Museum honors women for Civil War roles
On Sept. 17, 1862, 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded or missing at the Battle of Antietam, in Maryland.
On that same day in the Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, more than 70 women were killed and more injured in an explosion at the Allegheny Arsenal, where women and girls had replaced the men and boys who were away in the war.
It is considered the Civil War’s greatest civilian tragedy.
Women who worked in that and other arsenals and who contributed in many ways on the homefront are the focus of “Essential To The Cause: Women’s Roles in the Civil War,” at the National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg. The exhibit opened in March in conjunction with Women’s History Month, and runs through the end of August.
“Women were front and center in the news, and Harper’s Weekly had some fabulous art of their roles,” said Juanita Leisch Jensen, author, lecturer and guest curator for the show. “But when you get into the 20th century, historians were writing about arms, equipment, campaigns and strategies, and editing women out of history. Without the women, you are missing a big part of the picture.”
The exhibit that gives them their rightful place in the Civil War has artifacts from Jensen’s own collection, the museum’s collection, and on loan from private collectors.
Jensen developed a childhood interest in the Civil War when her parents were historical re-enactors in Virginia. She studied American culture at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., and wrote “Who Wore What” about women’s clothing in the mid-19th century. She made clothes for the North-South Skirmish Association’s Civil War Costume Competition at Fort Shenandoah and also wrote “Introduction to Civil War Civilians.”
“When you know what the women wore, at some point you start wondering what they did,” she said.
Jensen, who lives in Cuddebackville, N.Y., is a volunteer for the National Civil War Museum. When registrar Brett Kelly developed the idea and title for the exhibit, she was eager to help put it together.
“Some of the artifacts are significant,” she said. “We have one of only two known original dresses from people who were nurses.”
That was worn by Mrs. Frank Beach, of the Gettysburg area, and is on loan from Bill and Brendan Synnamon, from the Union Drummer Boy store in Gettysburg. The cotton day dress has a gathered bodice, elliptical skirt shaped for a hoop and a brown and white windowpane plaid pattern stained with blood.
“In many cases, people who were given the title of nurse were expected to do administrative work,” Jensen said. “They helped to make beds and put soldiers into beds, and they inventoried their property. They fed the soldiers and if needed, they went out to find food. They wrote letters and provided for their human needs. There were some who actually gave hands-on medical care in changing bandages, giving out medicines or assisting in surgery. Some even performed medical procedures themselves.”
Esther Hill Hawks was one of the few female doctors in the war. Originally from the North, she went South with her husband, also a doctor, and for a time she was chief surgeon at a Confederate hospital.
“In my research, I found that Sally Tomkins was given the commission of captain in the Confederacy,” Jensen said. “A matron in a hospital, she achieved one of the highest ranks a woman ever achieved in a hospital.”
The bleach-stained blue and white laundress dress in the exhibit is the only one known in existence. It came from a family in North Carolina, and is part of Jensen’s collection.
“Some women were laundresses for military organizations, and even more worked for the hospitals,” she said. “They took the soiled and bloody bandages, bedsheets and clothes, and boiled them to get the vermin off. It was very hard work and it wasn’t pleasant.”
Other women organized “sanitary fairs” that raised millions of dollars for bandages, medicine, bedding, crutches and other supplies. Fairs were popular social events with admission fees, vendors and celebrities to attract visitors.
One held in Pittsburgh in June 1864 featured Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s secretary of war and who before the war practiced as an attorney in Pittsburgh. His daughter, Eliza, about 6 years old, was presented with a gold hair barrette, which Jensen is displaying from her collection.
Many fairs raised money by selling stationery and stamps to people who wrote letters there. Word was sent to recipients to come pay the admission price and pick up their mail.
“Woman went to the postal system to say that they should not charge extra postage for forwarding the soldiers’ letters,” Jensen said. “The granddaughter of Benjamin Franklin was involved, and together, they all persuaded the government. Forwarding mail at no extra cost to the sender or to the soldier was started in the Civil War.”
Thousands of women made most of the enlisted men’s uniforms in a cottage industry that used tailor-designed kits of cut pieces.
“One of the reasons we don’t hear much about this is that there is not a single diary, letter or journal that we could find from any of these women,” Jensen said. “But if you look at the pay records, about 70 percent of them signed with an ‘x,’ so they were either illiterate or else too busy to write. Women also knitted socks because they wore out very fast, and if the soldiers didn’t have socks, they couldn’t march.”
Most socks were blue wool or cotton in a seamless pattern. Soldiers with time on their hands made tiny pairs on hairpins, and sent them home to be sold as souvenirs at the fairs. The exhibit has a pair of unfinished socks, still on the knitting needles, that is borrowed from the Museum and White House of the Confederacy in Richmond, Va.
Another display has cartridges from L. Baker and E. Barrett, two women who owned munitions factories in New York.
“About 90 percent of the workers in those factories were women and teenage girls,” Jensen said.
On the afternoon of the explosion at Allegheny Arsenal, some had come out to receive their pay when a spark from a metal horseshoe ignited spilled gunpowder. Mothers, daughters and sisters perished together, along with a handful of men.
Superintendent Alexander McBride tried to save his daughter, Katie, but was blown into the air by a second blast. Mary Jane Black reported that as she ran from the building, she turned to see two screaming girls “on fire, their faces were burning.” She was able to help only one.
While those were dramatic moments, women were doing many more quiet things during the war. To the soldiers, they sent food, letters of encouragement, and religious publications. They contacted families about casualties, and drew maps to grave sites.
Elizabeth Thorn was six months pregnant when she buried 91 soldiers killed at the Battle of Gettysburg.
“Her husband, Peter, became superintendent of Evergreen Cemetery in Gettysburg in 1856,” Jensen said. “After he joined Co. B, 138th Pennsylvania Infantry, she was in charge of the cemetery and served as caretaker from 1862-1865.”
In the weeks after the battle, Thorn and her elderly father dug the graves in the rockiest part of the cemetery.
“Women just went out and did what had to be done,” Jensen said.
After the war, Clara Barton, “angel of the battlefield” and founder of the Red Cross, searched for missing prisoners and compiled thousands of records of the dead, including at the prison in Andersonville, Ga. Other women designed and erected monuments. Lucy Chester, a free black woman, distributed abolitionist publications, and a Mrs. Hobart served as the first female chaplain in the U.S. Army.
“Women also can take responsibility for trying to end the war,” Jensen said. “They had been encouraging their men to fight, but as the war went on, the Southern women were starving and they wrote to tell the men that they could not survive anymore, that it was time to come home.” Additional Information:
Exhibit continues through the end of August. Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday (closed Mondays in March). Admission $7 adults, $6 55 and older, $5 students, under 7 free. Group rates, lunch packages available. Info: The National Civil War Museum, 1 Lincoln Circle, P.O. Box 1861, Harrisburg, PA 17105; 717-260-1861, or www.nationalcivilwarmuseum.org .