Her husband left her with a newborn and a working farm. Fortunately, she had four toddlers to help her out.
Immigrant men in Pennsylvania often went off to the Civil War as much to rid themselves of the immigrant stigma as they did to serve any great national cause. The families they left behind in rural communities usually supported such a decision but generally did not anticipate that the struggle at home would be so difficult, or so long.
It was just that way for Elizabeth Schwalm. She was eight months pregnant when her husband, Samuel, enlisted in the Union army on August 19, 1861. In addition to the child Elizabeth was carrying, the couple had four other children, all under the age of five. When Samuel Schwalm left their corn fields to join his regiment, he left Elizabeth with the children alone, with seventy-five acres that soon would be ready to harvest. Samuel's enlistment would allow the German couple to prove their patriotism. It required Elizabeth to prove her mettle.
Samuel's brother and other family members living nearby were there to help Elizabeth with that year's harvest, and he was confident that these arrangements would make it possible for his sturdy wife to manage the farm and five young children for the few months he would be gone.
The three months became a year. And then three years.
Samuel's brother, Peter, stayed with Elizabeth through that first busy harvest and likely helped with the planting the following spring, but by March 1862, Peter was gone.
From then until September 1864, Elizabeth managed the family and the farm largely by herself, enlisting the children to her aid when it was possible and requiring the eldest to tend to their younger siblings. Throughout his absence, Samuel pleaded with Elizabeth to hire "a man" to help her on the farm and a "girl" to help with the children. Such aid was expensive or impossible to find.
She managed. She had to. She was alone, yet in a rural Pennsylvania dotted with women just like her.
When Samuel mustered out he returned to his family and a working farm. Judging by the subsequent expansions the couple made to their land-holdings and by the family's continued prosperity, it is likely they saw the value in such a sacrifice.
Although we have ready access to the wartime accounts of U.S. army soldiers like Samuel, Elizabeth Schwalm's Civil War has been largely unexplored. Yet her experience was not uncommon among women in Pennsylvania and the rest of the rural North - although not all women managed the absence of their husbands with as much success as Elizabeth Schwalm. Soldiers' wives on smaller and less productive farms, those with no family to help out or those not blessed with Elizabeth's fine health, and women on rented land or whose husbands were hired laborers were common in Pennsylvania's farming communities. These women faced circumstances similar to Elizabeth's but survived them with greater difficulty. Women like Elizabeth made it possible for men to swell the ranks of Pennsylvania's regiments. They ensured that crops were planted and harvested and helped sustain Pennsylvania's considerable agricultural (and industrial) output in the war.
Historians estimate that half of all soldiers in the U.S. Army were farmers or farm laborers and an estimated thirty-percent of all soldiers were married.
A soldier's salary was slow to reach the farm. Elizabeth fended off creditors and called in debts to keep the farm running. To that struggle add long days of work that left her bone-weary and in constant fear for the safety of her husband.
Immigrant soldiers like Samuel were over-represented on Civil War battlefields where they fought bravely and died in defense of their adopted country. Compared to the recognition of those at the battlefront, we have come more slowly to value a life like Elizabeth's lived on the home front. Even then, to value it is not to fully imagine it.
Information for this section was contributed by Judith Giesberg.
Judith Giesberg is the author of two books examining the experiences of women in the Civil War North, "Army at Home:" Northern Women and the Civil War on the Home Front forthcoming in July 2009 and Civil War Sisterhood: The U. S. Sanitary Commission and Women's Politics in Transition. Dr. Giesberg teaches history at Villanova University.
Image Courtesy of Johannes Schwalm Historical Association, Inc.
- Judith Giesberg, Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front, University of North Carolina Press, 2009 (forthcoming).
- James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
- James McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.