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Boston Women and the Civil War: Stories of Faith, Courage, and Determination

In honor of National Women’s History Month and the anniversary of the beginning of the American Civil War (1861), the Boston Public Library honored me with an invitation to give a talk on Boston women and the Civil War. I had so much fun putting these stories together, I thought I would share them here!


What inspires me about these stories, and what I hope will inspire you, is what these women have in common. I love history in and of itself, but I think it’s important to look at what’s really going on -- to see what we can learn and apply valuable life lessons to our own lives.


What these women had in common was a deep faith – in God (according to her own definition), in herself, in the possibility of change, and in the potential for others to embrace change. These women had courage, conviction, and determination.

In each case, the obstacles were many and the cost of persevering could be very high indeed. But they each found a way to do the work they knew they were put on Earth to do. As Margaret Fuller wrote to her brother when their father died and her financially strapped, circumscribed life looked quite bleak, “there must be something God intends me to do.”


These women (presented here in alphabetical order) were phenomenal. I hope you will Google each one to learn more!


Louisa May Alcott (1832-88)

Known for her book Little Women about her family life in Concord, Massachusetts, Alcott was also an abolitionist and suffragist who served as a nurse for a hospital in Georgetown during the war. There, she caught typhoid fever and was sent home. She wrote about her experiences in Hospital Sketches.


Maria Weston Chapman (1806-85)

A founder of the bi-racial Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society and an editor of The Liberator (the abolitionist newspaper founded by William Lloyd Garrison), she organized 22 massive anti-slavery fairs at Boston’s Faneuil Hall.


Lydia Maria Child (1802-80)

Her hugely influential 1833 book, An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans Called Africans, was the first anti-slavery book published in America. She was a member of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, and worked tirelessly for the cause.


Ellen Craft (1826-97)

Craft settled in Boston with her husband, William, after escaping from Georgia disguised as a man. She helped many other escaped slaves assimilate, and left for England when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.


Dorothea Dix (1802-87)

Originally from Worcester, she spent many years in Boston trying to reform institutions for the mentally ill. During the war, Dix was the Superintendent of Nurses for the Union Army.


Margaret Fuller (1810-50)

As the first woman editor for the literary department of a major newspaper (New York Tribune), she wrote stinging condemnations of the American policy toward African Americans and essays against the annexation of Texas (which would have expanded slavery).


Angelina Grimke (1805-79)

and Sarah Grimke (1792-1873)

Quakers who were raised in the South, the famous Grimke sisters launched their anti-slavery campaign in Boston because of its strong abolitionist community. Angelina became the first woman to ever address the Massachusetts legislature when she presented a petition to end slavery signed by 20,000 people.


Harriet Hayden (1816-93)

She and her husband, Lewis, a successful businessman, were very active in the Underground Railroad. Today their Beacon Hill house is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Haydens worked closely with Harriet Tubman, the “Moses of Her People,” who was a frequent visitor to Boston.


Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)

A member of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, author of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, and the creator of the Mother’s Day for Peace, which evolved into today’s Mother’s Day. Her husband, Samuel, was one of the “Secret Six,” Boston men who backed John Brown financially.


Edmonia Lewis (1845-ca. 1909)

A free African American and Chippewa woman who studied sculpture in Rome, Lewis used her art during and after the war to create magnificent sculptures. Forever Free was a tribute to William Lloyd Garrison, the leader of Boston’s abolitionist movement. She also created busts of Robert Gould Shaw (commander of the first all-Black regiment, the 54th Massachusetts), John Brown, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.


Mary Ashton Rice Livermore (1820-1905)

Livermore had worked as a governess in Virginia where she witnessed the horrors of slavery first-hand. In Boston, she was a frequent public speaker, and played a leading role at the national level in the U.S. Sanitary Commission.

Elizabeth Boardman Otis (dates unavailable)

Always known as Mrs. Harrison Gray Otis, she headed the Boston chapter of the Sanitary Commission, raised money, and organized women to provide aid to soldiers in the field (bandages, uniforms, blankets, etc.).


Susan Paul (1809-41)

The daughter of Thomas Paul, the minister of the African Meeting House, Susan Paul was a member of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society, a school teacher, and leader of a children’s choir that performed abolitionist songs.


Sarah Parker Remond (1814-94)

An African American from Salem, Massachusetts, she was one of the most popular and effective speakers for the American Anti-Slavery Society in the United States and Europe. She committed her first act of public resistance in Boston, and was a member of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society.


Maria W. Stewart (1803-79)

The first American-born woman public speaker and the first African American political writer, Stewart was a member of the African Meeting House which was the center of Boston’s Black community and abolitionist activity.


Lucy Stone (1818-93)

Better known for her work on woman suffrage, Stone was also an active abolitionist and close friend of Frederick Douglass. After the war, she worked with Douglass to pass the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed suffrage for African American men. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony broke off to form their own group to work for woman suffrage – hence, the split in the woman suffrage movement.


Phillis Wheatley (ca. 1753-84)

Kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery in Boston when she was 6 or 7, Wheatley became a poet who used her poems -- published in the newspapers of the day -- to challenge the morals of the Christian ministers who defended slavery.


That’s quite a list, isn’t it? Can you understand why some of us are awfully proud of this aspect of Boston’s heritage?


2011 © Bonnie Hurd Smith

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What these women had in common
was a deep faith – in God (according
to her own definition), in herself, in the
possibility of change, and in the potential
for others to embrace change. These
women had courage, conviction,
and determination.