The Women of Winchester, Virginia

Soldier off to war.

We are happy to welcome guest author Virginia R. Bensen.

This is the introduction to a series of articles that will follow over the next few months about the Civil War women of Winchester, Virginia. What is interesting about these women is each represents either a Unionist or Secessionist perspective. The articles in this series will sometimes focus on just one woman from Winchester or Frederick County, Virginia. In other articles, there will be a bantering of diary entries between two or more women.

At first I thought I would write about all Secessionists, and then all Unionists, or all about the younger women or older women, but in thinking about presentation, I decided it would be more interesting to mix up these women and present the series more in a chronological order. This will provide the reader an opportunity to make easier comparisons of perspectives and attitudes of the women.

Scholarly work that has been presented about Southern women has been primarily about the wealthy plantation mistress. Only during the past twenty years has the focus changed to examining the lives and experiences of other classes and races of women of the Civil War period. All of the women of course who wrote diaries were literate and fairly well educated. In reading these diaries and manuscripts, it appears that when the women are occupied by their enemy, it is at that time they are prolific writers. The articles will span a focus from the wealthy socialite to the mercantile store keeper, and to those in between. Most of the writers are widowed or single and the ages range from a 14-year-old to a 45-year-old. Unlike the plantation mistresses or belles who were found in the Deep South, these women represent the women who lived in the Shenandoah Valley region.  Their values and beliefs in some ways are similar to those in the Deep South, but in other ways they are quite different.

The women of Winchester, Virginia regardless of whether they supported the Union or the Confederacy, tended to be tenacious in their loyalties. This brought about a tension that built over time between those who were pro-Union and those who were pro-Confederate. To complicate the situation, Winchester changed Union and Confederate occupations over 70 times during the Civil War. The town’s majority of civilians supported the Confederacy, and the women although restricted from fighting in the military demonstrated their support for the South in many ways that were within the boundaries and sometimes slightly over the boundaries of womanhood for that time.

In order to fully understand the complexity of the situation, here is a very brief background of Winchester, Virginia. At the beginning of the Civil War, Winchester dominated the lower Shenandoah Valley because of its network of seven major roads that radiating out in various directions to connect it to other large towns and cities in Virginia. Two of the roads were macadamized and connected Winchester to both the lower and upper Valley – Martinsburg to the north, and Staunton to the south. The road system made the town a major trade center for the Valley. In 1860 Winchester had a population of 4,392, which included 680 free blacks and 708 slaves. (Click here for a map of the area.)

Marching off to war.

The majority of whites were non-slaveholders.  The town itself had multiple shops, taverns and hotels.  It was one of the few towns in the Valley that had gaslights and a water system.  There were warehouses and a railroad depot.  It also had two banks, two newspapers, more than fifty stores several fire companies and ten churches.   In addition, it housed the Winchester Medical College which was the first medical school in Virginia, and four private schools for educating the children.  For the most part, the community “embraced a middle class work ethic, which was similar to that of a Northern market region than to the hierarchical slave society.”   Sheila Phips observes, that Winchester during this time “Had all of the amenities expected of an urban area, if on a smaller scale.” In the words of historian Jonathan Noyales, “The strategic location of Winchester promoted its economic prominence and that location brought about its wartime problems.”

Prior to secession the majority of civilians in the town were against leaving the Union, but when Virginia seceded, that majority became the small minority in the town.  Many who supported the Confederacy did so because they felt the United States had abandoned them in many ways.  For the most part, they did not want to secede from the Union, but did so because they believed they had a higher and deeper loyalty to their state of Virginia.

Winchester Virginia.

When Virginia seceded, the townspeople went into a mass celebration. The young men were in a frenzy to join the militias to serve the Cause.  The romance of war became a fever, and the women encouraged that fever.  There is a story that is told among historians of Winchester, that is probably from oral history, since no one can find the source. One young man was reluctant to join a local militia unit. Some of the younger women in town had a gift package delivered to his home.  When he opened the package it contained a pair of ladies bloomers with frills and lace. Lying on top of the pantaloons was a note that read, “If you don’t sign up to fight, you might as well put these on. The next day the young gentlemen joined the militia. Throughout the Civil War the Secessionist women encouraged their men to continue fighting for the Southern Cause.  Even during the Union occupations, many smuggled letters to their “boys” and also smuggled contraband goods such as sugar, coffee, fabrics, thread and needles from Baltimore into Winchester not so much for civilian use, but to feed and clothe the Confederate sick and wounded.

During the initial Confederate occupancy in 1861 and early 1862, the women of Winchester participated in the usually expected activities such as organizing sewing and knitting groups to make socks, shirts, and caps for the Confederate troops. During the early part of summer of 1861, many of the troops became ill with measles, and the women took those soldiers into their homes and cared for them during their recovery.  Both Union and Confederate sympathizers housed the Confederate soldiers during this timeframe.

Although there were some minor skirmishes during June 1861, it was not until after the First Battle of Manassas, that the Winchester woman witnessed the horrors of war. In diaries there were descriptions of men with their faces mutilated, gut shot men, dead men, and of piles of amputated limbs.  Many Winchester women, especially of Confederate loyalty described going to the hospitals and nursing “their boys.”  Nursing to many of these women meant reading, writing, and feeding the wounded, not cleaning or bandaging wounds.

Although tensions between the Unionist and Confederate civilians were fairly amicable in the beginning of the war, when General Stonewall Jackson began arresting many of the prominent Winchester area Unionists in the fall of 1861 and winter of 1862, tensions intensified.  Jackson’s arrests started a total distrust by the Unionists toward the Secessionists.  On the other hand, the Secessionists by the end of 1861 withdrew from any socializing with the Unionists, and only made contact with them when absolutely necessary. By the time General Nathaniel Banks took occupation of Winchester in the spring of 1862, relations between the Unionists and Confederates rose to a hostile level.  Because of this tension, civilians identified with either the Unionists or the Secessionists. Remaining neutral meant that you were open to hostilities by both the Unionists and Secessionists.

General Nathaniel P Banks.

After spending hours reading these diaries and manuscripts, it seemed that I was becoming friends with these individuals.  Through their writings I was invited into their inner most thoughts and feelings, and sometimes I wanted to shout at these women for acting like such fools, or for being so stubborn about some of the pettiest issues. Then, it dawned on me that these women have been dead for over a hundred years! I do not live in the nineteenth century, I live in the twenty-first century. What I consider to be a petty issue, to the women living in the 1860s that same issue was far from petty.

Through these diary accounts of the Civil War experiences of the women of Winchester, Virginia, there becomes a serialized story of the Winchester Civil War civilians and in particular the women’s experiences. This story contains drama, intrigue, romance, as well as comedy.  Each woman relates her own perspective. Yet, each contributes to the rich tapestry of the Civil War history itself.

About the Author: Virginia R. Bensen has a doctorate in Higher Education Leadership, an MBA and has taught a variety of college business courses. She has designed award winning workforce and education programs.  After finishing her doctoral dissertation, she decided to write a historical novel focusing on the civilian and women’s experiences in Civil War Winchester, Virginia.  Although familiar with social science research methods, but feeling rather intimidated with historical research, she enrolled in a Masters of American History program at American Public University. Her research interests are Civil War women and women’s identity change. She enjoys writing both popular and scholarly history.

8 Responses to The Women of Winchester, Virginia

  1. I am very much looking forward to this series. The impact of the War on the homefront is particularly interesting to me. Since General Custer and his wife lived in Winchester (as a Michigander I am interested in his CW career) I will be looking to see if there are any references to them in the diaries. Thank you for sharing the fruits of your research with us!

    1. General Custer is mentioned in a number of the women’s diaries when General Sheridan occupied Winchester, Virginia in 1864-1865. He and his wife were known for their lavish parties. I hope you enjoy the series.

  2. I also look forward to this series! Please share with us lots of quotes, as I enjoy reading the beautiful, poignant way people used language back then. It is very instructive to us now, first, because we have lost the art and, secondly, when we hear the actual voice of people from another time it places us into their present and their mindset. Then, as you related, we detach from our reality and appreciate them as flesh-and-blood people. Thank you!

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