New Ways of Work and Life
Because the homefront was responsible for supplying the Union army, the Civil War had dramatic effects on the growth of cities and industry in the North. Urban centers, railroads, and factories grew rapidly in response to the new demands to equip, move, and feed soldiers in the field. With these new needs came opportunities and change.
Women, in particular, took on new roles in response to the war. Some volunteered to sew flags and uniforms or took dangerous paying jobs to prepare arms for use on the battlefield, as depicted by Winslow Homer in the 1861 engraving Filling Cartridges at the United States Arsenal at Watertown, Massachusetts.
Upper- and middle-class ladies also volunteered in new associations to support the military effort. Women who joined the United States Sanitary Commission, for instance, held fairs to raise money for improvements in the soldiers’ camp life. In 1863 Chicago hosted the first of many sanitary fairs held throughout the Union, depicted in the lithograph Main Building of the Great North Western Sanitary Fair, Chicago.
A wide variety of items were sold to the public at the event, including handicrafts, baked goods, and fine art, such as William Sidney Mount’s painting Fruit Piece: Apples on Tin Cups. Apples, a fruit commonly associated with the idea of home, were sold at sanitary fairs as snacks for visitors wanting to support the soldiers.
Although the North had been going through a process of industrializing leading up to and because of the war, most families in the Union still lived on farms. When husbands, fathers, and older sons went to war, women and children took up farm work normally reserved for men, like managing financial transactions and tending fields.
Winslow Homer's 1864 painting On Guard captures the mixed feelings of pride and loneliness felt by those left behind to tend to the homefront while loved ones fought and died far away.