Author Michele Nacy, in Members of the Regiment, writes these former laundresses, newly reborn as officers’ wives, were sometimes called “half-way ladies”. The term was used derogatorily, indicating that the former laundresses would never be true ladies because of their lack of refinement and education. Some society-conscious officers’ wives apparently believed that the army could promote a soldier from enlisted man to officer, but nobody could promote his wife from laundress to lady.

This class distinction based on rank revealed itself when a laundress testified as a witness in a trial. An officer faced a court-martial for conduct unbecoming a gentleman. In the end, the laundress’s testimony was deemed worthless because of her social class, and because she, a white woman, was married to a black soldier.

Jennifer J. Lawrence, Soap Suds Row: The Bold Lives of Army Laundresses, 1802-1876 (2016)


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