Books on the Civil War largely ignore the lives and sacrifices of the female half of the population. You may read of Mary Todd Lincoln or those who responded to the urgent need for medical care including Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton and Mary Ann Bickerdyke, but the lives of the girls left behind when soldiers marched off to battle are ignored.
Elizabeth McGee, the young wife in Hardtack and Heartbreak, was orphaned in her pre-teen years. After the death of her parents, she lived with her older brother. Because free public schools did not exist in most states west of the Appalachian Mountains, many men and women in those areas were illiterate. If an educated person opened a small school, families might pay the fee to educate a son, but most felt a daughter did not need “schooling.” Her mother could teach her all she needed to know on cooking and childcare.
Elizabeth was fortunate that her brother sent her to school when one was available, but in their remote village, that was not often. She met J.F. McCartney when he came to teach there in 1856.
Despite her limited education, her letters to her husband were often lengthy and full of local news. A small piece of her letter of April 6, 1863, when her husband was involved in the Vicksburg campaign, is typical: Dear Husband I rote you a letter yesterday but as there has bin some changes taken place sence then I will wright to you again Mr Dayhof was not ded when Mrs. Hill went down ther but he left this world last nite at 11 o’clock they will take him to New Liberty to morrow to bury him
I bought 11 bushels of corn this morning at 90 cents a bushel James Powel got it for me I do not nead it all at this time but he sayed it was good corn and I could not git it any cheaper this sumer … Well Mr McCartney I have thought a good deal about our lives sense we first met in fact that has bin all the company I have had sense you left it is a satisfaction to me to think a bout you in any way there has bin a great many changes taken plase sence we first met and I trust there will be a great many more be fore we part for the last time
In spite of her limited education, she was asked to read letters from soldier husbands and write replies for several friends who were illiterate.