Sunday, April 22, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Just about every facet of Northern and Southern society has been explored by scholars on some level, but until recently, studies on Civil War women have largely focused on the females of the South. Daughters of the Union, by Nina Silber, fills a wide gap and tells the story of Northern women's contributions to the war effort.

Silber's research found primary source accounts of women from Iowa to Massachusetts that tell their change in society due to the war's influence. Although they were largely outside of the path of war (unlike their Southern sisters), and were often relegated to the domestic sphere of life before the Civil War, many Northern women became wage earners, family providers, and political participants (on a non-voting basis of course).

Northern women created soldier relief societies in their towns, cities and counties where they fashioned socks, underwear and other garments for their brothers, husbands and sons at the front. Yankee women entered the workforce as hospital workers, cartridge makers, office clerks and even some factory production work.  Jobs that were once only available to men now sought out women to fill their war production labor needs.

Like labor, but on the political front, the Republican Party sought out and encouraged women to attend their rallies to fill the void left by the men who were at war and to boost support for continuing the war to its conclusion. Some Northern women, such as young Anna Dickinson (sometimes called the Union's Joan of Arc), were actually on lecture circuits. Other women held postmistress positions. Silber contends that this exposure to civic engagement and political participation during the Civil War bore fruit in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century women's movements for equal social and political rights.

To a large extent, what made Daughters of the Union such a pleasure to read, were the extensive primary sources that allowed the Northern women of era to speak for themselves and provided a fresh perspective on the war effort. One quote that really struck me was from a female nurse writing about her female friend that had traveled to the South with the army, but who died from a disease while caring for the soldiers of her country. "Who can say her life was not given to her country as truly as that of any one of the band of heroes who have fallen in battle?"  Indeed, was her sacrifice to the Union any less?

Women of the period were held to moral standards much higher than men. They were viewed as the moral compass at which men should try to follow. Although most Northern women stayed at home, their influence via correspondence was important and encouraging. One couple that were newlyweds and that Silber used as an example was James and Elizabeth Bowler of Nininger, Minnesota. James and "Lizzie," as she was called, had their ups and downs during the war as one might expect, being separated by so many miles, and with James in constant danger. In one instance, when Lizzie told James to behave himself in the army, he wrote back, recognizing her matronly influence, "You desire me to be a good little boy, I'll try mother." Never nagging, but gently suggesting, Lizzie let James know that she and their little one were waiting patiently and faithfully at home, which was, I am sure, a strong incentive to do right.

Daughters of the Union: Northern Woman Fight the Civil War was a delightful read that was well researched and skillfully written. On a scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.75.

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