Day Away

September 5, 2010

Women in wartime: heros, helpmates, history makers

The annual commemoration of the Battle of Plattsburgh begins this week, culminating in a remarkable mix of events over next weekend.

In the midst of the fun and celebration, everyone should also think a bit about the historical significance of the event. Re-enactments of the battle by the Champlain Monument always prove informative. The 1812 encampment by the Kent Delord House helps give a sense for life at that time.

Use the commemoration also as an opportunity to visit (or revisit) the War of 1812 Museum on the former Air Force Base. I especially urge taking advantage of the opportunity to view this year's special exhibit, entitled "Misses, Mistresses, and Misconceptions: Women's Roles in the Northern Theater of the War of 1812."


For much of history, the role of women in wartime has been relegated to the background. Men did the fighting; men got the glory; men got killed. Not surprisingly, much went on behind the scenes. This exhibit gives new insights into American-British conflicts on Lake Champlain, at Sackets Harbor and on the Niagara Peninsula during the War of 1812.

First, women had to focus on domestic responsibilities. Crops had to harvested and stored, candles had to be made for light, and children had to be taught — all without the labor-saving devices to which we've now become accustomed.

Clothing also required attention. Although even in an area as remote as Plattsburgh new fashions had made inroads, as men prepared for war, concerns became more utilitarian. Women not only worked to clothe their families, they would also knit socks and mittens for troops.

Women answered ads seeking housing for soldiers; they also worked in quickly organized hospitals.

Artifacts, including candle molds, roll-up sewing kits and local ads for "elegant kid and Morocco shoes" help underscore points made by text panels. To satisfy any curiosity about old garments, there are bonnets and haversacks available to inspect and try on.

Decisions had to be made on whether to leave the area as the British began to gather north of Plattsburgh. Evacuation of families without male heads of households to help had to be difficult. Quaker Union, to the south near present-day Peru, became sanctuary for some. Pictures, a collection plate and the original church lock and key silently testify to events.

Many stayed even in the face of British invasion. There are vignettes on the bravery of Anna Hubbell of Chazy and Mollie Hamilton of Plattsburgh, but we'll never know all the instances of heroism demonstrated.

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