Memory  /  Journal Article

Home Front: Black Women Unionists in the Confederacy

The resistance and unionism of enslaved and freed Black women in the midst of the Confederacy is an epic story of sacrifice for nation and citizenship.

“On plantations and farms; in towns, cities, and factories, and on the battlefield, black women fought and prayed for the Union cause and the cause of emancipation. They sacrificed their lives and their children and husbands and fathers,” Glymph explains.

For the US military, they worked, often thanklessly, “as spies, regimental cooks, nurses, and laundresses, [and] on hospital transports and naval gunboats.” They often had excellent vantage points for intelligence-gathering: just hours after Robert E. Lee took tea with a white family in Gloucester County, Virginia, for instance, Lee’s location and troop complement became known to Union forces thanks to an enslaved woman in the household. Black women also sheltered and cared for Black and white Union soldiers in their cabins and even hid Southern whites evading Confederate conscription.

Support for the Union, with its implied—until manifest in the Emancipation Proclamation—promise of freedom, came in many different forms. The one Glymph begins with is the reimagining and repurposing of a Confederate song. “The Bonnie Blue Flag” was first adopted from white Texas slave-holders by Confederate troops. Black women rewrote it into a “battle song for black woman unionists.” Their version song had the lines, “Yes, I’m a radical girl/And glory in de name—/Hurrah fo’ de home-spun dresses/Da de colored wimmen wear.”

Home-spun fabric was long associated with sacrifice for the nation. “Condemned by law and custom to dress in the cheapest fabrics, they recast that fabric as a political expression, giving it new meaning during the war,” writes Glymph.

But while Black women saw “themselves as as unionist women,” on the literal front lines of war, “few other Americans at the time did, which had material and political consequences” both during and after the war. There were exceptions, but in general, the US military saw Black unionist women as little more than a refugee problem. White southern unionist women, in comparison, were given much more respect and assistance.

Black unionist women forged and contributed “a powerful notion of unionism, citizenship and belonging that, in the end, even most white northerners were not prepared to accept or endorse”—to the detriment of the nation for years to come.