The Golden Age & Decline Of American Whaling?

The mid-19th Century marks a “Golden Age” in the American whaling industry. Hundreds of ships roamed the seas, searching farther and farther for their valuable prey. Ironically, the “Golden Age” ended a decline. (See the chart at the end of this blog post.)

Today, we’ll explore some aspects of the high point in this maritime trade and the circumstances that started to curtail the hunt for whales. Continue reading

Clara Barton: “Angel of the Battlefield”

Clara Barton

Clara Barton

New year, new month, new historical theme of the month! We’re starting 2016 with a requested blog series “Destined To Serve: Nurses In The American Civil War.” Back in August 2015, a single blog post on nurses during the Civil War was quite popular and some folks asked for an expanded series…so here’s the beginning!

(Read Nurses of the American Civil War (An Overview) for an introduction to this month’s subject.)

Clara Barton is one of the better-known nurses of the war. Today we’ll talk about a few important elements of her medical service during the conflict and the lasting impact of her efforts. Continue reading

Supporting the War Effort (Ladies during the Civil War)

Miss Margaretta McGuire (Sarah Kay Bierle)

Miss Margaretta McGuire (Sarah Kay Bierle)

“What are you doing?”

Delighted to explain, I hold up the strip of cloth I’m rolling. “I’m rolling a bandage. See, I torn my extra sheets and table linens into strips and now I’m preparing ‘roller bandages’ which I’ll send to our army. It’s one of the way I – as a civilian lady – can support the war effort.”

At Civil War re-enactments, rolling bandages, scraping lint, sewing sponges, and sometimes even sewing or knitting opens a conversation, and I rejoice in the opportunity to share a lady’s role in the American conflict through my first-person interpretation.

A lot of folks come to re-enactments with the idea that the majority of women disguised themselves and enlisted as soldiers, sneaked around as spies, or spent a lot of time in the military camps. It’s part of my job to dispel those myths and that’s why I study, write about, and portray a civilian lady.

Their Motivation

Last week we discussed the ideals for a lady and how the girls were educated. Remember that concept that actions and words reflect the heart’s attitude? The women who ran off and joined the military had a very different heart attitude from the women who stayed at home. (We’ll talk about the ideas and role of nursing next week.)

The vast majority of the ladies of the Civil War era stayed home, running the family business, ploughing the fields, looking after the children, watching and waiting for their loved one’s return. The revered ideal of feminine grace carried into the war years and ladies maintained their role as homemaker, wife, mother or daughter at home even in the midst of great hardship or fear.

With a caring heart attitude and a desire to provide, the ladies of the North and South joined together and accomplished a variety of tasks. The soldiers may have been fighting on distant battlefields, but they were wearing the uniforms, carrying the flags, enjoying the food, and reading the morale-lifting letters sent from the ladies at home.

A patriotic desire combined with the practiced self-less actions, prompted the ladies to make their contribution to the war effort.

Their Contributions

So what exactly did the ladies do to support the war effort? Here’s an abridged list:

  • Sewed clothing
  • Knit stockings
  • Prepared various medical supplies (bandages, sponges, lint, ligatures)
  • Made home remedy medicines
  • Joined ladies’ aid societies to organize their efforts
  • Hosted charity fundraisers for the benefit of hospitals
  • Designed and sewed flags
  • Wrote encouraging letters
  • Visited father/husband/son/brother in a military camp or hospital
  • Took positions as nurses or hospital matrons (will be specifically discussed next week)

Their Victories

Supplying the armies with clothing, food, and bandages was not an easy task, but the ladies accomplished it. But they also accomplished something more than meeting the basic needs – they gave the men a reason to fight.

Soldiers from the North and South both acknowledged that they were defending their loved ones or their future.

And, to some extent, the ladies controlled the morale of the armies simply by what they wrote in their letters. (More on this subject HERE.)

Our Lesson

It’s time to start re-interpreting the traditional role of comforter and homemaker that the ladies of the Civil War adopted. Contrary to popular belief, the majority did not run out and find uniforms. They waited, watched, and worked quietly at home, maintain and adapting their traditional role to meet the war crisis as they patriotically supported the armies by doing the work to the provide the supplies and keeping up morale.

The ladies of the Civil War have left us with a clear example of women successfully influencing and supporting a cause from the doorstep of her home.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Who is your favorite lady of the Civil War era? Why?


An American Girl’s Education (Mid-19th Century)

Miss Sarah Kay BierleIn some ways, I can relate pretty well to young ladies of the Civil War era. I like to knit, embroider, sew, garden (occasionally), read, journal, visit and encourage friends, and write letters. Thus, when I began re-enacting it was an easier transition to the clothing and mannerisms of the period.

The most important thing I’ve learned about myself and about young ladies of the Civil War era is that actions and words reflect a heart attitude. What do I mean? Read on…and today we’ll discuss mid-19th century parents’ expectations for their girls and young ladies education.

Intro & “Disclaimer”

Starting off our August historical theme today: “The Ladies’ Role During The American Civil War.” I’ve determined to keep these posts information packed, but short and entertaining.

My disclaimer – I did a lengthy study on this subject in college and my views do not always  align with most modern day historians.

The Expectation

A lady of the Civil War era was supposed to be gentle, suppressing selfish desires, avoiding anger, and displaying good manners, a beautiful feminine spirit, and strong self-control. Most of all, a lady was supposed to serve others, taking delight in this character trait and finding fulfillment through it. A life of cheerful service and virtue guaranteed a lady’s happiness and she received the approval and love of her family and friends.

The majority of young ladies were expected to complete a basic education, learn to run a household, marry, have children, and be kind and respected members of their community.

Girls learned important lessons and life skills from their mothers

Girls learned important lessons and life skills from their mothers

The Education

Depending upon a family’s wealth, goals, and priorities, a young lady might attend a private school for girls, a nearby public school, or receive all her education at home. Even if a girl was sent to a private school, her “classes” focused on domestic skills – sewing, cooking, music, writing – a skill set she would need when managing her own household.

Young ladies also worked alongside their mothers, gaining practical experience in homemaking skills. They looked after younger siblings or cousins too.

Ultimately, practical knowledge was more important than extensive book knowledge.

The Daughters at Home

What happened when a young lady of middle or upper class finished her education and could proficiently run a household, but no Mr. Right was knocking at the door? She served her family.

Let’s be very clear – she was not a servant, she was not treated badly – she assisted with the work around the home, looked after younger siblings or elder relatives, entertained guests, and lent a helping hand to her community.

Far from oppressed, most young women accepted this beautiful role as single daughters at home and honored their families.

But What If…?

In some families, every grown member had to work to help support the household. This might mean working on the family farm alongside parents and siblings (again, an extension of the daughter at home role) or it might be working for someone else.

Some young women in this situation were hired as teachers, worked as seamstresses, or took some other “feminine” job, such as doing housework, learning a trade like hat-making, or were hired to look after children. In some northern cities, a handful of girls did enter factories to find work, but these young ladies represent a very small minority.

Significantly, the majority of the jobs available for young women reflected society’s belief in a lady’s homemaking, child-raising, or domestic authority.

Warm hospitality and good manners are illustrated in this elaborate scene from "Godey's Lady's Magazine," 1859

Warm hospitality and good manners are illustrated in this elaborate scene from “Godey’s Lady’s Magazine,” 1859

Why Does This Matter?

It matters because understanding the ideals for mid-19th century ladies in America lends to better interpretation of their roles during the Civil War.

There is a growing trend to focus on women who joined the military ranks, volunteered as spies, or worked as nurses – some had patriotic motives, others were rebelling against societal (and Biblical) norms. It is crucial to understand that these “adventurous” women do not represent the majority of ladies from the Civil War era.

Ultimately, understanding a lady’s role in the American conflict stems back to her education, her goals in life, and her heart attitude. Many ladies were content to take the noble role of quiet service and their actions supported the armies in the field. More on that next week…

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Your thoughts? Why is it important to understand the ideals of an era?



Power of the Pen (Civilians and War, Part 4)

Handwritten letters were the primary source of communication during the American Civil War

Handwritten letters were the primary source of communication during the American Civil War

I still like to write and receive hand-written letters. I know, it’s very old-fashion, but emails, texting, and private messaging (despite their convenience) just don’t compare to words shaped by friend’s hand. However, I have a rule – I do not write letters when I am upset. (No, Pen-Pals, I haven’t been upset – just up to my eyeballs in work…sorry!) Why? Because my attitude will come through my writing.

Are we talking about letter writing on the last Friday of “The Forgotten: Civilians In War”? No. But letters play a key role in what we are discussing – the effects of civilian attitude on military morale. Again, there are so many positive and negative examples from history, but we’re going to use the American Civil War as our era of study today.

Looking South

The North (Union) had its fair share of wives and mothers begging their soldiers to come home, but it appears that their appeals are mostly to get their loved ones out of harm’s way. An understandable motive, but not one that can be particularly effective for studying civilian morale…unless all the underlying themes are considered and we are not doing that today.

Instead, we will take the more obvious example and look South, to the Confederacy.

An Very Generalized Overview of the Southern Homefront

The Civil War started in April 1861. Though Southern states had been seceding throughout the previous winter and there were plenty of mixed feelings about that, by the time the military conflict began, the civilians generally supported the troops. The women sewed uniforms and flags, and though there were the sad good-bye scenes, on the whole a feeling of excitement prevailed outwardly.

A first victory pleased the fledging Southern nation, until the casualty lists appeared. The next months passed rather quietly, but with military defeats in the winter. However, the rest of 1862 had quite a few Confederate victories and civilian morale rose again.

In 1863, things started getting rough on the home front. Supplies were starting to run scarce, inflation began, the farm work was getting harder. And military defeats and longer casualty lists weren’t helping matters either. The draft was also extreme unpopular.

1864 and 1865 were the lowest points for Confederate morale. Everything seems dark and defeated. In some areas, there was barely enough food for the civilians to survive.

Three_Confederate soldiersThe Connection

There is a very obvious link between letters from home and desertion rate in the Confederate armies.

Having made that bold statement, let me now explain something. We are talking in board terms; certainly not every Southern family wrote letters begging for their loved ones to come home.

There is another thing we must take into consideration. Argue as much as you, the rank and file soldiers in the Confederate Armies felt they were defending their families and homeland from invasion. These men went to war because 1) they had to because of the draft or 2) they wanted to defend what they valued. (No, I am not talking about slavery – most Southern soldiers didn’t own slaves.)

…put us to jail in place of giveing us aney thing [anything]  to eat and I had to come home without anything [anything]…I have 6 little children and my husband in the armey and what am I to do. . . . if you don’t take these yankys [Yankees] a way from greenesborough we wemen [women] will write for our husbands to come . . . home and help us. . . . (Nancy Mangum’s final plea to the North Carolina state governor before writing the decisive letter to her husband, April 1863 – emphasis added by Miss Sarah)


Thus, when a soldier received a letter from his wife saying his children were starving, she did have the strength to harvest the fields, and had no idea how they were going to survive, that letter had a big impact. Was it better to keep fighting (or keep losing, depending on the period of the war) and return home to no family or leave the army and care for his loved ones?

Confederate_prisoners_FairfaxIt is not in the power of Yankee armies to cause us to wish ourselves at home—we can face them, and can hear their shot and shell without being moved; but, Sir, we cannot hear the cries of our little ones, and stand. We must say something, must make an effort to relieve them, and would do it through you, believing it to be the best way. . . . But it is not of ourselves that we would complain, it is of our wives and little ones at home… Do something for them and there will be less desertion, and men will go into battle with heartier good will. But it is impossible for us to bear up under our many troubles, the greatest of which is, the suffering of our wives and little ones at home. (Soldiers from North Carolina petition their state governor, January 1865 – emphasis added by Miss Sarah)


Many soldiers chose to desert because the letters they received from home begged them to back and take care of their families. This is an example of the power civilian influence.

Things to Consider

We could fault the Southern Soldier. Was it wrong for him to desert? I say yes. But can you fault him for wanting to save his children from hungry and extreme hardship? That is something to consider.

(Let me be clear – the men who deserted and went bounty hunting or became thieves or general “bad guys” are not the soldiers were talking about.)

We could fault the Southern Civilian. I’m not sure is very fair either. When a woman had worked the fields for months or years and could not get a good crop and her children were crying for their father…or the basic physical need of food, I can understand her plea for his return.


When civilian morale breaks and when they stop supporting the military, the battlefield soldier finds himself with two enemies: the one in front and the one at home. Of course the opposite is also true, when supported he is encouraged by the thought of his loved ones waiting and home and doing what they can to ensure his safety and comfort. (And, let’s be fair, there was plenty of the in the Confederacy too.)

This wasn’t a “pick on Confederate soldiers and civilians” day. But it is a vivid illustration of the importance the civilian spirit can have on the front line soldiers…for better or for worse.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Is this topic still of importance today with a professional military? Or has it become irrelevant with the passing of the volunteer armies? Your thoughts?


Gettysburg Civilian Voices

Unidentified American Civil War Civilian LadyBack to Gettysburg on Tuesday and today I’m going to be quiet and let the civilians tell their own story through their writing. (I will add clarification if necessary and I’d encourage you to read the military history overview of the battle for background information.)

Pre-Battle (June 1863)

We had often heard that the rebels were about to make a raid, but had always found it a false alarm. ~ Tillie Pierce (age 14)

We are getting used to excitement, and many think the enemy, having been so long in the vicinity without visiting us, will not favor us with their presence. ~Sarah Broadhead, June 24

Battle Days

What pen can tell or thought conceive the awfulness of the strife that has raged from between three and four o’clock of this afternoon until nine tonight! [July 2] The roar of cannon and rattle of musketry beggar all description. Hundreds of souls have been ushered into the presence of the great “I AM.” I pray for them. There is a silence around us now that is ominous of tomorrow’s struggle. Thousands of brave ones lie upon their arms [weapons], girded for conflict, snatching a few moment’s rest. ~Jane Smith

We know not what the morrow will bring forth, and cannot even tell the issue of today. ~Sarah Broadhead, July 2

My father looked at his watch and said: “We must all go into the cellar.” We complied and then began the terrific artillery duel of Friday afternoon, unequaled, I believe, for sound and fury in the annals of war. ~Henry Eyster Jacobs, July 3

The vibrations could be felt, and the atmosphere was so full of smoke that we could taste saltpeter. ~Albertus McCreary, July 3

The Aftermath

The house was soon filled [with wounded] and eventually I overcame my sick, queasy feeling and could look at wounds, bathe them, bind them without feeling sick and nervous. Tears came only once when the first soldier came into the house. He’d walked from the field almost exhausted, threw himself into a chair, looked up at us girls and said, “Oh girls. I have as good a home as you. If I were only there.” And then he fainted. ~Jennie McCreary

720px-Trossell's_House,_Battlefield_of_GettysburgWe do not know until tried what we are capable of… ~Sarah Broadhead

The whole landscape had been changed, and I felt as though we were in a strange and blighted land… ~Tillie Pierce

These were bitter days. But memories of them are softened when one considers the friendships that were made. ~Sallie Meyers

…never in my life will I have the same opportunity of seeing so many of the great men of the nation again.” ~Josephine F. Roedel [regarding the dedication of the National Cemetery, attended by Lincoln, Everett, and many other leaders]


Here [at Gettysburg] will posterity receive the same inspiration that prompted their ancestors to dare, to do, and to die… ~Tillie Pierce

Final Thoughts

The civilians of Gettysburg tell a different story than the soldiers who fought nearby. Most of the civilians didn’t see the “glorious” charges and tenacious defenses. But they heard it…and they saw what was left behind when the armies departed.

Their courage was different than the soldiers’…it was quiet and, to later generations, easily forgotten. Perhaps quiet courage has a strength we’ve underestimated. Perhaps it’s time to go back and re-evaluate these civilians’ beliefs, attitudes, and actions.

I spent months researching the battle and the civilians of Gettysburg and was overwhelmed by the unselfishness and strength of these people. That’s why I wrote a book. That’s why I’m writing this series of blog posts. That’s why I’m a stronger person today. The Gettysburg civilians have inspired me. I hope they’ll inspire you.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Which quote was most poignant to you? What do you learn from this small (very small) collection of quotes?