Discrete yet Cunning: The Homefront Experiences of West Virginia Women During the Civil War

While the Civil War in Appalachia has been extensively studied by historians, little attention has been given to the role of women, particularly in West Virginia, during this time period. When Appalachian women are considered in Civil War studies, their actions are often marginalized and they are frequently portrayed as victims. In reality, West Virginia’s geographical position between the Union and Confederate states, and the deeply divided loyalties of its citizens meant that the state’s homefront became a new kind of battlefield for the women who lived there. Based on an extensive review of published and unpublished primary sources, including letters, diaries, and memoirs of Confederate and Union-sympathizing white West Virginia women, this paper reveals that they eagerly expanded beyond their traditional domestic roles, refusing to confine their minds or bodies solely to the home and hearth. These women kept abreast of political developments, engaged in business transactions, and did not hesitate to confront military commanders when they felt their rights had been violated. West Virginia women also manipulated assumptions about their gender identity in order to survive, and played off cultural norms regarding customary gender roles to achieve their objectives. This paper complicates the traditional Civil War narrative of women’s homefront experiences by highlighting the political, economic, and military roles West Virginia women played in their communities. By extending agency to these women, this paper will provide a richer, more accurate account of the lives of West Virginia women during the Civil War and elevate them from the role of passive victim to one of active participant.