Northern Women and the Travails of War

Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, by Judith Giesberg, University of North Carolina Press

The world of Civil War women has been enriched over the past decade by a bounty of significant new work. Judith Giesberg’s latest contribution, Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, expands our appreciation of women in the war by turning attention northward and forcing us to remember those who fell between the cracks—during their own lives and in the hands of historians. She does not ignore the Yankee middle class, but shows the way in which “respectability” was both a burden and wielded like a bludgeon during the chaos of wartime. Giesberg sketches out terms of engagement for women of color, for working class women, for poor women—the women caught within the battle lines while the nation’s future was at stake.

She begins her study with the story of Lydia Bixby of Massachusetts, a widow who allegedly lost five sons who fought in the Union Army. Bixby received a condolence letter from Abraham Lincoln, which appeared in the Boston newspapers. Giesberg deft­ly sidesteps the controversy over whether Lincoln himself composed the letter, and teases out the fundamentals of Bixby’s experience and its multiple meanings. The strength of this book is that it allows us to refocus our attention not on the mythic mother of Union dead, sacrificing sons to save the Republic—which has been part of Civil War lore since long before Appomattox—but on the flesh- and-blood woman (and women) lost in the historical shuffle.

Giesberg’s talents are well suited to this project; her diligent research and emblematic analysis bring these women out of the shadows and into the limelight. Historiography is skillfully woven into her vibrant narrative, but it never overwhelms the women—not just fabled heroines but the anonymous masses. Her book is abrim with fresh perspectives: on women who died in arsenal explosions, on African Americans who were shoved off streetcars, and other casualties and survivors of wartime. She surveys the poor and displaced, examining the plight, for example, of a Pennsylvania wife who wrote her governor in April 1865 saying, “I think it is very hard wen a sholder goes to fight for his family and they put his family out on the street.” An Irish immigrant with four children was finally forced to seek refuge in the almshouse in Tewksbury, Mass., when her husband’s Army wages did not cover food and shelter for herself and their four dependents.

Giesberg suggests that “popular images sought to create a sense of distance between home and the war… women exposed that separation as largely imaginary when they fought with state officials over resources, engaged in war-making activities at arsenals, and turned rural communities, and city streets into every day sites of politics.”

Women were expected to embody Victorian ideals—but these ideals came to grief, literally, with death and mourning rituals, as thousands of loved ones were shipped home in coffins or never returned. Widows might be forced to travel great distances, in ships’ cabins which were “nasty, filthy place[s] unfit for a human being to sleep in,” only to find unrecognizable, decomposing bodies.

Army at Home suggests the creative and critical ways in which work on gender, race and Civil War studies will point us in new directions. Giesberg’s thoughtful and engaging study lights the way for a new generation to follow—onward onto exciting terrain.

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