Out of the Home
This engraving after Winslow Homer’s drawing, “Making Havelocks for Volunteers,” represents a middle-class interior, in which young women in fashionable, bouffant dresses sew linen cap coverings and neck protectors intended to shield soldiers from sunstroke in the sultry South. Before the war, young women would have been busy sewing and trimming articles of dress for themselves or their families. Their new occupation reveals that the war breached domestic boundary lines meant to separate and shelter the home from the wider world.
This engraving after Winslow Homer’s drawing, “Filling Cartridges at the United States Arsenal, at Watertown, Massachusetts,” glosses over the potential danger of the work by representing the young women in the top half of the page as if they were peacefully engaged in domestic tasks. Below, men fill paper cartridges with gunpowder; the women’s job is to insert the bullets. In spaces full of live ammunition, the smallest spark could trigger a catastrophic explosion. The worst such accident occurred at the Allegheny Arsenal in Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, on September 17, 1862—the same day as the Battle of Antietam. More than 70 people died in the disaster, the majority women and girls, some as young as ten. Most of the victims were working-class Irish struggling to support their families.
In “Our Women and the War,” Winslow Homer portrayed a wartime sewing circle of women young and old, hard at work. In front of the group lies a box labeled “Soldiers’ Shirts.” This scene anchors a constellation of others showing a nun and a matron nursing the wounded and a laundress in a military camp, washing shirts under the gaze of an officer and several leering soldiers. Performing conventionally domestic tasks, these women brought the home to the front.
The lively illustration on the cover of We’ll Go Down Ourselves shows a crowd of women brandishing brooms, fire tongs, and boiling teakettles as they rush after a rag-tag crowd of retreating Confederate soldiers. Bold and angry, the women are determined to join the fight. In real life, women armed with kitchen knives and other domestic weapons marched on courthouses in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and several other towns to protest the conscription act of 1863. Actual or imaginary, such mobs threatened to disrupt and upend domestic order.
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Little Women, published just a few years after the war ended, reminded readers of the war’s toll on northern families. The mother and daughters of the March family try to contribute to the war effort while their father is serving as a chaplain in the US Army. When Father returns home wounded, he requires care from his wife and daughters. This popular postwar tale would have resonated with many readers’ experiences.