Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War

Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War

Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War

Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the American Civil War


During the Civil War, the United States Sanitary Commission attempted to replace female charity networks and traditions of voluntarism with a centralized organization that would ensure women's support for the war effort served an elite, liberal vision of nationhood. Coming after years of debate over women's place in the democracy and status as citizens, soldier relief work offered women an occasion to demonstrate their patriotism and their rights to inclusion in the body politic. Exploring the economic and ideological conflicts that surrounded women's unpaid labors on behalf of the Union army, Jeanie Attie reveals the impact of the Civil War on the gender structure of nineteenth-century America. She illuminates how the war became a testing ground for the gendering of political fights and the ideological separation of men's and women's domains of work and influence.

Attie draws on letters by hundreds of women in which they reflect on their political awakenings at the war's outbreak and their increasing skepticism of national policies as the conflict dragged on. Her book integrates the Civil War into the history of American gender relations and the development of feminism, providing a nuanced analysis of the relationship among gender construction, class development, and state formation in nineteenth-century America.


"The story of the war will never be fully or fairly written if the achievements of women in it are untold."

Frank Moore, 1867

Throughout the American Civil War, as federal forces fought to preserve the Union, and political and social leaders endeavored to generate a consistent patriotism to support them, northern women were important subjects of patriotic discourse. The goal of fostering public unity at the northern homefront went beyond gaining emotional support for the cause; defending the midcentury American state required that women and men voluntarily offer themselves and their resources to the fight. But whereas men's participation was defined by their identification as citizens endangered by southern secession, women's assistance was premised on their positions as the apolitical and altruistic members of society. In public ceremonies, political speeches, church pulpits, and, shortly after the war, commemorative volumes, Union women were heralded for energies that never flagged and patriotic spirits that stayed buoyed for the duration of the conflict. Sometimes the accolades were about the northern "woman," the ideal embodiment of self-sacrifice, virtue, and disinterested benevolence that symbolized the values threatened by the Confederacy.

Most often northern women were described in the aggregate, with an emphasis on the enormous efforts of the hundreds of thousands who helped to preserve the Union. "We may safely say," the writer Frank Moore declared in his postwar tribute, "that there is scarcely a loyal woman in the . . .

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