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Keepers of history – the women of the Civil War

West Virginia Wesleyan College assistant professor of history and gender studies Dr. Katharine Antolini gives a presentation, “Mothers of Martyrs: Women and Civil War Commemoration,” June 20 at the Huntersville School as part of the Huntersville Traditions West Virginia Day celebration. S. Stewart photo
West Virginia Wesleyan College assistant professor of history and gender studies Dr. Katharine Antolini gives a presentation, “Mothers of Martyrs: Women and Civil War Commemoration,” June 20 at the Huntersville School as part of the Huntersville Traditions West Virginia Day celebration. S. Stewart photo

Most accounts out of the Civil War era in the United States – whether it is from the perspective of the North or South, soldier or innocent bystander – it is usually from the mouths of men.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that women played integral roles during the Civil War and not just as mothers and caretakers, but as history makers, as well.

As part of the Huntersville Traditions celebration of West Virginia Day June 20, assistant professor of history and gender studies at West Virginia Wesleyan College Dr. Katharine Antolini shar-ed a look at the role of women during and after the Civil War in her presentation “Mothers of Martyrs: Women and Civil War Commemoration.”

Antolini opened with the famous quote “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”

“Most of my students take it as meaning only women who are non-traditional,” she said. “Women who are willing to challenge gender stereotypes. Women who are willing to challenge authority. They’re the only ones that make it into the history book. We talk about Civil War, and sometimes they’re right. When we talk about women in the war, there is a lot of focus on the women who did behave like men.”

It has been recorded that more than 400 women disguised themselves as men and fought in the Civil War.

“Some of them were never caught,” Antolini said. “They actually dug up graves where there have been women’s remains – a soldier who fought as a man and was never caught. Some women were only caught because they were wounded. Some women were caught because they gave birth which, by far, is my favorite one.”

Antolini also mentioned Belle Boyd, the spy who assisted Stonewall Jackson in the defeat at Shenandoah Valley. Another woman took her disguise a step further, by altering her gender and race.

“My favorite is probably Sarah Edmonds,” she said. “Not only did she disguise herself as a man in order to fight. Once she enlisted, she shaved her head at one point and covered her skin with silver nitrate to darken it to pass herself off as a male African American slave named Cuff. She went into the Confederate lines and got information.”

Because these women were not the “well behaved” women of the 19th century, they made it into the history books. But what about the women who made an impact without disguises? Those women were the focus of Antolini’s presentation.

“What I’m going to focus on – in the wake of the war – is how the women in traditional roles as wives and mothers are going to be the keepers of history,” she said. “They are the ones that are going to be the preservers of the legacy, when we talk about women’s roles as mourners and women’s roles as commemorators.”

During the Civil War, women were integral in the creation of two national holidays – Memorial Day and Mother’s Day.

Although the founding of Memorial Day is credited to a man, General John Logan, Antolini said he was inspired by his wife, who visited the south and saw the mourning rituals of women in that area.

“His wife is doing a tour in the south in 1868,” Antolini said. “She noticed when she was traveling in the south, southern women would take a day out of every spring to decorate the graves of their dead and she thought it was a wonderful tradition. So she might have said to her husband, ‘look what the southern women are doing, isn’t that a wonderful way to honor the dead?’ And he kind of ran with the idea.”

That same year, Logan gave the order to all chapters of the Grand Army of the Republic to reserve May 30 as a day to pay homage to the dead, particularly by decorating the soldiers’ graves. It was known as Decoration Day.

“In the 1880s, every northern state is celebrating Memorial Day on May 30 and by 1889, Congress has recognized Memorial Day as a national holiday even though it was not recognized that much in the south,” Antolini said.

The celebration had its critics in the north and south. Northerners didn’t want to follow a southern tradition, and southerners weren’t allowed to celebrate their fallen heroes in the same manner the north did.

The north was also upset that the south was celebrating “traitors” as heroes in the same regard as the Union soldiers.

“On the other side of it, southerners were outraged because the north is taking care of their own dead and not taking care of the dead of the south,” Antolini said. “For example, by 1868, the federal government is already establishing national cemeteries, Arlington being one of them. The federal government is also taking on the expense of reinterring bodies. They’re not doing that for the confederates.”

While the federal government sent men out to find the shallow graves of Union soldiers in order to move them to a national cemetery, the Confederate soldiers were left behind.

“Farmers kept telling of how they’d go to dig up their farms every year and they kept finding more and more bodies because they were in such shallow graves and the bodies were scattered in unidentified and neglected graves,” Antolini said. ‘The confederate dead were being left unattended and the south was outraged by that. The animosity was so bad that in Arlington, at the memorial ceremony in 1869, there was a patrol of Union veterans – those confederate dead that were buried at Arlington – they blocked it so nobody could decorate their graves.”

While the federal government took care of the Union dead, the Confederate dead were tended to by women.

“By 1870, three hundred thousand Union soldiers had been reinterred in seventy-three different national cemeteries,” Antolini said. “The Union, the federal government, men, were leading the charge to honor the Union dead. In the south, it’s going to women because there’s no one else. There is no Confederate government to create national cemeteries.”

In order to raise funds and create proper cemeteries for the Confederate dead, the women founded Ladies Memorial Aid Societies. By 1866, there were 70 throughout the south. The women of these societies were on the front line – identifying bodies, fundraising, doing the bookkeeping and hiring men to move the bodies.

“In Virginia alone, there were five different Ladies Aid Societies,” Antolini said. “Together they would reinter seventy-five thousand dead in cemeteries in Virginia, twenty-eight percent of the total of Confederate dead.”

The women of the south were able to “get away with” these acts because it was considered proper for women to mourn. Men did not realize that the women would also make political statements during their mourning.

“The elaborate rituals around mourning in the 19th century were so important to women because it was such a symbolic show of their sacrifice of their loss,” Antonlini said. “Particularly, when the war comes, even more important because they didn’t just lose a child or husband, they lost a hero. It was their patriotic sacrifice when their men went off to fight. What’s also fascinating about what these women are doing, there’s a political meaning behind what they are doing. They’re not political in the sense that men are political. They’re not voting, they’re not running for office, but they are political in the sense that they are trying to reclaim the confederate memory. This is the start of that lost cause.”

The women also showed their spite and animosity toward the north in the days they chose to celebrate Memorial Day. While the north celebrated on May 30, the south had several days. Each community and city had its own Memorial Day.

The days they selected were a way to mourn the Confederacy as a whole, not just the soldiers they lost. They were also days that were victories for the Confederacy. Popular days included: May 10, the Anniversary of Stonewall Jackson’s death; June 3, Jefferson Davis’ birthday; and April 26, the Anniversary of General Joseph Johnston’s surrender to General William T. Sherman.

“They’re not just innocent women, although they claimed to be women who were so bereft in mourning and wanting to show their grief,” Antolini said. “They were celebrating the Confederacy.”

The women maintained control over memorial celebrations until the end of reconstruction in the 1880s when the men returned to their posts as leaders and took control of everything.

Mother’s Day can also trace its roots back to the Civil War. While the founder of Mother’s Day is Anna Jarvis and the first services was held in Grafton in 1908, it was actually Jarvis’ mother, Ann Reeve Jarvis, who began a celebration of mothers.

“Ann Reeves Jarvis was a Sunday school teacher and she loved to give this lesson on mothers in the Bible,” Antolini said. “At the end of that favorite lesson of hers, she usually said this prayer: ‘I hope and pray that someone, sometime, will found a memorial mother’s day commemorating her for the matchless service she renders to humanity in every field of life. She is entitled to it.’”

This prayer stuck with Anna and after her mother passed away in 1905, she started a campaign to establish a Mother’s Day. Although she was inspired by her mother, Anna didn’t create the celebration Ann wanted.

“Ann Reeves Jarvis – when she thought of a Mothers’ Day, she meant it in a kind of possessive plural understanding: mothers celebrating themselves, mothers coming together in public service, not just what mothers did in the home, but what women could do in a community, what women could do to make society better,” Antolini said. “Her daughter, who will never marry and never have children, didn’t know what it means to be a mother, so when she established Mother’s Day, she very much does it through the eyes of a daughter. If you’re not a mother, you don’t know how to celebrate Mother’s Day as a mother.”

Ann, and husband Granville, were living in Webster, Virginia, when the Civil War broke out, mere miles away in Philippi. In the course of their marriage, Ann gave birth to 13 children. Only four of them lived into adulthood. During the war, Ann carried three pregnancies and buried five children. She buried one child on the same day she gave birth to another.

“In 1858, after she has lost children and other women have lost children, she decides that as mothers, they need to do something and so she organized what is known as Mothers’ Day Work Clubs,” Antolini explained. “The idea was to empower these women to clean up their communities and to save the lives of their children, and save the lives of other women’s children.”

When the soldier camps moved into the area and the war was in full force, it was difficult for the work clubs to continue, but they were recognized for their work. Ann was approached by Virginia politician George Latham and he asked her and her club members to help keep the camps clean because the men were dying from disease more than from battle.

Once the war was over, tensions were still high and it was difficult for neighbors to return to normal life after fighting each other for so long. Ann was approached again to assist with calming the storm.

Officials in Taylor County told Ann about plans to have an event to help heal wounds and she gathers her fellow mothers to bring the community together as one.

“What she does, she tells her mothers in her group, ‘get your boys here.’” Antolini said. “‘Tell them to be here because they love you and they need you to be here.’ These are women who are not political in the ways that men are political. So, the idea of having women create a rally wasn’t seen as political, it was seen as innocent enough to try to be disarming of the kind of fear that violence was going to break out.”

The mothers and their sons gathered at the courthouse where Ann was standing on the steps, a woman in gray on one side of her, a woman in blue on the other.

“She explained it’s called Mothers Friendship Day and she explains what it’s about, it’s trying to heal wounds, trying to reunite the community,” Antolini said. “They tried to bring the healing. The women were just doing what they felt women needed to do. ‘We are wives. We are mothers. Our families are hurting. Our communities are hurting. What can we do to solve those problems?’ The power and the significance these women had in healing the wounds of their communities in the name of motherhood.”

After her presentation, Antolini held a brief Q&A session and thanked the Huntersville Traditions organization for inviting her to speak.

Huntersville Traditions Day will be Friday, October 3, and Saturday, October 4.

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at

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