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In This Chapter

Sailor's Departure

The Press Gangs
Working Women
Sailor's Return

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Working Women

George Geer
The Mariners' Museum


ONE FAMILY'S STRUGGLE
On February 15, 1862, George Geer signed on to join the Union navy for three years. He reluctantly left his wife, Martha, and two young sons behind in Troy, New York, but he was assured that his wife would receive half his monthly pay at the end of each month. Before he left Brooklyn he was given a month's wages in advance, which he turned over to Martha. For the next several years, Martha struggled to pay the rent, feed her children, and stay out of debt.

George and Martha corresponded almost every week. George was initially stationed on the famous ironclad USS Monitor in Virginia, where mail traveled relatively quickly. None of Martha Geer's letters survive, but Mrs. Geer kept her husband's letters, which offer a glimpse of the sailor's life as well as the lives of those left at home.



U.S.S. Monitor
Hampton Roads
March 26, 1862

Dear Martha,

I received your kind letter to-day but no paper. I may get it tomorrow and I may not.

I am very glad to hear you are not down hearted because you will not get any money for sometime. I suppose you are very much disappointed and I know I was in so much trouble about it,

See larger image for citation.

See larger image for citation.

as I could not help having a crying spell over it, as I had supposed that you would be able to get it at the end of this month but keep your courage. We have always lived and had enough so far to keep us from actual want, but, dear wife, we must hope for the best. Times will change with us sometime and we will yet live to be happy and enjoy each others society.

I received a letter from Mother yesterday, as usual full of her cheap stuff, to fill a letter with religion. She says they will continue to send you money until they hear you have got the half pay. I hope they will send it a little faster than they have. I shall put them in mind of it when I write.

I believe I have not told you before how much my grog is by not drinking it. I get one dollar and twenty-five cents a month which will most clothe me. . . .

Your husband,
George


Activity:
Discussion question:
Using a primary source: After reading the letter from George Geer to his wife Martha, answer the following questions.
1. Who is sending the Geer family money until they receive half of George's pay?
2. Grog is a mixture of rum and water served to the sailors once a day. By not drinking the grog, how much will George get paid in one month for skipping the ration? How many months will it take him to make $5.00?

The navy did not come through with its promise of half pay for the family, so for many months George Geer attempted to send a little money home himself. Still, Martha was forced to move to another tenement apartment in New York's Lower East Side.

U.S.S. Monitor
Fortress Monroe
March 30, 1862

Dear Martha,

. . . I am very glad to hear that you have got in a house in so good a location. I only wish you were moved but I suppose you will have help enough if Uncle is well and Jonny is not busy. . . .

. . . If you have no money to pay your rent the first, don't be frightened or worried but tell the old hen you will pay her as soon as I send you the money. . . .


Your husband,
George

Martha used her wits and all the resources at hand to survive with no income. In the following letter George refers to her "making visits and staying all night" as a way to get a good meal.


U.S.S. Monitor
Hampton Roads
April 27, 1862

Dear Wife,

I received your letter from Brooklyn yesterday. You seem to have gone into a new business for you--making visits and staying all night. I suppose that is a ruse to save grub pretty good. Visit as much as you are a mind to. . . .

. . . You say you have no appetite and cannot eat anything. I know what it is, you are trying to live so close that you are depriving yourself of enough to eat. When you get that money I want you to buy things that taste good to you and eat enough to get fat. I don't want to come home and find a skeleton or another Gen. McDowell. You may not feel it now to deprive yourself, but you will by-and-by. . . .


Your husband,
George

Activity:
Primary Source Activity:
After reading the letter of April 27, 1862, what is George worried about in relation to his wife's health? How is she trying to save money?

The Geers tried to save money by sending necessary items rolled up in newspapers rather than packing paper. Martha began sending soap, pocketknives, and silk thread so that George could sell them to his shipmates at an inflated price. He then in turn sent the profits back to Martha.



U.S. Steamer Monitor
James River
Harrisons Bar
July 18, 1862

Dear Wife,

Your letter of the thirteenth came to hand yesterday with the Mercury [Newspaper]. I am glad to hear you and Fanny had been on a bust, I don't care how often she comes and takes you out.

. . . I enclose you a piece of silk thread. It is called Sadlers silk. I want you to inquire what you can buy it for by the pound . . . there is no silk on the ship, I think I could sell it and make something on it if I got it at once. . . .


Your Loving Husband,
George

Like so many before and after her, Martha Geer turned to washing clothes in a final attempt to make money.


U.S. Steamboat Monitor
James River
Harrisons Bar
July 20, 1862

See larger image for citation.

See larger image for citation.

Dear Wife,

. . . You write me you have turned washer-woman. I was provoked, I may say angry when I read it, but the more I think of it the more I think it is perhaps for the best. At any rate, it shows I have a wife that is willing to help get along. I should rather it had been for somebody else than Fanny. . . . After all, I don't care if she does brag that you have done her washing, it is no disgrace, especially in war times. . . .


Your Loving Husband,
Geo. S. Geer



Activity:
Primary Source Activity:
What job does Martha do to make money? Why do you think George is "angry" over her work?

Since we do not have Martha's letters to George, select one of the previous letters and write a response from Martha. Or write a letter from Martha that would require one of the response letters from George.



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