Communication Styles,
Both Overt and Subliminal,
During the Civil War Period (1861 – 1865)

  By Valerie L. Hamill  

1)    Statement of Problem.

          The communication styles, both overt and subliminal, during the American Civil War-era (1861 to 1865). 

          The communication methods once used seem to no longer be of vital concern or great importance to today’s population.  I hope to learn more of the different communication styles and methods in place during the war, not only to improve my reenactment presentation, but to also be able to compare current thoughts and styles to those of a by-gone era.         

2)    Review of Literature.

U.S. News & World Report, “Secrets of the Civil War”.  Special Edition, September 2008.  The issue is dedicated to the time line and history of the Civil War.

Mitchell, Patricia B., “Confederate Camp Cooking”.  Mitchells Publications, Chatham, VA, 1991.  This booklet includes letters written to loved ones, as well as recipes.

Mitchell, Sara E., “Southern Ladies’ Civil War & Antebellum Fashions, 1855 – 1865”.  Mitchells Publications, Chatham, VA, 2005.  This booklet describes the      importance of cloth, dress, and appearance, but also the strength of those    facing shortages of staples. 

The Language of the Fan.  This educational piece was obtained at a dance/ball in   Guyandotte, WV during a reenactment event in 2007.  The brochure lists the   specific movements that a lady could do with the fan to non-verbally communicate her opinion of a suitor. 

The Dance Card.  This educational piece was obtained at the dance/ball in    Guyandotte, WV during a reenactment event.  The brochure enables a lady to       keep a record of specific dance requests by various suitors and gentlemen.

The Housewife.  This educational piece was obtained at a ladies tea and afternoon gathering at the Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival reenactment in September 2008.  This piece gives instructions on how to create a “Housewife” (a sewing  kit). 

The Gahanna Historical Society, ‘History of Gahanna, including Mifflin & Jefferson Townships’. The Herb Capital of Ohio played an important role in the lives of those in the 1860s.  This book explores the details of the role of herbs.

Godey’s Fashion Book.  This book illustrates the many different fashions of the period,  as well as the hidden “meanings” or “communications” of many items of clothing and accessories that were worn.

Leisch, Juanita, “Who Wore What?  Women’s Wear 1861-1865”.  A detailed narrative of the clothing and hidden meanings of the period dress of the ladies, as well as some of the clothing (and societal) challenges that the women faced. 

Varhola, Michael J., “Everyday life during the Civil War”.  This book gives excellent detailed information on the everyday lives of the people, as well as the  different communication methods and styles. 

Kuhn, Cheri, “News for Newbies, A Beginner’s Guide to Civil War Reenacting”.  Crab Orchard, KY., 2006.

Alpheus S. Bloomfield, “The Bloomfield Letters” (1861-1865).  The Ohio Statehouse web site,  A collection of letters written by Mr. Bloomfield as he served with the First Regiment of the Ohio Light Artillery,
Battery A (which currently serves the Statehouse).

 Volo, James & Dorothy, “Daily Life in Civil War America”.  Covers all aspects of the war and the impact on the people.


3)    Statement of Method.

          I have studied the communication styles of the Civil War period by immersing myself in Civil War reenacting for the past two years.  I joined both Union and Confederate military groups, as well as studied several books, journals, and articles, and viewed many documentaries.  I have spent a great deal of time with other re-enactors that have also completed extensive research and many years in the educational and learning aspects of correctly and historically portraying the people of the period.  By attending the Ladies Teas and grand ball dances at events, I have been able to gather a wealth of information on the communication styles used during the war.

          I also created a survey, as well as an interview, for both civilians and re-enactors so that both groups could be compared and will hopefully illustrate the views of both today and yesterday.  To interview and observe the re-enactors, I participated in the Reynoldsburg Tomato Festival Reenactment in September 2009; the Delaware County Bicentennial celebration educational ball/dance at Ohio Wesleyan University on October 4, 2008; the Guyandotte Reenactment in Guyandotte,WV, and many other reenactments and company drills. 

          I also learned more useful information during my own class presentation on my thesis statement.  It was such a pleasure to have the help, and the knowledge of my companion, Sgt. Thomas Yost.  Each and every interaction adds richness to the tapestry of knowledge on the subject.

          When re-enactors gather together for whatever occasion, when in uniform and period clothing, you can visibly see a change of persona.  The re-enactors fill the roles and “essence” of those from long ago.  All efforts are dedicated to correctly portraying the people, their characteristics, and their customs.

           A sampling of written material covering the subject matter has been collected for this project.  One item was a document that listed the subtle, yet very specific non-verbal language of the fan, a tool used by ladies to do more than cool themselves during the heat of the day or the heavy air of a dance.  Another document is a Dance Card (how a lady would keep track of requested dances by a variety of suitors); another is the directions for making a “Housewife”, which is a sewing kit.

4)    Report of Data.

          In discussing the dress and clothing of the women of the Civil War period, they “dressed to conform with a cultural ideal” (Leisch, p. 5).  Most people were concerned with the message that was conveyed by their style of dress and manners; if their clothing was up-to-date and stylish; if they were conducting themselves both in manner and dress to the approved protocols of the period.  A great deal of information about a person could be gleaned from their outward appearances. 

          There was also a vast social/behavioral difference between Northern and Southern Ladies.  As Cherie Kuhn points out, “All had losses and made sacrifices but each viewed the war differently, and suffered because of the war differently” (p. 70).  Northern ladies “were beginning to assert their independence…were more outspoken and politically inclined…but did not suffer from the war as bad as their southern counterparts.  …a lady’s appearance and etiquette was not as highly regarded as in the southern states” (ibid, p. 70).

          “Southern states were more ‘Victorian’ and genteel in their lifestyles.  Southern ladies were more schooled in proper etiquette and decorum.  A southern lady’s appearance was highly regarded as it was considered a reflection on her father’s or husband’s ability to provide for her.  Southern ladies dealt with food shortages, clothing shortages, financial difficulties, loss of homes, loss of security, and loss of loved ones.  Although highly educated, southern ladies preferred to be a Lady and allow a man to be a Man” (ibid, p. 71).

          The definition of etiquette is “the true aim of politeness is to make those with whom you associate as well satisfied with themselves as possible…it does whatever it can to accommodate their feelings and wishes in social interaction”.  Those in the south held this rule dear to the heart.

          Propriety was also an integral part of the social graces of the south.  “The basic rules of propriety:  A lady always graciously accepts a gentleman’s offer of assistance;  A lady always wears gloves on the street, at church, and other formal occasions, except when drinking or eating;  A lady always walks in small gliding steps in a measured gait;  A lady is always punctual; A lady is always pleasant and courteous; A lady speaks in a pleasant tone of voice; A lady always says ‘Please’ and ‘Thank  you’ (Kuhn, p. 74-75).

          As the war continued, practicality ruled the “accepted correctness” of the clothing.  Private Bloomfield wrote, “Girty [sister Gertrude], I would like to see you when you get that new dress on.  I tell you girls calico looks better to me know than silk did ten weeks ago” (p. 25).  He also described the people of Kentucky in rather derogatory fashion – “They were [sic] nothing but Kentucky jeans, and there is but two colors, a snuff and blue.  They do not seem to have but one fashion, that of their great-grandfathers” (Bloomfield, p. 59).

          Clothing was a central and powerful method of communication.  Thankfully, there are many artifacts that still survive which provide excellent study.  A strict and formal upbringing must be assumed for a woman that wears at least seven layers of clothing!  And each layer had a very specific purpose.  Camisoles, corsets, split drawers, hoops (or cages) under and over petticoats, and even socks that were worn above the knee.  If a lady went out in public without all of the proper layers of clothing, she would be taking the risk of being harshly judged and ostracized by the community.

                   “Dresses for breakfasts, and dinners, and balls;

                    Dresses to sit in, and stand in, and walk in,

                    Dresses to dance in, and flirt in, and talk in,

                    Dresses in which to do nothing at all” (Volvo, p. 237).

          Flirting, a very useful form of communication could still be accomplished through all of those layers.  Lace and pretty fabrics would be strategically placed where an accidental “peek” might be seen during a waltz or stepping out of a carriage.

          The fabric itself also said much about its wearer.  A larger print on fabric (such as large flower blossoms) would be a visual statement to the community that the wearer was fairly well-to-do.  Only the families with money could afford a print that required more fabric to match seams and patterns.  Women were even reduced to use curtains to create wedding gowns (Commager, p. 342). 

          But the clothing of the period served its owner in other ways.  Mitchell describes how women would smuggle goods into camp “under the cover of hoop skirts and voluminous petticoats…”.  “A female rode into camp.  Beneath her outer garments were concealed, ‘a roll of army cloth, several pairs of cavalry boots, a roll of crimson flannel, packages of gilt braid and sewing thread, cans of preserved meat, a bag of coffee’.”  Ladies could hide their inner-strength and fortitude under all of those layers.         

          In women’s accessories, parasols “were probably the most important women’s accessory during the Civil War.  Such small umbrellas came in all appearances and materials, and were imported from as far away as Europe or China” (Varhola, p. 51).  The main function of the parasol was to “protect the delicate female complexion from the sun – a pale-to-fair skin being considered attractive and a sign of social standing (i.e., upper-class women did not have to spend time in the sun working” (ibid, p. 51).

          “In all classes of society, a certain modesty was expected of women.  The limits of such strictures could be, and were, however, tastefully stretched.  While the parasol did have a practical function, it was also used in rather elaborate flirting rituals” (ibid, p. 51). 

          “Women also frequently carried fans in hot weather for cooling themselves.

Like parasols, the use of fans went beyond their practical applications, however, and they too played an important role in flirting” (ibid, p. 51).  Using a fan and a quick flick of the wrist, a lady could let a potential suitor know if she was interested in him, if she wanted a dance with him, if she was angry with him, or if he need not waste his time in pursuing her attention and affections!   A simple fan, with no words exchanged, could tell a man everything that he might want to know about the opinion held of him by a lady.

          There were also many homemaking skills which were held in high esteem and considered critical for a lady to become proficient in.  “Women demonstrated their needlework skills in the fine hemming of their handkerchiefs”, and “knitting and crocheting were skills that most women were expected to acquire” (Leisch, p. 87, 68).  The directions in a shawl pattern of the 1860s teach the ladies how to hold the yarn while knitting so that the hands looked feminine, almost hypnotic while at work.  This effort might entice a young man to give her notice!       

          The ladies would also make a “Housewife” for their men to take with them into battle.  A “Housewife” was a sewing kit that held many items for uniform repair.  The ladies did not throw away a single scrap of cloth, so the housewife was the perfect use for the smallest items.  Pieces of cloth were sewn together to create several pockets to hold and organize necessary items.  Buttons, straight pins, wool patches for uniform repair, as well as sewing needles and thread would be included. 

          Great care would be taken in the construction of these kits.  Not only did its quality of work impress the lady’s sweetheart, it would also be compared to the quality of others’ kits.  By creating a Housewife, lovely lace and ribbons would help a lady communicate her love, her compassion, and her emotions to her man by this simple tool.  The soldiers would have a “wife” close by (as well as a little piece of home with them during their long absence from home).

          The use of herbs and flowers were also an important part of the communication process.  “Herbs have three purposes – culinary, perfuming, and medicinal” (Gahanna, p. 181).  Bathing was done very infrequently, due to the health risks during the cold winter months, so body odor was an issue that everyone had to deal with.  Ladies would make scent bags; a small bag filled with aromatic herbs to combat the assault of others’ body odor on the nose.  The challenge was to use the bag without being noticed so as to not embarrass anyone.  Although body odor was common, it would have been devastating for a lady to be made aware that her odor was noticed. 

          Social gatherings (which necessitated some of the more stealth forms of

communications) were an important part of society.  “Capt. Blackford’s wife reported the following hospitality to visiting soldiers witnessed in Hanover county, Virginia, in 1863:  “I remember a charming visit to Dewberry, the residence of Mrs. Edmonia Cooke…The house was full of company, principally of young ladies…Of the many military beaux whom we found there, visitor’s from Pickett’s division, many were to be left dead upon the field after the glorious charge that division made at Gettysburg”.

          “I can ever remember the simple elegance of the house, the cordial hospitality, the delicious dinner served, and my recollection, sharpened doubtless by my scant fare in camp, especially recurs to an elegant quarter of mutton dressed with drawn butter, eggs and green pickle.  I am sure there never was such a delicious piece of meat.  I remember also the lovely face and gracious manner of old Mrs. Cooke and how she made us feel the sincerity of her welcome…” (Mitchell, p. 7).

          This passage, as many others, impressed me on the high level of education of the writer or speaker.  Over 70% of the men of the south, and 90% of the men of the north were not only literate, but well-versed and educated on vocabulary, writing skills, and the knack of communicating to others (Commager, p. 249).  Expecting to read the words written or spoken nearly 160 years ago to be close to be close to illiterate, I was shocked (and pleased) to feel like I was taking a peek back to the Roman-Greek era of over 2,000 years ago; when high education was required and held in high esteem.

          But this devastating war took its toll, with financial security receiving costly blows.  This affected not only the education process, but the clothing and the perceptions of the outward appearance.  “Basil Gildersleeve wrote about general conditions in the South during the war:  ‘Our blockade-runners could not supply the demands of our population.  We went back to first principles.  Thorns were for pins, and dogwood sticks for toothbrushes.  Ragbags were ransacked.  Impossible garments were made possible.  Miracles of turning were performed, not only in coats, but even in envelopes.  Dainty feet were shod in home-made foot-gear which one durst not call shoes.  Fairy fingers which had been stripped of jeweled rings wore bone circlets carved by idle soldiers.  There were no more genuine tears than those which flowed from the eyes of the Southern women resident within the Federal lines when they saw the rig of their kinswomen, at the cessation of hostilities.  And all this grotesqueness, all this dilapidation, was shot through by specimens of individual finery… [worn] by heroines who had engineered themselves and their belongings across the Potomac’” (S. Mitchell, p. 5).

          The surveys and interviews that I conducted included a few surprises with answers I did not expect, by both re-enactors and “civilians” alike.  One of the survey questions asked if the design, fit, color and fabric of someone’s clothing/outfit affected their evaluation and opinion of the person.  Of the re-enactors, fifty percent responded “strongly agree”, and fifty percent responded “agree”.  This was not a surprise…re-enactors work very hard to capture and demonstrate a period-correct presentation of the people and their clothing.  Everything is scrutinized at encampments and reenactments.  

          What truly surprised me was that 100 percent of the “civilians” responded

that they agreed that clothing did affect their opinion of someone.  I had thought that in this day and age where just about “anything” seems to “go”…a very accepted social norm of poorly-fitted, ragged-looking wear, that a person’s impression would not be negatively impacted by such.

          Another survey question was “Do you feel that there should be specific social protocols observed at social gatherings, such as dances”?  The responses did not surprise me…100 percent of the re-enactors agreed, while thirty percent of the civilians agreed, fifteen percent had no opinion, thirty percent disagreed, and fifteen percent strongly disagreed.

          While one hundred percent of the re-enactors responded that they would repair an item of clothing that needed repair, I was surprised that seventy percent of the civilians responded the same.  In our society of plenty, I thought that new clothing would be purchased and the damaged items thrown away.  Of course, our current “soft” economy might have had an impact on the responses.  It would have been interesting to see how the same people would have responded a couple of years ago.

          The re-enactors and civilians responded oppositely to their perceived notion of herbs and flowers.  Both played a critical role in medicinal purposes, as well as culinary and scent during the war, so I expected that it would also play an important role in the re-enactors’ mind.  Only fifty percent agreed on the importance of herbs and flowers.  It was not a surprise that seventy-five percent of the civilians responded that they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the role of herbs and flowers in the communication styles of today. 

5)    Conclusions and Summary.

          “Once the opening cannon salvos were fired over Fort Sumter in April 1861, life in the United States changed forever.  The Civil War would unleash the most horrific events ever faced by the nation and set the stage for monumental change.  Families, forced to take sides, sometimes divided down the middle.  A massive amount of men and materiel was deployed for the purpose of mutual destruction.  Thousands of homes and buildings were destroyed…”.  “…the war raged for four bloody, bitter years.  All told, over 620,000 soldiers died, as Union and Confederate troops slaughtered one another” (U.S. News, p.4-5).

          I was quite surprised at the high level of education of the soldiers, and their ability to communicate so well through their letters.  They had a knack for

choosing complex wording and turning it into poetry, descriptive phrasing that still takes the reader to the heart of the battle or the boredom of camp life. 

          The importance of hygiene and cleanliness in camp was also a surprise.  Men were sent to battle with not only a musket and a bayonet; but also with soap, toothbrush, and cleaning supplies.  The fact that the men would bathe and do wash weekly was also quite shocking.  I thought that the enlisted men ran around filthy for four years (completely understandable, considering the environment and the task at hand).

          The fact that fashion was so important to the people during this period was also something that I did not expect.  This illustrated how pride and social mores’ can help you deal with tragedy and rise above traumatic and devastating losses.  Towards the end of the war, the only thing the southern people had to cling to was their pride and their ability to rise above the devastation of their lives.

          The communication styles, both the overt and the subliminal, played a key role in the communication process of the period.  But in today’s society, most of the styles of the period are lost forever.  It is unlikely that we, as a society, will ever regain the social graces, protocols, and genteel manners of the unique period of 1861 to 1865.  


The Re-enactor


For the time that I last, I shall live in the past

And remember the world’s fading glories;

The battles, and heroes, and songs that were sung,

And the nearly forgotten old stories.


Though I’ve earned not a cent for the time that I’ve spent,

And to many that’s surely a mystery

I now recreate a time that was great,

In our country’s own turbulent history.


Some call it a game, and some say,

“…for shame…”,

And, to the unknowing, it’s a useless vocation;

But I have shouldered a gun in the blistering sun,

And I’ve shivered at morning formation.


In my jacket of blue, I strive to portray

The private Union soldier,

And though I taste not of death,

Nor the cannon’s fierce breath,

I shall not let his memory moulder.


When I’m finally called in to account for my sin,

And to receive my Savior’s just sentence…

If there’s a prayer on my breath as I slip into death,

T’would be, God save the Union forever!

                                                                   Sgt. Benjamin R. Gormley
                                                                   Haunted Fields, 1985

Works Cited


U.S. News & World Report, “Secrets of the Civil War”.  Special Edition, September   2008. 


Mitchell, Patricia B., “Confederate Camp Cooking”.  Mitchells Publications, Chatham,        VA, 1991. 


Mitchell, Sara E., “Southern Ladies’ Civil War & Antebellum Fashions, 1855 – 1865”.  Mitchells Publications, Chatham, VA, 2005. 


The Gahanna Historical Society, ‘History of Gahanna, including Mifflin & Jefferson   Townships’.  Godey’s Fashion Book


Leisch, Juanita, “Who Wore What?  Women’s Wear 1861-1865”.

Varhola, Michael J., “Everyday life during the Civil War”.

Kuhn, Cheri, “News for Newbies, A Beginner’s Guide to Civil War Reenacting”.     
    Crab Orchard, KY, 2006.

Alpheus S. Bloomfield, “The Bloomfield Letters”.  The Ohio Statehouse web site,  1861-1864.  A collection of letters written by Mr.
    Bloomfield as he served with the First Regiment of the Ohio Light Artillery,     
    Battery A (which currently serves the Statehouse). 

Volo, James & Dorothy, “Daily Life in Civil War America”.


The Language of the Fan Brochure.  Guyandotte, WV.  2007. 

The Dance Card Brochure.  Guyandotte, WV, 2007. 

The Housewife Brochure.  Reynoldsburg, OH. 2008. 


                                       Class Handout
                                     Proper Etiquette

     Etiquette is defined as “the true aim of politeness is to make those with whom you associate as well satisfied with themselves as possible…it does whatever it can to accommodate their feelings and wishes in social interaction”.

The basic rules of propriety:

* A lady always graciously accepts a gentleman’s offer of assistance.

* A lady always wears gloves on the street, at church, and other formal occasions, except when drinking or eating.

* A lady always walks in small gliding steps in a measured gait.

* A lady is always punctual.

* A lady is always pleasant and courteous.

* A lady speaks in a pleasant tone of voice.

* A lady always says ‘Please’ and ‘Thank  you’.

* A lady is schooled in the art of conservation.  She knows the four basic concepts; Compliment others, ask after others, use only positive words and comments, smile and pay attention.

* A lady never refers to another adult by his or her first name in public.

* A lady never grabs her hoops or lifts her skirts higher than is absolutely necessary to maneuver.  She may lift her skirt with one hand holding the folds and draws them to the right.

* A lady never sits with her legs crossed.  Ankles may be crossed if necessary for comfort.

* A lady never serves herself from a buffet line.  She informs her dinner partner of her wishes and he brings her plate to her.

* A lady never overdresses.  Morning wear should be a simple, inexpensive fabric in a solid color, no large amounts of jewelry.  A day dress is plainer and simple.  Visiting dresses should be a richer texture and of a more subdued color.  Low necklines should be reserved for dinner by candlelight.

* A lady never shows vanity, conceit, arrogance, or hauteur.

* A lady has learned to govern herself and be gentle and patient.

* A lady never speaks or acts in anger.

* A lady avoids meddlers and talebearers whenever it is politely possible.

* A lady never looks back at anyone on the street or turns to stare in public.

* A lady never offers her hand when introduced to a gentleman.  She should bow slightly and say something like, “I am happy to make your acquaintance”.

* When paying a visit to another lady, the visit should be brief, no more than 30 minutes.

* A lady should never remove her shawl or bonnet unless in the presence of a particularly good friend.

In the Civil War era, ladies are educated in the social rules and expectations of a Lady from childhood.

 From “News for Newbies, A Beginner’s Guide to Civil War Reenacting For The Ladies!”, by Cheri Kuhn.


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