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Daughter’s of the Union

By Daniel Hubbard | January 24, 2010

I think that one of the most important “techniques” in genealogy is the study of history. Often that means studying both time’s nooks and crannies and its large semi-explored regions. After all, our ancestors may have been swept along in vast historical currents but they were also specific people, with specific backgrounds, living in specific places. To see the world as they saw it and to try to tease out how they might have felt and what they might have done can require knowing some pretty fine details and studying some little understood topics.

When reading history, I often wait in hopeful anticipation for that one thought that is new to me, and not just new but “eureka” new, “ah-ha” new—something unfamiliar and yet seemingly obvious in retrospect.  One can always hope for more than one of those thoughts per book but that seems to somehow verge on greed or gluttony. Even excellent books may not have even one full-blown “eureka” in them. Reading Daughter’s of the Union, I got that eureka already in the first chapter.

Post Office Tent (from the Library of Congress)

Not so surprisingly, given the title, Daughter’s of the Union concerns the experiences of Northern women during the American Civil War. There are many books about the battles and the lives of the soldiers but it intrigued me to find a book about the experiences of Union women, who, unlike there Southern counterparts, generally did not see their farms overrun by enemy soldiers or their cities bombarded by artillery. There would not be much of that sort of wartime experience, so what would there be? The impact of the Civil War on Union women is probably not one of the most heavily studied parts of history and yet for an American family historian it holds clear interest. We study the lives of the soldiers in our family trees, we know their units, their battles, their cemeteries but how much can we fill in about the lives of their wives, sisters and daughters during those years? Women’s roles as nurses, laundresses and cooks in the army are well known. Other things, summed up in the trivial “they had to fill in back home for the soldiers,” may be clearly true but other facets of their lives require a bit more thought.

My “eureka” moment began with the observation that Southern women watched their menfolk leave for war knowing they were going to defend hearth and home. Northern women were in a very different situation. As they sent their men off to war, it was clear that those husbands, sons and brothers did not go to war in defense of their wives, mothers and sisters. Northern women did not have the comfort of believing that their men were leaving to defend the women they left behind. They had to come to grips with the fact that their men left for reasons that had become somehow “higher” than defending their families; reasons like national unity, free soil and even outright abolitionism. In an age when feminine domesticity was the ideal for every household, this was something Northern women would internalize. Their sacrifices would have to be for reasons outside their familiar realm. So, as they began to reach outside the home, they changed within.

Union orator, Anna Dickinson (from Wikipedia)

Northern women gained an increasing interest in politics. A few had been abolitionists since before the war and that experience opened the door to political activity. Some added their voices to the call for some form of the vote. This wasn’t always with the rationale that women deserved the right as much as men. Often it was more a request to exercise the votes of their absent husbands. After all, they argued, in many areas the men who were left were there because, being against the war, they had not volunteered. It was these men who were casting the votes. Shouldn’t the loyal wives of loyal soldiers be able to replace their husbands at the polls?

In contrast, the South had no real political opposition to the Confederate government (there was internal military opposition, such as Mississippi’s “Kingdom of Jones”). In the North, the very active political opposition gave Northern women the opportunity to observe and participate. It also gave them reason to think about political issues that Southern women never really had. Women did not just take jobs in the Federal government, they worked to influence opinion and some few became sought-after public speakers.

That women found themselves doing both their own and their husband’s and brother’s work is easy enough to understand. One observer, traveling through Illinois, if I remember correctly, observed that never had there been such a vast number of women laboring on the prairie with not a man in sight. What is perhaps equally obvious with a bit of thought and yet not as easily understood, is that women were also called upon not just to do the work of absent men but to fill unfamiliar economic roles and to navigate a very different reality. Men had taken the roll of buying and selling outside the home. Now their wives needed to be able to judge what the fair price for a cow might be, not in a normal market but in a very chaotic wartime market. They had to decide when to hire a man to do some specific job that they could not do themselves and determine how much the labor of one of the few remaining men with time to spare might be worth. No easy task.

The world of the 1860s was a different world but it was a world making recognizable steps toward the world we know today. Even a partial and somewhat temporary change in the roles of women is perhaps one of the least known of those important steps.

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