The voices of eight Civil War-era Wisconsin women are being heard for the first time in the 21st century through a new book published by University of Wisconsin Press in January.
Edited by Stoughton-based writer Jo Ann Daly Carr, “Such Anxious Hours: Wisconsin Women’s Voices from the Civil War,” sheds light on the lives of these hidden figures of the State’s history.
Carr will present the findings published in her book from 1-2:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 4, at the Stoughton Senior Center.
A former librarian who was a history major at University of Wisconsin-Madison, she had spent decades cataloging books but had not written one herself. She has previously edited publications in the areas of library services and technology.
Carr said her book on Wisconsin’s Civil War women is a “real zag and a substantial change” from what she was used to researching and writing.
She said she was inspired to compile the book in 2014, after attending a program at the Fitchburg Public Library, where a group of male authors presented books compiling letters men wrote during the Civil War.
Carr left the presentation wanting to know more about the untold stories of Wisconsin women during the Civil War, which spurred a five-year process of seeking out documents to compile a book on the topic. She wanted to illustrate the impact of war on the home front, instead of from the battlefront.
Now retired, Carr served in many roles at the UW-Madison’s School of Education over 36 years, which helped provide her the skills to complete her research for the book.
The book, released Jan. 7, was the result of Carr’s meticulous research, which initially unearthed the stories of around 30 women’s lives.
She said she could have written a 700-page book with all the writings she’d found, but the final publication, which focuses on eight of those women’s narratives, is around half that length,.
Carr presents her findings at a variety of venues around the State including libraries, senior centers, book stores and museums.
She said her next project might be writing a book recognizing the contributions military families made during that era, something she learned about when she came across a book published in 1862 by a woman living at the Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie army bases.
Carr learned that 45 women and children lived alongside the male soldiers at the bases. Some of these women and children were captured by the South and held as prisoners of war.
“I would love to learn more about them and see them be recognized; they all made contributions,” she said.
Five year process
Carr said finding writings by women connected to Civil War soldiers was not easy, as women’s letters were often not deemed important enough to be preserved in the same way male soldier’s letters were.
Using the publicly accessible WorldCat, Carr searched for the letters and eventually found around 2,800 collections of letters written by Wisconsin residents during the war. From these, she identified 30 Wisconsin women whose diaries and letters were cohesively preserved.
Carr was looking for women whose writings provided a sustained narrative across the four years of war, with letters or diary entries available for almost every month of the war. The idea was to form a complete picture of life on the Wisconsin home front, starting with the day Fort Sumter surrendered in April 1861, through to President Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865.
The eight women who appear in her book range in age from 17 to 43, and all lived in the southern part of Wisconsin during the war.
Carr sought to bring to light the previously unheralded contributions of these women to the war effort – sewing, knitting socks, fundraising, putting together care packages and raising the crops used to feed the Union Army. She had expected to find more women’s letters preserved.
“These women were hidden then and continued to be hidden today because of how these letters were collected and cataloged,” Carr said.
As she wrote, Carr considered similarities in the lives of the eight women and began pairing them together to compare and contrast their experiences.
Two women, Emily Quiner and Annie Cox, were both 21 and lived less than a mile apart in Madison, but had distinct experiences, demonstrating how war touched similar people in disparate ways.
Quiner provides the longest, most sustained voice in the book, as she began writing a personal diary the day Fort Sumter fell. Cox wrote letters to a friend, who later became her fiance. He was a law student and Copperhead (pacifist Democrat) at the University of Michigan.
The letters of two sisters, Ann Waldo and Susan Brown, to their soldier husbands, showed how the war affected them differently, despite the sisters living together.
Another woman, Mary Burwell, had heard that soldiers who could cook stayed behind the front lines, so in addition to sending her husband hand-knit socks and pipe tobacco, she sent him recipes hoping he’d learn to cook and could stay off of the battlefield.
Margaret McNish Patchin and Sarah Jane Powers, two farmer’s wives, reflected the common struggles women faced trying to sustain farms in their husbands’ absences. Both were confronted with difficult decisions that women were not legally allowed to make, such as signing contracts and handling money.
Powers’ provided the “shortest window of letters, but hers were among the most poignant,” Carr said.
After Powers’ husband died in a hospital from a combat injury, his knapsack was returned home with all her letters to him unopened, as he had never received them.
Carr said many women went on to cope with the loss of their husbands by becoming civic leaders and that the war bolstered the suffrage movement. In 1919, Wisconsin became the first state to ratify the 19th amendment granting women the right to vote – a movement that had started in 1869.
“It is a sad reminder of the barriers and challenges that women who were trying to contribute to the war faced,” Carr said.