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Children and Youth during the Civil War Era$

James Marten

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780814796078

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: March 2016

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814796078.001.0001

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“A Strenuous and Tragic Affair”: Life on the Northern Home Front

“A Strenuous and Tragic Affair”: Life on the Northern Home Front

(p.234) “A Strenuous and Tragic Affair”: Life on the Northern Home Front
Children and Youth during the Civil War Era
James Marten
NYU Press

Unlike Carrie Berry, Anna Howard never had to worry about enemy fire or occupation. But Anna, who as an adult would become a pioneering Methodist minister, doctor, and advocate for women’s suffrage, represents the ways that many girls and boys in the North were affected by the absence of fathers and older brothers. Born in England in 1847, Anna was raised in New England, where her father provided for his growing family as a laborer and craftsmen but also took part in many liberal causes, including abolitionism. Their lives changed forever when he moved them to the Michigan wilderness with a group of other Englishmen. Anna was twelve when they moved to their new farm a hundred miles from the railroad. Mr. Howard deposited his family on the frontier and promptly returned to New England, where he continued working for two years. He finally joined the family just about the time the war was starting, but within a year had joined the Union army with his two oldest sons. At the age of fifteen, Shaw was the main breadwinner for her family, and life had become “a strenuous and tragic affair.” The family somehow survived, and all of the men came back from the war, but before long Anna left home to begin her life as a pioneering feminist—perhaps inspired by the trials and freedoms she had experienced during the war.

In the meantime war had been declared. When the news came that Fort Sumter had been fired on, and that Lincoln had called for troops, our men were threshing. There was only one threshing-machine in the region at that time, and it went from place to place, the farmers doing their threshing whenever they could get the machine. I remember seeing a man ride up on horseback, shouting out Lincoln’s demand for troops and explaining that a regiment was being formed at Big Rapids. Before he had finished speaking the men on the machine had leaped to the ground and rushed off to enlist, my brother Jack, who had recently joined us, among them. In ten minutes not one man was

(p.235) left in the field. A few months later my brother Tom enlisted as a bugler—he was a mere boy at the time—and not long after that my father followed the example of his sons and served until the war was ended. He had entered on the twenty-ninth of August, 1862, as an army steward; he came back to us with the rank of lieutenant and assistant surgeon of the field and staff.

Between those years I was the principal support of our family, and life became a strenuous and tragic affair. For months at a time we had no news from the front. The work in our community, if it was done at all, was done by despairing women whose hearts were with their men. When care had become our constant guest, Death entered our home as well. My sister Eleanor had married, and died in childbirth, leaving her baby to me; and the blackest hours of those black years were the hours that saw her passing…. Her baby slipped into her vacant place and almost filled our heavy hearts, but only for a short time; for within a few months after his mother’s death his father married again and took him from me, and it seemed that with his going we had lost all that made life worth while.

The problem of living grew harder with every day. We eked out our little income in every way we could, taking as boarders the workers in the logging-camps, making quilts, which we sold, and losing no chance to earn a penny in any legitimate manner. Again my mother did such outside sewing as she could secure, yet with every month of our effort the gulf between our income and our expenses grew wider, and the price of the bare necessities of existence climbed up and up. The largest amount I could earn at teaching was six dollars a week, and our school year included only two terms of thirteen weeks each. It was an incessant struggle to keep our land, to pay our taxes, and to live. Calico was selling at fifty cents a yard. Coffee was one dollar a pound. There were no men left to grind our corn, to get in our crops, or to care for our live stock; and all around us we saw our struggle reflected in the lives of our neighbors.

At long intervals word came to us of battles in which my father’s regiment—the Tenth Michigan Cavalry Volunteers—or those of my brothers were engaged, and then longer intervals followed in which we heard no news. After Eleanor’s death my brother Tom was wounded, and for months we lived in terror of worse tidings, but he finally recovered. I was walking seven and eight miles a day, and doing extra work before and after school hours, and my health began to fail. Those were years I do not like to look back upon—years in which life had degenerated into a treadmill whose monotony was broken only by the grim messages from the front. My sister Mary married and went to Big Rapids to live. I had no time to dream my (p.236) dream, but the star of my one purpose still glowed in my dark horizon. It seemed that nothing short of a miracle could lift my feet from their plodding way and set them on the wider path toward which my eyes were turned, but I never lost faith that in some manner the miracle would come to pass. As certainly as I have ever known anything, I knew that I was going to college!

The end of the Civil War brought freedom to me, too. When peace was declared my father and brothers returned to the claim in the wilderness which we women of the family had labored so desperately to hold while they were gone.


Anna Howard Shaw, The Story of a Pioneer (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1915), 51–54