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?