During the Civil War, the idea of the “home front” signified differently in Union and Confederate literature. While northerners frequently contrasted peaceful home settings with battlefield violence, there was often little meaning to the distinction in the south, where the war enveloped farmland, towns, and cities, and the distinction between soldiers and civilians was blurred, even erased. Historians have begun to explore “the merger of home front and battle front in the experience of military occupation” during the war, particularly in relation to southern women. If the home front for northern women poets signified a safe place at a remove from the fighting, in the southern states it was often the very site of violent conflict.
Critical studies tend to focus either on Union or Confederate literature, assuming that they function as discrete expressive systems. A comparative approach offers insight into the gendered aspects of poetic-political participation in the conflict, spanning the sections that unilateral perspectives cannot. This essay demonstrates that women poets regardless of section took up topics and tropes from the antebellum period and adapted them to a radically different wartime outlook. Registering the urgency of civic issues, women writers turned away from staging dramas of private expression toward a more direct public address. Though many of the poems discussed here carry patriotic sentiment, they are more centrally preoccupied with war's devastation: massive death tolls, environmental damage, broken lines of communication. Above all, they register the encroachment of violence on the very poetic traditions they are using to address war's circumstances. As a result, the revisions they undertake differ according to the writer's regional sympathies; rather than reflecting and enforcing a clear boundary between sections, however, the poems form a continuum influenced by identification with place, as well as proximity to battlefield violence: the closer “home” is to a violent epicenter, the less relevant extant traditions prove to be.
This essay explores how northern and southern women responded to the Civil War by reworking a shared literary inheritance in divergent ways: “the language of flowers.” A tradition spanning centuries, but taking the form recognized as “Victorian” in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, its possibilities particularly attracted popular American women writers in the 1840s and ’50s.