Elm Creek Farm is located in a little valley in Pennsylvania, near the town of Water’s Ford. Like the towns around it, most people are strong Unionists and the farm was once a stop on the Underground Railroad. Now the townsfolk are getting ready to send their men off to fight. The ladies’ sewing circle has organized to send them off in style, with bunting decorating the buildings, a pageant, a parade and speeches by the mayor and local ministers. Little do they know, but they will need those organizing skills a lot in the next few years. The group is varied — some immigrants, a free black woman, some feminists who believe that women should vote and control property — but they are united in their desire to support the troops.
When letters home describe the lack of supplies and decent food, the ladies rally to quilt blankets and to raise funds for bandages and other necessities. They also must take up the reins of the farms and businesses that the men left behind. Each woman in the circle may have a different strength, but together they are a moving force. And they don’t intend to let the town fathers take over their efforts. As the war goes on, and the battles around Gettysburg devastate families and towns, we see the characters of the ladies as windows into the life and times of small-town Northern life. (DUTTON, Mar., 352 pp., $24.95)