“Domestic Blockade”: Three Cheers for the Homefront Mothers

When dads are away for long periods for work or military service, moms don’t have the ability to defer discipline decisions for a few hours. And this humorous illustration from the Civil War era made me think about another aspect of war’s effects on the civilian homefront…




This poor woman—presumably the mother or children’s caretaker—finds herself in quite the predicament. Seemingly inspired by patriotic fervor, the little ones have knocked over the table, lined up bottles like artillery, and piled up the furniture and other domestic items to make a barricade. The boy has donned a child-size uniform (actually a fashionable thing in boy’s clothing during the war) and threatens the lady with a toy gun or someone sort of pole which he is brandishing as a bayoneted weapon. Meanwhile, the little girl with a cherub-like smile and flying curls happily waves the United States flag, leaving no doubt of Papa’s allegiance and side in the war outside their home.

The original print was created by Currier and Ives from a sketch by Thomas Nast. The title “The Domestic Blockade” and the woman’s attire leaves room to question if she is the mother or a “domestic servant.” It could be interpreted either way, though her garments suggest she is either the hired servant or a working class mother; the latter would raise the question how her children have such trendy clothes.

Whether it’s the mother or another caretaker, the first thought that came to mind when I saw the image still rings true. The war took many fathers away from their homes, leaving the mother, governess, servant, or extended family to oversee the children’s care and discipline alone. And the threat “wait ’til your father comes home” would be empty or possibly a promise that would never be fulfilled.

Since mothers typically oversaw the care the children and the “sphere of influences” pulled fathers away from the household for hours of work, most discipline and child training was already the mother’s role. But that doesn’t mean that fathers were not involved in correcting the more serious offenses or weren’t interested in helping to form their children’s character. A look through letters of soldier-fathers from “Stonewall” Jackson to common soldiers in the ranks includes admonishments for the little ones and occasional theories of child training, suitable mild punishments, and ideas to foster character growth.

By the mid-19th Century, some child-rearing books were no longer advocating “whipping” children into good behavior. Instead, they preached an atmosphere of parental love, calm correction, and deprivation of a privilege (dessert, a visit to friends, going to bed early, etc.) with both parents helping to guide the child toward right behavior. Both mothers and fathers were encouraged to be much more active in their interactions with their children and forming good character was a major goal.

The general theory underlying the practices is useful to understand, but it’s also important to remember that a book on the subject does not account for the hundreds of sibling quarrels, endless questions, exuberant spirits, childish mischief, disobedient moments, and delayed bedtimes that mothers of every generation have dealt with. During the Civil War years if father was a soldier, mother had to keep the children safe, fed, clothed, and rested either alone or maybe with the help of a family member, hired servant, or enslaved woman.

In the illustration, the woman—whether mother or hired servant—is about to declare war and predictably there will be no dessert and possibly an early bedtime for the kitchen warriors. But father will likely not be coming to aid her with the children in the evening. She won’t get “a break.” Day after day, she will look after them. And while there would undoubtedly have been many precious and sweet moments, mother would have to handle the little “domestic wars” and “blockades” on her own until father came home.

So…as we start the first week of Women’s History Month, here’s three cheers for the mothers of the Civil War homefront who spent every day keeping their little ones safe, loved, and cared for. They are often the forgotten or unsung heroines of the era.


“The Domestic Blockade” – Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2020633528/

Lydia Maria Child, The Mother’s Book, 1846. Accessed via Google Books.

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