Vacant Chairs: The Effects of The Civil War & How Ladies Coped

A Civil War lady was influenced by her beliefs and supported the war effort from home or volunteered as a hospital nurse. However, every woman with a loved one in the military faced the reality of a vacant chair at her dining table. Some of those chairs were only vacant for a short time, others would remain empty forever.

How did the ladies maintain communication with loved ones away from home? How did they cope with the strain of uncertainty? How did they survive tragedy? Today, we examine a few aspects of the emotional side of the conflict and how it impacted those on the homefront.

Lady Writing a LetterLetters and Telegrams

In the mid-19th Century, a telephone was still science fiction. Email, instant messaging, and video chats were never considered.

Penciled or inked words on paper were the forms of communication. Soldiers and their families corresponded by mailed letters, trying to assure each other of safety.

A telegram was an expensive form of communication and involved writing a brief message which would be “translated” into Morse code and sent via telegraph wire where it would be written out and delivered to the recipient. Common soldiers generally did not send telegrams, though a few generals telegraphed their wives daily during campaigns to give reassurance. For most households, though, receiving a telegram was equivalent with receiving a black edged envelope: someone was hurt or someone had died.

Staying Busy

Very few ladies had the luxury of sitting around, drinking tea, and fainting from fear. Most women had to and run the farm or business (or find a job), continue looking after the children, and maintain the household.

They did all their regular tasks, and probably extra work too. They wrote letters. They knit stockings, rolled bandages, sewed shirts, organized fundraisers, or volunteered in hospitals.

Supporting the war effort from home was two-fold in its purpose. It was a patriotic endeavor which made the ladies feel useful. It was a way to turn the energy of worrying into something productive.

"Civil War Widow" by Charles Soule, Jr. (1863)

“Civil War Widow” by Charles Soule, Jr. (1863)

Coping With Loss

Most households experienced loss. If not directly, then by the death of a member of the extended family or a friend. Casualties were reported by the newspapers, by a letter or telegram from the unit commander, or sometimes never.

If she could afford it, a woman might travel to a hospital or battlefield to find her loved one’s grave or search for his body. Some never found any proof – they only knew he had been with the unit at the beginning of the fight, never left the field, and was never found. (Read His Death is an Uncertainty for more details.)

In the midst of grief, faith was stronghold for many ladies. They focused on their soldier’s faith and believed they would see him again in heaven. They found comfort in the Biblical promise “A father of the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in His holy habitation.” (Psalm 68:5, NKJV)

Conclusion

Even with the additional work and the good intentions of supporting the war effort for distraction, a lady’s role of watching and waiting was not easy. Uncertainty and concern was an inescapable part of homefront life.

The strength and unselfishness of the ladies of the Civil War era reminds us that courage is not always on the battlefields.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. The title and introduction theme actually comes from a Civil War song “The Vacant Chair.” Here is a portion of the lyrics:

We shall meet but we shall miss him.
There will be one vacant chair.
We shall linger to caress him,
While we breathe our ev’ning prayer.
When a year ago we gathered,
Joy was in his mild blue eye.
But a golden cord is severed.
And our hopes in ruin lie.

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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