Today, we are pleased to welcome guest author Hannah McClearnen.
“Weren’t they just at home knitting?”
When people think about the Southern home front, the first image that comes to mind is often the dutiful wife and mother, left at home knitting for their loved ones fighting in the Civil War. This seems to be a benign image, a relatively simple domestic scene that illustrates a small contribution to the war effort.
The tranquil image of Southern ladies knitting for soldiers is not as simple as it seems. “Just knitting” was actually quite difficult.
Soon after loved ones enlisted, women wanted to contribute to the war effort. Women joined together in order to ensure soldiers would remain warm in winter months, even if the government could not supply them with every necessity. This was deemed an appropriate way for southern women to express patriotism and still remain safely in the domestic sphere. Many Southern ladies were surprised to learn this act of patriotism from the home front was quite a struggle.
First, knitting socks for soldiers required a lady to be able to knit! While many women thought the knack would easily be acquired, they soon found it was not that easy. Many of the patriotic ladies eager to help the war effort, especially those in the upper classes, had never picked up knitting needles in their lives. The quality of their work suffered. The Charleston Mercury commented on the 1 knitting of some less than talented ladies: “visit them when you will, they will have knitting in hand. The formation of some of the socks which they have produced does not indicate a very exact knowledge of human anatomy. I saw on last evening, which I am told, was intended for the foot of the entire Southern Confederacy. From its size, I judged it would make a rather loose fit.”
Other papers throughout the South also remarked upon the malformed socks that were being sent to the front. The Mobile Register chastised its female readers, claiming that too many of the socks were too tight on the feet of the soldiers. Learning how to knit was not the only obstacle standing in the way of women in the Confederacy. The second issue women dealt with was a shortage of wool. There was a lack of cards, tools used to prep wool for spinning, so people were unable to produce wool for the knitting needles of the Confederacy. Due to this shortage, women often knit with cotton. Even cotton and coarse yarn sources were expensive to use.
The Charleston Mercury woefully informed its readers: “The coarsest yarn costs two dollars a pound, and a pound of yarn will not quite make five pairs of socks.” To make up for the shortage, many papers offered suggestions to their female readers. The Mobile Register recommended mixing cotton with either cows hair or rabbits fur in order to create items of the best quality. Nonetheless, women that were able to knit and acquire materials did so. Knitting transformed: what was previously a feminine past time most popular among the lower classes became an expectation for all ladies. Ladies Associations were formed, some with membership guidelines specifying that all members were expected to knit at least six pairs of socks during a six month period to maintain their membership. Woman’s schools also took part in the patriotic fervor. Knitting became an important part of education. At the Tennessee female college, the President requested that girls be given an hour to knit socks for soldiers daily. Young girls, many of them under the age of twelve, began knitting clubs.
Newspapers, like the Augusta Daily Chronicle & Sentinel often praised specific women that were able to manufacture a large amount of pristine socks for the soldiers. As papers printed information and tallies from the armies, the Bellvile Countryman, located in Texas, went so far as to publish a tally of the number of socks knit and fleeces spun by “patriotic” ladies in Bellville. This became no small patriotic feat, newspapers, politicians, and generals all remarked on the necessity of the knit items women of the South produced. Colonel Johnson, an aid to General Price, told the Natchez Daily Courier that the general wanted every white woman in the state to knit a pair of socks for the soldiers. The Courier also told women that they could be paid if necessary, fifty cents for cotton socks and seventy five cents for woolen socks.
Papers throughout the South took time to remind women that it was their patriotic duty to knit for the soldiers, and their knitting needles were the only things standing between soldiers and the cold. Other papers complained that the women of the Confederacy knit far too many socks, and not enough gloves and caps to keep the soldiers warm. Regardless of how benign the knitting woman on the home front appears to many today, during the Civil War these women were heroes, doing everything in their power, deemed acceptable by society, to help the war effort. Regardless of obstacles of knowledge or materials, women continued to pick up their needles. This stanza of a song published in the Savannah Republican makes the point nicely:
Socks for the Soldiers.
Oh women of the sunny South
We want you in the field; Not with a soldier’s uniform,
Nor sword, nor spear, nor shield; But with a weapon quite as keen—
The knitting needle bright— And willing hands to knit for those
Who for our country fight.
Southern women did not see themselves as just knitting, and based on newspapers, neither did the public. Knitting women protected soldiers on the field from the bitter cold, and through this effort, they were making their own great contribution to the Confederacy.
Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.
Furgurson, Ernest. Ashes of Glory: Richmond at War. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.
Savannah [Ga] Republican, September 3, 1861, P. 1, C. 48
Augusta [Ga] Daily Chronicle & Sentinel, September 19, 1861, p. 3, c. 29
Bellville [Tx] Coutnryman, November 13, 1861, p. 2, c. 310
Natchez Daily Courier, August 28, 1862, P. 1, C. 311
Natchez Daily Courier, September 9, 1862, P. 1, C. 312
Savannah [Ga] Republican, October 30, 1862, P. 2, C. 113
Savannah [Ga] Republican, October 19, 1863, P. 1, C.
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Hannah McClearnen is a Gettysburg College semester student and long-time National Park volunteer. She graduated from Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in 2015. Hannah recently finished an internship at the Richmond National Battlefield and is working on her Master’s Degree at West Virginia University. Her focus is on gender in the Civil War.