GETTYSBURG, Pa. — For every soldier who fought in the Civil War, there was a mother, sister, wife or daughter who suddenly became the head of the household, said Gettysburg re-enactor Joy Melcher.
People often forget the bravery those women showed in the 1860s, she said, because they're more interested in the lives of soldiers. But women, too, had their own battles to fight on the home front, Melcher said.
"We teach people an appreciation for what our foremothers went through," Melcher said of her work at the Civil War Lady, a historical outfitting boutique. "When things got really tough, women were left to rely on their own resources."
Re-enactor Patty Ewers said she often thinks of women of the Civil War as the first "Rosie the Riveters," a reference to a poplar home-front icon during World War II.
Women could be found working the fields, serving as nurses, sewing uniforms in army depots and laboring in the Christian Commission, Ewers said. And all of this was in addition to running a household, raising children and managing finances, she added.
"They had to have been amazing," Ewers said, reflecting on the era of women she was representing at the 151st Battle of Gettysburg. "I can't even imagine. They were a lot stronger and a lot smarter than we are now."
Modern women have it easier, agreed Teri Coe, who played a mourning widow during the re-enactment events, because they have more support than was common during the Civil War. There is now a better understand and availability of resources for a family trying to continue at home when a loved one is deployed, she said.
"Everyone thinks about the men who go off to war, but I prefer to think about the civilian families that are left behind," Coe said. "It was a difficult life for women in the 1800s, but they were sturdier and used to the challenge."
Southern belle re-enactor Emilie Baylies said she has a deep respect for women at the home front because her father served as an Army medic and her brother as a paratrooper. Thankfully, the family lived on a military post when Baylies' father was deployed, so her mom had a lot of help, she said.
"I understand that it's similar, but we have things a lot easier," Baylies said. "I can't imagine suddenly losing contact and not knowing if they are alive. Now, we can just make a phone call, but then you'd have to wait months to know anything."
But for either women of the Civil War or women of the 21st century, strength is found in numbers, said merchant re-enactor Susan Saum-Wicklein. Historically, women always come together to support each other in times of great conflict, she said.
Even when someone is too proud to ask for help, Baylies said, there will always be a friend there who will do so anyway.