Women during the Civil War: An Encyclopedia

By Judith E. Harper | Go to book overview
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Selected Readings
King, Wilma. Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1995.
Marten, James. The Children’s Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 1998.
Werner, Emmy E. Reluctant Witnesses: Children’s Voices from the Civil War. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. 1998.

Government Girls

When male government clerks in federal offices in Washington, DC, abandoned their posts to enlist in the Union army in 1861, many government offices suffered severe labor shortages. In 1862, Francis Elias Spinner, the United States Treasurer, solved the labor deficit in the Treasury Department by hiring young women to count treasury bills and to perform other duties. New wartime monetary policies made the shortage especially critical in the Treasury Department. According to Spinner, a woman could “use scissors better than a man” and, he added, she could be paid less than a man, thereby saving the government money at a time when the Union needed to conserve its financial resources (Baker 1977, 84). Moreover, Spinner declared, men “ought to be handling muskets instead of shears” (quoted in Deutrich 1971, 68).

Although Spinner is often credited as being the first government administrator to employ women (or “government girls” as they were commonly called) to work in federal offices, female clerks, including CLARA BARTON, held positions in the United States Patent Office prior to 1861. Although he was not the first, Spinner’s support of the employment of women in government offices was instrumental to their assuming these jobs during the Civil War.

Spinner hired hundreds of women as “currency trimmers, who cut long sheets of currency into individual bills, at a salary of $600 per year. (Male clerks earned from $1,200 to $1,800 per year. ) Government girls in the Treasury Department worked from 9 AM until 3 PM with a half-hour lunch break. During the five-and-a-half-hour interval, a single clerk likely handled up to 50,000 bills at a rate of 9,090 notes per hour (Baker 1977, 82).

Also in 1862, the War Department and the Quartermaster General’s Office hired female clerks and copyists. 447 women worked in the Treasury Department during the war, 107 of them in Spinner’s office. In 1862, 80 women were on the payroll in Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase’s office. By 1863, 30 women were clerks in the Quartermaster General’s Office and 13 in the United States Patent Office, where Clara Barton had worked in the mid-1850s as a copyist.

The propriety of women clerks working alongside men was an ever-present issue during the war, so much so that administrators felt compelled to establish separate rooms and work spaces for women workers. In 1864, charges of immorality within the Treasury Department shocked newspaper readers, but a Congressional investigation proved them false. Nevertheless,

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