Glamorous it was not. Backbreaking, long hours bent over a washtub and kettle made this profession perhaps one of the hardest jobs women have had through the centuries. Scrubbing laundry for one's family is one thing but for a company of soldiers? Not an assignment for any fading lily or simpering coquette.
So who were these washer-folk who served the Union and the Confederacy during our country's War Between the States? Statistically, they vary. There were men launderers. Convalescent soldiers might be tasked with wash at an army hospital, or the slaves of wealthier officers and soldiers. But most often they were women. Some were freed slaves, contraband, and indentured. Others were wives of soldiers, widows, or even indigent women seeking a modest income and the one-meal-a-day ration the army provided them. Respectable women whose reputation was expected to be above reproach, complete with written character references.
The United States army had commissioned laundry service since 1802. During the Civil War the laundress was the most common role for women in the armed services, and dwindled until in the 1880's when the official position was terminated. That is to say, no pay or rations were offered.
Some served in garrisons, some at army hospitals, while a number traveled on campaigns with the army. At the height of their ranks, each company of up to 100 soldiers had four laundresses. These four would share an army-provided tent, a hatchet for chopping firewood, a kettle, and two mess pans to share between them. Pay would either be administered directly from the company they served, or from individual soldiers, under the direction of the captain at the pay tables. Their wages preceded the Sutler's in priority. Often they were looked after as sisters, mothers, like adopted family, and they would strike deals for help with hauling water or firewood in exchange for extra care, such as darning or bluing or starching. But there are records of laundresses married to soldiers killed in battle who married again within the company, in some cases more than once or twice.
Though wives of officers held a higher social rank, the army laundress held more rights. For instance, if an officer was killed, the wife had only 24 hours to vacate, but a laundress wife had six months, in which time she could choose to remarry or continue on in service as a single woman.
Some laundresses were not as virtuous as others. As with any other time in history, women living in close quarters with men far from home can produce loose morals even in those not normally predisposed to such wanton behavior. But by and large, laundresses were considered respectable.
Wash tubs were fashioned from barrels obtained from the quartermaster, but the average laundress would have to procure her own scrub board, brush, and lye. A ringer would be considered a luxury.
In my new book, The Chaplain's Daughter, my heroine is a laundress with the Army of Northern Virginia following the Battle of Second Manassas, more commonly known as The Second Battle of Bull Run. It was a real eye opener for me to enter the world of this often overlooked heroine and her service to the war effort on both sides.
****A feisty army laundress takes up her father's calling when a proud artillery captain finds his heart and hope shattered. Will the devout care of a minister's daughter bring healing to his soul or rub salt in his wounds?***
I'm offering a GIVEAWAY to two lucky commenters of an ebook copy of The Chaplain's Daughter. Just answer this discussion question to enter: Could you be a laundress if you had few other options? What would be the hardest part to you, or any possible good sides of the job?
Drawing April 5 at 8 PM, winners announced then. Bonus entries if you share this post or follow any/all of my pages (see below). Let me know in the comments.