One of Michigan’s most celebrated women is Sara Emma Edmonds Seelye. Sara’s courageous story begins with her desire to help the Union cause in the Civil War. This desire led her to disguise herself as Private Franklin Thompson and to serve in the Second Michigan Infantry.
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March is Women’s History month–a perfect time to recognize the contributions of thousands of Michigan women who helped win the Civil War more than 140 years ago. As tens of thousands of men went off to save the Union and end slavery, their wives, daughters and sweethearts–with only a few exceptions–stayed home. These women experienced many new responsibilities, and often alone. Their only form of communication with their men was by letter or what they read in the newspapers.
In August 1861, 21-year-old Melissa Hoisington married 26-year-old Ben Wells in Fabius Township, near Three Rivers, Michigan. Later that year, Ben, who had joined the 11th Michigan Volunteer Infantry, headed to Kentucky with his regiment. Melissa stayed home to run the farm and await the birth of their first child.
Over the next two years, Ben’s regiment saw action in some of the war’s fiercest battles, including Stones River, Chickamauga, Chattanooga and Atlanta. In late 1863, after having not seen Ben since he left home, Melissa wrote, “I have spent many gloomy and unhappy hours since you have been in the South. I hope I may never experience such feelings again for it is suffering indeed.”
Recounting the loss of her soldier brother from illness and her husband’s two previous bouts with illness (which killed many more soldiers in the war than enemy bullets), Melissa wrote, “I often think I never knew what trouble was until since the commencement of this horrid rebellion.” In another letter she added, “News of great battles, great victories, great defeats reach us every day and yet I am ignorant of the fate of my Husband.”
As the weeks turned into months, Melissa kept busy as a farmer, housekeeper and mother. On one occasion, she boasted about planting a large field of potatoes. Yet, hoeing them left her with “some lameness in [her] arms and a pair of hands pretty badly blistered.”
Despite these many hardships, Melissa understood the important role women played in helping the northern armies win the war. In a letter explaining the work of women in the local aid society to promote “the comfort of the soldier,” she added, “I think it is the duty of the woman as well as the men to do all they can to assist in suppressing the rebellion.”
But when Ben suggested re-enlisting as his three-year term of service ended, Melissa cautioned him that she might be “tempted to hunt up another man.” Ben got the message. He did not reenlist and came home in late September 1864.
Melissa and Ben had two more children; but life after the war was a struggle. On January 22, 1883, 42-year-old Melissa Wells died. We know much about Melissa’s hardships because Ben saved her letters, which was rare for a soldier on the move. However, there is no known picture of either of them.
To learn about other women in Michigan’s past, visit www.michiganhistorymagazine.com or call (800) 366-3703 and ask about Michigan History’s special back issue “Women.”