Henry Ford Museum History – Fighting from the homefront: The role of women in the Civil War

We are only a few weeks away from the grand unveiling of this summer’s Henry Ford Museum exhibit –Discovering the Civil War, the most comprehensive collection of Civil War documents, stories and artifacts ever assembled, straight from the National Archives – so today, our manager of special programs, Brian Egen (who is also a quite well-known Civil War historian) and Jody Chansuolme, director of museums and cultural affairs for the City of Wyandotte, are giving us a glimpse into what life was like for those the soldiers had to leave behind.

“Arouse then dear ladies, do not act from impulse, but let working for the soldiers be your steady purpose and aim till the war is at an end. Do not fold your hands and discuss the questions whether you think the North is right. If you will not work for your country, work for humanity sake. God does not designate who is to be the recipient when he says, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”

– Detroit Free Press, Nov. 12, 1861

Most women were affected by the war in some way. For most, sending loved ones to fight often left new responsibility, anxiety and worry in their stead.

But must the women sit and wait while the men went off to fight? Not at all!

Women fought the war in their own ways on the home front – and in so doing, played a crucial role in helping the war effort.

Many women were faced with the desire to alleviate their frustrations and stress by contributing to the needs of their far-off loved ones, and they were already accustomed to working together in aid of their churches – so with the Civil War wrenching loved ones from their homes, why not organize for the soldier’s benefit?

Generally, the greatest activism on behalf of women was by those who had a loved one fighting; those that had a husband, brother or son participating in some way were more likely to feel the need to contribute themselves, even if that meant simply sewing garments and sending them to soldiers they knew. We know today of their efforts through diaries, letters, newspaper accounts and service in various organizations, including local and national aid societies, which provided a channel for the compassion for soldiers by all women.

Soldiers’ Aid Societies

Hundreds of benevolent aid groups sprang up after the fall of Fort Sumter. These were often church-based, and early efforts of local groups were sporadic and insular. Hometowns vied with one another in providing everything “their boys” needed.

Boxes sent were usually of a good size, often either a shoe-case or a common soapbox, and were rarely (if ever) sent in small quantities. Each little corner and crevice was utilized, stuffed with a potato here, an apple there, a handful of peanuts and other necessities.

United States Sanitary Commission

Born of the Women’s Central Relief Association of New York City, this group was formed April 29, 1861 and became an official agency of the United States government on June 18 of that same year following legislation signed by President Abraham Lincoln to coordinate the volunteer efforts of women who wanted to contribute to the war effort of the Union States. It was the first organization to train nurses and find ways for women to work for sick and wounded soldiers.

United States Christian Commission

An outgrowth of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the United States Christian Commission was formed in early June, 1863 in Chicago. The group collected and sent Bibles and religious literature to the front, while also sending ministers as its delegates to volunteer in army hospitals and on the front lines.

American Union Commission

This group was organized in New York in October 1864 to aid in the restoration of the Union upon the basis of freedom, industry, education and Christian morality. They collected donations of blankets, socks, bed-gowns, undershirts and drawers, sheets and pillows, dressing gowns, slippers and towels.

Food for the sick was also requested, including farina, corn starch, cocoa, condensed milk, dried fruit, jelly, spices, butter, pickles, whiskey and fruit syrups. For the wounded, lint, bandages, compresses, ring pads and cushions of hair or feathers to support wounded limbs were sent to soldiers across the battlefields.

Supplies were boxed by local groups and sent to one of four addresses in the Union: two in the East, one in West Virginia and one in Cincinnati.

Sanitary Fairs

Held in towns across the union, these fairs provided an opportunity for local communities to see themselves as part of a larger nation while also benefiting soldiers. Shopping, entertainment, historical vignettes, food and novelty displays were all part of the fairs.

The first sanitary fair was held in Chicago, from October 27 to November 7, 1863. Called the Northwestern Soldiers’ Fair, the event raised almost $100,000 for the war effort – which is nearly $1.8 million in today’s equivalency!

It included a six mile-long parade of militiamen, bands, political leaders, delegations from various local organizations and a contingent of farmers, who presented carts full of their crops. Large-scale exhibitions, including displays of art, mechanical technology, and period rooms were also on display – a feature that carried over to other sanitary fairs, as it called upon ideas of the American past, a history that local communities held in common.

Do you know of any female ancestors who participated in any of these efforts? How else do you think women may have assisted in the war effort?

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