- In the Midst of Fire and BloodUnion Soldiers, Unionist Women, Military Policy, and Intimate Space during the American Civil War
Eight years after the war, Katherine Couse, the thirty-four-year-old daughter of northern immigrants, could still remember the campfires. During the week that Union soldiers stayed on her family's prosperous farm, the night was "brilliantly illuminated by hundreds of [them] in every direction." The Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse brought three of the five corps of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's army near the home of these staunch unionists. Their parents dead and their older brothers in New York City, the three young women remained in Virginia to oversee the farm. They welcomed thousands of men to their property, giving up their house and barn to be used as hospitals and allowing the dead to be buried in their lawn. The troops ate their food, trampled their clover fields, and used every piece of wood. But Couse did not begrudge them. Even after the soldiers left, she and her sisters shared their last few morsels with the wounded. Couse hardly exaggerated when she said that she and her family had sacrificed "everything but their honor . . . to the cause of the union."1
As the interactions between the Couse women and Federal soldiers illustrate, the American Civil War often threw Union soldiers and unionist women together in the most private of southern spaces: the home. These interactions reveal that the [End Page 146]
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idea of "intimate space" is central to the study of the war. The "intimate" represents the bodily experiences of soldiers and civilians as well as the ways cooperation and conflict reverberated from individual homes to the halls of power, blurring boundaries between public and private, loyal and disloyal, and citizen and alien.2 The war revealed domestic space to be an elaborate fiction, for the private realm had never been outside the concern of governing bodies. This can be seen in the [End Page 147] fact that nineteenth-century Americans often understood their place in the nation in terms of the place they occupied in the household.3 White men's authority conferred status on white women, granting them responsibility for rearing republican citizens while emotionally and materially supporting families—and, during war, soldiers and armies—through household production. White women's special status as wives, mothers, and dependent citizens allowed them to claim the protection of the U.S. government and its military.4 Enslavement and racial prejudice meant that black women lacked such standing or even control over their labor and their families. Unable to enjoy white women's status or privileged roles as republican mothers and patriotic housewives, black women's relationship to the Union military largely grew out of their value as laborers.5
Wartime highlighted the relationship between intimate space and women's political sympathies, a relationship that figured prominently in southern women's interactions with Union soldiers. Loyal white women's political leanings were inextricably tied to domestic spaces, since many nineteenth-century Americans believed women's politics followed those of their husbands and fathers. Since commonly held ideas questioned whether women could have loyalty to country or nation independent of their male relatives, it is more appropriate to discuss women's political sympathies rather than their loyalties. For the purposes of this article, unionist women were those women, white and black, enslaved and free, who resided in the Border States [End Page 148] and Confederacy during all or part of the American Civil War and whose political sympathies lay with the Union for all or part of the war. This could entail anything from opposition to secession, to support for the Union's...