The Home Front Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Much as the narratives of individual soldiers give depth to the political and military maneuvers of the Civil War, the experience of civilians in the path of conflict also provides an important perspective. Since the war took place on American soil, the home front in the South was also often the battlefield, and Confederate women recorded violence and deprivation, as well as resistance and service. The North was not exempt from a full share of the cost of war, and most families experienced loss. Those who worked near the front lines, particularly those who tended the wounded, described scenes of suffering to their families back home. Soldiers and civilians, men and women, all were engaged in the war, and looked to their leaders, and to their religious faith, to make meaning of their sacrifice.

Much as the narratives of individual soldiers give depth to the political and military maneuvers of the Civil War, the experience of civilians in the path of conflict also provides an important perspective. Since the war took place on American soil, the home front in the South was also often the battlefield, and Confederate women recorded violence and deprivation, as well as resistance and service. The North was not exempt from a full share of the cost of war, and most families experienced loss. Those who worked near the front lines, particularly those who tended the wounded, described scenes of suffering to their families back home. Soldiers and civilians, men and women, all were engaged in the war, and looked to their leaders, and to their religious faith, to make meaning of their sacrifice.

The three Confederate women whose words are recorded here provide a detailed record of the difficulty of providing for themselves and their families during the blockades and occupation. Food was exceptionally scarce, as was cloth and other household goods, and labor that had traditionally been provided by “servants” (the word “slave” is not used in these narratives to describe household labor), was now left to women accustomed to a life of leisure. Judith Brockenbrough McGuire bemoaned her inability to weave and spin to provide clothing for her family. Food and supplies were also in constant danger of being taken by soldiers, and indeed, Cornelia Peake McDonald, mother of eighteen children, defended her house against a mob that smashed her windows and stole her food. She would have lost her house completely if it were not for the intervention of a sympathetic officer. Children, both young and liable to get sick or into trouble, and older and likely to be killed or captured, proved a constant source of anxiety. McDonald saw one of her young sons imprisoned for refusing to relinquish a snowball. Two others lit off small pipe bombs in the back yard while playing, drawing the unwelcome attention of Union soldiers. Mary Jeffreys Bethell, more than the other two, took great comfort in her religious belief. Her Christianity may have also influenced her belief that the abolition of slavery would be a benefit to the South, while the other two writers believed that former slaves had been misled and were better off with their masters.

American poet Walt Whitman described to his family the terrible suffering he witnessed while serving in military hospitals in Washington, and also gave a glimpse of the changing role of African Americans as the war progressed. Within a decade after Dred Scott was found by the Supreme Court to be ineligible for citizenship on account of his race, Whitman watched black troops march past President Lincoln as he saluted. Black soldiers played an important part in the Union victory, and distinguished themselves in battle. They hoped that this would encourage the nation to grant them full citizenship at the war’s end. In his final speech on the eve of his assassination, Lincoln agreed, and set the stage for Reconstruction.

The Gettysburg Address. Document on the Gettysburg Address appears on page 363. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-5438.

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