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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Civil War

Frederick Gutekunst, photographer. Carte d' visite: McClellan, George Brinton, 1826-1885. James Wadsworth Family Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

No military topic is better documented in the Manuscript Division's collections than the Civil War. The division holds the records of the Confederate States of America (18,500 items; 1858-72) and the papers of many of the leading generals and of hundreds of noncommissioned officers and enlisted personnel on both sides of the conflict. A leading component of most of these collections is family correspondence, notably letters between wives and husbands, and parents and children.

These collections range from the Thomas Ewing Family Papers (94,000 items; 1757-1941; bulk 1815-96)—which include letters Ellen Ewing Sherman (1824-1888) wrote to her mother describing the various army camps where she visited her husband, Union general William T. Sherman—to letters that Confederate army officers Roger Weightman Hanson (175 items; 1856-88) and John Singleton Mosby (40 items; 1861-1904; bulk 1860-69) exchanged with their wives.

Some women, including Ellen Marcy McClellan (1838-1907), used their diaries not only to record their own personal thoughts and activities, but also to record for their families and posterity their husbands' accomplishments. The remaining three volumes, 1866-72, of Ellen's deliberately detailed diaries were recently added to the George Brinton McClellan Papers (33,000 items; 1823-98; bulk 1850-85).

Other parts of this guide (see especially Reform, Health and Medicine, and Congressional Collections) discuss collections reflecting women's roles as Civil War nurses, laundresses, welfare agents, and suppliers of food and clothing. Another area of continuing research interest is the role women played gathering intelligence information for both armies. Union signal officer James M. McClintock (84 items; 1862-87) received help from his daughter in transcribing intercepted Confederate messages. Quaker Rebecca M. Bonsal, a Union supporter living in Winchester, Virginia, in 1864, smuggled military intelligence to Union army officer Philip Henry Sheridan (18,000 items; 1831-91; bulk 1862-87), thus enabling him to capture the town. Information on other women spies may be found in the papers of Philip Phillips (see Congressional Collections) John C. Babcock (60 items; 1855-1913), who served in the military intelligence bureau of the Army of the Potomac, and in the aforementioned records of the Confederate States of America.

Photograph of lace cap and collar made by Antonia Ford Willard while in prison on charges of spying for the Confederate Army. 2001. Willard Family Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.33

The papers of the socially and politically active Willard Family of Virginia and Washington, D.C. (119,900 items; 1800-1968; bulk 1890-1954) include the papers of Antonia Ford Willard (1838-1871), an accused Confederate spy who was a commissioned aide-de-camp to Gen. Jeb Stuart. Her letters discuss the effects of the war on noncombatants, the whereabouts of friends and family in the Confederate army, and her secret romance with and subsequent marriage to Union Maj. Joseph Clapp Willard, who had arrested her for wartime espionage. Additional correspondence, research notes, and clippings about Willard and her part in the Confederate capture of Gen. Edwin Henry Stoughton were assembled by Antonia's daughter-in-law, Belle Layton Wyatt Willard (1873-1954), whose own papers provide important insights into her life as a diplomat's wife and businesswoman involved in her family's extensive real estate and hotel operations.

For descriptions of other Civil War collections, consult the Library's catalog and the printed guide Civil War Manuscripts: A Guide to Collections in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress compiled by John R. Sellers.

Manuscript Resources Referenced

The following collection titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content, including finding aids for the collections, are included when available.


  1. When division archivists sort, arrange, and describe a manuscript collection, they occasionally discover locks of hair, articles of clothing, jewelry, pressed flowers, pieces of wedding cake, wallets, badges, pins, or other three-dimensional artifacts tucked in among the papers. Generally these items are not retained within the Manuscript Division, although notable exceptions to this policy abound, including this delicately crafted lace cap and collar, purportedly made by Antonia Ford Willard (1838-1871) while in prison on charges of spying for the Confederate army. Willard, who later married her captor, Union Major Joseph Clapp Willard, wrote a poem about these items, which began with the verse “This collar my Mamma must wear, And she must wear alone, I've made it in my prison cell, Don't think me quite a drone.” Back to text