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)


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.

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?


Miss Tillie Pierce: Patriotic & Loyal

When I traveled to the East Coast a few years ago, I added to my book collection. (Surprise, surprise…or not!) I have a special book from most of the places we visited, but one of my all-time, hands-down favorites is “At Gettysburg, or What A Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle” by Mrs. Tillie Pierce Alleman. I found the book in the gift store of the Shriver House Museum, and when we got home, my mom bulk ordered about 15 copies to give as gifts. That’s how much we liked the book!

So who was Tillie Pierce? And why did she become one of the major historical characters in “Blue, Gray & Crimson“?

Miss Tillie Pierce

Miss Tillie Pierce

Miss Tillie and Her Family

Matilda Pierce, called Tillie, by her family and friends was fourteen years old in 1863. Her father – James Pierce – owned the butcher shop and the family was well-to-do middle class in Gettysburg society. Her mother – Margaret Pierce – was homemaker and was also in charge of organizing the efforts of the Gettysburg’s Ladies’ Union Relief Society, a group which met to prepare supplies to send to the Union soldiers. Tillie had two older brothers, and from their absence in her account, it might be concluded that they were not at home, possibly serving with the Union army. She also had at least one sister.

Tillie’s attendance of a private school for young ladies instead of public school gives us a hint of the status of the Pierce Family and their value of good education. A photograph of young Miss Pierce shows a charming, innocent expression on her face. Her dress is mostly hidden by a dark, lacey shawl which is fastened with a pin or broach – she was probably a fashionable young lady.

The Pierce Family lived in a nice brick house on Baltimore Street in the town of Gettysburg.

Miss Tillie’s War

If you want the full story, you’ll have to read her own account because there is such a thing as word limits. 🙂 But I shall attempt to summarize Miss Pierce’s experience during the Battle of Gettysburg.

  • On June 26, Tillie ran from school to her home, just reaching the house as the Confederates rode into town. Her family’s favorite horse was stolen by the raiders.
  • When General Buford’s Union cavalry arrived on June 30, Tillie, her sister, and some of their friends sang patriotic songs to the passing troops and were applauded for their kind efforts.
  • July 1 – with the battle beginning west of town and shifting closer throughout the day, Mr. and Mrs. Pierce sent Tillie out of town with their neighbor and friend, Mrs. Shriver. Tillie, Mrs. Shriver, and Shriver children traveled to a farm south of Little Round Top and interacted with marching Union soldiers.
  • Miss Tillie Pierce said she gave a cup of water to General Meade, commander of the Union Army.

    Miss Tillie Pierce said she gave a cup of water to General Meade, commander of the Union Army.

    Battle and Aftermath – Tillie really would’ve been safer if she had stayed in town. She had relocated to a fairly dangerous location; the farm came under artillery fire and she had a temporary refugee experience. She pumped water for Union soldiers and claimed she gave a cup of water to General George Meade (commander of the Union army). The house was taken over as a field hospital and Tillie helped distribute food to the injured men. She comforted a wounded general. She worried about her family in town and was unable to return for several days after the fighting ended.

  • When she returned home, Tillie discovered that her family was safe! Her father had captured a few Confederate soldiers, and her mother had opened the house to care for a few wounded soldiers, including the colonel of the 1st Minnesota Regiment.
  • Tillie and her family visited Camp Letterman Hospital during the autumn months. She did not specifically mention attending the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery, but presumably she did.

Miss Pierce grew up, married Mr. Alleman and moved away from Gettysburg. However, her experiences during the summer of 1863 made unforgettable memories and she wrote her recollections which were published in 1888.

An Author’s Thoughts

Betsy Westmore is certainly not a “carbon copy” of Tillie Pierce, but Tillie’s account did help me “see” historic Gettysburg through a girl’s eyes.

When writing the story, I wanted Betsy to have a friend in town who could share a perspective on what was happening in that location and who could be encouraging to Betsy; Tillie Pierce was a natural choice because she was the same age as my fictional character and I think she was a friendly, kind young lady. It seemed fitting to have Betsy interact with a real historic character rather than a fictional friend, and I was glad I could include Tillie Pierce, especially since her account was one of the first civilian primary sources I read.

Years after the battle, as Tillie Pierce Alleman began her account of Gettysburg, she said that she wrote her account “[without] any desire to be classed among the heroines of that period…but simply to show what many a patriotic and loyal girl would have done if surrounded by similar circumstances.”

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. If you’ve read “Blue, Gray & Crimson“, did you like Tillie Pierce? Have you read her primary source account?



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?


300,000 Airplanes, Scrap Drives, & Cheerful Giving – Civilians in War, Part 3

Civilians support armies. It’s as simple as that. And when armies don’t have home front support…well, there’s a historic example about fifty years ago (unfortunately). But rather than use a negative example, let’s take a look at World War II which may be the all-time best example of civilians supporting their armies and cause.

Aircraft manufacturing, WWII

Building Airplanes

300,000 Airplanes

We’ll start today’s study with American manufacturing during WWII. By the end of the conflict, United States civilian men and women and had built approximately 300,000 aircraft alone…that doesn’t include tanks, jeeps, guns, ammo, etc.! Getting a job in a defense factory was a big deal and showed patriotism. And, by the end of the war, the US was the largest manufacturer by the end of the war too.

Suppose for a moment that civilians didn’t step up to work in the factories and build those airplanes. Two things would’ve happened. #1-no new airplanes get built or #2 -soldiers have to be taken from the fighting lines to build the aircraft. Not a desirable situation!

One thing that I find remarkable about American industry during WWII is the civilian’s willingness to work and serve in this way. Unlike Nazi Germany where people may have felt forced into the factories or production was accomplished by the inmates of concentration camps, American civilians willingly went to work to “Keep ’em Flying.”

Save Everything…and Go Without Stockings!

American factory workers weren’t the only ones striving for victory on the WWII home front. Through the years, as I’ve had opportunity to interview older family members and friends about their experiences during the war, one thing they’ve emphasized is how everyone in American society was doing something to support the war effort.

Communities, churches, boys’ and girls’ clubs, and other organizations sponsored “drives” for scrap metal, paper, rubber, and other items.

Cooking grease was saved and returned to the butchers so it could be recycled and used to make explosives. Even the tiniest pieces of foil were saved and turned in to be melted down and used again. Food rationing and victory gardens were accepted without much complaining – freedom was worth it. Gasoline and tires were rationed to provide the necessary fuel and equipment for the army.

And…one of my favorites…the ladies went without their silken stockings because the material was needed to make parachutes!

These are a few examples of how Americans were behind the war effort and from the home front were actively supporting their soldiers in the field.

War Posters: A Study in WWII Culture

Propaganda is its own war, and the battlefield is the mind and heart. World War II was no exception – all sides had extensive propaganda campaigns to keep civilian morale and support of the war high. (By the way, this “warfare” continues to be important; we are seeing it via social media with the current conflict in the Middle East.)

But rather than discuss the controlling factors and pro’s and con’s of this warfare, let’s look at some American WWII posters and discover some other facets of the civilian role. They say a pictures worth 1,000 words…so here’s “a few thousand words.” 🙂 Each poster tells a story of civilians doing their part in a war that preserved liberty and changed the world.

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that civilians don’t have a role in war!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. What other parts of the American civilian WWII experience played a major role in the Allied victory?

(Spoiler Alert: We’ll talk about morale from the home front next week and its key role on the battlefields.)



Civilians – My Historical Quest

Walk into the military history section of your bookstore or library. Search for a famous battle. There will be many, many books (assuming it’s a well-known battle) on the tactics and strategy of the fight, the commanders, even the common soldiers.

Looking for whose farm became a battlefield? Who were the widows and orphans affected by the stark casualty numbers? Searching for the civilian experience in war? Good luck. It’s there, but you’ll have to search to find it. Occasionally, there will be diamond-valued book digging in-depth into the subject of civilians during a particular war or battle. But usually these people are forgotten.

Miss Sarah Kay Bierle

The beginning of my experience doing living history presentations (first-person civilian, of course). 😉

When I started my studies as a serious historian (at the end of high-school and beginning of college), I discovered that I was interested in the campaigns and battles, the commanders, and the soldiers. But ultimately, I found myself gravitating toward “forgotten” characters or people groups from the past, particularly civilians or military medical staff. My end-of-college paper was a lengthy report and analysis of the Ladies of the Confederate Homefront during the American Civil War. Then I launched an eight month study of the civilians of Gettysburg which was the foundation for my newly-released book, Blue, Gray & Crimson.

This month (July 2015) I’ve decided to do something a little different. Rather than pick just one historical era or event to write about on Fridays, I’ve chosen to write generally on the topic of civilians and war. But I promise not to make it depressing…okay? We’ll talk about the many exciting ways civilians have played a crucial role toward victory.

Today, however, is an introduction and I thought I’d share a few of my musings on the topic.

Civilians and a Sleeping Soldier (by Caspar Netscher, 1600's)

Civilians and a Sleeping Soldier (by Caspar Netscher, 1600’s)

1. Civilians Are Often Forgotten In Studies Of War

I’ve already touched this topic in this post, and I’ve preached on it in my “Back to Gettysburg on Tuesday” series. So I’ll not weary you again.

I’d just like to mention that there has been an increase in “Women’s Studies” in the last couple decades, but, personally, I don’t feel these are covering the civilian story very well. What about the men who did not enlist? What about the children? (And, be careful: “women’s studies” often have a very specific agenda which may not reflect the real feelings of ladies of past eras.)

2. Civilians Pay An Price During War

If a country is at war, civilians will be affected. That is the simple, hard truth. Loved ones in the military may be killed or maimed. The economy may suffer. Civilians themselves may become directly involved in the fight. Civilians may be innocent bystanders (so to speak) and become casualties of war.

These facts are seen in every era, every war in history – from Ancient Times to our own era. I think I became most aware of this when I studied World War I during high school. In the text book, the military casualties were listed, then the civilian casualties. Allied military forces alone lost about 10 million. Recorded allied civilian deaths numbered around 7 million. And yet…we forgot them.

I am not going to write extensively on this, and I will not write an entire post on the subject at this time. But, do not forget the civilians involved directly in the war, whose deaths are forgotten because they were not on “glorious” battlefields.

Jean-Jacques-François_Le_Barbier_-_A_Spartan_Woman_Giving_a_Shield_to_Her_Son3. Civilians Have Done Extraordinary Things During War

Spying. Building thousands of airplanes. Raising money. Sheltering guerillas. Keeping up morale. Caring for the sick and wounded. Forcing governments to seek peace.

We will be exploring more of these roles in the next few weeks.

I’ll look forward to seeing you on Fridays as we discuss the courageous role of civilians throughout the centuries. I promise lots of action and adventure…certainly a different type than you’ll find on the battlefields, but still crucial to victory.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. How much time have you spent considering / studying the civilians’ role during a battle or war? Are you particularly inspired by the civilians of a particular era or incident?