Female Heroes of the Civil War

Espionage and Samaritans are as old as conflict itself, and women have often played major roles as spies, doctors and nurses.. The American Civil War was no exception. This year’s Celebrate Commemorate Living History event will include portrayals of female spy for the North – Elizabeth “Crazy Bett” Van Lew, portrayed by Nancy Karasinski, Dr. Mary Walker portrayed by Marilyn Dirk and Clara Barton portrayed by Eleanor Sterns.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker is the only woman awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, for her work as a surgeon during the Civil War. Mary Walker was born in Oswego, in upstate New York, in 1832. She graduated from Syracuse Medical College and, while serving as an assistant surgeon during the Civil War, was captured by the Confederate army. Following her release, Walker briefly returned to Washington, D.C. In the fall of 1864, she received a contract as an “acting assistant surgeon” with the Ohio 52nd Infantry, and soon began supervising a hospital for women prisoners and then an orphanage. She went on to lecture on women’s rights, dress reform and suffrage. She’s also known for her work as an outspoken women’s rights activist, for seeking to change the restrictive styles of women’s fashions of her day, and for refusing to be held back by her gender.  Walker died in Oswego in 1919.



Dirk, former President of the New York Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War. You may recognize Marilyn from her previous appearances as spy Belle Boyd.  Dirk enjoys bringing to light the heroic contribution of women to our national history, a contribution too often overlooked by mainstream history books.



Educator, nurse and founder of the American Red Cross Clara Barton became a teacher, worked in the U.S. Patent Office and was an independent nurse during the Civil War. Barton sought to help the soldiers in any way she could. At the beginning, she collected and distributed supplies for the Union Army. Not content sitting on the sidelines, Barton served as an independent nurse and first saw combat in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1862. She also cared for soldiers wounded at Antietam. Barton was nicknamed “the angel of the battlefield” for her work.

After the war ended in 1865, Clara Barton worked for the War Department, helping to either reunite missing soldiers and their families or find out more about those who were missing. She also became a lecturer and crowds of people came to hear her talk about her war experiences. While visiting Europe, she worked with a relief organization known as the International Red Cross, and lobbied for an American branch when she returned home. The American Red Cross was founded in 1881, and Barton served as its first president.

Eleanor Sterns is a popular actress and board member of the Geneva Theater Guild.  She brings history alive through her portrayals of  “women of vision” — Clara Barton, Emily Dickinson, Amelia Earhart and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. “I am passionate about doing them. It’s my goal to bring these women alive and to bring history to people,” Sterns said.  “One of the most exciting times was when I did Clara Barton in her home down near Washington, D.C. on the 100th anniversary of her resignation from the Red Cross. They let me get changed upstairs and I came down the stairs that she would come down.”