Busy Hands: Images of the Family in the Northern Civil War Effort

Busy Hands: Images of the Family in the Northern Civil War Effort

Busy Hands: Images of the Family in the Northern Civil War Effort

Busy Hands: Images of the Family in the Northern Civil War Effort

Synopsis

Focusing on middle-class women's contributions to the northern Civil War effort, Patricia Richard shows how women utilized their power as moral agents to shape the way men survived the ravages of war. Busy Hands investigates the ways in which white and African American women used images of family and domestic life in their relief efforts to counter the effects of prostitution, gambling, profanity, and drinking, threatening men's postwar civilian fitness. Drawing on letters, diaries, and memoirs of Civil War nurses, sanitary workers, soldiers, and the soldiers' aid societies, Richard develops a new perspective on domestic influence on the war, as women sought to save soldiers from the dangers of the military world.

Excerpt

When Elvira Aplin wrote to her son George in May 1862, she began a correspondence filled with maternal advice that would guide George during his service in the Union army. Through "moral-suasion," she hoped to "instill" in him a "sense of duty" to God and to his country by awakening his conscience and gently directing his conduct. Although she felt sorry that his "lot was hard" and wished she had the "power to ameliorate" his condition, she, like hundreds of thousands of other women across the North during the Civil War, realized that all she could do was "to commend" George to Him who was able to keep him "safe through all the trying scenes through which "he" may be called to pass." Even though she defined her "ameliorating power" as limited and encouraged him to turn to a greater power than herself, she did not leave her son exclusively in the hands of God. On the contrary, she gave him a Bible, which she assured him was "the best companion you can possibly have," and urged him to "peruse the pages often and try to become familiar with its teachings." Nor did her instruction stop there. She continued to warn him that "a soldier is surrounded by everything that has a tendency to make him forget God," and, she emphasized, "those who do not make His word their study and guide will lose much of their morality." As one last effort to influence him, she added a postscript in which she advised him to "be obedient to your superiors in office, kind and respectful to all of the rest," and to do "all the good you can without harm to yourself."

Elvira's exchange with her son represents the prominent role of the family in nineteenth-century American society and the way women responded to their families' needs during the Civil War. Indeed, both Victorian men and women felt the dominance of the domestic circle in their personal lives. Women, as the moral arbiters of the home and as the moral counselors of their husbands, commanded critical social authority as they affected the public sphere . . .

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