Duty on the Home Front: Elizabeth Porter and Civil War Women by Kevin McQueeney

[Two unidentified women reading letters] ca. 1860-1870 1 photograph : approximate ninth-plate ambrotype, hand-colored ; 7.4 x 6 cm (case) Library of Congress

[Two unidentified women reading letters]
ca. 1860-1870
1 photograph : approximate ninth-plate ambrotype, hand-colored ; 7.4 x 6 cm (case)
Library of Congress

Introduction

Ken Burns’s The Civil War documentary, viewed by more than forty million Americas when it first aired in 1990, introduced its viewers to a little-known Union major from Rhode Island, Sullivan Ballou, who was killed at the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. Ballou’s last letter to his wife, written just hours before he was killed, predicted his own death and fascinated viewers with its poetic language. He promised his wife that he would watch over her, that they would meet again after death, and that “when my last breath escapes me on the battle field, it will whisper your name.”

Ballou’s letter may be the most well-known of letters written by soldiers of the conflict, but it is not the only one to receive attention and analysis. Historians have repeatedly turned to letters in a quest to find a larger narrative for the war. Scholars and non-academics alike have continually used letters to try to understand the experience of the common soldier, as a way of humanizing and relating to the participants of the war.

Yet, often left out of this narrative are the voices of women. Women have been part of the dialogue, but more frequently as the intended audience of the soldier’s letter home, than as contributors themselves. Much like the omission of Sarah Shumway, Ballou’s wife and the subject of his pre-death musings, historians have largely omitted the voices of the wives of soldiers.

This work seeks to address that issue, focusing on the wartime letters of Elizabeth Porter of Auburn, New York, to her husband Lansing Porter, a captain in the Union Army from 1861-1863. This article examines the larger overall topic of the home experience during the conflict, expanding the scope beyond the battlefield, and seeking to address some of the following questions. How did the war affect the lives of those at the home front? What did the wives of soldiers think of the war? How did the absence of their husbands change their day to day lives and activities? This work argues that by examining the experience of Elizabeth Porter and other women we can understand how women during the Civil War became active heads of households and entered the “public space.”

Elizabeth and Lansing Porter

Lansing Porter was born on March 18, 1817 in Auburn, NY. He attended Hamilton College in Clinton, NY, graduating in 1838. He attended Wesleyan University for a year and was then enrolled in Yale Theological Seminary from 1839-1842. He returned to Auburn after and married Elizabeth Curtis, born on 1822, on August 22, 1844. They eventually had three children, two daughters (Elizabeth, born 1847, and Anna, born 1850) and a son (Lansing, born 1852).The couple moved to Rockford, Illinois, where he served as pastor of the Congregational Church from 1844-1846, and then a series of other churches throughout the state until 1855. They returned to Auburn, NY, where he, like many Americans, worked as a farmer until the war.

Lansing enrolled in the New York 75th Volunteers on October 9, 1861. Her served as a captain in Company I, primarily stationed at Fort Pickens in Pensacola Florida and later served in Louisiana. Granted a leave of absence in March 1863, he was granted discharge the following month. Elizabeth died in 1895 and Lansing died in 1902.

The correspondence between Elizabeth and Lansing help us understand the war time experience of women at the home front through her explicit purpose in writing the letters, which was to fill him in on the events taking place at home.  The correspondence also reveals her experiences as the head of household. Elizabeth informed Lansing on February 18, 1862: “so you see I plan to let you know something about everyday.” She described for him the friends of his that asked about his well-being, the sermons at church on Sundays, the changes in the weather and the impact upon the farm’s crop; the illnesses of the children and her father; the progress of the children in school; the raising and selling of livestock; and the general events in town. Her life was kept busy with her many tasks; in the same February 18th letter she wrote: “You wonder what I find to do…But somehow every day brings its cares and its duties. How well it is so.”

Elizabeth attempted to recreate for Lansing as much as possible the home life he had left behind through her words; she also sent care packages that included local food, asking him in her February 18th letter “Did it not taste like home?” She also described how she tried to keep herself busy with work around the house and farm: Yet, she feared boring him with the details of her life: “I hope I do not write too often that you get tired of reading them” (January 22, 1862).

Elizabeth also shared with her husband the news she had heard of the war, noting events like the capture of New Orleans, the Union losses at the battle of Fredericksburg, and the problems with recruiting new soldiers at in Owasco. In February she described her feelings over the surrender of Fort Donaldson:

there was a merrymaking last evening and today the reports are confirmed that Savannah is ours…There is a great rejoicing and a very general feeling that the tide is in our favor. Rather that the Lord is on our side. But what a wicked costly war it is, and how little need       of it. I mean of the causes, for I know that as a nation we needed such a judgment, for we had sinned, and thus it seems could we be brought to see it. Our punishment has been great, may be we by it be purified and forsake every evil way. May prosperity soon be in            all our land and peace in all our borders. And oh, how much this means, for how many are desolate, how many hearts mourn. How many must mourn while the nation rejoices at this great victory we have gained, but we do not forget the brave men who have fallen. On for peace, peace founded upon righteousness, justice and mercy.

Elizabeth’s belief that the cost of the war was a punishment for the country having the system of slavery was similar to the views of others in the North during the time period.

Much of her writing spoke of anxiety and uncertainty, and guilt that her personal wishes conflicted with the sense of civic duty. Elizabeth lamented that her commitment to the war was tested by her desire to have her husband home. She noted in January 22nd that not everyone in Owasco was doing their full duty in support of the war effort, and questioned herself: “the fault may be in my own heart…I have not had that earnest desire I have sometimes felt” and again on February 13th: “Oh dear! I do not think my patriotism will hold out much longer as I do believe you must come home.”

Elizabeth continued to try to support the war, even telling her husband in the January 22nd letter that she would join the fight if able:  “but what of all these little trials-it must be done and if I were a man I too would shoulder a musket and go.” Yet, she struggled to understand the larger overall significance of the war: “do let me ask, why does not the work go on? What does it mean?” and on December 11th: “I cannot yet comprehend this long journey by sea, this strange country and work in which you are engaged. What does it mean? When the end be? What will it be?” On March 23, 1863, she described her unease on whether or not the “revengeful proud rebels” would accept the federal government if they are defeated.

A further source of anxiety concerned money. Lansing complained in several letters of not receiving his money on time to send to his family. Elizabeth told her husband on February 16th of her difficulty in paying the family’s bills and mentioned two days later she had discussed with her father the possibility of selling twenty acres of the farm to ease their financial burdens.

Uncertainty and anxiety were heightened by the difficulties in communication. On December 11th, 1861 she wrote that one of her letters had been sent back because the post office had been unable to determine where he was stationed at the time, a common occurrence during the war. In May and July, she despaired of her lack of correspondence from her husband, particularly troubling as others she knew had received letters. Rumors further agitated the situation. In September she noted that there was talk that the regiment was being sent North but was upset as she did not know where he was at the time.

Perhaps hardest to deal with was the December, 1862 rumor that he had been captured or killed in combat. She spoke of her spirituality as a comfort in the trying situation: “our trust is in He who orders all things…Oh is it not a comfort then to commit all into His care? Surely he will watch over and keep you so that no evil shall befall you. We are safe everywhere in his keeping.” Lansing was not killed or captured during this incident but the delay in information led to days of uncertainty.

One small source of comfort or connection for Elizabeth may have been a photograph of Lansing. A marked difference in the way that separation was endured in the Civil War and previous wars was the proliferation of photographs. Elizabeth was able to look upon Lansing’s photograph while he was away, making it perhaps the first war in which wives and children could look at photographs of the departed soldier. She also sent him a picture of the children when he was stationed in New Orleans. She wrote in her letters of looking at his photograph when she was lonely, although, she told him on February 13 that a dream had in which he told her he was coming home “was better even than looking at your picture.”

Analysis

One could examine these letters and conclude Elizabeth Porter’s life was difficult in the year a half of her husband’s absence. She had no way of knowing how long he would be away, whether he would be wounded or killed, anxiety exasperated by long stretches of no letters home and rumors in town; she had to tend to the farm, raise her children, and take care of elderly family members while worrying about having enough money to pay the bills; and she had to grapple with her own support for and understanding of the war.

However, an analysis of the letters also reveals the significance of Elizabeth’s new role during her husband’s absence. Better understanding her life and the lives of other women on the home front helps to create a more complete picture of the Civil War, demonstrating how the conflict affected not just soldiers in the battlefields and camps but also the families and friends they had left behind. Women became the heads of families while men were away-about one third of soldiers were married; this change challenged the existing system of patriarchy. Elizabeth Porter was both the head of the household and the manager of the farm; she was a businesswoman who engaged in the selling of her crops and livestock on the market; she was in charge of the family’s finances; and she also served as a teacher and helped run the town’s asylum.

Elizabeth also viewed herself as a participant in the war effort through her roles. She wrote several times to her husband of her “duty” at home as being similar to his duty as a soldier. Both she and her husband spoke of taking pride in the patriotism of their children as well; pointedly, Annie told her father in a letter on November 29, 1862, that she did not want him to come home until the war was won. Clearly another one of Elizabeth’s role was a teacher to her own children of patriotism and political values. She also repeated her wish that she could fight in the war, noting in a June 12, 1862 letter that as a woman her “wings are clipped.” Yet, this did not stop her, despite being considered a non-political actor due to her gender, from expressing her political beliefs including her support of the passage of the Confiscation Act in summer 1862, an act allowing the seizure of and freedom for slaves that were used by the Confederate army and any captured slaves whose masters were supporting the rebellion. She also wrote of her support for using African American soldiers on July 8, 1863: “We long to see the slaves their own avengers.”

Conclusion and Further Research Suggestions

Elizabeth Porter’s experience demonstrates the change in the roles of women during the Civil War; yet women are often left out of the focus of most research on the time period. This work contributes to the existing literature on women during the Civil War and urges similar research on related questions.

A second area of further research would be on the post-war impact upon marriage and families. How did the return of Civil War soldiers impact family relationships? How did the long periods of separation, as long as four years for some soldiers, affect their relationships with their spouses and children? Divorce petitions, for example, can be studied to determine if there was a rise in divorce rates nationwide between ex-soldiers and their wives. Court records and coroner reports can be studied to see if there was a rise in domestic violence and other incidents of violence when the soldiers returned.

A further area of research unrelated to gender concerns age. Although the primary focus of this work was on Elizabeth Porter, one fact about Lansing Porter that warrants future attention is his age. Lansing was forty-four years old at the time of his enlistment and forty-six when he left the military. This fact is worthy of attention because of the rarity of men his age serving; the average age of soldiers in the Union army was 25.8 years and less than 10% were over the age of 30, with soldiers in their forties extremely atypical. Porter’s age in fact placed him outside of the 18-35 age range that was set for the first Union draft in March 1863, meaning he would not have had to serve unless he had volunteered.

Soldiers within his age group, however, have generally received little scholarly attention. Instead, there has been a focus on the opposite end of the age spectrum, child soldiers like John Lincoln Clem; an estimated 10% of soldiers were under the age of 16. However, minimal research has been done on older soldiers. In general, research on Civil War soldier demography remains a neglected field.

The Civil War is one of the most studied time periods in American history. The proliferation of scholarship, though, does not mean there are not further areas to explore. The incorporation of under-studied groups like women and the turn away from an exclusive focus on the battlefield to include the experience of the home front offers new opportunities for research. These new works will help contribute to a more holistic picture of the conflict and its aftermath.

 

Sources

-“Two Unidentified Women Reading Letters” AMB/TIN no. 2075, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.36461

-The correspondence between Elizabeth and Lansing, as well as letters to and from their children, can be accessed at the Louisiana Research Center, Tulane University. Lansing Porter family papers, 1861-1863. LaRC/ Manuscripts Collection 1065. Louisiana Research Center, Tulane University.

Further Reading

-Sullivan Ballou’s letter and life are the subject of an 864 page 2006 work by Robin Young. Robin Young, For Love and Liberty: The Untold Civil War Story of Major Sullivan Ballou and His Famous Love Letter (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006).

-An example of scholarly work that analyzes the writing of soldiers is Chandra Manning’s 2007 book on the meaning of the war to soldiers on both sides. Manning argued both Union and Confederate soldiers understood slavery to be the cause of the conflict and used she used their writings to explore their understandings of and attitudes towards slavery and emancipation. Chandra Manning, What This Cruel War Was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War (New York: Knopf, 2007).

-For an analysis of the writing of soldiers and the way they conceptualized ideas see Peter S. Carmichael, “Soldier-Speak,” in Stephen Berry, ed. Wierding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011): 273.

-Further information about Lansing’s life can be found in the 1850 and 1860 federal censuses as well as biographical backgrounds in the Auburn Seminary Record Volume 1: 1905-1906 (Astor, Lennox, and Tilden Foundations, 1924) and the General biographical catalogue of Auburn Theological Seminary, 1818-1918 (Auburn, NY: Auburn Seminary Press, 1918). His Civil War enrollment and discharge can be found in the New York State Archives, Cultural Education Center, Albany, New York; New York Civil War Muster Roll Abstracts, 1861-1900; Archive Collection #: 13775-83; Box #: 304; Roll #: 1178-1179.

 

-Lansing and Elizabeth ran a farm before and during the war. The most common profession amongst soldiers was farming. Forty-eight percent of Union soldiers and 69% pf Confederate soldiers were farmers. “Civil War Facts” National Park Service (2014).  http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/facts.htm.

-There is a growing field of scholarship on women during the Civil War. Drew Gilpin Faust, Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996) examined the impact of the Civil War on patriarchal attitudes for elite white women in the South.

-Victoria E. Olt, Confederate Daughters: Coming of Age during the Civil War (Carbondale, Ill: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008) looked at the experience of adolescent women from slaveholding families.

-George C. Rable, Civil Wars: Women and the Crisis of Southern Nationalism (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989) argued white women in the South were strong defenders of slavery.

-Anya Jabour, “Days of lightly-won and lightly held hearts: Courtship and Coquetry in the Southern Confederacy,” in Stephen Berry, ed. Wierding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011) and Steven E. Nash, “Love is a Battlefield: Lizzie Alsop’s Flirtation with the Confederacy,” in Stephen Berry, ed. Wierding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011) looked at the changes in Southern courtship patterns, arguing there was a relaxing of social norms allowing women more freedom in courting.

-Joan Cashin, “Hungry People in the War Time South: Civilians, Armies, and the Food Supply,” in Stephen Berry, ed. Wierding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011) and Stephanie McCurry, Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010) examined the impact of food shortages which led to women petitioning the Confederate government and leading food riots in some cities.

-Alecia Long, “(Mis)Remembering General Order No. 28: Benjamin, Butler, the Woman Order, and Historical Memory,” in Occupied Women: Gender, Military Occupation in the American Civil War, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009) argued women in New Orleans were political actors through their resistance to federal occupation.

-Several works have focused on women in the Northern home front, particularly looking at the impact of women’s role in medicine and other forms of soldier relief. See Judith Giesberg, Civil War Sisterhood: The U.S. Sanitary Commission and Women’s Politics in Transition (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000); Jeanie Attie, Patriotic Toil: Northern Women and the Civil War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998); Elizabeth D. Leonard, Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994).

-Betty L. Alt and Bonnie D. Stone, Campfollowing: A History of the Military Wife (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 1991). Michele Nacy, Members of the Regiment: Army Officers’ Wives on the Western Frontier, 1865-1890 (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2000) looked at the role played by women who lived with their husbands in military camps.

-An example of work on marginalized women like immigrants, African American, and working class women is Judith Giesberg’s Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009).

-For an in-depth analysis of mail during the Civil War, including the differences between the North and the South, see Harry K. Charles, Jr., “American Civil War Postage Due: North and South,” Postal History Symposium (November 2012). http://stamps.org/userfiles/file/symposium/presentations/CharlesPaper.pdf.

-Hacker et al. (2010) looked at changes in white marriage patterns from 1850-1880 based upon census information; the article, focusing primarily on the South, argued there was a “marriage squeeze” due to the high number of Confederate casualties leading to a delay in marriage for many Southern women or marriage to “less appropriate” husbands. J. David Hacker; Libra Hilde; and James Holland Jones, “The Effect of the Civil War on Southern Marriage Patterns,” Journal of Southern History 76 (2010): 39-70.

-David Silkenat’s 2011 work on North Carolina during the Civil War time period offers one model of scholarship that looked at post-war changes. Silkenat argued strain from long separation and changing values led to an increase in divorce between veterans of the war and their spouses. David Silkenta, Moments of Despair: Suicide, Divorce, and Debt in Civil War Era North Carolina (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011).

-Stephen Berry, “The Historian as Death Investigator” in Stephen Berry, ed. Wierding the War: Stories from the Civil War’s Ragged Edges (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2011) examined court records and coroner reports and concluded there was a dramatic drop in spousal abuse, suicides, and the murder of babies during the war due to the majority of men being away from home to participate in the war.

-For further information about the demographic makeup of soldiers on both sides see James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (Oxford University Press, 1997).

-For more information on children soldiers in the Civil War and other American wars see Eleanor C. Bishop, Ponies, Patriots, and Powder Monkeys: A History of Children in America’s Armed Forces, 1776-1916 (Del Mar: The Bishop Press, 1982).

 

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