THE CONDUCT OF THE WOMEN.
DURING the latter part of the year in which the war between the States came to an end, a Southern comic writer, in a letter addressed to Artemus Ward, summed up the political outlook in one sentence, reading somewhat as follows: "You may reconstruct the men, with your laws and things, but how are you going to reconstruct the women? Whoop-ee!" Now this unauthorized but certainly very expressive interjection had a deal of truth at its back, and I am very sure that I have never yet known a thoroughly "reconstructed" woman. The reason, of course, is not far to seek. The women of the South could hardly have been more desperately in earnest than their husbands and brothers and sons were, in the prosecution of the war, but with their woman-natures they gave themselves wholly to the cause, and having loved it heartily when it gave promise of a sturdy life, they almost worship it now that they have strewn its bier with funeral flowers. To doubt its righteousness, or to falter in their loyalty to it while it lived, would have been treason and infidelity; to do the like now that it is dead would be to them little less than sacrilege.
I wish I could adequately tell my reader of the part those women played in the war. If I could make these pages show the half of their nobleness; if I could describe the sufferings they endured, and tell of their cheerfulness under it all; if the reader might guess the utter unselfishness with which they laid themselves and the things they held nearest their hearts upon the altar of the only country they knew as their own, the rare heroism with which they played their sorrowful part in a drama which was to them a long tragedy; if my pages could be made to show the half of these things, all womankind, I am sure, would tenderly cherish the record, and nobody would wonder again at the tenacity with which the women of the South still hold their allegiance to the lost cause.
Theirs was a peculiarly hard lot. 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. The poverty which war brings to them wears no cheerful face, but sits down with them to empty tables and pinches them sorely in solitude.
After the victory, the men who have won it throw up their hats in a glad huzza, while their wives and daughters await in sorest agony of suspense the news which may bring hopeless desolation to their hearts.
To them the victory may mean the loss of those for whom they lived and in whom they hoped, while to those who have fought the battle it brings only gladness. And all this was true of Southern women almost without exception. The fact that all the men capable of bearing arms went into the army, and stayed there, gave to every woman in the South a personal interest not only in the general result of each battle, but in the list of killed and wounded as well. Poverty, too, and privation of the sorest kind, was the common lot, while the absence of the men laid many heavy burdens of work and responsibility upon shoulders unused to either. But they bore it all, not cheerfully only, but gladly. They believed it to be the duty of every able-bodied man to serve in the army, and they eagerly sent the men of their own homes to the field, frowning undisguisedly upon every laggard until there were no laggards left. And their spirit knew no change as the war went on.
Their idea of men's duty comprehended nothing less than persistence as long as a shot could be fired. When they saw that the end was not to be victory, but defeat, that fact made no change whatever in their view of the duty to be done. Still less did their own privations and labors and sufferings tend to dampen their ardor. On the contrary, the more heavily the war bore upon themselves, the more persistently did they demand that it should be fought out to the end. When they lost a husband, a son, or a brother, they held the loss only an additional reason for faithful adherence to the cause. Having made such a sacrifice to that which was almost a religion to them, they had, if possible, less thought than ever of proving unfaithful to it.
I put these general statements first, so that the reader who shall be interested in such anecdotes as I shall have to tell may not be misled thereby into the thought that these good women were implacable or vindictive, when they were only devoted to a cause which in their eyes represented the sum of all righteousness.
I remember a conversation between two of them, - one a young wife whose husband was in the army, and the other an elderly lady, with no husband or son, but with many friends and near relatives in marching regiments. The younger lady remarked, -
"I'm sure I do not hate our enemies. I earnestly hope their souls may go to heaven, but I would like to blow all their mortal bodies away, as fast as they come upon our soil."
"Why, you shock me, my dear," replied the other; "I don't see why you want the Yankees to go to heaven! I hope to get there myself some day, and I'm sure I shouldn't want to go if I thought I should find any of them there."
This old lady was convinced from the first that the South would fail, and she based this belief upon the fact that we had permitted Yankees to build railroads through the Southern States. "I tell you," she would say, "that's what they built the railroads for. They knew the war was coming, and they got ready for it. The railroads will whip us, you may depend. What else were they made for? We got on well enough without them, and we oughtn't to have let anybody build them." And no amount of reasoning would serve to shake her conviction that the people of the North had built all our railroads with treacherous intent, though the stock of the only road she had ever seen was held very largely by the people along its line, many of whom were her own friends.
She always insisted, too, that the Northern troops came South and made war for the sole purpose of taking possession of our lands and negroes, and she was astonished almost out of her wits when she learned that the negroes were free. She had supposed that they were simply to change masters, and even then she lived for months in daily anticipation of the coming of "the new land owners," who were waiting, she supposed, for assignments of plantations to be made to them by military authority.
"They'll quarrel about the division, maybe," she said one day, "and then there'll be a chance for us to whip them again, I hope." The last time I saw her, she had not yet become convinced that title-deeds were still to be respected.
A young girl, ordinarily of a very gentle disposition, astonished a Federal colonel one day by an outburst of temper which served at least to show the earnestness of her purpose to uphold her side of the argument. She lived in a part of the country then for the first time held by the Federal army, and a colonel, with some members of his staff, made her family the unwilling recipients of a call one morning. Seeing the piano open, the colonel asked the young lady to play, but she declined. He then went to the instrument himself, but he had hardly begun to play when the damsel, raising the piano top, severed nearly all the strings with a hatchet, saying to the astonished performer, as she did so, -
"That's my piano, and it shall not give you a minute's pleasure." The colonel bowed, apologized, and replied, -
"If all your people are as ready as you to make costly sacrifices, we might as well go home."
And most of them were ready and willing to make similar sacrifices. One lady of my acquaintance knocked in the heads of a dozen casks of choice wine rather than allow some Federal officers to sip as many glasses of it. Another destroyed her own library, which was very precious to her, when that seemed the only way in which she could prevent the staff of a general officer, camped near her, from enjoying a few hours' reading in her parlor every morning.
In New Orleans, soon after the war, I saw in a drawing-room, one day, an elaborately framed letter, of which, the curtains being drawn, I could read only the signature, which to my astonishment was that of General Butler.
"What is that?" I asked of the young gentlewoman I was visiting.
"Oh, that's my diploma, my certificate of good behavior, from General Butler;" and taking it down from the wall, she permitted me to read it, telling me at the same time its history. It seems that the young lady had been very active in aiding captured Confederates to escape from New Orleans, and for this and other similar offenses she was arrested several times. A gentleman who knew General Butler personally had interested himself in behalf of her and some of her friends, and upon making an appeal for their discharge received this personal note from the commanding general, in which he declared his willingness to discharge all the others, "But that black-eyed Miss B.," he wrote, "seems to me an incorrigible little devil whom even prison fare won't tame." The young lady had framed the note, and she cherishes it yet, doubtless.