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Civil War Series

Life in Civil War America

   

THE SOUTHERN HOME FRONT

The willingness of the planter class to donate all, including loved ones and family members, to the Confederate cause has become a part of Civil War folklore. Indeed, there are many examples of aristocratic parents—those who could well have afforded to pay for substitutes—coaxing sons to war. Evidence abounds that southern patriotism and a sense of honor spurred the wealthy elite into action. Equally poignant, many families were devastated by the painful divides the war provoked. Septima M. Collis reported in her memoir: "I never fully realized the fratricidal character of the conflict until I lost my idolized brother Dave of the Southern army one day, and was nursing my Northern husband back to life the next."

CITIZENS GATHER AT THE HANOVER JUNCTION RAILROAD STATION AND WAIT FOR NEWS OF THE BATTLE. (LC)

Despite the threat of divided loyalty, Confederate nationalism prevailed and rabid chauvinism flourished among the landed gentry. One Selma belle broke her engagement because her fiance did not enlist before their proposed wedding day. Support for the rebellion created a strange mix of symbols and images for southern whites. Confederate manhood demanded prolonged separation from the glorified household and, ironically, absence from those very loved ones men pledged to protect. But by individual forfeit, all households might be protected, so private gain was sacrificed to the collective good.

RECRUITING IN THE SHENANDOAH VALLEY FOR ENLISTMENT IN THE CONFEDERATE AMRY. (FW)

The South nurtured extremity and zeal, encouraging the press to promote stories of female vigilance. The Raleigh Register reported an incident in September 1863: "A young lady was engaged to be married to a soldier in the army. The soldier suddenly returned home. 'Why have you left the army?' she inquired of him. 'I have found a substitute,' he replied. 'Well, sir, I can follow your example, and find a substitute, too. Good Morning.' And she left him in the middle of the room, a disgraced soldier." Women might be sentimental, but they could not let fears and personal concerns interfere with the Confederate cause. The weight of victory rested heavily on the plantation matrons' shoulders.

Virginian Margaret Junkin Preston described her husband's letters home: "Such pictures of horrors as Mr. P. gives! Unnumbered dead Federal soldiers cover the battle field, one hundred in one gully, uncovered and rotting in the sun, they were all strewn along the roadside. And dead horses everywhere by the hundred. Hospitals crowded to excess and loath some beyond expression in many instances. How fearful is war! I cannot put down the details he gave me, they are too horrible,"

EQUIPMENT BY W. L. SHEPPARD. DEPICTION OF THE ELABORATE PREPARATIONS MADE FOR DEPARTURE INTO THE CONFEDERATE ARMY. (MC)

Mothers and wives, despite melancholy, rose to the occasion. In Montgomery, Alabama, southern matrons formed a Ladies Hospital Association in the early months of 1862. Sophia Gilmer Bibb, an industrious widow, organized women of the town to donate supplies, staff a hospital, and remain on call to take care of wounded soldiers and prisoners. Women in Columbia, South Carolina, transformed the state fairgrounds into a hospital, and the state college in town soon became a medical facility as well. One of the most famous Confederate nurses, Sally Tompkins, left her family plantation, Poplar Grove, to run a hospital in Richmond. Twenty-eight and unmarried when the war broke out, Tompkins was a devoted patriot. Her administration of the Robertson Hospital won her Confederate fans, including Jefferson Davis, who awarded her a military commission as "captain." Tompkins accepted her rank but refused a salary. Phoebe Pember, a socially prominent Jewish widow, superintended Chirimborazo Hospital in Richmond. Juliet Hopkins, wife of the chief justice of Alabama, performed such feats that she became known as the "Angel of the Confederacy." Wounded on the battlefield in May 1862, she spent the rest of her life with a limp from her wartime injury.

THE RETREAT INTO RICHMOND FROM THE BATTLEFIELD AT SEVEN PINES. (BL)

SABRES AND ROSES BY DALE GALLON SHOWS J. E. B. STUART (2ND FROM LEFT) AND TROOPS SAYING FAREWELL TO SOUTHERN CITIZENS BEFORE EMBARKING FOR BATTLE. (COURTESY DALE GALLON HISTORICAL ART, GETTYSBURG, PA)

Many genteel women were exposed to scenes of ghastly horror when they went into hospital service. Kate Cumming of Mobile described a typical scene in April 1862: "The men are lying all over the house on their blankets, just as they were brought from the battlefield. They are in the hall, on the gallery, and crowded into very small rooms. The foul air from this mass of human beings at first made me giddy and sick, but I soon got over it. We have to walk, and when we give the men anything, kneel in blood and water." Ladies braced themselves as they marched off to do their patriotic duties but still reeled from their exposure to such harsh, taxing conditions.

Wealthy men were expected to make even more dramatic sacrifices as they donned uniforms to counter the stereotype of a "rich man's war, poor man's fight." Several units demonstrated the patriotic loyalty of the planter class, such as the Magnolia Cadets in Selma, Alabama, manned entirely by local gentry. The privileged elite argued that class lines blurred during this time of crisis. As one Alabama woman described, "We were drawn together in a closer union, a tenderer feeling of humanity linking us all together, both rich and poor."

While white men marched off to war, white families and slaves were expected to keep the plantation fires tended. Indeed, the planting of crops was considered a civilian priority, the backbone of Confederate strategy. Women and slaves were enlisted in this effort to make the blockaded nation economically self-sufficient. Slave owners and small farmers alike were warned to "plant corn and be free or plant cotton and be whipped."

With the onset of war, planters curbed their cotton production, cutting output in half between 1861 and 1862. Sugar planters, indigo planters, and other producers of cash crops were encouraged to curtail production in favor of raising foodstuffs. However, a small group of planters, who wanted to keep slaves profitable, were willing to trade with shady speculators and continued to warehouse and smuggle large cotton crops. Some, like Mississippian James Alcorn, saw the war as a boom time: "I can in five years make a larger fortune than ever; I know how to do it and will do it." Alcorn indeed made a killing in cotton.

Trying to keep slaves in order, trying to conduct agricultural and commercial activities during wartime disruption, absorbed the entire planter class. It is safe to say that on the home front, planters faced a long, slow defeat, like water on a rock, steadily wearing away.

SOUTHERN CITIZENS OUTSIDE THEIR HOME ON CEDAR MOUNTAIN, VIRGINIA. (LC)

The war turned power relations upside down on the home front. Kate McClure, a plantation mistress left behind in Union County, South Carolina, tired of the incompetence of her husband's overseer, Maybery, while McClure was away at war. She fired the hapless Maybery and deputized a slave, Jeff, to manage the work force. Indeed, the war offered many women the opportunity to exert more influence over plantation affairs, a challenge that many failed to embrace enthusiastically. They might gain some satisfaction from a job well done, but most mistresses were preoccupied with the dire straits of the southern wartime economy. Few escaped the melancholy dread of losing one or more family members to war.

Most southern plantation mistresses were trained to manage the planting operations. As the wives of wealthy men who served on the bench and in the legislature, they endured husbands' frequent and lengthy absences. The war, however, presented a different dilemma to mistresses left behind. Now they were faced with the possibility that their loved ones might not return—something rare in peacetime but all too common in war. Additionally, the threat of northern invasion undermined slave owners' authority, and most women found themselves not worried about prosperity but about survival as the war wore on. This crisis weighed heavily on planter wives, increasing their burdens as defeat seemed more and more inevitable.


The popular press advised ladies to elevate the sagging spirits of menfolk by throwing themselves into good works to help the Confederacy. Young girls buoyantly welcomed the challenge.

The popular press advised ladies to elevate the sagging spirits of menfolk by throwing themselves into good works to help the Confederacy. Young girls buoyantly welcomed the challenge. Judith McGuire confessed: "Almost every girl plaits her own hat, and that of her father, brother, and lover, if she has the bad taste to have a lover out of the army, which no girl of spirit would do unless he is incapacitated by sickness or wounds." Such rhetoric exalted and enforced Confederate fervor, while stomping out dissent.

Wives and mothers, becoming more and more aware of the sacrifice such campaigns entailed, responded in time with misgivings to the call to arms. Alabama bride Mary Williamson cried over her husband's departure to the army: "This great sorrow makes me forget I ever had such a feeling as patriotism." Confederate ladies refrained from any public displays that might be interpreted as disloyalty. The wife of the most revered soldier within the South, Mrs. Robert E. Lee, confided in a letter to her child: "The prospects before us are sad indeed as I think both parties are wrong in this fratricidal war." Whatever feelings she had in private, Mrs. Lee conveyed total support of her husband, as a friend commented: "I never saw her more cheerful, and she seems to have no doubt of our success." This split between the public and private aspects of women's feelings was prevalent among women of the planter class.

Confederates celebrated the ethic of self-sacrifice, like the matron who proclaimed, "We are ready to do away with all forms of work and wait on ourselves." But as hard times intensified, such sentiments withered. Many found it difficult to face the impossible dilemmas wartime presented. One woman confessed to her diary: "The real sorrows of war, like those of drunkenness, always fall most heavily upon women. They may not bear arms. They may not even share the triumphs which compensate their brethren for toil and suffering and danger. They must sit still and endure." Too few had the luxury of merely sitting still.

Desperate times produced desperate measures. Sallie Brock, the wife of a Confederate soldier, "was forced to go out into the woods nearby and with my two little boys pick up fagots to cook the scanty food left to me." Women reported giving up blankets and even cutting up carpets to send to the army for soldiers to sleep on. Patriot Katie Miller reported, "I told ma when provisions got so low that she couldn't feed a passing soldier to let me know every time one comes and I would go minus one meal for him."

Wartime papers were filled with ideas about women's sacrifice and heroism. One patriot in Mobile urged fellow Confederates to donate family jewels and silver. Another Alabama woman, the niece of James Madison, advised women to sell their hair to European wigmakers and donate profits to the government. A bounty of $2 million would be won if all would chop off two braids apiece at the going rate. She demanded: "Let every patriot woman's head be shingled!" Wartime hair styles reveal that few heeded her call.

Southern plantations, which had been concerned with conspicuous consumption before the war, switched dramatically into plants for production—and in the case of luxury items, centers for clever reproduction: persimmons for dates, raspberry leaves for tea leaves, okra seeds for coffee beans, cottonseed oil for kerosene and beeswax for candlewax. Many mistresses took to the woods, and one memoirist recalled that the forest became "our drug stores."

THIS PAINTING OF THE 1ST TEXAS CHARGING AT GETTYSBURG SYMBOLIZES THE SACRIFICE OF CITIZENS FOR THE WAR EFFORT. THEIR FLAG WAS MADE FROM A WEDDING DRESS. (COURTESY DALE GALLON HISTORICAL ART, GETTYSBURG, PA)

The search for necessities preoccupied most Confederate housewives, and letters are filled with complaints and advice concerning quinine, food, and other valuables. Pooling resources was important. Women in cities were especially hard-pressed, and most stood in long lines for bread and even flour to make bread. Charlestonian Louisa McCord Smythe reported conditions in the blockaded port in 1863: "Food was frightfully scarce and what there was of the coarsest description. Bacon, cornbread made with just salt and water, and biscuits made of the wheat ground up whole, very coarse and always with only salt and water to mix them, were the staples, in fact the only supplies of the table. Wagons were sent from Georgia with provisions which the town distributed to those who came for them. For hours there would be a crowd of the best sort of people, standing in line for their chance for a little bit of something." In Atlanta, wartime deprivation was equally dire, as a matron described: "I knew women to walk twenty miles for a half bushel of coarse, musty meal with which to feed their starving little ones, and leave the impress of their feet in blood on the stones of the wayside ere they reached home again." One woman who confronted the price of $70 a barrel for flour exclaimed: "My God! How can I pay such prices? I have seven children; what shall I do?" This cry echoed throughout the Confederacy.

BREAD LINES IN BATON ROUGE, AS SOUTHERN SHOPKEEPERS RAN OUT OF BARE NECESSITIES FOR THE CIVILIAN POPULATION. (LC)

Speculators were targeted by angry mobs. In April 1863, when a proprietor refused to lower the price of bacon, a veteran's wife drew her pistol and allowed fellow shoppers to "liberate" food supplies. After the fracas, witnesses—instead of calling the police—established a fund to provide food for indigent wives of soldiers. Donations were solicited through the local paper.

The looting of Confederate storerooms was a problem, especially in border states, where dissent and divides were open and flagrant. Also the Carolina and Tennessee backcountry was plagued by desertion and Confederate disloyalty that could and did end in bitter dispute. Where mountain folk were embittered by planter greed and disgusted by slave owners, mutiny ruled. In Marshall, North Carolina, rebel deserters broke into a government warehouse to obtain salt and even raided the house of a Confederate colonel. This set in motion a series of events which led to vicious reprisals and the Shelton Laurel Massacre when a dozen civilians accused of guerrilla warfare were captured and executed, including a thirteen-year-old boy and a sixty-year-old man. The Union campaign of starving out the rebels worked most effectively in this interior region.

While plantations were hard hit by the war in the rural South, we know relatively less about the way the war desiccated the lives of ordinary people. Commonly yeoman farms were stripped of sons, mules, tools, and other means of support, especially by the war's later years. Women took to the fields to keep their families fed because the southern countryside was ravaged.

Louisa Henry, anchored to her Mississippi River plantation, Arcadia, wrote to her mother in 1862: "I feel 10 years older than when the war commenced—and look at least five years older. I can see the change myself and my hair is turning gray rapidly." Two years later she had been driven off her plantation and was hiding from federals in a cottage in the woods: "Ma, sometimes I feel almost desperate, and almost wish I could take a Rip Van Winkle sleep till all is over and settled."

Nineteen-year-old Amanda Worthington in Mississippi stopped writing in her diary for a year after her brother Bert died in the war but reflected when she recommenced: "What a change has passed over my life since last I kept a journal! Deep have I drank of the bitter waters of sorrow and the lightness of heart that once was mine will never return me more."

SOUTHERN REFUGEES FORCED TO PACK UP AND FLEE AT THE THREAT OF UNION INVASION. (LC)

CARTOON FROM FRANK LESLIE'S ILLUSTRATED DEPICTS THE PLIGHT OF THE CONFEDERACY HAVING TO ROB THE CRADLE AND THE GRAVE TO FILL OUT THE RANKS. (FW)

Confederate losses were enormous and devastating. The Union was winning the war through attrition—generals in gray almost always lost a greater percentage of their fighting force. By September 1862 the Confederate Congress was desperate enough to push through a draft law which raised the upper limit of conscription from the age of thirty-five to forty-five. The government compounded the problem by instituting the infamous "twenty Negro law" in October 1862, which exempted any white man from army service who could demonstrate a managerial role for twenty slaves or more—both owners and overseers qualified. (This happened shortly before the federal government similarly antagonized its people with a clause permitting substitutions for $300.) Poorer farm families were outraged that planters—who could afford service by buying substitutes—were now further legitimated if they sat out the war. These measures coincided with failing harvests and sparked sedition and unrest.

Within the Confederacy fewer than 5,000 men were granted government exemptions in nineteen categories ranging from occupational emergency (apothecaries) to physical disability (blindness, for example). And of those exempted, only 3 percent used the "twenty Negro law." On 85 percent of those plantations where white men could prove eligibility, no exemption was taken. Nevertheless, the perception of class privilege rankled the populace and created a public relations disaster. Even the $500 tax levied on exemptions, instituted in May 1863, failed to mollify critics.

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