Keeping The Peace

Speaker To Detail Role Of Brethren, Mennonite Women In The Civil War

Posted: January 15, 2013

People of the Shenandoah Valley seem to be cut from a different cloth —over centuries, the area has seen struggles and, through the determination of its residents, found a way to overcome. During the Civil War, when brother took up arm against brother, the local citizens — particularly the women — faced new and different challenges, and stood strongly against them.

Kirsten Beachy, assistant professor of English at Eastern Mennonite University, will discuss the lives of Brethren and Mennonite women through the war during her talk Jan. 17 at the Heritage Museum in Dayton.

Religious Influence

Women of the region played an interesting role in the war, particularly Mennonite and Brethren women who were, perhaps, caught between adhering to principles of nonviolence and pacifism and supporting husbands, brothers and sons who felt themselves called to the war either by conscription or by the idea of duty and defending this valley.

“For the Mennonite and Brethren, the strongest community was that church community… They were farming people that lived here in communities in the Valley and there’s a strong emphasis placed on non-violence,” explains Beachy, saying in times before the war the men simply would not show up when the local militias were mustered.

When the war approached however, bringing with it the threat of forced military involvement, the Mennonite and Brethren women took a stand and developed their own “Underground Railroad.”

“There were some … actively helping get young men from the Valley who felt that they should be noncombatant and resisted out of the Valley into West Virginia and the North. A lot of women were really active in this,” Beachy explained.

“[Such action] has been described as the largest act of collective defiance ever carried out by American Mennonites. They took part in this underground activity to keep their men from going to war.”

Stories Of Activism

Margaret Heatwole Rhodes was one woman who took part in the underground activity — hiding as many as six fugitives at a time.
“She considered herself a post-mistress for Unionists in the Valley. …  She had a hiding place in her home, she had a trap door in her bedroom that she covered with a carpet,” Beachy shares..

Smaller-Scale Resistance

Other women resisted advances from both the Union and Confederate forces throughout the war in smaller ways — more concerned with protecting their families than such open resistance.

“Magdalena Heatwole, she had taken a batch of bread out of the oven and saw soldiers coming,” Beachy says Heatwole took the bread, put it in her child’s cradle and placed the baby on top.

“[The soldiers] wanted to search the house, and this is where this pacifist Mennonite woman pulled out her butcher knife. She didn’t use it, but she showed it to them.”

There were Hannah and Jacob Wenger, who hid grain in a secret room behind the kitchen of the Linville farm — Beachy says they would go into the basement and drill holes in the floor so that the grain could fall down.

As soldiers of both sides ravaged livestock through the area — whether for their own use or so that the enemy would be left with nothing — some families hid their animals on Mole Hill, west of Harrisonburg towards the Dale Enterprise-Hinton area.

Another Linville creek woman found one single chicken that escaped the soldiers’ notice – vowing to have it for her own family, she quickly cooked the bird. After it had been prepared, the soldiers returned, took the pot and ate the bird themselves, Beachy shared.

Though these stories certainly offer a glimpse into the struggles of Valley women in the early parts of the war, Beachy says the times, while tough, were not as bad as they could have been.

“In most of the stories, women weren’t really offered violence by soldiers. There was sort of this code of honor that prevented most soldiers on either side from laying hands on the ladies — women who were mothers and wives and so forth,” she explains.

She compiled these stories largely through gleaning information from established sources and written records, and capturing oral histories, such as the ones passed down in her own family.

“I love telling stories and trying to imagine how things played out and how it would have felt to have been the women in these situations and reconstruct the context in which they were living,” she says, animatedly.

“[Oral history] is such a great resource and helps us get a little closer to these histories and what it would have been like for us.”

Contact Kate Kersey at 574-6267 or

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