The image of fraternity is firmly fixed in the American imagination as it relates to the Civil War. Men could kill each other, but in quieter moments still be inclined toward kindness, even brotherhood. To some wishful modern eyes, the war was absent of bitterness.
In fact, the war and its aftermath was tinged with intense rancor. No place do we see that more vividly than at Fredericksburg. Usually that rancor is the domain of Southerners, outraged at the fate of Fredericksburg and its civilians. But bitterness cut both ways, as evidenced by the words of Union caregiver Jane Swisshelm. Though largely unknown today, Swisshelm was one of America’s remarkable women of the mid-19th Century—a reformer, newspaper publisher, abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate.
In May 1864, she was among probably 500 civilian relief workers (perhaps 30-40 of them women) who came to Fredericksburg to care for the flood of Union wounded from Wilderness and Spotsylvania—something close to a humanitarian catastrophe. Her experience in Fredericksburg, vividly described (though almost completely overlooked by historians) in an 1866 letter and postwar memoir, left her with perhaps the harshest vision of Fredericksburg women in existence. Swisshelm’s bitterness was fueled by the reluctance of Fredericksburg women to help. I present this not to suggest that her observations are in any way objective or valid—there is another side to this story, which we will explore in our next post. I share it solely to demonstrate the powerful sense of anger that war engendered (we will share more of Swisshelm’s writings, along with a look at where she did her work, in a future post).
Swisshelm wrote this letter in September 1866—just over two years after her time in Fredericksburg, before notions of reconciliation compelled writers to leave out the “unseemly” aspects of the war. It was published in the Central Press, September 29, 1866. She did her work in the town’s theater, Citizens Hall, in St. Mary’s Catholic Church, and in the courthouse—all on Princess Anne Street.