The Civil War challenged the lives of many - both men and women. Some women provided medical care for the sick and wounded by serving as nurses. Others formed aid societies to help both Union and Confederate soldiers. Some canned food, sewed uniforms, blanket and socks and even did laundry for the troops. Women such as Harriet Tubman, Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton and Harriet Beecher Stowe served in ways which resulted in them becoming household names even today. Brave women who wanted to get closer to the front lines served as soldiers, albeit disguised as men.
But what was the plight of the wife and mother from a small rural town? We only need to look at Deborah Carr Hoff of Union Springs to understand what they endured. Deborah (1833-1918) was the eighth of fourteen children born to Hartman and
Ann Brock Carr. In 1857, Deborah was married to Ezekiel (Esek) Winegar Hoff who served for two years, ten months, first as a Sergeant, then rising to the rank of First Lieutenant, in Company K of the 111th New York Infantry. Esek's heroic story of survival is recounted in his letters home and offers insight into the life of a Yankee soldier. His is a story which begs to be told but on another day.
Hoff enlisted in the second year of the war and during the fifth year of his marriage to Deborah. Their only child at the time, Edwin, was a mere nine months old. In the twenty-nine letters written by Deborah to Esek and found by their great great grandson, Ken Harris, in the attic of their home located at 17 Center St. in Union Springs, Deborah shares her privations and concerns, concerns which mirror those of the thousands of other women facing similar circumstances. The Frontenac is indebted to Ken for providing transcriptions of both Deborah's letters and also Esek's letters too, which totaled over 200.
With her husband away at the war Deborah had many responsibilities to address. The work her husband would have done fell to her, and work she could not do would have to be hired out. With so many men away at war there were few men available to hire. Men like Esek who volunteered for service were paid a bounty for enlisting by the Federal and State and sometimes by local governments. Most of these bounties were paid in monthly installments, so although her husband was due bounty payments they came in small amounts each month and sometimes the payments were delayed or missed. While the bounty money was very important to the families, the men away at the war also needed some cash to pay for things that were not supplied by the Army. Although they were supposed to receive pay during their service, Army pay was inconsistent and sometime not received. So Deborah wrote to her husband: "I would like to know if you're going to have pay this winter or not." And then again, "You spoke of some money. I will send you some if you say so, but I have not got a dollar.... I have no bounty yet."
War news was constant, but never reliably accurate. Families understandably wanted to know when their loved ones were in areas known to be under fire. Families in a community where many men were assigned to the same regiment or company would exchange any news they received with other families desperate for word. So Deborah wrote, "I would like to know where your destination is going to be. I can't hardly sleep nights for worrying about it. Where will they send you?" And again, "Today I do not get any letters from you and I am in great trouble. There is not one that has had a single word but hope that it will turn out that you are all safe as yet."
Throughout the war there was constant action in and around Harper's Ferry, a large town near the border between Virginia and Maryland, and the location of a large Federal arms depot. The town changed hands several times during the war, first in Union hands then in Confederate, then back to Union again. So Deborah wrote, "It made me afraid when I hear you were sent to Harper's Ferry. I am afraid you will see fighting there....for they are mowing our men down like grass."
Raising a child with an absent father would certainly mean she would try very hard to keep his father's memory alive and she would want Esek kept informed about his son's milestones, so she wrote: "Your little boy tried to walk some but he has forgot Papa for I call you and he don't know what it means."
Postal Service was inconsistent and the Army did not concern itself with mail delivery. Each man had to tell his family where he was and where to address letters, as their company moved from one location to another. People who sent cash or packages would send separate inquiries to find out if their mail had gotten through, as many letters and packages were opened or stolen or simply misdirected and discarded as unable to deliver. So Deborah wrote, "This is a letter of inquiry to you to know if you get any of my papers that I send you....I have written three and I would like to know if you have got them." And again, "I went to the village this afternoon and thought I would get a letter from you and come back feeling so full that I wouldn't keep from crying and Eddie cried to that. I did not get any."
Money was in very short supply for people in rural areas. Barter was used for much commerce, as people had very little cash or savings. There were no government programs for the poor, and very few private charities. The years of the Civil War were known for their very cold winters, and the winter of 1864-65 was especially cold. The entire surface of Cayuga Lake froze that winter. People really needed warm clothing to survive. It was thought quite humiliating to ask for help, so Deborah wrote: "I shall have to have some clothes before long, so will Eddie, and that costs money so I shall live as close (i.e. inexpensively) as I can and try to do the best I can for my part." And again, "So father has paid me two dollars for what I have done and I shall send it to you. I thought that I would get a dress for I need one very much but I was afraid that you wanted some so I will send it but I want you to keep some...." And again, "I have thirteen cents left is all I have to buy what I get. But I am glad you have got some to help yourself with. Again but Eddie and I are as ragged as we can be for we must have some clothes sincerely for Eddie and I can't go without clothes."
Of all the problems Deborah experienced, none was worse than loneliness and despair. She spoke of this often, writing: I am well now but lonesome. That is worse than sickness to me", and "I am well with the exception of being lonesome living alone. I wish you could be home. If this war would end and let you all come home would be the happiest time ever known in these Northern States but there is not prospect of that until our men are killed off so there is none left on the face of the earth." As the weeks and months and years went by her anguish deepened and she wrote, "Sometimes I think that I would hardly turn my hand over to live another day if it were not for my little boy. For he is all I have left. You have gone from me and my cow is dead. I feel most discouraged." And continued to write: "If I could see one spark of hope that you would ever come home again I should have something to cheer me up but I can never see it."
Deborah's worries were not only for her husband but also for close family members serving in the war as well as neighbors, family and friends who remained in Union Springs. Life was fragile in the 1860's even without the war. Deborah's letters also convey the unfailing support she received from her parents, other family members and neighbors.
Esek did return to Deborah where, in 1867, the first of three more children were born to them. Their son Edwin, whose love and affection offered great strength to Deborah during the time Esek was at war, sadly drowned in Cayuga Lake in 1891 at age 30. Esek followed Edwin to Chestnut Hill Cemetery in 1913 and Deborah in 1918.
Photos of the Carr and Hoff family are many but one eludes us. We know from her letters to Esek that photos of Deborah and Edwin were taken yet none have ever been found. There are many Carr descendants alive today. Should any have a photo of Deborah, we would appreciate you contacting us at 315-889-5875. Ken Harris has been so kind to share these letters with us. A wonderful way to thank him would be finding a photo of Deborah.
Thank you to Guest Editor, Patricia Deller