Homes and families

<em>Unidentified African American soldier in U.S. Army uniform with wife and two daughters</em>, c. 1863–65, ambrotype, 13.9 x 16.4 cm (with frame) (<a href="">Library of Congress</a>)

Unidentified African American soldier in U.S. Army uniform with wife and two daughters, c. 1863–65, ambrotype, 13.9 x 16.4 cm (with frame) (Library of Congress)

A U.S. soldier, in a kepi and coat, sits next to his wife, with their daughters on either side of the couple. The names of the members of this family have been lost, but we know that this Civil War family portrait photograph must have been taken sometime after 1863, when the U.S. government authorized the first regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops. [1] Posed in a studio or tent, the image gives us a glimpse of not just a Civil War soldier but the people to whom he was connected, both those who relied on him and whom he relied on in turn. The family in this picture was in the midst of an epic struggle for their lives, livelihood, and ability to stay together. We don’t know whether any members of this family were enslaved, but we know the specter of slavery must have haunted their lives every day, with a soldier father facing execution if captured by Confederates, and mother and daughters targets for kidnapping. Women’s lives were fraught with new uncertainty during the war as well, with the home front and their roles within it transformed.

Today, we use “home front” to describe the experiences of a nation’s civilians in wartime: the domestic politics, economics, and morale of the population outside of the battlefield. However, the term “home front” was not coined until World War I, fifty years after the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War. Encoded within it are ideas more suited to U.S. warfare in the 20th century, when popular memory calls to mind soldiers in Europe or Asia and women taking on war production jobs at home. In the 19th century, home and war were not so far apart. Many of the battles of the Civil War took place in the American South, often within a few miles of both the U.S. capitol at Washington, D.C. and the Confederate capitol at Richmond, Virginia. For many people who lived through the Civil War, the home front was the battlefront, with soldiers helping themselves to civilians’ crops, livestock, and even homes. 

But though the concept of a home front would have made little sense to contemporary Americans during the Civil War, the concept of home itself was deeply meaningful. Americans, particularly the white, northern middle class, idealized the home and the family within it as the cornerstone of society. But these were privileged ideas: notions of home and family resonated differently for enslaved people, whose families—including both blood relatives and fictive kin—changed over time as they were brought together in labor camps or torn apart as enslavers sold family members away from each other. The war placed significant new pressures on families, requiring their members to step outside their accustomed roles to take on new ones that often put them and their families in harm’s way.

Women’s roles: factory work

The notion of home and family in this era included the ideal that women did not work outside the home; men and women were to occupy “separate spheres” of vulgar industry and genteel domesticity respectively. The need for labor during the war challenged notions of the proper role for women.

Winslow Homer, "Filling Cartridges at the United States Arsenal at Watertown, Massachusetts," <em>Harper's Weekly</em>, July 20, 1861, wood engraving on paper, 10 15/16 x 9 1/4 inches (<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Newberry Library</a>)

Winslow Homer, “Filling Cartridges at the United States Arsenal at Watertown, Massachusetts,” Harper’s Weekly, July 20, 1861, wood engraving on paper, 10 15/16 x 9 1/4 inches (Newberry Library)

For example, Harper’s Weekly marveled at the novelty of white women working to fill cartridges at an arsenal in Watertown, Massachusetts in 1861. The women are all young and respectably dressed—their gentility seemingly untouched by this foray into factory life. The white men, notably, work with the gunpowder directly, the more dangerous and dirty job, while a single man in uniform directs the efforts of the women. In fact, working at an arsenal in any capacity was a dangerous job, one often performed by young, immigrant women.

Monument to the victims of the 1864 explosion at the Washington, D.C. arsenal. Left: Lot Flannery, <em>Grief</em>, Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C., 1865, marble (photo: <a href="">Allen C. Browne</a>, from <a href=""></a>); right: detail of the statue's inscriptions (photo: <a href="">Library of Congress</a>)

Monument to the victims of the 1864 explosion at the Washington, D.C. arsenal. Left: Lot Flannery, Grief, Congressional Cemetery, Washington, D.C., 1865, marble (photo: Allen C. Browne, from; right: detail of the statue’s inscriptions (photo: Library of Congress)

In 1864, twenty-one white women died in an explosion at the Washington, D.C. arsenal, fifteen of whom were buried under a monument at the Congressional Cemetery erected just one year later. As the victims were mainly Irish immigrants, the committee that raised money for the monument selected Irish-American sculptor Lot Flannery to create the monument’s statue, a young woman clasping her hands and bowing her head, which he titled “Grief.” The south side of the monument’s base shows the shocking explosion, with smoke rising from the arsenal building in bas-relief. [2] Such incidents made plain the risks women faced during the war, even if most were not on the battlefield itself.

Women’s roles: supporting families

Although images of women in northern newspapers focused on the experiences of middle- and upper-class white women, the war caused considerable change in the lives of women from all backgrounds. Hunger and privation were experiences that cut across race and geography. Women and children had more difficulty accessing food, clothing, and shelter during the war, either because their government directed supplies to the army first or because a passing army “bummed” their food and livestock. 

Indigenous women and their families who depended on the U.S. government for provisions given in exchange for ceded land—like the Santee Sioux in Minnesota—suffered when the war-focused government failed to make annuity payments as agreed upon in earlier treaties. In Indian Territory, where citizens of the Five Tribes were divided between loyalty to the United States and loyalty to the Confederacy, women and families were under constant threat of robbery and violence from soldiers supporting either side. Ella Coody Robinson, a Cherokee woman whose slave-owning family allied with the Confederacy, remembered that U.S. Army soldiers burned her parents’ house in Oklahoma after removing its valuables. She traveled hundreds of miles on horseback with few supplies and a great deal of grief: 

We finally reached San Bois Creek in the Choctaw Nation where we stopped because my little half brother, Charles, was taken sick with fever. He died after ten days illness and we buried him there. My brother, Will, had been killed by Union soldiers before we left home. . . . We stayed at San Bois some six weeks to give mother a chance to recover from her grief and loss. . . . While we were on the way and food was such a problem, the Confederate troops captured a wagon train of supplies . . . and [we] managed to get a good supply of groceries, including sugar, coffee, rice and flour and tea.Ella Coody Robinson [3]

In the east, southern homes directly in the path of the largest troop movements were more likely than northern ones to face these strains, not just from enemy soldiers but from the hungry Confederate Army as well. Rampant inflation, drought and trampled crops, cities crowded with refugees, and the U.S. naval blockade of southern ports led to starvation in the South by the spring of 1863. In March and April of that year, hungry and desperate Confederate women, many of whom likely had kin in the Confederate Army in addition to children to feed, led armed bread riots across cities and towns in the South. In Richmond, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and Virginia Governor John Lechter turned out to speak to the rioters, but only the threat of the militia opening fire on the women enticed them to disperse. Dozens were arrested.

"Sowing and reaping, Southern women hounding their men on to rebellion, Southern women feeling the effects of rebellion, and creating bread riots," <em>Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper</em>, May 23, 1863, p. 141, wood engraving on paper (<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Library of Congress</a>)

“Sowing and reaping, Southern women hounding their men on to rebellion, Southern women feeling the effects of rebellion, and creating bread riots,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, May 23, 1863, p. 141, wood engraving on paper (Library of Congress)

The northern press mocked these women as reaping what they had sown in a cartoon in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.  We see (according to the caption) “Southern women hounding their men on to rebellion.” This is hardly the usual farewell for sending a male family member off to war. The two women on the far left point their fingers and appear to order the reluctant men to leave, while another encourages her husband down the stairs with her hand on his shoulder as he looks longingly back to her. On the right, we see the same, once-respectable and orderly women who had “hounded” their men to rebellion, now thin and haggard, raising sticks in the air, smashing windows, and looting. If we follow the logic of this image, these Confederate women have now learned their lesson—their “hounding” has led to starvation. The figure in the center, with loose hair, bare feet, and ragged dress has fired a pistol, which she holds downward in the direction of a small Black child who clutches a loaf of bread. The frieze extends beyond the frame, suggesting a large mob. In both images, women have trespassed the bounds of acceptable feminine behavior: they “hound” their men to rebel, and they take to the streets like animals (see the female figure crawling in the right foreground) to steal food. 

This image registers the high levels of anxiety caused by changes in the roles of women due to the war in both the North and the South: they were alone without a male head of household, some were refugees, many were working for wages in sometimes dangerous war-related jobs that would otherwise be filled by men, and those who could afford to, did volunteer work (usually sewing or nursing) for the war effort. As on the battlefield, life at home was precarious. One could endure hunger and homelessness or risk one’s life in dangerous work. 

Women’s roles: nursing

More than 5,000 women worked as nurses in the Civil War, transforming the overwhelmingly male medical establishment. Noted reformer Dorothea Dix was superintendent of female nurses in the U.S. Army. Women served in field hospital tents, buildings, and even ships. They took on related roles of coordinating the production and distribution of medical supplies. Free Black women in the North also mobilized to recruit and support the U.S. Colored Troops, providing supplies and medical care at the U.S.C.T. soldiers’ training camps in New York and Philadelphia. [4] Many self-emancipated women, such as Susie King Taylor, also nursed soldiers at field hospitals. 

Clara Barton, who was working at a patent office in Washington, D.C. when the war began, personally took up a project to collect donated supplies and bring them to battlefields in addition to service as a nurse. She would later found the American Red Cross. Many women worked to support the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a relief agency dedicated to the support of sick and injured U.S. soldiers. Sanitary Fairs held across northern cities were fundraisers for the commission; works of art and photographs were among the many objects sold or raffled in support of their mission.

Morse's Gallery of the Cumberland, <em>Anna Bell Stubbs, Civil War nurse, caring for wounded soldiers at No. 1 Nashville Hospital</em>, 1864, carte-de-visite (<a href="">Library of Congress</a>)

Morse’s Gallery of the Cumberland, Anna Bell Stubbs, Civil War nurse, caring for wounded soldiers at No. 1 Nashville Hospital, 1864, carte-de-visite (Library of Congress)

Photographers from the Sanitary Commission asked nurse Anna Bell Stubbs to pose for this photograph at the hospital where she served in Nashville, Tennessee; they then printed it as a carte-de-visite and sold copies at the Cleveland Sanitary Fair to raise money for U.S. Army hospitals. 

In a letter to her mother dated February 15, 1864, Stubbs wrote about posing for the above photograph, 

Two weeks ago, some of the Sanitary Commission people came to see me & asked that I would allow an artist to take a hospital scene, that they wanted such a one to sell at the fair at Cleveland. At once I said no, that I could not consent to becoming so public but they said if I did not wish they should not tell my name but only the hospital & what ward—so for the benefit of the soldiers, I consented—and now there is quite a rage for the picture, Mrs Harris declares she must have some to sell in Phila, & Huntingdon, but I said they must not go anywhere where I am known. It makes me laugh to think of becoming saleable—and folk’s making money out of me, I don’t mean that it gives me any pleasure, but makes me feel very strangely.
Anna Bell Stubbs [5]

We can easily see why the image was popular—it’s reassuring: a well-dressed and poised young woman administers treatment to the wounded. We get a sense that under her motherly care, these men will undoubtedly recover.

Draft cylinder, c. 1863, used to draw names of men aged 20–45 until a community’s quota was reached per the 1863 Enrollment Act (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Draft cylinder, c. 1863, used to draw names of men aged 20–45 until a community’s quota was reached per the 1863 Enrollment Act (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Men and the draft

Death and deprivation took a toll on people on the home front. Families that had wholeheartedly supported a male breadwinner’s decision to enlist in the first years of war sometimes begged him to desert the army in later years, hoping that his labor at home would better meet their financial needs. Waning enthusiasm for the war led to the institution of military drafts in both the North and South in 1862 and 1863, which led to further discontent on the home front.

Accusations that the Civil War was a “rich man’s war” and a “poor man’s fight” resonated in both the North and the South. In the South, the military draft made exemptions for enslavers who owned more than twenty people, claiming that a white man needed to remain to manage them. As only the wealthiest enslavers fit this profile, the draft exemption rankled poorer white men and their families. Although most southern whites did not question the institution of slavery itself, they resented the privileges of the “great planters” whom they believed had an outsized say in the government yet sacrificed less for the war effort. 

In the North, draft riots erupted in New York City. There were several causes. Black men were not U.S. citizens, and so they were exempt from the Enrollment Act that authorized the conscription of white male citizens. In addition, white working class men, many of whom were Irish Democrats, felt threatened by the possibility of newly freed Black workers arriving in the city and competing with them for jobs. In July 1863, white mobs attacked the draft office, homes of wealthy citizens, pro-Republican newspaper offices, and Black neighborhoods. The northern draft also made distinctions according to class, allowing drafted men to pay a substitute or a $300 fee in lieu of service—meaning that the wealthy could buy their way out of military service. The rioters, mainly Irish immigrants, targeted Black people in the city resulting in gruesome lynchings, and burned the Colored Orphans’ Asylum. 

The police were unable to put down the riot, and the U.S. government had to deploy the army—diverting thousands of troops from Gettysburg, where they had defeated the Confederate Army days earlier—to restore order. After four days, the mob had killed an estimated 100 people, including many Black men, women, and children, and one seven-year-old boy.

"The Rioters Burning and Sacking the Colored Orphan Asylum," <em>Harper’s Weekly</em>, August 1, 1863, p. 943 (<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">The New York Public Library</a>)

“The Rioters Burning and Sacking the Colored Orphan Asylum,” Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863, p. 943 (The New York Public Library)

Harper’s Weekly published a series of illustrations of scenes from the riots making clear the extent of the destruction. As a newspaper sympathetic to the Republican Party and the Lincoln administration, Harper’s looked upon the rioters with disgust. The largest illustration depicted the mob attacking the Colored Orphan Asylum, a substantial building on Fifth Avenue just above 42nd Street. The image shows flames reaching high in the sky, looters carrying bundles from the building, and in the foreground, the mob chasing and beating children trying to escape. Harper’s reported that the building was home to between 600 and 800 children and became the target of the mob’s fury. According to the minutes of the Asylum’s board, written two weeks after the attack, the young charges reached the safety of a nearby police station but not before, “twenty of the orphan children . . . were surrounded by the mob.” [6] The newspaper goes on to reassure readers that the children were rescued by the intervention of “a young Irishman, named Paddy M’Caffrey” and firemen who were on the scene.

Kara Walker, <em>A Warm Summer Evening in 1863</em>, 2008, wool tapestry and felt, 175.3 x 248.9 cm (<a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art</a>, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) © Kara Walker

Kara Walker, A Warm Summer Evening in 1863, 2008, wool tapestry and felt, 175.3 x 248.9 cm (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) © Kara Walker

Contemporary artist Kara Walker drew on the image from Harper’s for her 2008 work, A Warm Summer Evening in 1863. She made two significant changes to the image: to begin, she enlarged the Harper’s image, and had it woven into the fabric of a tapestry, and then, she added a black felt silhouette of the distorted body of a hanged young woman. She makes visible the absences and erasures of the Harper’s image: to see the scene of the asylum burning, you have to be willing to look past the large, brutalized silhouette that appears before it. In this way, Walker reverses the emphasis of the original magazine report, which focused on the heroics of the fireman at the scene. In A Warm Summer Evening in 1863, Walker places a lynched female victim of the mob close to us so that she is enormous in comparison to the tapestry, the anonymous flat black form a reminder that every Black person who encountered the mob was in danger, forcing us to imagine the terror of those vulnerable orphans who lived in the asylum. This reframing reminds us of the thousands of lynchings that terrorized innocent Black men, women, and children well into the 20th century and the unending racial violence that sparked the Black Lives Matter protests.

Varied experiences

Although popular prints of women in the Civil War focused on the roles and sacrifices of upper-class white women, the war disrupted family life across class, race, and geography. Many kinds of families experienced the Civil War in different ways. Families whose homes were in the path of soldiers—in the South and in Indian Territory—were subjected to hunger, violence, and displacement. Even those far from the battlefield could still be in danger, with unsafe working conditions and civil unrest bringing the war home.

Images that capture these varied experiences, however, can be difficult to find. Most of the images we do have are mediated in some way, like Anna Bell Stubbs’s carefully posed nursing photograph or the vicious political cartoon judging white southern women for urging their men off to war. Still, like Kara Walker, we can look at the visual record with an eye for its absences, putting what was invisible back into view.

[1] This may be Samuel Smith, a sergeant in the Third U.S. Colored Cavalry Regiment. See “Unidentified African American soldier in Union uniform with wife and two daughters,” Library of Congress.  

[2] See Melissa Rae Sheets, “A Memory Forgotten: Representation of Women and the Washington, D.C. Arsenal Monument,” Theses, Dissertations, and Student Creative Activity, School of Art, Art History and Design (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2011).

[3] Ella Coody Robinson, Interview 13833, volume 77, Muskogee, Oklahoma, May 6, 1938, 94–127, Indian Pioneer Papers, University of Oklahoma, Western History Collections, in Carolyn Ross Johnston, Voices of Cherokee Women (Real Voices, Real History) (Winston-Salem, NC: Blair, 2013), p. 164.

[4] Holly A. Pinheiro, Jr., “Black Women, the Civil War, and United States Colored Troops,” Black Perspectives, African American Intellectual History Society, 2021.

[5] Letter from Anna Bell Stubbs to her mother, February 15, 1864.

[6] Harper’s Weekly, August 1, 1863, p. 494.

Learn more about Dorothea Dix from the Smithsonian Institution Archives

Home Front: The Visual Culture of the Civil War North from the Newberry Library

Civil War Draft Records: Exemptions and Enrollments from The National Archives

Learn more about Susie King Taylor from the Library of Congress

Learn more about Kara Walker

Paul H. D. Kaplan, Contraband Guides: Race, Transatlantic Culture, and the Arts in the Civil War Era (State College, PA: Penn State University Press, 2020).

Stephanie McCurry, Women’s War: Fighting and Surviving the American Civil War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019).

Megan Kate Nelson, Ruin Nation: Destruction and the American Civil War (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012)

Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Why Confederates Fought: Family and Nation in Civil War Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

Amy Murrell Taylor, Embattled Freedom: Journeys through the Civil War’s Slave Refugee Camps (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

Cite this page as: Dr. Kimberly Kutz Elliott, "Homes and families," in Smarthistory, April 20, 2023, accessed July 19, 2024,