Family members encamped with Union troops near Washington, D.C.

An 1861 photograph of a soldier posing with a woman and three children in a camp as more soldiers look on in the background

Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-DIG-cwpb-01663.

Family members of a soldier in the Thirty-First Pennsylvania Volunteers encamped with the troops near Fort Slocum in Washington, D.C., in the fall of 1861. Women and children, particularly the families of officers, sometimes accompanied armies to the front, where civilians–white and black, male and female–served as noncombatant laborers. Just as Civil War battles typically raged on privately owned land and war production often took place in private industry, this unit was encamped at Queen’s Farm. Note the washboard, at right, an essential tool for army laundresses. Though Union army units hired women as paid laundresses, many women voluntarily followed their husbands as well, performing chores such as laundering, nursing, and cooking. In June 1861 President Abraham Lincoln issued an order requiring all women to leave army companies unless officially employed as laundresses or matrons (nurse supervisors). At least some commanding officers disregarded this order, allowing many women noncombatant volunteers to continue their work.