Women and Nostalgia During the American Civil War:
Cursed as a Cause, Blessed as the Cure

Alicia Zuberbier
Carroll University

Keywords: Nostalgia, Civil War, Nursing, Women, Homesick

During the Victorian era, women were expected to be angels of the home, likened to heavenly saints of the domestic world. They cared for the entire house, devoting their lives to the contentment of their children and husband. Women who followed in these roles had happy little families, presenting the picture perfect Victorian household. However, in 1861, the start of the American Civil War, their slice of domestic heaven crumbled. Their men left, off to face a slew of horrors, ranging from death and destruction to unmanageable diseases, nostalgia being one of them. One Civil War veteran described nostalgia—an extreme homesickness—saying it “fastens upon the breast of its prey, and sucks, vampire-like, the breath of his nostrils. Many a heroic spirit after braving death at the cannon’s mouth . . . has at length succumbed unresistingly to this vampire, Nostalgia” (Matt, “Home”). Left behind, women were trapped in a paradox by nostalgia because, in a sense, as providers of good homes they contributed to the illness. Ironically, for similar reasons, they also became an antidote. It was quickly recognized that women were a cause for the life threatening illness known as nostalgia, but as the war came to its end, they were considered to have the most impact on its cure.

Mothers were the core of a family and being torn away from her created angst in a soldier’s life, leading to crippling nostalgia. She was the center of comfort and love, the warmth filling a home. Separation from her fell hard upon eighteen year olds, who represented the largest group in the Union army, most of who were from rural America (Clark 260). They also were the largest group to suffer from nostalgia (Sanitary, 22). For these boys, it was the first time away from home, and homesickness struck hard. Chauncey Cooke, an example of this, ached to be back home. In his letters, he mentioned how he often daydreamed of being “cuddled up under the blankets just as mother used to leave me after saying goodnight . . .” (qtd. in Clarke, 258). In his letters, he is specific about his ties to his mother. He said a prayer every night his mother taught him “because it brings me closer to her but how I cannot tell” (qtd. in Clarke, 258). Cooke was not the only one to face this loneliness. Mothers were always on a soldier’s mind. A popular song in the Union Army started with, “Just before battle, Mother, / I am thinking most of you/ While upon the field we’re watching, / with the enemy in view. / Comrades brave are ‘round me lying, / filled with thought of home and God” (Root). A strong bond between mother and son was standard because mothers were responsible for developing their children’s physical, mental, and spiritual health (Milne). Mothers soothed children, comforted and cherished them. A poem printed in The Mother’s Friend magazine said women have “the right to dry the falling tear; / the right to quell the rising fear” (The Rights, 100). Suddenly, this security dissipated. Mothers existed in poetry, songs, and the memories of their sons; however, their physical presence was absent on the battlefield, causing great distress in their boys.

As an angel of domesticity, the food mothers prepared was divine; at least, that is how soldiers of the Civil War remembered it. Men were typically ignorant when preparing meals. Such duties were tied to women; the idea of comfort, home, and love was wrapped up in each pot-roast or chicken a mother prepared. As the war progressed, the meaning of food began to change, becoming more than mere sustenance, but rather the reminder of feminine presence and nurturing. Private Robert W. Christie wrote his parents, saying, “I’m getting homesick, everything is so strange. We have to cook our own meals—that is, all we get. It seems to me they are trying how small a quantity of food they can give us without starving us.” Civil War soldiers lived off of pork, beans, and hardtack, often infested with weevils due to unsanitary storage. When the first holiday season came, nostalgia rates rose (Barnes). Men idealized Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, with their mothers presenting the family with a glazed ham or roasted turkey. One soldier wrote his brother, “I wish I could be at home tomorrow to eat a Christmas dinner, but you must eat a double portion so as to have enough for me and you both” (Miller). The cooking done by mothers was suddenly appreciated and greatly missed by soldiers. “Now if I only [had] some of mothers buiscake I could have a nice supper” (Marsh). Mothers and all they represented, from nurturing to food, stood as the calm in the storm of life. However, there was no calm during the American Civil War. Men saw fields littered with amputated arms and legs, they heard screams echo during a battle, the trauma making “some hearts sicken and sink despairingly” (A Battle, 823). The tear between mother and son resulted in a deep bruise, a wound for nostalgia to infect. Just by having and longing for a mother, soldiers were at risk of becoming nostalgic.

Soldiers without mothers suffered too, longing for other women like their sisters. This triggered homesickness, as well. In one case, a soldier named Darlington entered a hospital with wounds similar to that of another man named Richards. Richards grew stronger, but Darlington’s mind was so fixated on his sister, he grew more and more ill (Notes, 82). He longed to see her before he died, but when the nurse offered to write his sister, Darlington refused. “Never, never write to her; I wouldn’t have her see me so…” (Notes,  84). The doctor commented, “He says wait till he’s better, and then he’ll write; but he won’t have her frightened” (Notes , 81). Darlington clearly had needs that could only be addressed by females, but his obligation to protect his sister from trauma and hardship overpowered his own well-being. Men were caught in their own paradox, wanting to show fears and worries, which would help their recovery, but not being allowed to upset the “delicate” nature of a female. Many soldiers wanted to confide in their sisters, but their instinct told them otherwise. The war corroded the bond between siblings. Like their compatriots longing for their mothers, brothers longing to see their sisters were at high risk of homesickness, often so stricken by sadness that they were rendered helpless to the effects of nostalgia.

Some of the most complicated emotions circled around wives. Spouses fulfilled a plethora of roles— a confidant, a caretaker, a lover, and more. After young men, married men who left home for the first time were the second largest group to suffer from nostalgia (Sanitary, 22). A man’s duty was to provide for his family; joining the army interfered with this ability. Men joined with the belief that this job would meet their families’ needs by providing stable income to support those left at home (Sheehan-Dean, 112). However, soldiers did not make much money or get paid at all; their wives were left to care for everything—the farm, the children, and finding work. Soldiers wrestled with being loyal to their country and loyal to their duties as a husband. They understood their responsibilities as fathers and spouses, but following through on them was arduous. Because they couldn’t resolve this, their thoughts were caught on home, leaving their minds wide open for an attack of nostalgia. Characteristic of thousands of husbands, Joseph M. Elkins wrote, “I am always thinking of you and the children. I hope I will return to you all again. I want you to raise them right if I should not get back.” There is a lingering fear in these words, the fear of never getting home or seeing family again. Such a trepidation destabilized emotions and self-control, and this thwarted anything men tried to do to fend off nostalgia. Without a wife, husbands lost themselves to grief and solitude, falling into the pit of nostalgia.

Struggling with the line between a caring spouse and a loyal soldier caused extreme loneliness. Men asked for furloughs to see their families but were often denied, leading to problems. General Joseph Shields commented, “If not allowed to go home and see their families . . . [soldiers] droop and die . . . I have watched this (qtd. in Matt, Homesickness, 92). Seneca B. Thrall wrote home asking his wife for a photo of herself and his children, saying, “I would give most anything to see them.” Correspondence home demonstrates how husbands felt. “It is so lonesome nowadays that although I wrote you a letter yesterday I can find nothing so pleasant as spending the time with you and this afternoon have again taken pencil in hand to commence a letter” (Ranger, Nov. 30). These men were heads of households, suddenly thrust in a world of carnage and disarray. They were in charge of nothing; they had no control over life or death. They saw limbs shot off comrades. They starved. They shivered in the cold. Civil War soldiers were trapped in desolation. Wives were supposed to “whisper comfort in despair,” (The Rights, 100) but they were miles away from their distressed husbands. It is no wonder so many men felt the sting of nostalgia.

War efforts called on women to help their sons and husbands in new ways; however, these efforts led toward nostalgia if carried out incorrectly. Letters were common during the war, with 180,000 shipped daily through the Union’s military post-offices (Matt, Homesickness, 83). Women were told that their letters “held the power to lead a soldier into battle” (Clarke, 269). An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer told women that by receiving mail, soldiers would fend off disease and endure privations (2). Letters could even turn a coward into a hero by inspiring him to fight valiantly for his country (Arthur, 191). The balance of communication was tricky, though. Too many or too few letters could cause nostalgia. Men clearly wanted to hear from home. In almost every note, there is a plea of please write me. “I will wright often and I want you to do the same please wright sune as you git this no more…pleas wright sune if you can” (Grable). Not getting enough mail could result in depression. “The last letter I received was Friday night . . . So it’s no wonder if I have got the blues a little” (Ranger, Feb. 25). One Confederate soldier wrote, “Jane this is the fift letter I hav rote to you and got no ancer yet Jane I don’t know what to think Jane you sed you would write to me every week…if you node how bad I want to hear from you you wood write to me” (Benefield). However, too much talk of home also broke a soldier’s heart. General Benjamin Butler wrote his wife saying, “My dearest little wife…you do not know how homesicke [sic] you make me feel . . . don’t write to me to come home any more. You make me so homesick I shall have nostalgia like a Swiss soldier . . . you have made me feel so homesick now I am almost unfit for duty” (qtd. in Matt, Homesickness, 75). Even if a woman found the perfect balance, the emotions that letters stirred were too much for soldiers to handle. Men were disheartened; these war efforts were not nearly enough to bandage their wounded souls.

Eventually, some women searched for a way to make a positive contribution rather than be a cause of nostalgia. They understood they had the ability to be so much more, the ability to be a cure for these suffering men. They felt the call and could fill a demand. Gail Hamilton, a writer for equality of education and occupation for women, encouraged females, writing, “Rise now to the height of a sublime courage—for the hour has need of you” (258). If mirroring an angel in the house caused nostalgia, perhaps it could also be a cure, and nursing was a natural outlet for that. There was a gaping hole in the medical field, one that mothers, sisters, and wives felt they could fill. Through their kind words and compassion, females brought family back to soldiers, the antidote to nostalgia.

Those who felt the call wanted desperately to help with military efforts, but few opportunities were available. They could not join the army and fight like their husbands or fathers. Initially, men filled even nursing jobs. At the start of the war, women endeavoring for these nursing positions faced opposition from friends, family, and society (Schultz, 46). Surgeons wanted nothing to do with female nurses when they first began applying. The ratio was one female for every three male nurses (Schultz, 18). However, as the war continued, a change in the composition of men in the medical field made it an ideal time for women to sign up. More and more doctors from general hospitals—especially those outside urban areas— joined war efforts, and these men were accustomed to the contributions of hard-working women (Clarke, 267). In civilian life, practitioners ceded a good deal of authority to women, and most illnesses were treated in a domestic setting (Clarke, 267). In their homes women were allowed to housekeep, cook, and nurse. Ultimately, to surgeons, it made sense to allow them to continue these aspects in a military setting (Shultz, 54). Still, there was a fear held mostly by other females that women in war would lose their femininity (Schultz, 57), and for some women, Victorian ideals were so engrained that the “idea of seeing and waiting upon wounded men, was one from which [we] shrank instinctively” (Holstein, 10). Others held out though, and luckily, their persistence benefited soldiers. Once it was realized the war would not be over in a few months, nurses received respect. On September 6, 1862, Harper’s Weekly published a story and an image on the importance of women. Nurses were pictured praying with soldiers, writing letters for wounded men, and others did wash or knitted stockings (Our Women, 568). These contributions re-inscribed the idea of home, making nurses suddenly vitally important in war efforts, including stopping nostalgia.

Nurses shifted into domestic roles—roles doctors ignored or had no time for—and this comfort and familiarity of a woman’s presence brought normalcy back to a homesick soldier. Nurses registered donations, oversaw clothing distribution, made food and drinks for the wounded, read to them, wrote for them, and the like (Notes, 23). Better food, fluffed pillows, and the soothing expression of concern women had for men stitched the broken threads between men and home. Wounded soldiers were at high risk for nostalgia because of the idleness (Clarke, 253). Their minds had nowhere to go except home. The anonymous author of Notes of Hospital Life wrote about several cases she saw during daily routines. All of them had some connection to suffering due to homesickness (Notes, 24). She brought flowers for one man, who would stare at them, lost in thought. “I never could tell whether it was pure love of the flowers themselves, or whether they brought home, with all its memories before him . . . I content myself with giving enjoyment without being to critical as to its cause” (Notes, 24). Louisa May Alcott, author of Hospital Sketches, wrote, “I had forgotten that a strong man might long for the gentle tendance of a woman’s hands, the sympathetic magnetism of a woman’s presence” (57). Nurses became a makeshift family. Dorothea Dix, the superintendent of appointing nurses, only hired women between 35 and 50 years of age because of their matronly experience and disposition (Schultz, 15). Women in military hospitals became mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives. For Darlington, the simple touch of a woman’s hands on his forehead reminded him of his sister (Notes, 85). Soldiers preferred female caregivers, regularly writing home saying a woman’s presence did them good (Schultz, 19). It lifted their spirits and calmed their troubled hearts. Kate Cummings, a Confederate nurse, said that it was a woman’s job to relieve suffering (Schultz, 50), and women quickly caught on how to do so. Notes of Hospital Life said nurses must “Attack the centre. Storm the heart. Make a man speak of his home” (50). They discovered that talking of home helped immensely to alleviate the pain of loneliness. “Home! The talisman which charms away all pain and soothes all sorrow” (Notes, 50). Francis Clarke wrote in her article “So Lonesome I Could Die,” “Evoking home for many of these hospital workers was either the best cure or the only way to bring forth the better angels of a soldier’s heart” (268). Talk of home was the most important job women undertook. Cooking, cleaning, and washing needed to be done, but it was listening that helped nostalgia disappear.

Women displayed more compassion than their male counterparts because it was built into their lifestyle. Perhaps men wished to be gentle, but caught in a gender bind chose strictness for curing nostalgia. Men could not be tender and loving; women could, which is why they became so indispensable. Dr. John Taylor of the 3rd Missouri Cavalry was stringent with the homesick. According to him, those with nostalgia were indolent hypochondriacs (885-886). He believed there was a relationship between this disease and moral pitfalls, like gambling or masturbation (Matt, Homesickness, 95). If a soldier did become homesick, a popular solution was to mock him. Theodore Calhoun, a respected doctor during the Civil War, wrote, “. . . ridicule is wholly relied upon, and will often be found effective in camp . . . the patient can often be laughed out of it by his comrades or reasoned out of it by appeals to his manhood” (131). Some soldiers looked on being nostalgic with disgust, comparing it even to sexually transmitted diseases (Anderson & Anderson, 160). In his diary, one soldier, Charles Wright Wills, wrote, “I do despise those whiners” (qtd. in Matt, Homesickness, 80). The ideal man did not cry out for his mother or sob in the night. Women, however, ignored this prescribed idea of masculinity and showed kindness to suffering soldiers. Men welcomed this compassion. A hospital inspector at Cairo, Illinois said:

When warworn, wounded, or disabled by disease, we retire a moment from the contest, [the women] welcome us home with the sunshine of warm hearts and console and strengthen us; and when recuperated through their care, they ever encourage us to return to duty. They visit our hospitals and nurse and fan and lave the temples of our poor wounded, banished from homes of love, ease and comfort, to cheer us when disabled, either in the hospitals or swamps of Dixie. (qtd. in Schultz, 55)

These female workers could do what a surgeon could not for a patient. Surgeons rarely had time to comfort the sick, to write them letters or talk of home. Whether they admitted it or not, doctors needed nurses to fend off nostalgia. The surgeon working with the author of Notes of Hospital Life needed help with Darlington, the sick soldier longing for his sister. “One day the surgeon came to me and begged me to try to cheer up Darlington, he was so down-hearted, would taste no food, etc.” (83). In Alcott’s novel, a doctor asked the nurse to tell a soldier about his fatal wounds. “You’d better tell him so before long; women have a way of doing such things comfortably, so I leave it to you” (56). Once angels in the home, women were now angels on the battlefield, offering the only comfort men could find. By being shown compassion, a contrast to surgeons, soldiers ached for home less.

Nostalgia was a deadly mental illness, with which thousands of men suffered. The separation from home was one that most men had never faced. These men had close ties to their mothers, sisters, and wives, but suddenly they were removed indefinitely from this familiarity, causing life-threatening homesickness. Although missing women caused nostalgia, having females near alleviated the pain. Nurses brought comfort and compassion to the Civil War, which no man could. Nurses as makeshift mothers or wives removed the distance a soldier felt from his family, thus contributing to the cure of alleviating nostalgia.

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