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Women on the Home Front

We have grown accustomed to seeing photographs of soldiers in military publications. Therefore, the presence of females may seem incongruous.

It is not.

For men, the advent of war and its continuation for four long years generally provided two options: volunteer as citizen soldiers or face possible conscription. Alternatively, the war presented women with opportunities to support the soldiers and military organizations. Just as the presence of females in these photographs is obvious to us today, their wartime efforts were obvious to soldiers fighting in the Civil War.

As the military ultimately required millions of soldiers, women helped to supply that need (even if reluctantly) by encouraging men to enlist or reenlist and by providing social, spiritual, and psychological support for the war.

A note tucked behind this portrait expresses a timeless sentiment. “On this lock a kiss for you” writes William H. Bailey, “Look on these leaves and lock of hair and remember me though far away.” William lived in Hancock, Mass., upon his enlistment in Company A of the state’s 49th Infantry in the summer of 1862. The woman by his side is likely his wife, Lucy, who he married in 1857. The couple had two children by the time he joined the army. William survived the war and returned to Lucy, and added three more children to their brood. Lucy died in 1914; William joined her six years later. They lie side by side in Hancock Cemetery. Quarter-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer. Kevin Canberg Collection.
A note tucked behind this portrait expresses a timeless sentiment. “On this lock a kiss for you” writes William H. Bailey, “Look on these leaves and lock of hair and remember me though far away.” William lived in Hancock, Mass., upon his enlistment in Company A of the state’s 49th Infantry in the summer of 1862. The woman by his side is likely his wife, Lucy, who he married in 1857. The couple had two children by the time he joined the army. William survived the war and returned to Lucy, and added three more children to their brood. Lucy died in 1914; William joined her six years later. They lie side by side in Hancock Cemetery. Quarter-plate ambrotype by an anonymous photographer. Kevin Canberg Collection.

Women of all ages and stations exhibited patriotic enthusiasm for the war, possibly as evidenced by the bonnet worn by the woman in the tintype from the Charles Darden collection. Her bonnet ribbons are adorned with both stripes and small stars. Thousands of letters between soldiers and the “dear ones at home” further underscore the backing of women for the troops. Soldiers placed an importance on maintaining connections with their hometown, and in the knowledge that someone back home thought and prayed for them.

An ambrotype from the Kevin Canberg Collection picturing a formally posed soldier and his lady reflects this sentiment. She wears her bonnet and outerwear, and carries a handkerchief. He appears with a gun and fixed bayonet, wearing his frock coat and cap. An affectionate note accompanies the photograph, and apparently once had a lock of hair attached to it. The message reads, “Look on these leaves and lock of hair and remember me though far away.” These popular couplets, known as “Remember me” poems, often turned up in autograph albums, and served as a popular means of expressing affection in a relatively public venue.

As the soldiers needed food, shelter and clothing, women stepped up with material and monetary support. The wives of farmers and plantation owners kept the farms going and the crops growing, producing the resources required to feed and clothe the troops. “No idle hands” was the way of life, not a clever expression. While some women from poor backgrounds worked in the mass production of textiles, women of all economic levels volunteered their time knitting, sewing, cooking, serving meals and raising funds.

Inevitably, the demand for soldiers needing medical care overwhelmed the military’s ability to provide health services. Some women opened their homes to care for individual soldiers, while others devoted their time in churches and other buildings that housed patients. A small number of  women with formal medical degrees found employment, or volunteered, their time as doctors.  Some women trained as army nurses, cooks or laundresses. Still more assisted in general hospitals and hospital transport boats, or offered their services where they could, even with basic tasks such as providing drinks of water for wounded soldiers.

These women either volunteered independently or under the auspices of local ladies’ aid societies and refreshment saloons, and national organizations. Supplementing government efforts became obvious early in the war. When a small group of men and women in New York City called for volunteers to gather at the Cooper Union in April 1861, more than 2,000 women attended. This first meeting of the Women’s Central Association for the Relief of Soldiers (WCAR) led to the formation of the U.S. Sanitary Commission (USSC).

The drama conveyed in this scene feels Shakespearian. The soldier, a member of the 7th New York State Militia, tenderly holds one hand of his love while she rests her free hand on his epaulette. Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Rick Carlile Collection.
The drama conveyed in this scene feels Shakespearian. The soldier, a member of the 7th New York State Militia, tenderly holds one hand of his love while she rests her free hand on his epaulette. Carte de visite by an anonymous photographer. Rick Carlile Collection.

One such WCAR or USSC volunteer may be the young lady looking away from the camera in a carte de visite from the Rick Carlile Collection. Wearing an elegant velvet coat over her dress, she apparently adjusts the epaulette of a soldier in the 7th New York State Militia.

The U.S. Christian Commission, an offshoot of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), is among the few social institutions with a continuous history of organizational support for the military, from the Civil War until today.

The paradigm shift toward national organizations coordinating the efforts of local entities has informed the efforts of charitable organizations ever since the Civil War, enhancing the lives of soldiers both during and ever since its founding.

Some women took a more direct role in the war industry, laboring in arsenals to produce ammunition, accouterments and other military goods. Women sewed state and national flags carried by the regiments into battle. Closer to the front lines, a limited number of women served as spies, scouts and even soldiers. In a Carlile Collection carte de visite, for instance, a tall cavalryman and a young lady dress in a riding habit. Both wear gauntlets, perhaps to emphasize their horsemanship. This young lady in a fashionable riding habit is the very image of one who might find an opportunity to serve as a spy or a scout.

Mothers, wives, daughters and friends mourned for uniformed loved ones who died in the war. Grieving individuals, and others, supplemented military efforts by handling the tasks associated with the death of soldiers. They prepared bodies, dug graves, compiled and maintained burial records, and corresponded with next of kin.

While mourning was far more a state of mind than a style of clothing, mourning clothes are an important visual clue. One Carlile Collection carte de visite shows a woman who holds the wrist of her soldier, almost as if to restrain him. Her dark dress, collar, under-sleeves, trim and headwear may be mourning attire. Could her pose, holding on to his wrist, reflect an unconscious gesture trying to hold on to one who remains to her after the loss of someone else?

“When we also consider the full impact that the loss of men and materials had on the lives of women and children, we must conclude that they, too, were full participants in the war.” 

Related to mourning is memorializing. Women helped organize the transportation of bodies of loved ones hastily buried on battlefields to hometown cemeteries. They also raised funds to establish memorials in towns and communities throughout the nation.

The lives of many women decidedly changed when soldiers with physical and mental wounds returned from war. In another carte de visite from the Carlile Collection, a seated young lady wears a dress adorned with ribbon trim on both the bodice and sleeves. The soldier that stands behind her has lost a significant part of his left arm. How different would their lives have been as a result of the loss of that arm?   

The inclusion of portraits of Civil War women is fitting and proper when we understand and appreciate the sizable contributions they made to the war effort.

Juanita Leisch Jensen is a collector, researcher, writer and speaker on civilians and the Civil War. She has authored two books, and is a Fellow and Governor in the Company of Military Historians. She and her husband, military historian Les Jensen, split time between homes in Shenandoah County, Va., and Orange County, N.Y.

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