Bitterness unchecked: Jane Swisshelm reflects on the women of Fredericksburg in 1866

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.

Princess Anne Street, taken almost directly in front of Citizens Hall and St. Mary's Catholic Church (Swisshelm's primary workplaces). Both are off the image to the left. The engine house mentioned by Swisshelm was on the side of the Circuit Courthouse--the building with the cupola.


In the hall above the engine house on the same street…the floor has been covered with fever patients, who have been there a week and whose faces have never been washed. One Pennsylvania boy, with a broad forehead, delicate, oval cheeks, taporing [sic] chin and large hazel eyes lies on the platform, and as I bathe his head and feet begs for chicken soup.  Did he ever get home?  He might have done so if the women of Fredericksburg had been humane.  Many a mother who weeps her son dead today might have been gladdened by returning steps of Southern women had the ordinary traits of humanity. I have never known a community, of Northern people, who would not have turned out, en masse, and worked night and day at the call of a tithe of the misery which lay around these secession fiends without calling forth one effort at relief.

Female relief workers in Fredericksburg, May 1864.

I cannot look back upon that time and think of those people as belonging to the same race which peoples our Northern States, and the idea of taking these savages into our confidence, and once more entrusting them with the destinies of our country is monstrous in the least degree….These women, after spurning our wounded, and looking with savage joy and undisguised triumph, over sufferings which would have moved any human heart, if the sufferers had been wild beasts; after they had peeped through blinds, and turned up their noses at Yankee nurses, came to me to beg my interference on behalf of husbands who were taken as hostages, for our wounded, who were fired upon and taken prisoner there. Nothing appears humiliating to them which brings money or salt pork, or immunity from punishment—or, all the time that they were spurning Yankee wounded, they were eating Yankee rations and selling smiles to such Yankee officers as would buy them…..

Up next: the other side of this issue–Confederate women respond to the Union presence. For another series of posts on the 1864 relief effort, click here.

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