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McKeesport history center highlights women's roles in Civil War

| Monday, March 10, 2014, 5:51 a.m.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Clarissa Confer shares a wealth of knowledge on 'Women During the American Civil War' during a Women's History Month program at the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center on Saturday.

McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center celebrated Women's History Month with a program that prepared local audiences for the “Civil War in Pennsylvania” traveling exhibit's upcoming appearance.

On Saturday, the center hosted historian Clarissa Confer for a lecture on “Women During the American Civil War.” It followed Union and Confederate women through breakthrough roles as soldiers, spies and medical caregivers.

“What do you think of as women's roles in the 20th century? Nurses. Teachers. Secretaries,” Confer reflected. “None of that was true in the 19th century.”

Because all roles outside the home traditionally were maintained by men in early American society, Confer said, that perspective has “everything to do with” women's roles in the Civil War.

“The perception is that women are weak, easily shocked, and can't handle the coarseness of the real world … where nasty things would happen,” she said.

Despite their existence in a time when life was, at the very least, rough by today's standards, women during the American pioneering era of the late 1700s and early 1800s were considered to be lesser, frail beings — a condition that many attendees found surprising.

If a woman wanted to go to battle when the Civil War broke out in 1861, she had to disguise herself as a young man. This contingent made up between 400 and 700 of the 2 million soldiers who fought.

“We are talking about young rural women — farm girls who grew up doing exactly what their brothers did,” Confer said. “When the boys went off to war, they saw no reason why they couldn't do the same.”

They cut their hair, wore baggy clothes and bound their breasts. The charade was successful for some until the fighting was through. One woman wasn't caught until 1910, when she was hit by a car after enlisting six times in military service and working civilian jobs as a man.

Most women were found out upon being wounded.

“It's difficult to hide something like this from doctors and nurses,” Confer said. “If you are injured during battle, they cut off your uniform looking for wounds.”

Some women put their cunning to use behind the scenes, rather than on the battlefield.

“Men are forever underestimating them,” Confer said. “They're so used to being served by women that they are like non-entities. But when the mashed potatoes come out, so does the information.”

Confer shared stories of Confederate spies, Belle Boyd and Rose Greenhow. She highlighted Union sympathizers in the South — Pauline Cushman, Elizabeth Van Lew and slave Mary Elizabeth Bowser.

“Some used charm and guile to pass on information,” she said. “Mary Elizabeth Bowser maintained the persona ‘Crazy Bet.'”

The most impactful role of women during the Civil War was in field medicine, Confer said. Despite society's desire to keep women away from the nudity, blood and gore of medical care, there was no choice when what the government promoted as a three-month conflict escalated into a four-year war.

Dorthea Dix, while not a nurse, became a crusader for better care.

“She organized women,” Confer said. “They marched on Washington.”

Confer told attendees about Louisa May Alcott, who wrote about hospital scenes from the war, and Elizabeth Blackwell and Mary Edwards Walker, who earned medical degrees but served as nurses.

“I didn't realize the extent to which women did participate in the Civil War,” said heritage center volunteer Elizabeth Jones, a professor of historical sociology at California University of Pennsylvania. “The first female doctor accepted the only wartime role her expertise would permit her to have — a nurse. That's real patriotism.”

Despite women being forced back to home life after the war, Confer said, their participation gave them undeniable experience.

“They made strides, but those strides were quick-eroding,” she explained. “Their measure of self-reliance would stay with them, and the next generation of women would push for change.”

Executive director Michelle Wardle said the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center was proud to kick off a month of Civil War programming with the women's history event.

“The Civil War in Pennsylvania,” established by the Sen. John Heinz History Center, will be in McKeesport from March 15 through April 5.

“We are the only museum in the Mon-Yough area that will be hosting this, and we hope many people take advantage of this opportunity to view the exhibit locally,” Wardle said. “We had three regiments from McKeesport. We had four men from our area who carried Lincoln's body. This area has its ties to the Civil War.”

While the McKeesport soldiers are not highlighted in the traveling exhibit, there will be a local display alongside it.

Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or

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