Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front

Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front

Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front

Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front


Introducing readers to women whose Civil War experiences have long been ignored, Judith Giesberg examines the lives of working-class women in the North, for whom the home front was a battlefield of its own.

Black and white working-class women managed farms that had been left without a male head of household, worked in munitions factories, made uniforms, and located and cared for injured or dead soldiers. As they became more active in their new roles, they became visible as political actors, writing letters, signing petitions, moving (or refusing to move) from their homes, and confronting civilian and military officials.

At the heart of the book are stories of women who fought the draft in New York and Pennsylvania, protested segregated streetcars in San Francisco and Philadelphia, and demanded a living wage in the needle trades and safer conditions at the Federal arsenals where they labored. Giesberg challenges readers to think about women and children who were caught up in the military conflict but nonetheless refused to become its collateral damage. She offers a dramatic reinterpretation of how America's Civil War reshaped the lived experience of race and gender and brought swift and lasting changes to working-class family life.


If you go searching for Lydia Bixby, you will find very little. She left no diary, memoirs, or photographs. She filed a pension application once, and she sometimes appeared in city directories and in the census. Bixby died as a free patient at the Massachusetts General Hospital in October 1878 and was buried in a largely forgotten section of the Mt. Hope Cemetery in the Mattapan neighborhood of Boston. In the cemetery office a large leather-bound register lists her name and the number of her grave. With some effort—and help from the groundskeeper—you can find where Lydia Bixby was buried. Her headstone is marked with the number 423. There are few other records of her existence, nothing to rescue her from what appears to have been a rather anonymous life and death. Except, of course, for that one famous letter.

It has been called the “most famous condolence letter,” but mystery has shrouded many things about the letter President Lincoln wrote to Lydia Bixby during the U.S. Civil War. Scholars have argued about the authorship of the letter and its ultimate fate, but no one doubts that the emotions expressed in it are Lincoln’s own. Having heard that Lydia Bixby had lost five sons, Lincoln wrote to her to tender his sympathies and to offer her “the thanks of the Republic they died to save.” In a few short words, the letter captured Lincoln’s own experience of loss and his deeply troubled conscience over mounting battlefield casualties. Lincoln’s words of comfort proved timeless. Historians revisited the letter in the aftermath of World Wars I and II. William Barton dedicated A Beautiful Blunder, his 1926 study of the Bixby letter, to “those who suffer most in war: the Wives and Mothers,” and F. Lauriston Bullard turned to the letter during World War II. Director Stephen Spielberg resurrected the letter again in his 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg dedicated Saving Private Ryan to the aging survivors of “the last great war”; in the film, General George C. Marshall retrieves a copy of the letter from his desk and then . . .

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