Soap Suds Row: The Bold Lives of Army Laundresses, 1802-1876

In October of 1861, Ellen Williams accompanied her husband, Charles, who had enlisted as a member of the Colorado Volunteer Infantry. A bugler by trade, Charles Williams’ was able to bring his wife along because she was a part time nurse and laundress whose services were deemed valuable enough to warrant allowing her to accompany her husband’s unit as it headed off for frontier service. Originally mustered in at Fort Garland, Colorado, the Williams’ unit was ordered to travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in what was supposed to be a ten-day march. It was December and severe weather struck the column as it headed toward Santa Fe. Mrs. Williams had a young child and a baby and she feared that the terrible storms would be the death of her family. Ox carts provided for the transportation of equipment, fodder, and other materials of war were not permitted to be used for passengers so Ellen Williams had to walk through the snow. Soldiers took turns carry the Williams’ children but their mother feared for their lives as the march dragged on and on. In order to keep the children from freezing at night the Williams bundled them up and slept with them between them on the frosty nights. Finally, in February, the Williams, their two children, and their unit reached Santa Fe.

After reaching Santa Fe, the Williams accompanied their unit to Fort Union, New Mexico, where they remained until early 1863. Then, once again, the Williams were ordered to make a winter march to a new post in Kansas. This six-week journey featured blizzards, bitter cold temperatures, and a lack of adequate shelter. Amazingly, all four Williams family members survived the trip. In early 1864 the Coloradoans arrived in Kansas City and merged with other volunteers from their home territory to form Company A, Second Colorado Cavalry. Stationed at Hickman’s Mill, Missouri, the Second Colorado saw duty in a bloody and bitter theater of operations as they fought against Confederate raiders. Because of her nursing and laundress duties, Ellen Williams was allowed to accompany her husband even when they went on campaign duty. On December 21, 1864, Charles Williams was mustered out of service. During their time with the Colorado Volunteers, Charles, Ellen, and their two children had traveled over 1,000 miles on foot or in bone shaking wagons in all kinds of weather. Ellen Williams’ story is but one example of the types of service and sacrifice a number of women made in pursuit of duties often overlooked by Civil War scholars.

It is the work that women carried out as laundresses that Jennifer J. Lawrence covers in Soap Suds Row. Written with an eye toward the actual accounts and anecdotes of women who filled a vital and labor-intensive role during the war, this is a compelling book. In the pages of Lawrence’s book readers will learn some surprising facts about laundresses who served in the U.S. Army before, during, and after the Civil War. Lawrence takes her readers into a military world where a laundress could earn more than both an enlisted man or a civilian working man. This earning potential led to the avid courtship of laundresses because of the scarcity of women for soldiers to choose from as well as the economic gains to be made by wedding a well-paid laundress. However, as Lawrence points out in the entertaining and informative book, being a laundress was extremely hard work.

Working on “soap suds row” involved both physical labor and skill. Laundresses had to care for primarily woolen and cotton clothing, all of which were prone to shrinkage or damage during the tough laundering process. Laundresses who damaged goods not only lost pay but were required to offer restitution. The laundering process itself was physically demanding as it required the toting of hundreds of pounds of water per day, hard labor in the form of scrubbing, carrying heavy loads of soldier’s laundry, and the hot processes of creating soap or ironing. Irons were cast iron and took a strong arm to heft and use across a long work day. Laundresses may have worked in a well-supplied washhouse, in a cold and drafty tent, or even under the open sky. Skillful seamstresses could earn additional wages by mending or altering soldiers’ clothing. All in all, As Lawrence portrays in this fine book, a laundress more than earned her good wages by being called upon to carry out tough, physical labor day after day.

Laundresses, and their children, were the exception to the rule that soldiers would be separated from their families. Many laundresses either accompanied their husbands in their military service or married a soldier while serving as a unit laundress. While it was typical for women to stay home during the Civil War, laundresses frequently served in the same unit as their spouse or married a soldier while carrying out their work. While there were mixed feelings about laundresses which sometimes spawned the notion that they were actually prostitutes as well as washer women, this immoral stereotype was the exception rather than the rule. As Jennifer Lawrence recounts, the vast majority of laundresses were upstanding women who simply wanted to earn a living at a pay rate they typically could not achieve in civilian life. In fact, a number of commanders felt that the presence of women in camp fulfilling their hard work responsibilities served to raise the morale of soldiers. In these officers’ perspective, the presence of women helped soldiers improve their behavior, and generally remain less brutalized by the military experience because of the ameliorating effect that women had on male behavior.

Of particular interest in Soap Suds Alley are the stories of the singular women who chose to pursue a difficult and unusual vocation. The female laundresses who served during the Civil War and on the western frontier, faced all the same hardships in camp or on the march that their accompanying soldiers did. When temperatures soared or plummeted and troops struggle with their martial duties so too did the laundresses as they carried out their backbreaking labor. When soldiers were injured and required medical treatment, it was often a laundress who filled a part-time nursing role who bandaged or otherwise tended to them. If a commanding officer was a tyrant who oppressed the unit, laundresses also received ill treatment. The very fact that a male-dominated institution such as the U.S. Army of the Civil war era deemed laundresses so important that they allowed them to travel with combat units indicates just how important their work was. It is these brave-hearted, sturdy, and gritty women who kept troops cleanly clad that Jennifer Lawrence details in this fascinating book. Readers interested in Civil War women will enjoy and benefit from perusing the pages of this excellent look back at the unique women who served as military laundresses often in extremely harsh conditions.

Title: Soap Suds Row: The Bold Lives of Army Laundresses, 1802-1876

Author: Jennifer J. Lawrence

Publisher: High Plains Press

Pages: 157

Price: $18.95

Soft Cover