“There was too much to be done by the most of us, to keep the wolf from the door, to give way to our feelings, and it was better so. It gave us the feeling that we, too, although not enlisted in the ranks South, had a battle to fight at home on more than one line, and the worst of all was to keep up hope against hope, that our loved ones would be spared to come back to us…”
As the fiftieth anniversary of the American Civil War neared, the Wisconsin History Commission was established to develop and publish a series of “original papers” on Wisconsin’s role in what was officially called the War of Rebellion. Picked as the sixth selection and published in May 1911 was Wisconsin Women in the War between the States by Ethel Alice Hurn. In many ways it was a landmark effort. It was one of the first formal recognitions—not only in Wisconsin but nationally—of the overlooked and almost forgotten role Northern women played in 1861–1865.
The author of the study was Ethel Hurn of Oshkosh, then a student at the University of Wisconsin. Gathering the material for the book proved a daunting task. During the Civil War era women could not vote, hold bank accounts, or take a direct role in business. Nevertheless, in the time of national crisis, women took over farms and shops and other endeavors, and some left quiet family hearths to move onto the public stage. They prepared food, sewed and laundered, knitted socks and gloves, and organized campaigns and fairs as relief efforts that raised millions of dollars to aid wounded soldiers and assist war widows and orphans. However, these women’s work was generally undertaken without thought of keeping a formal record. It could be found only in scattered collections of letters, newspaper files, several interviews, and the brief reports and pamphlets of soldier fairs and soldiers’ aid societies.
Wisconsin Women in the War between the States is just as significant today as it was a century ago because it documented an important turning point in the changing role of women in American society. Other scholars have added to the record in the passing years, but Hurn’s groundbreaking book is welcomed back in print during this 150th anniversary of the American Civil War to be discovered and enjoyed as well as to enlighten a new generation of readers.