National Park Service black bar with arrowhead logo
NPS History E-Library
 
 

Civil War Series

Life in Civil War America

   

THE NORTHERN HOME FRONT

The northern home front rallied to the Union cause with remarkable fervor considering that Lincoln was elected by a minority and many blamed this first Republican president for the outbreak of war. When South Carolina seceded, much like the fireworks over states' rights during Andrew Jackson's presidency, when John C. Calhoun resigned as vice-president, many Americans thought it would be another family squabble rather than the full-scale conflict that ensued. If the battle was a brothers' war, then Northerners cast themselves as the good and dutiful sons loyally serving the interests of the Founding Fathers, unlike their rebel siblings, who were willing to turn their backs on ancestors, to grasp avariciously for themselves alone. One colonel explicitly expressed this family metaphor to his troops: "This great nation is your father, and has greater claim on you than anybody else in the world . . . . This great father of yours is fighting for his life, and the question is whether you are going to stay and help the old man out, or whether you're going to sneak home and sit down by the chimney corner in ease and comfort while your comrades by the thousands and hundreds of thousands are marching, struggling, fighting and crying on battlefields and in prison pens to put down this wicked rebellion and save the old Union." And so paternal fealty—devotion to the fatherland—pushed many a northern soldier onward and kept many hitched to army life despite hardship.

PATRIOTIC PENNSYLVANIA LASSES POSING WHILE SEWING A FLAG AT THE PHILADELPHIA ACADEMY OF FINE ARTS IN 1861. (LLOYD OSTENDORF COLLECTION)

Because so many believed in the Union cause, they met the call for sacrifice as thousands took up arms. Panic spread fear in the streets of Washington, D.C., during the spring of 1861. Lincoln responded with a show of force, increasing his authority to meet the crisis. Following Lincoln's suspension of the writ of habeus corpus, nearly 13,000 arrests were made between 1861 and 1863 to maintain order. All individual interests and liberties were suborned to the interests of the state—the preservation of the Union. Women, most of all, needed to pledge their faith to the Union—and only through such steadfast feminine support could victory emerge.

Yankee females expressed their sentiments openly in letters to one another. Ellen Wright of Massachusetts wrote to her friend Lucy McKim in Pennsylvania: "Away with melancholy is the tune for us nowadays—Chirp up . . . stir the fire—relish your lemonade and 'make believe' a little longer." Many of these girls found it harder and harder to make believe as the death toll rose. Ellen Wright commiserated when Dick and William (Bev) Chase, her cousins, decided to enlist in 1862. She wanted her friend Lucy to join her so they could become nurses. When Dick died at Murfreesboro, she bitterly confessed, "There is nothing earthly worth a life of a young man like Dick." Wright was perhaps even more shattered when Bev, too, became a casualty of war. Many Yankee women strongly supported the war without bloodthirsty declarations or fiery calls for enlistment.

The patriotism of northern women was frequently contrasted to the fierce chauvinism of female Confederates, as one Yankee primly defended: "The feelings of Northern women are rather deep than violent; their sense of duty is quiet and constant rather than headlong or impetuous impulse." This notion of female devotion was integral to the Union image of itself. Volunteerism as the secular faith swept men into the army and women into war work, including the nursing corps.

Women as caretakers of the family well prepared them for nursing in theory. In reality, it was considered improper for women to have such intimate contact with strangers. Hospitals, far from the bastions of cleanliness and order we hope they are today, had no such illusions in the nineteenth century. These institutions were filled with filth and carnage during the antebellum period, and wartime dramatically escalated the degree of exposure to unpleasantries. Christian-sponsored as well as secular efforts eased women's entrance into controversial new roles, but it was still an uphill battle for women to contribute outside their own homes and family.

The two largest voluntary organizations in the North during this period were the Christian Commission and the Sanitary Commission. The Christian Commission wanted to "promote the spiritual good of the soldiers in the army and incidentally, their intellectual improvement and social and physical comfort." Leaders of the Young Men's Christian Association, temperance advocates, and members of Sunday school unions channeled their zeal into this national organization. Spiritual welfare was the primary focus of the group, a unified effort that crossed sectarian lines. The board was filled with politicians and philanthropists and held its annual meetings in the House of Representatives, attended by important dignitaries, including, on at least one occasion, Lincoln himself.

THE CONSECRATION (1861) BY GEORGE COCHRAN LAMBDIN. A SENTIMENTALIZED RENDERING OF WOMEN'S "SACRED" ROLE IN WARTIME. (© INDIANAPOLIS MUSEUM OF ART, JAMES S. ROBERTS FUND)

THE U.S. CHRISTIAN COMMISSION ESTABLISHED DOZENS OF BRANCHES TO DISTRIBUTE SUPPLIES TO NEEDY SOLDIERS. (LC)

The Christian Commission provided a much needed coordinating system, which funneled supplies to soldiers. By 1864 over 2,000 "delegates" were involved in the campaign, distributing more than half a million Bibles, half a million hymnals, and over four million "knapsack books." Funds were solicited directly, and Yankee cities were consistently generous, especially in the wake of a major battle. During the Wilderness Campaign, Pittsburgh contributed $35,000, Philadelphia $50,000, and Boston $60,000. Over the course of the war, the commission collected nearly $6 million. Delegates were not only generous solicitors but supportive dispensers of goods and care: handing out fresh fruits and sweets, taking dictation from men too ill to write home, holding prayer meetings, and passing out religious tracts. They believed in the personal touch, a hands-on promotion of Christian values. (The social gospel philosophy at the end of the century grew directly out of this movement.) Their heartfelt mission was to touch the lives of Union soldiers, to replace the families from which they had been taken. Jane Swisshelm, who volunteered to work in Union hospitals, described an experience:

"'What is your name?' a wounded solider at Fredericksburg asked.

'My name is mother,' she replied. 'Mother. Oh my God! I have not seen my mother for two years. Let me feel your hand.'"

Swisshelm reported that some men feared their emotive responses might be misconstrued as immature behavior, but she comforted most with the thought that their soldiering was a test of their manhood, and after being wounded, they deserved maternal care.


Scores of dedicated women workers saw their missions transformed from genteel taskmistresses to women warriors.

The Sanitary Commission was a formidable institution which perhaps drew strength from its diversity. Hundreds of ladies' aid societies solicited and donated hospital supplies. Scores of dedicated women workers saw their missions transformed from genteel taskmistresses to women warriors. Many took to the podium as well, like Mary Livermore, a teacher turned writer whose stumping on behalf of the commission reaped tremendous rewards. Feeding the soldiers became a challenge, and a manual on diet and cooking prepared by Annie Wittenmyer became a standard and much appreciated contribution. Wittenmyer did on-the-job training as superintendent of all army kitchens. Mary Shelton, Jane Hoge, and Eliza Porter were equally significant contributors to the commission's success.

CIVILIANS ENTHUSIASTICALLY SUPPORTED EFFORTS TO CHEER AND COMFORT UNION SOLDIERS—"OUR BOYS AWAY FROM HOME"—AS SHOWN IN THIS 1861 LITHOGRAPH. (COLLECTION OF THE NEW YORK HISTORICAL SOCIETY)

The Sanitary Commission also established a transport service to evacuate sick and wounded to hospitals. Eliza Howland and her sister Georgeanne Woolsey contributed, along with their five other sisters and mother, to nursing soldiers. Katherine Prescott Wormeley gave up her role as mere philanthropist to jump into the fray of service, working in one of the commission's "floating hospitals." Wormeley wrote of her female comrades, "They are as efficient, wise, active as cats, merry, light-hearted, thoroughbred and without the fearful tone of self-devotion which sad experience makes one expect in benevolent women." One of the most dynamic women working within and outside the Sanitary Commission's domain, Mary Anne Bickerdyke was so beloved by Union soldiers that they nicknamed her "mother." During her four years, she wore a Quaker bonnet as she crisscrossed the border states, cleaning up the messes the army left behind. Eventually, Bickerdyke became so concerned with the fatality rate in hospitals that she set up facilities all too near the battlefield, which made many commanders nervous. Bickerdyke was a colorful figure and widely admired. Dorothea Dix was an equally spirited and headstrong leader of a group of nurses, as many of these ventures were privately funded. But estimates are as high as two thousand women serving as nurses to the Union army. After a brief stint of service in Washington, Louisa May Alcott returned home to Massachusetts and penned her Hospital Sketches, followed by Little Women and other popular titles.

MEMBERS OF THE SANITARY COMMISSION AT A UNION ENCAMPMENT NEAR FREDERICKSBURG, VIRGINIA. (LC)

Clara Barton began her work with Massachusetts troops and soon traveled far and wide to serve at the front. She showed up at Antietam in an oxcart loaded down with supplies. She tried to maintain her ladylike composure but complained that the conditions were neither fit for men nor women on the front lines, recounting a story of a wounded soldier shot in her arms as she gave him water. Barton suffered two severe bouts of illness during the war, and estimates are as high as one in ten female nurses succumbed to fatigue or disease and was forced into bed rest. Several suffered permanent impairment, and a few died of complications following prolonged nursing service.

A WARTIME ILLUSTRATION OF WOUNDED BEING TENDED TO IN A UNION HOSPITAL.

FAMILIES WERE OCCASIONALLY REUNITED IN CAMP BETWEEN BATTLES. (USAMHI)

Although soldiers welcomed the nurses, individual Union men raised objections, especially about their own wives and relations endangering themselves in army hospitals. Ulysses S. Grant said he would send his wife home if she did not stay out of the camp hospital. Nevertheless, tributes rather than threats were more common. Frederick Law Olmsted praised the "glorious women" in the Sanitary Commission, commenting, "God knows what we should have done without them, they have worked like heroes night and day." Women worked against the prejudices of men and earned high praise.

In 1863 Sanitary Commission worker Mary H. Thompson opened the Chicago Hospital for Women and Children to provide an alternative for female nurses and doctors. Later that year the New York Medical College for Women took in its first class, and the struggle for medical education accelerated with wartime challenges. Men's biases did not fall by the wayside but were suspended because of wartime necessity. Certainly the hard work women provided—to nurse and comfort, to feed and forage, to clothe and cleanse—left men free to carry on crushing burdens of war.


UNION NURSES PREVAIL CONFRONTING THE HORRORS OF WAR

Sophronia Bucklin was like many young women of her generation-bright, committed, patriotic. When the Civil War broke out, this schoolteacher from Auburn, New York, applied to be a nurse in the Union army. Dorothea Dix had been appointed superintendent of women nurses in June 1861 and exacted strict requirements from those under her supervision. Only women over thirty and "plain in appearance" needed to apply. Despite Bucklin's youth, she must have passed muster with Dix, as she was accepted into the nursing corps and began her service at the Judiciary Square Hospital in Washington.

Bucklin found her initial encounter with male medical staff challenging. Female nurses discovered that most military officers and surgeons were resentful of women's presence in Union hospitals. Bucklin served the needs of her patients with a stiff upper lip but confided that she felt the army doctors were "determined by a systematic course of ill treatment . . . to drive women from the service."

Nevertheless, Bucklin, like thousands of women volunteers, triumphed in the battles against the male bureaucracy and made invaluable contributions. Her vivid memoir, In Hospital and Camp: A Woman's Record of Thrilling Incidents Among the Wounded in the Late War (1869), provides gripping detail. Bucklin's graphic descriptions of the horrors of war encountered by this genteel generation of ladies are compelling:

MANY PRIVATE HOMES LIKE THIS ONE NEAR WASHINGTON. D.C., WERE USED AS INFIRMARIES DURING THE WAR. (USAMHI)

About the amputating tent lay large piles of human flesh—legs, arms, feet and hands. They were strewn promiscuously about—often a single one lying under our very feet, white and bloody—the stiffened members seeming to be clutching offtimes at our clothing. . . . Death met us on every hand. It was a time of intense excitement. Scenes of fresh horror rose up before us each day. Tales of suffering were told, which elsewhere would have well-nigh frozen the blood with horror. We grew callous to the sight of blood. . . . A soldier came to me one day, when I was on the field, requesting me to dress his wound, which was in his side. He had been struck by a piece of shell, and the cavity was deep and wide enough to insert a pint bowl. . . . Often they [the patients] would long for a drink of clear, cold water, and lie on the hard ground, straining the filthy river water through closely set teeth. So tortured were we all, in fact, by this thirst, which could not be allayed that even now, when I lift to my lips a drink of pure cold water, I cannot swallow it without thanking God for the priceless gift.

Previous Top Next


 

History and Culture