest a cut in fees. They organized a labor union-type association to push for higher pay for their essential endeavors. After hearing them out, the president instructed his military men to heed the women's demands.

Soon after Congress authorized the printing of paper money to finance the war, the Treasurer of the United States, Gen. Francis Spinner, realized he could pay women a lot less than men for the finger-blistering job of cutting the big sheets of greenbacks that came off the press into individual bills. Eager to earn a living, female applicants deluged the Treasury; later in his life, Spinner judged his greatest achievement to be "introducing women to employment in the offices of government." By the end of the war, female workers could be found in every department, and they stayed there once peace was at hand.

Women who rushed into the hospitals and onto the battlefields to care for the sick and wounded served as the vanguard for a whole new field for females: nursing and medicine. Then there were those who staged the enormous fundraisers for the Sanitary Commission, which provided supplies and nurses for the troops. Many of those intrepid organizers went on to found social service agencies, settlement houses and lobbying organizations for the destitute and downtrodden, particularly the thousands of formerly enslaved elderly and infirm people who had no way to fend for themselves.

Lobbying efforts included a massive petition drive that has been credited with pushing Senate passage of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery. The women who launched that undertaking then used their newly acquired political skills for the slow sludge toward equal rights. And some of the same women, plus many others, wrote about it -- some as journalists, like Jane Swisshelm, and others as propagandists, like Anna Ella Carroll. Female orators also attracted public attention; Anna Dickinson even addressed a Joint Meeting of Congress.

Though their history has gone unheralded, the women who lived it were well aware of the advances brought on by the Civil War. One of them, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, claimed the conflict had propelled woman into a position 50 years ahead of where "continued peace would have assigned her."

That's something to celebrate during this complex commemoration.

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