Diaries and Letters from Home

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Diaries and Letters from Home

As evidenced by the number of surviving letters and diaries, the daily life of Civil War soldiers and civilians are well documented. The written word was still the primary means of communication, as the telephone had yet to be invented, and literacy rates had been rising steadily throughout the century. Although the North had the highest literacy rates in the world at that time, in the South literacy rates were much lower because only free white children and children of the wealthy families were permitted to attend school (Werner 1998, p. 3). While telegraph services were largely reserved for military use, the U.S. Postal Service was expanding and improving in reliability, albeit slowly. Memoirs and other accounts of wartime events on and off the battlefield began appearing in published form during the war itself. After completing military drills or during breaks from battle, soldiers wrote and read letters from loved ones. These letters were a source of emotional support, as were the objects that many received along with them: blankets, boots, books, foodstuffs, and so on. Enlisted men's wives, children, and parents asked for advice, prayed for loved ones' safety, and reported news of families and friends.

Diaries and letters trace the war from its very beginning stages. Upon hearing news of the Confederacy's secession from the Union, an anonymous young Southern woman wrote in her diary that New Orleans "was very lively and noisy this evening with rockets and lights in honor of secession. Mrs. F., in common with the neighbors, illuminated. We walked out to see the houses of others gleaming amid the dark shrubbery like a fairy scene" (Straubing 1985, p. 183). Fourteen-year-old Thomas Upson of Indiana recalled in his journal the shock the beginning of hostilities caused: "Grandma wanted to know what was the trouble. Father told her and she began to cry, 'Oh, my poor children in the South! God knows how they will suffer.'…She and Mother were crying. I lit out for the barn. I do hate to see women cry" (Werner 1998, p. 7). The onset of war was hardly less shocking for adults, especially women who depended on their husbands to be providers and helpers in the home. Only a month after giving birth to their child, Rachel Bowman of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, wrote in her September 21, 1862, journal entry about her husband Samuel joining Sulenbergers Cavalry company:

It went hard to see him go…for he is more than life to me. When he told me that he had enlisted, I felt an indescribable heaviness in my heart…. We prayed earnestly over it. I became calm & felt more resigned, at times still I am overcome, tears relieve me very much, my heart always seems lighter after weeping freely[.] In daytime I get along very well but the nights seem very long. (Cormany 1982, p. 253)

For soldiers and their loved ones, night only exacerbated the loneliness they felt. While emotions ran high and were mixed, most people, both Northerners and Southerners, believed in the righteousness of their cause and that the conflict would last for only a short time.

Commentary on political and military matters filled the pages of many letters. One example of this is the January 1, 1863, letter that Henry A. Ritner wrote to his son Jacob, a captain in the First Iowa Infantry. Referring to President Lincoln's initial assertion that the war was not being fought to free the slaves but to preserve the Union, the elder Ritner commented:

My opinion of the war is that it is an abolition war got up for the purpose of abolishing slavery and that God is its author…. and the object is to abolish slavery and punish the nation for its sins, especially that of slavery and to install the black man in to his natural and inalienable rights, and the sooner the government [and] army recognize this aspect and act upon it the sooner we will have peace…. But if we as a nation refuse to acknowledge the rights of the black man then it may cost us our national existence. (Larimer 2000, p. 87)

Women Take on New Roles

With many men called away to war, women and children had to take on additional responsibilities. These new duties included a wide variety of household chores, as well as work outside the home. An October 14, 1864, letter from a young girl named Lodema Anderson, written to her father, L. Merrit Anderson, refers to some of this strenuous household work, and to the pain of separation:

Ma has been diging [sic] potatoes to dry… and sheis pretty tired to night [sic] to pay for it….[M]a is pounding salt to salt her butter squate [sic] down on the flore [sic] and aunt Dorit is siting [sic] by the stove knitting and pa I want to [have you] here[,] you had better believe that[,] but I have one of your photographs and I half [sic] to kiss it[;] it does me a good deal of good but still it is[,] and you nor near it[,] hey pa… but it has to do. (Seidman 2001, p. 121)

Emeline Ritner of Iowa wrote to her husband Jacob about the heat and drought they were experiencing in July of 1863, and about how it was affecting her health:

We are still all well. I am not very stout but think I will get along if I don't "work" too hard. Every little thing I do or walk up town I feel tired nearly to death….I am getting "grey." It is time. If you don't come back pretty soon, you won't know me. I will be an old woman. (Larimer 2000, pp. 193–195)

Many women who were in dire straits wrote letters to government officials, asking for aid. In January of 1864, Hattie L. Carr of North Evans, New York, pleaded in a letter to Abraham Lincoln:

Honored Sir…I come with a request trusting that out of the goodness of your heart you will grant it. It is but a breath to you. While to me [it is] as life and death. I beg you for the discharge of my Husband…. He has faithfully served our common cause for eighteen long months, while I have struggled with sickness and poverty at times[.] I can do that no longer, for I am sick—dying, for the sight of that dear face[.] I can labor no more and I could starve [for] I am alone and friendless. (Seidman 2001, p. 125)

Though a son under the age of eighteen might be discharged if he had entered the service without his parents' consent, the laws did not allow the discharge of adult men.

In addition to taking on their husbands' responsibilities in homes and businesses, many women, Union and Confederate alike, joined bonnet brigades—organizations that supported the war effort with money and medical and other supplies. "During these sad days there was no time or place for private griefs," Sarah Hill, the wife of an Army Corps of Engineers officer, wrote in her journal. "Loyal women in St. Louis had their hearts and hands full ministering to the many needs which were constantly arising. Every loyal household became a soldiers' aid society" (Hill 1980, p. 48). Hill recalled the many bed ticks, comforters, socks, and sleeping caps the women had sewn and knit. She also recounted that at Christmas time,

there were no festive gatherings or merry making. We as a family devoted all our efforts and what means we could spare, toward the cheer of our boys in E. M.'s Company D. The younger girls made "Betties," or housewives, for each man in the company. They were small cases that could be rolled up and carried in the pocket, containing thread, needles, pins and buttons. (p. 56)

Others generated funds by staging benefit theatrical and musical shows, as described by Hill in her diary: "Many entertainments were planned and given by the loyal women of St. Louis for the benefit of the Soldiers' Aid Society during the winter of '61 and '62" (p. 59).

Women in the free states took part in efforts to help newly emancipated slaves. In a letter to her husband Jacob, Emeline Ritner described one such effort at a Methodist church: "After the sermon, a collection was taken up [that] amounted to 117.00 for the "Freedmen's Relief Association." It is for the purpose of clothing the Negroes that are freed by the war. Those that are away down where they can't get work to do" (Larimer 2000, p. 255).

Women could also be found in local hospitals behind the lines, where they helped treat wounded and sick soldiers. Nurses often wrote letters for soldiers who were illiterate or too wounded to write. Louisa May Alcott, who would go on to write the classic novel Little Women, worked as a nurse and recalled in Hospital Sketches (1863) writing for a shy man named John (p. 59).

Women Witness to Wartime Suffering

Maria Isabella Johnson described the situation in Vicksburg, Mississippi, shortly before its capture by Union forces on July 4, 1863: "Most of the caves that the frightened citizens of Vicksburg were scooping in the surrounding hills were just large enough to admit a small mattress, on which the family, be it large or small, huddled up together, in a way that was injurious alike to comfort and health" (Head 2003, p. 26). A little more than a year later, Rachel Cormany described the destruction of Chambersberg, Pennsylvania, by Confederate soldiers who had demanded $100,000 in gold:

[W]hen they were informed of the impossibility, they deliberately went from house to house & fired it. The whole heart of the town is burned. They gave no time for people to get any thing out…. [E]ach had to escape for life & took only what they could first grab…. Some saved considerable….others only the clothes on their backs—& even some of those were taken off as they escaped from their burning dwellings. (Cormany 1982, p. 446)

By the end of their long ordeal, many men and women had left written records—letters and diaries—which provide later generations with glimpses into this difficult period in United States history.


Alcott, Louisa May. Hospital Sketches. Boston: James Redpath, 1863.

Chesnut, Mary Boykin Miller. Mary Chesnut's Civil War, ed. C. Vann Woodward. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

Clare, Josephine. Narrative of the Adventures and Experiences of Mrs. Josephine Clare: A Resident of the South at the Breaking Out of the Rebellion, Her Final Escape from Natichitoches, La., and Safe Arrival at Home, in Mariette, Pa. Lancaster, PA: Pearson & Geist, 1865.

Cormany, Rachel Bowman. The Cormany Diaries: A Northern Family in the Civil War, ed. James C. Mohr. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

Custer, Elizabeth Bacon. The Civil War Memories of Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Reconstructed from Her Diaries and Notes, ed. Arlene Reynolds. Austin: University of Texas, 1994.

Eastman, Mary H. Jenny Wade of Gettysburg. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1864.

Head, Tom, ed. Voices from the Civil War: Women and Families. San Diego, CA: Blackbirch Press, 2003.

Hill, Sarah Jane Full. Mrs. Hill's Journal: Civil War Reminiscences, ed. Mark M. Krug. Chicago: R. R. Donnelley & Sons, 1980.

Jackson, Henry W. R. The Southern Women of the Second American Revolution: Their Trials, and Yankee Barbarity Illustrated. Atlanta, GA: Intelligencer Steam-power Press, 1863.

Larimer, Charles F., ed. Love and Valor: The Intimate Civil War Letters between Captain Jacob and Emeline Ritner. Western Spring, IL: Sigourney Press, 2000.

Leonard, Elizabeth D. Yankee Women: Gender Battles in the Civil War. New York: Norton, 1994.

Moore, Frank. Women of the War: Their Heroism and Self-Sacrifice. Chicago: R. C. Treat, 1866. Reprint, Alexander, NC: Blue Gray Books, 1997.

Peter, Frances Dallam. A Union Woman in Civil War Kentucky, ed. John David Smith and William Cooper Jr. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2000.

Powers, Elvira J. Hospital Pencillings: Being a Diary While in Jefferson General Hospital, Jeffersonville, Ind., and Others at Nashville, Tennessee, as Matron and Visitor. Boston: Edward L. Mitchel, 1866.

Seidman, Rachel Filene. The Civil War: A History in Documents. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Straubing, Harold Elk, ed. "Diary of a Pro-Union Woman of the Confederacy." In Civil War Eyewitness Reports, ed. Harold Elk Straubing. North Haven, CT: Archon Books, 1985.

Werner, Emmy E. Reluctant Witnesses: Children's Voices from the Civil War. Boulder, CO: Westview Press,1998.

Jeanne M. Lesinski