Civil War history is overflowing with grand and romantic stories about the big battles, colorful generals, sneaky spies, and dramatic politicians pressing their agendas. One rarely hears about the quiet civilian folks who traveled to the front to offer their services, stayed back from the field at large depots, and supported the war effort from home. U. S. Grant and President Lincoln’s herculean efforts cannot trump those of ordinary civilians. Many of them certainly were as interesting as their military commanders and others, but Americans remember little of anything of civilian contributions that supported the war effort. My research paper will reveal some of the extraordinary accomplishments by civilians lost in the quagmire of Civil War history.
Without civilian support, neither army could have held the field for long, and critical support for the Union army contributed to their victory as much if not more than any other factor. In December 1860, little more than 16,000 men filled the army ranks. The United States had a historically persistent uneasiness to large standing armies. Therefore, when Lincoln called up the initial 75,000 men to put down the rebellion, the call disastrously overloaded the military system with men reporting for duty in Washington. The military provided no food, shelter or clothing for the troops. Only one hospital existed in the army, at Fort Riley, Kansas with a scant 40 beds. The army expected regiments to subsist on what they brought with them. Overwhelming numbers caused make shift camps in any and every open space, with little to no attention to sanitation, resulting in medical epidemics robbing some regiments of 50 percent of their strength. Time did not improve conditions much on the military’s part. The soldiers needed civilian support, and concerned civilians were eager to give it.
Besides a great deal of monetary support, civilians volunteered as hospital workers of every type, spies, military guides, provided tons of material, humanitarians, military/soldier advocates, moral supporters and event witnesses, most of them as volunteers. They also supplemented the military as laundresses, contract surgeons, teamsters, administrative clerks, and manufacturers. Any army of that time could not have campaigned without the huge support system organized and provided by civilians even though many commanders loathed admitting it and tried to deny needing or wanting any of it.
Of course, their contributions were not always positive, such as journalists who gave away information to the enemy and drummed critical information in their papers that affected elections and caused some chaos in Washington. For this service, however, the federal government arrested and imprisoned citizens without real cause, some dying from horrible prison conditions, some held for the duration of the war, especially after Lincoln suspended the right of habeas corpus.
Women provided the greatest amount of support, working largely through relief societies, as camp “followers” or those local to the armies and campaigns. Anxious women with a variety of talents longed to contribute to the war effort. Most stayed at home, operated businesses in the absence of men, gave labor and/or goods, or organized and administered the efforts. Army wives following the military in camp could launder soldiers clothes, act as nurses (cooking and cleaning rather than the modern conception of nursing), supplementing the family income, a slim and irregular issue for enlisted soldiers and some junior officers. Several civilians acted from within the relief societies as inspectors and soldier advocates, in attempts to ensure the best living conditions possible for the masses of soldiers necessary to conduct operations.
The most under-appreciated must be locals caught up by the military on campaign. The small farming communities in mid-western Maryland received as guests around 120,000 in number during the Maryland Campaign of 1862. Hungry, thirsty soldiers arrived needing food water and shelter, resisting futile since they traveled with plenty of weapons for coercion. The Pry family (and their relatives) are a good example of the civilian battlefield experience. The Battle of Antietam took place just before the harvest in September 1862. In the week that General McClellan used their property as army headquarters, their losses were the equivalent to that caused by a natural disaster. Their crops were taken for forage, fencing used as firewood, livestock consumed by the army, furniture ruined, property trampled, an entire warehouse of wood used to make hospitals, the house and barn utilized for several months as hospitals, and even Mrs. Pry’s personal effects taken by soldiers. Since the Union army remained around the area for six weeks, all the locals worked as nurses, doctors, buried the dead, burned dead animals, and survived dependent on army rations when available. The Pry family never recovered, sold their farm and properties, and moved to Tennessee for a fresh start.
If appreciation for white volunteerism is undervalued, it is nothing compared to the plight of African-Americans, volunteers or not. Many worked in servitude, quite a few served to gain their freedom and assist in making it permanent for others. Their class level under women made exploitation of them a sure thing. Some were able to work on a limited basis as laundresses and cooks for pay, and even as nurses, although jobs assignments placed African-Americans in positions whites generally thought were beneath them. When historians began compiling the numbers, African-Americans made up approximately ten percent of the civilian workforce for both men and women. Studying their role is quite difficult, however, due to the lack of documentation and recognition.
American society allowed women to support the war effort in limited ways, including appointing them as moral authorities. Earlier in the nineteenth century, men assigned women the role of moral educators and watchdogs. The assignment led to women’s public activities promoting moral reform. Because of the critical need for support, many women could work in areas forbidden to them in antebellum America. This work was a natural extension of reform activism and would assist women’s call to reform in civic areas afterward.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell and friends, through their Women’s Central Association of Relief organization, and the popularity of Florence Nightingale’s humanitarian work in the Crimean War, organized what became the largest and only government recognized relief agency, the U. S. Sanitary Commission (USSC). Women’s status in the country- a lack of recognition as equals to men and therefore second-class citizens necessitated the recruitment of prominent men as commissioners for the organization. Dr. Henry Bellows, a notable doctor from New York, lobbied for and received the recognition from officials in Washington. Men inside the organization acted as administrators, field agents, and delivered much of the provisions to the army, but a network of organized regional and local aid societies provided most of what the military received. Approximately 7000 smaller aid societies contributed to efforts with twelve major regional branches. Their efforts sent millions of dollars worth of food, medicine and clothing to the front. Women primarily administered and operated these agencies independent of the Washington commissioners.
The USSC absorbed the role of inspectors of military facilities, provided recommendations for improvements, relief supplies for the troops, published booklets on personal hygiene, health and welfare, and advocated for the soldier and medical department in Washington. Their massive donations of money and material to the government gave them great influence in Congress, and they significantly improved the medical system; This power eventually trickled down to the public after the war and continues to do so to this day. The Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, allowed the USSC to name the new Surgeon General of the Army in 1862, who updated and implemented many of the medical changes necessary to care for the thousands of wounded created by new weapons technology. The USSC recommended Dr. William A. Hammond, a young army doctor with progressive ideas. Dr. Hammond and his staff designed and constructed large-scale hospitals for recovery and rehabilitation never seen before in the U. S., complete with baths and indoor toilet facilities.
Additionally, the USSC organized massive fund-raising fairs across the North and Northwest. The fairs not only acquired monetary support for the war effort, but also emotional relief for anxious families and furloughed soldiers through games, exhibits, restaurants and entertainment offered at the event. Post war estimates credit these events with producing over three million dollars for the military. Lack of records or a scattering of them prevents the attempt of a compilation of volunteer labor hours. Estimated contributions by the USSC alone were approximately five hundred million dollars.
Other large organizations contributed even more support. The Young Men’s Christian Association felt compelled to help, and created the U. S. Christian Commission (USCC) as their wartime organization dedicated to soldier spiritual and emotional needs. The USCC provided volunteer chaplains and worked cooperatively with military chaplains to supplement their work. In this capacity, they accompanied the armies in the field and provided much needed emergency assistance to the wounded after battles. Estimates for material relief from the USCC include the distribution of almost one million bibles and tens of thousands of other books and pamphlets. Additionally, they provided coffee wagons and distributed soldier comfort supplies to the troops.
As the war progressed, these organizations served not only soldiers, but acted as a link between soldiers and their families. The USSC, USCC, and smaller organizations provided writing materials and even mail service for soldiers in camp and on campaign. They also provided investigative services for families of missing soldiers. The USCC reportedly wrote 92,000 letters for soldiers by the end of the war. Due to the lack of resources within the military, the USSC played a significant role in handling the dead. After the Battle of Gettysburg, they compiled a list of over 8000 dead. They figured a 70 percent reply rate on inquiries. The U. S. government would not establish a military agency to deal with burials until July, 1864.
With the only formally trained nurses, the Catholic Church also significantly contributed to the war effort. Surgeons at military hospitals preferred Catholic nuns trained in nursing to civilian women. Often, authorities accused female volunteers of husband hunting, inappropriate gossiping, delicacy, and incompetence. This led Army Nursing Superintendent Dorothea Dix to require volunteers be over thirty, plain in looks, and conservative. Surgeons preferred nuns over civilian nurses because their devotion to God, training and habits ensured their competence and faithfulness to duty. Nuns in Emmitsburg, MD, the Sisters of Charity, responded quickly to care for the wounded during the Antietam and Gettysburg Campaigns. History often forgets these selfless women of the Civil War.
There was a great demand for nurses during the war because of the sheer numbers of sick and wounded. The army initially used convalescing soldiers as nurses but quickly became overwhelmed. So many women and men came forward to serve that many were turned away. Nurses provided support to the wounded by not only cooking and cleaning, but reading to and writing for them, assisting them with difficult tasks such as bathing, feeding those unable to feed themselves, or just comforting them while they died. Often nurses wrote letters for soldiers unable to do so themselves, or notified families of the death of their loved ones. Surgeons might allow competent and trusted nurses to change bandages and assist in giving medications.
Walt Whitman served in the hospitals in Washington D. C. Already a famous poet, Whitman wrote and published his experiences for the public; papers that are still quoted and studied almost 150 years later. He fell into service after observing the wounded in hospitals while searching for his wounded brother. During his tenure, almost 50,000 men came and went as patients through the Washington hospitals. Whitman spent seven to eight hours a day consoling the wounded with treats, stamps, small amounts of money and letter writing. 
The Civil War was life changing for Miss Clara Barton, a clerk working at the Patent Office as a copyist. Barton longed to join the army but could not bring herself to don a uniform and disguise as a man. Her father, a veteran of the Indian Wars, encouraged her to assist the war effort. The 6th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment hailed from Worcester, close to her hometown, and compelled her to act on their behalf after she learned they were the militia attacked by secessionist protesters in Baltimore on their way to Washington. Realizing the military was unable to provide even the most basic comforts to soldiers, she determined to become a one-woman relief agency. Her requests to distribute supplies on the field were ignored until she pleaded her case to an influential officer in the Quartermaster Department after she admitted she had gathered more than three warehouses full of supplies. The astonished officer, Major Daniel H. Rucker would eventually become Quartermaster General of the Army.
Barton enabled the medical department to use her as a loophole to deliver medical supplies to the army in the field, circumventing the established system. Because she was a civilian, she did not fall under military jurisdiction and did not have to travel in the accustomed military order within the supply train. After receiving her first pass to the front, Barton, after becoming exceedingly annoyed at the supply train pace, ingeniously pulled out of line during the day and traveled at night while the train rested, bypassing the entire train and arriving at the field of battle a day earlier than her peers. She distributed critically needed supplies to 13 field hospitals the same day the USSC and USCC supply trains left Washington – on the day of the battle. Barton rode out to the battle line, worked as a medic assisting the wounded to field hospitals under fire and spent the entire night assisting the surgeon in charge at the Samuel Poffenberger farmhouse.
Barton’s experiences did not end in 1865. Now internationally famous due to her exploits, early in the year she began to receive letters from families looking for missing soldiers. Moved by their acute anxiety and the failure of others to meet the need, Barton proposed establishing a bureau to assist these families to her patron, Senator Henry Wilson, Chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee. She asked Wilson to accompany her to the White House to present the idea to President Lincoln. Wilson could not go with her, but presented the idea to Lincoln. The President referred the idea to the War Department for recommendation, but rather than wait for their reply, posted a notice in a Washington paper for interested parties to contact Barton with or for information. In the following days, Barton began receiving up to three hundred letters a day. Although Barton hoped to establish an official bureau in the Federal government to support the effort, she contributed over $17,000.00 over four years, and received reimbursement of $15,000.00 from Congress in bonds. To help fund the project, Barton went on the lecture circuit and made a profit of $12,000.00. Dangerously declining health forced Barton to close the office and travel to Europe to regain her strength.
Barton’s trip to Europe cemented her desire to see a permanent organization along the lines of the Sanitary Commission established in the United States. While vacationing in Switzerland, the leaders of the recently formed International Red Cross called to ask why the U. S. had not signed and ratified the Geneva Convention of 1864. The U. S. sent Henry Bellows as their delegate. Barton had never heard of the organization or treaty, and agreed to investigate upon her return to the States. Before she had fully recovered her health, the IRC began providing support for the Franco-Prussian War, and Barton could not resist their call to duty. She traveled to France and helped civilian refugees rebuild and recover from local fighting that devastated their city. By the time Barton returned to the U. S., she determined to establish a Red Cross society for the nation and convince the federal government to sign the Geneva Convention treaty. Although it would take Barton close to a decade to accomplish her goal, The American Red Cross became chartered by the U. S. government (with an expansion to include natural disasters giving it a peacetime purpose), the treaty ratified by Congress, and the organization she founded would go on to become one of the biggest and most influential relief agencies in the world. Dr. Henry Bellows wrote a letter of congratulations to Barton, lamenting that he was unable to accomplish the feat.
Clara Barton prevailed despite many seemingly impregnable obstacles thrown in her way by military authorities and jealous colleagues, but she was not alone. Dr. Mary Walker navigated through heavy prejudices and attacks on her reputation to assist wounded soldiers as a physician during the Civil War. Walker decided on a career in medicine and graduated from medical school in 1855. She married and practiced alongside her husband until they separated four years later due to her eccentricities and his unfaithfulness. A dedicated champion of dress reform and women’s rights, Walker pushed her way into contracted positions as an assistant surgeon through volunteerism and persistence during the war. The first woman awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for work in the field in 1865, Walker’s flamboyance continued to rankle those around her, losing her clerkship at the Patent Office in a sexual harassment scandal in the 1880s. Her work and advocacy of women’s rights opened the door for women in medicine.
Although civilians such as Clara Barton and Walt Whitman receive recognition for their contributions during the war, the scope of the significance of civilian support goes unnoticed as historians focus on battles and military and political leaders. The rise of social history and interest in women’s history have come a long way in promoting individual contributions, but the best lessons learned regarding public participation in wartime continue to receive little attention. The organizations and dedicated work on the part of civilians during the Civil War has contributed not only to the war effort during the conflict, but changed the lives and improved humanity from their establishment to the present day. Civilian contributions to this critical period in American history changed social views of the abilities of women, especially for themselves, created innovation that benefited society after the war, and led to a movement to establish humanitarian relief on a national scale and during peacetime.
The continued ignorance of these facts may lead a general misjudgment regarding the consequences of conflict, with realization of a commitment made too late to retract. Since the purpose of history is to inform others of the past for understanding of how it may influence our present and future, it seems logical to understand consequences and act rather than react after war is initiated. It is important to recognize civilian participation and contributions during the Civil War to offer both warning and hope when the storm of war approaches. Perhaps then history can serve its purpose of assisting decision making and improving the lives of everyone.
 Clyde Buckingham, Clara Barton: A Broad Humanity. (Alexandria, VA: Mount Vernon Publishing Company, 1977), pp. 1. Stephen B. Oates, A Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War, (New York: The Free Press, 1994), pp. 17.
 Schultz, At The Front, pp. 15-16, 18, 21, 125.
 Judith Giesberg, Civil War Sisterhood: The US Sanitary Commission and Women’s Politics in Transition. (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2000), pp. 137.
 Ibid., 14, 21.
 Kathleen A. Ernst, Too Afraid to Cry: Maryland Civilians in the Antietam Campaign, (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Bookes, 1999), pp. 121-122, 128, 176, 197, 231-232. Jane E. Schultz, Women at the F ront,81, 83. Hospital Workers in Civil War America, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), pp. 17.
 Schultz, At The Front, 16-17, 19-22, 102-103, 118, 165-166, 213.
 Ibid., pp. 6. Marian Moser Jones, The American Red Cross: From Clara Barton to the New Deal, (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013), 13.
 Schultz, At The Front, pp. 14. Buckingham, Barton, 9-11.
 Not all of the influence served to help the soldier. The USSC pressed Congress to direct soldier pay home to the soldier’s families towards the end of the war, stranding some at the end of the war. Giesberg, Sisterhood, pp. 137.
 Dorothy Denneen Volo and James M. Volo. Daily Life in Civil War America, Daily Life Series, (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998), pp. 169.
 Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), pp. 107-110, 136. Schultz, At The Front, 14, 39-40. Clyde Buckingham, Barton, pp. 36.
 Faust, Suffering, pp. 105-107, 112-113.
 Schultz, At The Front, pp. 16.
 Ibid., pp. 110, 114, 124, 127.
 Ibid., 123. Whitman's duties were considered nursing at that time.
 William E. Barton, The Life of Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross, two volumes, (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1922), Vol. 1, 194, 195.
 Susan Rosenvold, Clara Barton at Antietam, (Presentation given at annual Save Historic Antietam Foundation Meeting, June 7, 2012). Barton, Founder, 195, 198-199.
 Barton, Founder, Vol. 1 pp. 334-348.
 Ibid., Vol. 2, pp. 2-8, 183-184. Oates, Valor, pp. 382. Jones, Red Cross,, pp. 24-25, 31, 33-36.
 National Institutes of Health, “Dr. Mary Walker”, Changing the Face of Medicine, accessed 05/24/2014, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/changingthefaceofmedicine/physicians/biography_325.html,. Schultz, At The Front , pp. 174, 176-178.
 Buckingham, Barton, 321. Oates, Valor, x, 383. Faust, Suffering, 271.