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Qualifications and Duties of An American Civil War Laundress

Updated on January 10, 2014

Introduction

Every time the phrase “The Civil War” is mentioned the first thought that generally comes to almost everyone mind are the main characters we often hear about such as Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and William Sherman.Then there are a few women who also made significant contributions during the war such as Clara Barton, Mary Walker, Phoebe Pember and many more. However,there were a group of women who were pretty much invisible in the war but provided a very basic and important need for the men during the war. They were called “Washer Women” or "Laundresses" and their job were to clean the men uniforms; an army tradition that was established back in 1802. They were the first women to be paid by the army for their services.

Requirements for the Job:

Only women of good character were allowed to be a laundressor “washer woman” in the civil war camps as stated in the Union army’s 1861 MilitaryHand Book and Soldier’s Manual of Information. Each woman had to obtain a “Certificate of GoodCharacter” from the army headquarters before she was allow to assume duty withinthe lines.

With certificate in hand she was granted an official statusin the army camps to be the company laundress while other women, includingofficer’s wives were given the status of “camp followers.” She was considered avery important person in the company. The company captain generally appointedthe laundresses and with their appointment they received housings, a dailyration of food, and the services of the surgeons.

The laundress was usually married to one of the soldiers in the company with which she served and in some cases it was expected that sheshould be a relative to one of the soldiers in the company. For instance, Mrs.Hannah O’Neil went to war with her son in Company H of the 1st Minnesota VolunteerInfantry. Each company in the Union army was allowed up to four laundresses andon the Confederate side each company had up to seven laundresses.

Accommodations:

Keep mind these women were living in the same conditions as the soldiers were living in during the war. They also lived in army tents. Their quarters were separate from the soldiers of course and if she was married to a soldier, her husband usually lived with here in an area appropriately called “Suds Row” as the laundress area of the camp was called.

Civil War Laundress
Civil War Laundress

While On The Job…

Laundresses were expected to perform their duty with a military style discipline even thought they were not treated like soldiers and they were subjected to military justice if their behavior became unacceptable. Remember, “No woman of bad character was allow to follow the army.” At least one laundress was court-martialed for foul mouthing to an officer. She was found guilty and sentenced to be discharged from the regiment, but the officer later reversed the sentence. Despite a few exceptions, most laundresses were respectable, but there were some who occasionally earned extra money by other means besides washing dirty socks. Such improper behavior was grounds for dismissal. The army had other strict rules for Laundresses:

  • No one was to be in “suds row,” the area packed with laundry stations, unless they were picking up or dropping off laundry. 
  • Laundresses were never to engage in romantic relationships with any of the soldiers.
Wherever the regiment went, the laundresses followed. They were exposed to the same potential hazards that the soldiers were exposed to. For instance, during a river crossing just below For Craig, New Mexico in May 1865, eight soldiers drowned when their boat sank. No laundresses lost their life in this instance.

Many soldiers complained that they were a burden during transport. The laundresses did not come alone they had families and belongings. Many brought along their children, dogs, beds, cribs, tables, buckets, boards, etc. They were allowed to bring all their belongings while other women were not allow to due to their status.

Equipment Required To Perform The Job:

Life on the road was no pleasure trip for these women; a laundress needed a lot of equipment to keep up with their work. These women had to be strong. A 25-gallon empty, oak tub weighed about 35 pounds and a laundress needed two of these. Other items they needed were:

  • Buckets
  • Boilers
  • Laundry sticks
  • Scrub boards
  • Soap crates
  • Bluing
  • Ropes
  • Fire grates
  • Basic household items

Note: In a future hub I will explain how much work was involved to get those dirty uniforms clean.

Pay:

Most laundresses made up to about $40 a month. One laundress, Mrs. O’Neil received a “half dollar” from each of the men whom she washed. A full company of 100 men was authorized to have four laundresses. At fifty cents from each man, Mrs. O’Neil was able to make $12.50 from each man. Of course some men could not effort to pay a laundress, instead they washed their own clothing or worn them until they fell apart. I feel sorrow for that guy.

Job Benefits And Rewards:

Considering the amount of labor that can out of this job there were incentives to draw women to it. The pay came directly from the soldier pay and not from the army. The army set the rate. The pay was also affected by how many officers the laundress wash for, the more officers, the larger their pay. The main benefit of being a laundress was the opportunity to stay with her husband rather than endure a long or probable permanent separation from her husband.

In addition to their cleaning services, the laundresses provided other services by bring along home remedies to treat illnesses and injuries, and often assisted surgeons during surgery. For many soldiers, the laundresses were reminders that there was a world beyond the war, where men lived for peace with friends and family they loved. That reminder gave them hope.


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    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      4 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Historylover, thanks for your comment. Most of this information can from Civil War magazines I had in my possession a few years ago. The magazine was "Civil War Times". You can also find more information on this subject by googling "Civil War Laundress" and you will get a few websites on this subject.

    • profile image

      Historylover 

      4 years ago

      I liked your article! What are your sources for this information? I would like to read further on the subject.

    • melpor profile imageAUTHOR

      Melvin Porter 

      8 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Thanks Dahoglund. I try to write hubs about subjects people do not hear much about. Again thanks for your comment.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Very good hub. I find social history to be something neglected in the days when we had history in school. I wasn't until my last years in college that I discovered from a Professor of "Intellectual and social History."

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