Women on the home front and scrapbooks

Jeanie Attie on women and the Civil War home front

Women dressed as soldiers, served at home, worked as nurses, etc.  Women went through these experiences at a time when there were anxieties about gender and race issues.  In addition, class played a role in determining how people reacted to the war itself.  As historians, we know less about reactions from rural and slave women and yet we need to learn more about these individuals in order to get a better picture of the broader national reactions to the war experience.

Americans on both sides claimed they were fighting to preserve the world as it was – a place of gender divided households and society were part of that idea.  Women helped with nationalism certainly and perhaps existed as the perfect blend of home and public life.  In the south, sentimental visions of white womanhood in the south were important, especially ideas like women as symbol of property, etc and this fact was complicated further because of female slaves.

In concert with the elevation of women, the needs and demands of real women were mostly ignored.  Tributes to female valor existed, but true problems like food, rights, pay, etc were ignored.  Women were very much busy with the war  – Mary Marsh of Brooklyn commented that it took all of her time to read the news in May 1861.  In addition, feminists noted that women all over were transformed of war – check a publication like the Mayflower to get a sense of what women were thinking.

Attie noted that property equals power and influence and while some males may not have had property, they could, by serving in the military offer the ultimate sacrifice.  So how can women get this access to power?  Perhaps 400-1000 women served in the Unite States army, with maybe 150 in the Confederacy.  Why so few?  Perhaps because armed women made people nervous – food riots were a true example of the power of women in this way as Richmond women were reported to have been armed with pistols, repeaters, axes, Bowie knives, etc.  Northern women fought using weapons in New York City riots to preserve racial-ized space.  Were people thinking about Dickens and a “Tale of Two Cities” when they worried about women?  The book was very new at the outset of the war, so perhaps not.

Poor women felt marginalization in real economic terms.  The war was economically problematic for these women and they did not have property rights while they still had decision making rights as the men were fighting – so taxes, etc were all issues with which they had to deal.  For some women, relief was seen as entitlement; if the government could take husbands, then government could also provide relief.  In terms of jobs, some women became professionals or worked in sewing and arsenals.  Most women were employed as subcontractors and were paid far less than what was required to live
Southern women faced serious problems – the blockade and invasion created a number of shortages and everyday something was out; these shortages complicated the simplest of day to day tasks.

As one might expect, civilian morale was up and down because war front news was one thing, but actual food, poor relief, etc was another.  Females signed government issued money as a job – literally by hand – these jobs were seen as a type of welfare in a time of deprivation.

Women were portrayed as providers of charity but they were in need of charity themselves as well.  If women could step in and run the daily life, how could this impact how people viewed women’s rights?  When linked to the rights movement emerging before the war, there was, in this war time existence, some possibility for change?  Attie asked us to consider what changed for a place like New York City?  The Civil War was a revolution that did not change everything, especially for women.  Riots could produce change but such change was limited and not permanent.  Another change used by Attie, for example, asked us to consider the question of married women’s property rights – were these rights really economic determinants?  If the first women’s property rights came about in Mississippi in 1839, what was their purpose?  Attie argued that the rights were put in place in order to protect family property from creditors.

In the aftermath of the war, women did start thinking about other ways to address problems or issues of concern in daily life – eg, “ok, we didn’t get the vote, but maybe we can work on property issues, or communal cooking in apartment living so not everyone has to work inefficiently, etc.”  The readings combined with Pr. Attie’s spirited lecture gave us a lot to chew on regarding the issue of home front life and women.

Ellen Gruber Garvey speaks on Civil War Scrapbooks

I found this discussion particularly fascinating given that in the modern era scrapbooking is such an interesting hobby to watch.  There are all types of tools, albums, decorations, themes, etc. that one can pursue in order to “present” ones life in mixed media through scrapbooking and that idea of presenting an image or editing a past was covered by Pr. Garvey’s discussion.

Americans of the mid nineteenth century were overwhelmed with printed material and so, argued Garvey, they wrote with scissors and re-purposed stories and articles so as to process it on their own.  Both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass kept scrapbooks – Lincoln’s (facsimile here) has reports on his debate with Stephen Douglas in 1858 and he used Democratic press clippings so as to compile the opposite view on how the debates went!

Some people may have kept articles to shape their own view of the war – it may have been a critical view or a more positive one depending on the purpose.  The question was raised as to whether anyone read these again?  Regardless, the action of collecting and organizing meant that people were engaging with material in a different manner than simply reading.  For example, the Edward Neufville Tailer journal at the New-York Historical Society reflects some of these ideas as Tailer replaces some of his writing with more and more clippings and his journal covers 1848-1917!

People began scrapbooks at the opening of the Civil War and perhaps that act of preserving provided people with an idea that they had some “control” over events.  Garvey pointed out that there are differences between southern and northern scrapbooks, sometimes as a result of materials.  Paper shortages make a big difference and in the southern states, the newspapers were in demand to be used for other things (pulp, bedding, etc).  Often, paper circulated through many hands before making it to scrapbooks.  Moses Solomons of Savannah, GA put together a large amount (483 pages, currently housed at Duke) recording articles on Beauregard’s victories.  The scrapbook acts as a reservoir of emotions ranging from tirades against Lincoln, accounts of loyal slaves, poems of spirit related to the southern war effort, etc.  Meanwhile, Bostonian Henry Ingersoll Bowditch began his scrapbook in 1863 after his son died and the collection included a variety of things like the bloody glove his son wore when he was killed and a series of poems that Bowditch read and embraced noting that the poetry in a way spoke for the heart of the nation.  Garvey asked us to consider that both sides could the same poems and see them in the same sentimental ways.  For instance, Solomons and Bowditch both use one particular poem to great effect.  When read alongside diaries, scrapbooks such as these can be very revealing as to the mindset that is inhabited by the people of the day.

A final thought that tickled my fancy – I was unaware that Mark Twain patented a self-adhesive scrapbook, having missed that fact on my original swing through our readings.  A classic Twain reaction to the product: “It economizes on profanity!”

Georgia B. Barnhill on prints and ephemera at the home front during the Civil War

Georgia Barnhill of the American Antiquarian Society offered several initial comments on the kinds of prints that people would have had in their homes, things like “The Night After the Battle” and a few we later looked at in the Klingenstein Library in the New-York Historical Society.  When such prints enter collections now, they are often damaged because people actually put them up!

Barnhill gave us a number of examples of the types of material that might be purchased in the home and I’ll highlight a few examples.  A portrait of a specific battle might indicate a family member’s survival or perhaps martyrdom?
The soldier’s grave from Currier and Ives or Caldwell might serve as a substitute for a real grave and the family could commemorate their loss.

Two images that might be paired would be “The Soldier’s Home, The Vision,” a common trope indicating her husband will come home a victorious hero, and “The Soldier’s Dream of Home.”  The latter came in a variety of versions that sometimes looked like “The American patriot’s dream” and centered on, again, the return of the male figure, occasionally promoted to the officer’s ranks.

I was particularly interested in a couple of maps that we got to take a look at that were marketed for public consumption.  One was “A true plan of the battle near Leesburg, VA” –  this was a relief cut that survived the war despite being made by a southern artist.  Prang in Boston produced an amazing “Balloon view of the southern states,” in 1861 and Perrine’s New Topographical War Map called to mind the World War Two era maps in my mother’s house as she and her siblings plotted the positions of battles and her brothers’ travels in the war.  John B. Bachelder, “Gettysburg battlefield,”  by Endicott in 1863 would have given people a good sense of that particular battle as well.

By the last years of the war there was a drop off in terms of the numbers of items published as the war continued and Americans demonstrated some “war fatigue.”  That being said, the war produced a large number of envelopes, wall hangings, maps, and other images that people used to create their own images of the war.  After being advised to check out this book by Steven Boyd on patriotic envelopes of the Civil War we spent some time looking at samples of the envelopes themselves!


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