Hardtack & hairnets

Hardtack & hairnets

Women in Photographs of the Union Army.

Analysis by Cricket Bauer.

On April 12, 1865 at City Point, Virginia, Mathew Brady’s cameramen took a series of photographs of General Grant and his staff. Two of the views happened to include women. This scenario had been repeated many times during the course of the war: the photographer appears in camp and takes several photographs during the visit. It is in this context that women were photographed in the field of military operations. Whether visiting on a Sunday afternoon or sharing winter quarters, the women in these images are rarely the focus of the photograph and generally incidental to the military subjects.

The variety of situations in which these women were photographed can mislead us to think that a feminine presence in camp was the norm. In a December 1861 letter, Lt. Robert Gould Shaw of the 2nd Massachusetts indicates otherwise: “Yesterday I went into Frederick [Maryland].. I had hardly realized before that for five months we had been living like gypsies and seeing only men. I had really not spoken to a lady since we left New York.”

The camps attracted women for many different reasons. Of course, the novel experience and excitement of military pomp and ceremony drew the casual female visitor, but a sense of adventure, duty to country and loyalty to a uniformed spouse also played a part. The national crisis gave added emphasis to the importance of family by placing familial relationships in jeopardy, thus the desire on the part of some soldiers to have their wives nearby. Yet another unspoken motive for wives to visit their husbands at the front may have been in reaction to the nature of the social environment of camp, where prostitution was rife in towns near any type of military gathering. Captain Charles Francis Adams, Jr. of the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry described General Joseph Hooker’s headquarters in the Army of the Potomac’s winter camp of 1862-63 as a “combination of bar room and brothel.” Some officers, regardless of their marital state, kept mistresses in camp or in nearby towns, sometimes garbing them as soldiers. In but one example, Private Charles Johnson was court-martialed when it was discovered that “he” was actually Harriet Merrill, mistress of Captain Jerome Taft of the 59th New York. General Judson Kilpatrick was notorious for keeping women clad as soldiers among his staff.

The long term visit of a wife or sister was a privilege of rank rarely granted to enlisted men. This was especially true of winter camps, where the sojourn could last several months. Enlisted men might receive furloughs to visit their homes, but their families, with rare exceptions, were not permitted to travel to the front. The typical soldier was most likely to have visitors for a day while in the initial training camps, or while camped or garrisoned near larger towns. These camps, which were often open to visitors on Sunday afternoons, were popular destinations for curious civilians. With characteristic irony, Lt. Colonel Theodore Lyman of General Meade’s staff described the situation near Petersburg in March of 1865: “There was a large assemblage of the fashion and nobility of the environs of Petersburg, though most of the first families of Virginia were unavoidably detained in the city. We had a batch of ladies, who, by the way, seem suddenly to have gone mad on visiting this army. No petticoat is allowed to stay within our lines, but they run up from City Point and return in the afternoon.”

Those women fortunate enough to be granted the opportunity traveled long distances to be near their husbands. One of the most important factors affecting their mobility was the presence and growth of the railroads. The northern railroads were generally unaffected by the ravages of war, while many southern lines were taken over by the U.S. Military Railroad. Because it was a relatively safe method of travel, women were able to reach the environs of the army without too much difficulty during the winter hiatus from active campaigning. The most common obstacle to their journey was the means of conveyance from the railhead to the camp. The military used various types of wagons or ambulances to transport female visitors. Theodore Lyman vividly described the conditions near the Army of the Potomac’s winter camp in January of 1864: “Such a sea of mud round Brandy Station was enough to engulf the most hardy. There is no platform to get on; nothing but the driest spot in the mud. You should have seen the countenances of the unfortunate officers’ wives, as they surveyed, from the height of the platform, this broad expanse of pap! Then the husband would appear, in great excitement, and encourage them to descend, which they presently would do, and dab across to an ambulance, seeming mutely to say, that this wasn’t quite what they expected…”

Winter camps presented a variety of living conditions and activities. Even the most well-kept camp or fortification was primitive at best. Officers’ wives frequently shared their husband’s quarters, which ranged from a commandeered civilian house to a log hut or wall tent. Jane Seward, daughter-in-law of Secretary of State William Seward, received a letter from her husband, “telling me that our regiment … had gone into winter quarters, and that a log-cabin was almost finished, and I was expected to come with the baby and occupy it.”

The interiors of living quarters were never as comfortable as home, but sometimes could attain extravagant proportions with carpeting, makeshift furniture and decor. Sometimes a lower ranking officer might find himself evicted from luxurious lodgings in favor of a superior’s wife. Lieutenant John V. Hadley of the 7th Indiana was bivouacked in a home, but one day found that, “Crinoline has crowded me out of the house and I am now in my tent shivering with cold…”

Septima Collis, wife of Colonel Charles Collis of the 114th Pennsylvania Zouaves, recalled her arrival at the Brandy Station winter camp in January of 1864: “…Imagine two ordinary army tents, set close together, one of them for a parlor and dining room, the other for a bedroom; both having chimneys of mud and stone…; the bedstead was of plain pine timber, and the bedding delicious, sweet clean straw sewn up in sacks, the whole covered with a layer of several brown woolen army blankets; there were, of course, no pillows or pillowcases, a couple of saddles answered for the one, and I presume imagination had to do service for the other; yet we were supremely happy.”

Winter camp was enlivened by festivities, balls, reviews, and celebrations for holidays like Washington’s birthday and Saint Patrick’s Day. Theodore Lyman recounted the dinner party hosted by Colonel Joseph Hayes in his wallpapered hut with fireplace, at the Brandy Station winter camp. High ranking officers and their wives “in various dresses” attended the dinner, a bountiful repast spread on a table that “ran the length of two hospital tents, ingeniously floored with spare boards from the pontoon-train and ornamented with flags and greens. The chandeliers were ingeniously composed of bayonets, and all was very military.” Horseback riding, theatrics, concerts, dinners and balls occupied visitors and often kept officers away from their duties.

Aside from visiting, there were other reasons for the presence of women in the military camp. Women pursued a number of “official” roles to support the war effort, including nursing, relief work with the U.S. Sanitary and Christian Commissions, and the few women who occasionally were permitted to work in the encampments as laundresses or related support roles. Sidney Morris Davis, a trooper in the 6th U.S. Cavalry, described the assignment of laundresses to his unit in September of 1861: “Four women, the wives of enlisted men, were allowed to each company as laundresses. They were quartered in wall tents, which, to secure a degree of privacy, were located at some distance from the company. They were expected to wash the clothes of the soldiers of the company to which their husbands belonged, and were by the government allowed one ration per day in all respects similar to that issued to the men.” The greater number of field photographs that include women reveal them to be visitors or relief workers; few images portray laundresses or cooks.

The opinions of individual officers regarding the Federal Army’s female guests varied greatly. Some considered a feminine presence to be a decided moral benefit. Corporal William Howell of the 124th New York commented on this in a letter to the editor of the Middletown Whig Press in March of 1864: “The Colonel’s and Doctor’s wives are here to visit them. I think it is an excellent idea and it would go far toward preventing vice and demoralization in the army, if officers and men could have the benefit of female society.” Unmarried and unchaperoned women did not fare as well. Observers perceived them, sometimes rightly so, to be of questionable character and motives.

Some men objected to having their own wives in camp. Colonel John A. Logan did not wish his wife Mary to visit for any length of time. She argued for it, and eventually joined him after he was wounded in battle at Fort Donelson. Theodore Lyman’s wife was equally persistent, although not successful. In a comment that says much about his own status as a Boston Brahmin, he assured her that “if you saw the style of officers’ wives that come here, I am sure you would wish to stay away.” His description of the fashions of some visiting wives reflected his disdain: “13 ladies, officers’ wives and friends visited camp for a day …it was Lowell factories broken loose and gone mad. One had got a lot of orange tape and trimmed her jacket in the dragoon style; another had the badge of the Third Corps pinned all askew in her hat; a third had a major’s knot worked in tarnished lace on her sleeve; while a fourth had garnitured her chest by a cape of grey squirrel-skin.”

Whatever their reason for being in winter camps, each spring the women were ordered to depart. Lieutenant Holman Melcher of the 20th Maine recorded on April 9, 1864, that “all Civilians, Sutlers and Ladies have been ordered to leave at once, so that there will be no `hangers on’ to impede our progress, when we start…”

Just as military photographs provide details about the uniforms and equipage of the soldier, these photos hold a wealth of information about the attire of women. Wartime field photographs provide a unique opportunity because they provide a sharp contrast to the studied poses recorded in the portrait studio. In the field, the photographer came to the subjects, made choices regarding the content of the image, and therefore the subjects had little control over the results. A woman sitting for a studio portrait made choices regarding her desired appearance in anticipation of that experience. In the field, we see the clothing choices made for public display, not posterity. Although ample time in the photographic process allowed for primping, posing and perhaps the impromptu staging of a mock fight or medical operation, it is unlikely that sufficient time was allowed for radically altering one’s wardrobe. If a woman changed her dress for the photograph it presumes that a woman had sufficient fashionable wardrobe nearby.

The very act of traveling required clothing of durable fabrics and few trimmings — those who traversed muddy fields in an ambulance are wearing more practical ensembles than those who lived with their officer-husbands in a fine house. Likewise, a woman’s role in camp did much to determine her clothing choices. Nurses, whether or not in the Nursing Corps, opted for simple work dresses. Like laundresses, their purpose in camp was to work, and their plain attire reflected this. If a woman was in camp as the wife or guest of an officer, more fashionable dress, including riding habits, was appropriate. For visitors, the extended sojourn in winter camp included balls and dinners that required very specific types of clothing.

The photographs of women in the Federal camps reveal that Victorian propriety survived amidst the rigors of Army life. Hoops, corsets and the fashionable silhouette were not discarded in an uncivilized setting; rather, women brought a sense of gentility and propriety that reminded many a soldier of home, and the life they fought to protect. Capt. D.P. Conyngham of the Irish Brigade recalled: “Fortunate citizens, dwelling in their quiet homes, and having before their eyes, every hour of the day, graceful and lovely women, can have no idea of the chivalrous emotions which swell the hearts of even the roughest soldier, seeing on the rude camp-covered hills the figures, the fair faces, which, it may be, have not been looked on in these regions and by these men for many, many months. If the reader has any conception of these things, he can then easily imagine with what deep, yet subdued gladness, the ladies were greeted by all.”

Copyright Military Images May/Jun 2000

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