Silk Stripes and Scattered Stars
Haverhill Women’s Contributions to the Civil War.
Feb. 1 is National Freedom Day. It commemorates Abraham Lincoln’s 1865 signing of a joint resolution of Congress that led to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the abolition of slavery in the United States. The signing occurred a few months before the end of the Civil War, the bloodiest conflict ever on American soil.
According to Nina Silber, author of “Daughters of the Union,” the contributions of many Northern women to the war effort have been overlooked because the Merrimack Valley was a long way from the front lines, “far from the danger of battle.” An exhibit at Buttonwoods Museum in Haverhill highlighted some of these women and how they had to step into roles traditionally filled by men, helping out on farms and working in place of their husbands in the Haverhill shoe factories.
Out of need, private groups were formed, directed by men but run by women volunteers. In the Bradford/Haverhill area, they included The Soldiers Relief Society and The U.S. Sanitary Commission. The lists of staples the groups sent to the troops offer a fascinating peek into how people lived. The Relief Society sent a variety of items, including barrels of apples and onions, corn starch, wine and ginger. The Commission, which was more active and concentrated on improving the conditions soldiers faced in the camps and hospitals, sent rolls of bandages, finger cots, rolls of cotton and linen, and havelocks, which were attached to hats to protect the wearer from sun, rain and snow.
The Commission also ran “Sanitary Fairs,” perhaps our first community fundraisers. They featured parades, exhibitions, amusement acts and markets, and were used to recruit women as nurses. The Commission was also an early veterans organization, assisting in providing homes for soldiers on sick leave or furlough.
The Haverhill Historical Society recognizes two female Civil War veterans. Little is known of Lucinda H. Worthen (1836–1911), but Susan Robinson Mills (1840–1926) is on record for having served on hospital bases of the Federal Army, one stint lasting four months at the infamous Harpers Ferry. Later, during a veterans reunion, she was honored by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for her contributions.
Nancy Buswell provided one of the most interesting contributions to the war effort. The owner at different times of several millinery shops in Haverhill, Buswell advertised her business at 2 Water St. as “Millinery & Fancy Goods, paying particular attention to Dress Caps and Head Dresses.” Buswell’s brother, E.K. Davis, was in the Hale Guards. When Lincoln, in 1861, called for 70,000 troops to fight the South, the Guards were first to offer their services.
But they had no flag. When Buswell’s brother remarked on this, she said, “You shall have a flag if I have to make one.” And she did. Tearing up silk ribbons from her shop, she worked two days straight on only two hours of sleep. On April 19, 1861, she presented the flag to the Guards as they boarded the train to Boston. The flag was carried to the front lines and eventually returned to Haverhill. It came back in remarkably good shape, and is now preserved at the historical society in a large shadow frame box.
During the mid-1800s, the American flag went through several transformations, and in 1861, the blue square housed 34 stars. What is entrancing about Buswell’s flag is that her stars are scattered around the blue background in a natural pattern, as they appear in the sky.
Buswell died in 1910 at the age of 87. According to the Buttonwoods Museum’s exhibit, she was “proud to say that Haverhill was her Native place and home.” We should all be proud of her and the many volunteers who pulled together to help their neighbors during a war that brought freedom to others.
(The information for this article was obtained from the Buttonwoods Museum’s “To Serve the Common Cause” exhibit, Sept. 2012.)