Do you make good coffee?

In August of 1863, Union Army Sgt. Edwin Lybarger was on provost guard in Memphis Tennessee with his regiment, the 43rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. He advertised in the newspaper for a correspondent of the Fair Sex for “agreeable, interesting and useful correspondence.” His diary gives some indication that he did it on a dare with his friend, Co. K Captain John Rhodes.

Edwin received a reply from a young lady signing herself “Fannie Jerome.” After they had exchanged several letters, “Fannie” revealed her real name to be Lou Riggen. He confessed his real name, and they continued to correspond for the duration of the war. She seems to have resisted his appeals to send him her “likeness” (photograph).

In 1864, he wrote to Lou to learn more details about her accomplishments, abilities, and sensibilities:

Do you like music? Play on the piano? Can you bake bread?

Can you bake mince pies? Make good coffee?

Keep house? Can you eat your share of a dinner?

Do you like History, Poetry, or Novels best?

What church to you belong to?

On Sept. 29, 1864, Lou Riggen answered his letter:

Keep house? I once kept house for six months to the edification of the whole family except Lou Riggen. My! what an endless task of intricate labor. Brooms, carpets, beds, cobwebs, dinners, suppers, breakfasts, with all their attendant auxiliaries of good butter, sweet milk, done bread & not burnt either. ‘To be or not to be’ good was always the dread question until dinner stood in all its dread array on the table. Sometimes it was and sometimes it wasn’t.

Edwin and Lou corresponded for the rest of the war. Their plan to meet on his way home in the summer of 1865 was not accomplished. He continued to correspond with Lou after returning to Ohio and, apparently reluctant to end their correspondence, finally told her had married another girl. Her response, her last letter, eloquently expresses her dismay that he had ignored her request to return her letters to her.

The letters written to Union officer Edwin Lybarger from 1862-1866

by Lou Riggen and other women,

are published, with historical social commentary, in


Letters to a Union Soldier (Swallow Press, 2009).

Women’s Deadly, Unsung War Work

“Choking cartridges” for the Union Army was legitimate war work for “noble Union girls” during the Civil War. The repetitive work required putting lead balls into a paper tube, filling the tube with gunpowder, and tying up both ends. Spilled gunpowder was swept up often during the day, the women wore special shoes, and movement was restricted. But with and without safety precautions, this essential wartime munitions work claimed the lives of nearly 100 women  in explosions as fiery and fierce as any on a battlefield.

By October of 1861, Watertown, Massachusetts federal arsenal commander Col. Thomas Rodman listed 158 women on the roll books as cartridge formers. They were often sisters or wives of men employed at the arsenal; 18-year-old Violet Smith, her brother, and her sister supported themselves and their mother by working at the arsenal while their father was away at war.

Many of the new arsenal workers had been domestics, washerwomen, or dressmakers. Some had sewn clothing for the U.S. Army, jobs most often claimed by widows or sisters of soldiers. But cartridge formers earned the most money, from $14 to $25 a month for long hours, six days a week. Some stitched cartridge bags at home for 2 cents a piece. Camaraderie was reportedly high among the women, because of the importance of their work to the Union Army.

At the U.S. Army’s Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh, the Colonel of Ordinance, John Symington, preferred to hire girls as cartridge formers, after boys had proven too careless with safety precautions.

On the afternoon of Sept. 17, 1862, a series of explosions ripped through the arsenal, loud enough to be heard in Pittsburgh two miles away. Some people thought it was a Confederate attack. Those who rushed to the scene, reported the Pittsburgh Gazette, found “an appalling sight.” The arsenal’s roof had collapsed and the laboratory was in flames. “Girls ran screaming in terror and agony from the building with their clothes on fire and their faces blackened and unrecognizable. As the building burned, women jumped from the windows, and others were trampled underfoot by terrified women trying to escape. Witnesses tried to help fleeing women who pleaded with onlookers to tear burning clothes from their bodies.”

Mary Jane Black worked at the arsenal, but had left her post to collect her pay right before the explosion. When she heard screams and saw, “two girls behind me; they were on fire; their faces were burning and blood running from them. I pulled the clothes off one of them; while I was doing this, the other one ran up and begged me to cover her.” A few bones and the steel bands used to stiffen their hoop skirts were all that was left of some victims. Limbs, bones, clothing, and bodies were found hundreds of feet from the explosion, on the streets and in the Allegheny River. Many could not be identified, and were buried in a mass grave.

The explosion was probably caused by the metal shoe of a horse striking a spark which touched off loose powder in the roadway near the lab, which then traveled to the porch and set off several barrels of gunpowder, which may have been uncovered. The barrels may also have been re-used and leaking powder. On Sept. 17, 1862, the coroner’s jury held that the accident was caused by the “gross negligence” of Col. John Symington and his subordinates in allowing loose powder to accumulate on the roadway and elsewhere.

In September of 1862, the tragedy of twenty thousand dead in the Battle of Antietam, the most casualties in a single day of the entire Civil War, forever overshadows the tragedy of the most civilian deaths in a single day, the 78 workers at the U.S. Alleghany Arsenal in Pennsylvania.

Sources include:; Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, by Judith Giesberg (University of North Carolina Press, 2009); Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 1, 2008; Harper’s Weekly, July 20, 1861.

~ ~ ~ ~

Facts to Fiction:

Read an excerpt of Jennifer Wilke’s historical novel-in-progress, The Color of Prayer,

inspired by these historical facts & Edwin Lybarger’s Civil War diaries.

"I shall send you my likeness once you send me yours."

During the Civil War, it could be risky business for a young lady to give her photograph to a soldier, who wanted it for company, for the memory of home, to keep his hope of returning to her. The romantic implications were serious, implying a promise or even an engagement. And should romantic fancies fade, as they so often do, a girl’s reputation might be seriously tarnished if her unreturned photograph was in the possession of a less than scrupulous man.

A solider had his “likeness” or “shadow” taken in uniform, by photographers and in studios as he could find them. Many men had a new photograph taken with each rise in rank. A respectable young lady had her photograph taken in studios with backdrops and furniture, in genteel poses. Less respectable young ladies were photographed wearing only a smile, a furtive photographic pleasure for many a soldier far from home and the watchfulness of nice girls.

Out of fashion by the mid-1850’s, daguerreotypes were images made on a copper plate. Delicate to preserve, they were usually kept in small hinged, velvet-lined padded cases, with protective glass cover.

In the 1850’s and through the war, ambrotypes were made on glass plates, the image looking like a negative until blacking was painted onto the glass, the reflecting silver making it a positive image. These were often hand-tinted. Tintypes, on a metal plate, made an image with a dim tone and grey highlights, but they were more durable and cheap, and were sturdy enough to put into an envelope and mail.

Invented in 1851, the wet collodion photographic process gradually replaced the other types of photography. This process produced a glass negative and a beautifully detailed print. Given the quality of the prints and the ease with which they could be reproduced from the glass plates, the method thrived from the 1850s until about 1880.

Popular from 1860 on, a carte de visite was an albumen print, a 2-1/2″ x 4″ print on cardboard. The camera could make 8 separate negatives on single plate, so these images were faster to process and cheaper to buy. “Cardomania,” they called the fad, as it became popular to give away one’s portrait. Cartes de visite were also sold of celebrities: President Lincoln, General Grant, Queen Victoria.

Demonstration of wet plate collodion photography.

Sherman broke her heart, twice

On May 5, Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson sent a message to his troops in Chattanooga to encourage them for the new campaign. My great-grandfather was a 1st lieutenant in the Army of the Tennessee, and kept a copy of that inspiring and prescient circular:

We are about to enter upon one of the most important campaigns of the war and to measure our strength on the battle-field against a large and well commanded foe…Stand firmly by your posts…the successful issue of the battle may depend upon your individual bravery and the stubbornness with which you hold your position. –Maj. Gen. Jas. B. McPherson   

On July 22, Atlanta still untaken, McPherson was meeting with Sherman when they heard cannon fire from an unexpected direction. McPherson rode out to investigate the source, taking only a few other officers with him. They rode into a party of the Fifth Confederate Tennessee regiment sneaking through the woods, in a break between the Union’s 16th and 17th Corps. McPherson wheeled his horse to try to escape but was shot by a Confederate corporal. The ball found his heart.”I have lost my bower,” General Sherman grieved. He wrote again in regret and sympathy to Miss Hoffman. Upon hearing of her fiance’s death, the lovely Miss Hoffman went into her room and remained there for a year. She never married.

Flirting with a fan in 1860

Victorian ladies flirted and sent their lovers messages with their fans, a language with its own codes:

You have won my love – place your fan near your heart

You may kiss me – press half-opened fan to your lips

I love you – hide your eyes behind an open fan, or draw it across your cheek

You are cruel – open and close your fan several times

I am married – fan slowly

I am engaged – fan quickly

You are being watched – twirl the fan in your left hand

I will marry you – close the fan very slowly

Don’t be impudent – threaten with a closed fan

Don’t tell our secrets – cover your left ear with an open fan

Aunt Nancy’s 90th birthday brought the good news

On Sept. 17, 2005, her 90th birthday, Nancy Lybarger Rhoades received the news that Swallow Press at Ohio University would publish the Lybarger Civil War letters, a project she had nurtured for many years.

Nancy Rhoades (1915-2007) was the granddaughter of Edwin Lewis Lybarger (1840-1924), who served in the 43rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, 1862-1865. In 1991, in a trunk in her attic, she discovered 168 letters written by several dozen women family members, friends, and sweethearts to Edwin throughout the war.

Nancy transcribed these letters, and they were published in 2009 by  Ohio University’s Swallow Press, with a social commentary by Lucy E. Bailey, on the significance of women’s war work in the North during the Civil War.

WANTED–CORRESPONDENCE: Women’s Letters to a Union Soldier

Edited by Nancy L. Rhoades and Lucy E. Bailey

March 1860 fashions in Godey's Lady's Book

Passementeries, soutache & ruching

An 1860’s century fashion glossary


gauffered (variation of goffered) flounces: crimped, plaited, or fluted fabric, esp. with heated iron.

mousquetaire cuffs: referring to 18th century royal musketeers, known for their flamboyant dress.

paremont (variation of parament): ornamental ecclesiastical vestments.

passementaries: ornamental edging or trimming (such as tassles) of braid, beadwork, or metallic threads.

ruching: pleated or gathered strip of fabric for trimming.

soutache: narrow braid with herringbone pattern, for trim.

tarletane (variation of tarlatan): sheer cotton fabrid in open, plain weave, sized for stiffness.

Sultana Opera Cloak

The extremely elegant effect of the Sultana Opera Cloak cannot fail to strike the observer. The graceful, easy flow when on the figure is pleasing to the eye, and exhibits symptoms of most successful taste. It will be seen that the folds fall in a totally different direction to the generality of opera cloaks. Instead of draping from the shoulders downward, thereby creating an unnatural stiffness in the figure, they assume a semicircular form, fall gracefully into the waist, and produce a becoming fullness in the skirt otherwise unattainable. The hood, or rather semblance of a hood, is very recherché, and ornamented with tassels, manufactured expressly for the cloak from a design obtained from one of the internal decorations of the principal court of the Alhambra. It is fastened in front with a loop and buttons to correspond with the tassels, and affords unusual protection to the chest.

A discussion of the latest fashions for ladies 

from Jan. 1860 Godey’s Lady’s Book:

Striped silks, the stripes being from four to six inches wide, and alternating in color, style, etc., are among the richest figured materials for street-dress, as a stripe of dark green satin, with the alternate stripe of silk, figured in some pretty floral design. Alternate stripes of black silk and velvet are also very elegant. Moiré antique is worn rather more now than the past season, the favorite colors being royal purple and emerald green. The broché silks are in fact real brocades of our grandmothers, broché meaning only embroidery- a rich black or gray taffeta ground is sprinkled with small sprays or bouquets of flowers. These are much worn for evening-dress. Fawn, green, mode, ashes of roses, etc. are among the shades used as a ground, the flowers being in their natural colors. Black, deep purple, maroon, and deep blue taffetas, figured with black velvet, are, perhaps, the most expensive dresses.

See more Godey’s fashion plates

The charity of Christ impels us

with special thanks to Jim Schmidt for his guidance in matters of Civil War medicine and the role of the Sister-nurses in Army hospitals. See his blog on Civil War medicine:

In the spring of 1861, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Louisville, Martin John Spalding, offered the Sisters of Charity as nurses to the Union Army in Louisville, Kentucky. The offer was accepted by Gen. Robert Anderson (of Fort Sumter fame), in command of the department of Kentucky, in the following agreement:

The Sisters of Charity will nurse the wounded under the direction of the army surgeons, without any intermediate authority or interference whatever. Everything necessary for the lodging and nursing of the wounded and the sick will be supplied to them without putting them to expense; they giving their service gratuitously. So far as circumstances will allow, they shall have every facility for attending to religious and devotional exercises. –Robert Anderson, Brig. Gen., U. S. Army

Union Gen. Smith, in command of 7,000 Union troops in early 1861, appealed to the Sisters of Charity for their nursing aid at Paducah,Kentucky. Sister Martha Drury, the mother superior of St. Mary’s Academy at Nazareth, Kentucky, accepted the challenge of turning Sister-teachers to Sister-nurses. Paducah was filled with dying and wounded soldiers from the battles at Fort Donaldson, Fort Henry, and other battles early in the war.

The First Baptist church at the corner of 5th and Jefferson Streets in Paducah was converted into a military hospital. In Sept. 1861, Sister Martha Drury closed St. Mary’s Academy and led the teachers to Paducah: Sisters Sophia Carton, Justine Linnehan, Mildred Travers, Beatrice Skees, and Mary Lucy Dosh. They received brief training in first aid, from another Sister nurse. Their habits of black serge consisted of a plaited skirt and cape worn over black waist and sleeves; a neat white collar, and a simple, black cap (covered by nuns’ veiling on the street).

Sister Mary Lucy Dosh, a music teacher and one of the youngest of the religious, became a devoted nurse to the soldiers with typhoid fever. On Dec. 29, 1861, she died of the disease herself. The soldiers gave provided her coffin an escort in a gunboat from Paducah on the Ohio River to Uniontown, then a military escort carried her toSt. Vincent’s Academy for burial. The soldier guards kept vigil all night with blazing torches made of pine knots.

Many of the wounded Union soldiers were not Catholics and had never seen a religious. The Sisters had to overcome the distrust and prejudices against “Catholicity” by many of their patients, who would cover their heads with a blanket when they came near, or refuse treatment. The Sisters did not discriminate based on the patients’ religious beliefs (or lack of beliefs), or expect any to convert. Their charitable actions quickly earned them wide respect.

Army surgeons who worked with the Sisters of Charity praised their dependability and discipline. They eased the doctors’ work, were cooperative, and handled the men better than the surgeons. The medical men appreciated their “sturdy practicality in handling problems, in making the best of conditions, and their steadfastness in the accomplishment of their assigned tasks.”

“The charm the Sisters of Charity carried, as the soldiers soon discovered, were blameless lives, absolute devotion to duty, and entire self-forgetfulness.” (Barton) Their patience and sincerity is said to have brought out the best behavior of their soldier patients, curtailed cursing, and earned them gratitude, gifts, and the highest praise: “You are must like my mother.”

Additional sources: Angels of the Battlefield: A History of the Labors of the Catholic Sisterhoods in the Late Civil War, by George Barton (Philadelphia, 1897); To Bind Up the Wounds: Catholic Sister Nurses in the U.S. Civil War, by Sister Mary Denis Mayer, 1989; The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky, by Anna Blanche McGill (Encyclopedia Press, 1917); Summer Winds: Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Kentucky 1859-1912, by James Spillane (Abbey Press, 1991).

 Facts to fiction:

Read an excerpt of Jennifer Wilke’s historical novel-in-progress, The Color of Prayer, inspired by these historical facts and Edwin Lybarger’s Civil War diaries.

Cast on 38 loops on each of 3 pins.

Pattern from Godey’s Lady’s Book, Jan. 1860

Materials: Six ounces of lambswool; 4 pins, No. 18.

Cast on 38 loops on each of three pins. Knit two plain, one pearl in every row. Knit till the work measures nine inches, narrowing five times in that space by knitting two stitches together on each side of the back seam; divide the loops in half, and form the heel thus: Place one half of the loops on one pin for the heel, the remainder on the two pins for the instep. Knit the loops on one pin for four inches, narrowing twice; knit to the back seam, divide the loops and cast off. Pick up the loops at each side of the heel, knit these with those for the instep. In the first round make a stitch after every third on the two side pins; in the next round, narrow by knitting the last on the side pin and the first on the instep in one; repeat at the other side of instep. Next round, plain. Repeat these two rounds fourteen times; then knit about eighty rounds; after which, narrow for the toe. Narrow three times at each side of the pins in every other round, till the whole are narrowed off the sole of the foot, and the last sixty rounds must be plain knitting.

"There never can be a true peace in this Republic until…"

At the May 1863 meeting of the newly formed Woman’s National Loyal League, Lucy Stone reminded the members that while women did not yet have the vote, they had what the U. S. Constitution guarantees to all citizens, the right to petition the government.

The League’s other speakers likened them all to the women of the Revolution who “were not wanting in heroism and self-sacrifice.” They made emancipation their first priority by approving:

Resolution 5: There never can be a true peace in this Republic until the civil and political rights of all citizens of African descent and all women are practically established.

Nine months later, in Feb. 1864, the League’s first 100,000 signatures were delivered to Sen. Charles Sumner in two trunks. Each contained a scroll of the amendment petitions glued end to end. He accepted the petitions with his speech “The Prayer of 100,000.” The League helped to delivery another 300,000 signatures to the Senate and the House, confirming that emancipation had ever-widening popular support and must be an outcome of the Union victory.

Before war’s end, their signatures, combined with other voices and pressure from Lincoln, persuaded the U.S. Senate (April 8, 1864) and the House of Representatives (Jan. 31, 1865) to pass the proposed Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery. It was ratified by enough states to become law in December 1865.

Facts to fiction:

Read an excerpt of Jennifer Wilke’s historical novel-in-progress, The Color of Prayer,

inspired by these historical facts and Edwin Lybarger’s Civil War diaries.