A Rebel's Recollections (Part 3)

A confederate soldier from a plantation-owning family offers the Southern point of view on the Civil War

There is a story told of General Forrest, which will serve to show his opinion of the pluck and devotion of the Southern women. He was drawing his men up in line of battle one day, and it was evident that a sharp encounter was about to take place. Some ladies ran from a house, which happened to stand just in front of his line, and asked him anxiously, -

"What shall we do, general, what shall we do?"

Strong in his faith that they only wished to help in some way, he replied, -

"I really don't see that you can do much, except to stand on stumps, wave your bonnets, and shout 'Hurrah, boys!'"

In Richmond, when the hospitals were filled with wounded men brought in from the seven days' fighting with McClellan, and the surgeons found it impossible to dress half the wounds, a band was formed, consisting of nearly all the married women of the city, who took upon themselves the duty of going to the hospitals and dressing wounds from morning till night; and they persisted in their painful duty until every man was cared for, saving hundreds of lives, as the surgeons unanimously testified. When nitre was found to be growing scarce, and the supply of gunpowder was consequently about to give out, women all over the land dug up the earth in their smokehouses and tobacco barns, and with their own hands faithfully extracted the desired salt, for use in the government laboratories.

Many of them denied themselves not only delicacies, but substantial food also, when by enduring semi-starvation they could add to the stock of food at the command of the subsistence officers. I myself knew more than one houseful of women, who, from the moment that food began to grow scarce, refused to eat meat or drink coffee, living thenceforth only upon vegetables of a speedily perishable sort, in order that they might leave the more for the soldiers in the field. When a friend remonstrated with one of them, on the ground that her health, already frail, was breaking down utterly for want of proper diet, she replied, in a quiet, determined way; "I know that very well; but it is little that I can do, and I must do that little at any cost. My health and my life are worth less than those of my brothers, and if they give theirs to the cause, why should not I do the same? I would starve to death cheerfully if I could feed one soldier more by doing so, but the things I eat can't be sent to camp. I think it a sin to eat anything that can be used for rations." And she meant what she said, too, as a little mound in the church-yard testifies.

Every Confederate remembers gratefully the reception given him when he went into any house where these women were. Whoever he might be, and whatever his plight, if he wore the gray, he was received, not as a beggar or tramp, not even as a stranger, but as a son of the house, for whom it held nothing too good, and whose comfort was the one care of all its inmates, even though their own must be sacrificed in securing it. When the hospitals were crowded, the people earnestly besought permission to take the men to their houses and to care for them there, and for many months almost every house within a hundred miles of Richmond held one or more wounded men as especially honored guests.

"God bless these Virginia women!" said a general officer from one of the cotton States, one day, "they're worth a regiment apiece;" and he spoke the thought of the army, except that their blessing covered the whole country as well as Virginia.

The ingenuity with which these good ladies discovered or manufactured onerous duties for themselves was surprising, and having discovered or imagined some new duty they straightway proceeded to do it at any cost. An excellent Richmond dame was talking with a soldier friend, when he carelessly remarked that there was nothing which so greatly helped to keep up a contented and cheerful spirit among the men as the receipt of letters from their woman friends. Catching at the suggestion as a revelation of duty, she asked, "And cheerfulness makes better soldiers of the men, does it not?" Receiving yes for an answer, the frail little woman, already overburdened with cares of an unusual sort, sat down and made out a list of all the men with whom she was acquainted even in the smallest possible way, and from that day until the end of the war she wrote one letter a week to each, a task which, as her acquaintance was large, taxed her time and strength very severely. Not content with this, she wrote on the subject in the newspapers, earnestly urging a like course upon her sisters, many of whom adopted the suggestion at once, much to the delight of the soldiers, who little dreamed that the kindly, cheerful, friendly letters which every mail brought into camp, were a part of woman's self-appointed work for the success of the common cause. From the beginning to the end of the war it was the same. No cry of pain escaped woman's lips at the parting which sent the men into camp; no word of despondency was spoken when hope seemed most surely dead; no complaint from the women ever reminded their soldier husbands and sons and brothers that there was hardship and privation and terror at home. They bore all with brave hearts and cheerful faces, and even when they mourned the death of their most tenderly loved ones, they comforted themselves with the thought that they buried only heroic dust. "It is the death I would have chosen for him," wrote the widow of a friend whose loss I had announced to her. "I loved him for his manliness, and now that he has shown that manliness by dying as a hero dies, I mourn, but am not heart-broken. I know that a brave man awaits me whither I am going."

They carried their efforts to cheer and help the troops into every act of their lives. When they could, they visited camp. Along the lines of march they came out with water or coffee or tea, - the best they had, whatever it might be, - with flowers, or garlands of green when their flowers were gone. A bevy of girls stood under a sharp fire from the enemy's lines at Petersburg one day, while they sang Bayard Taylor's Song of the Camp, responding to an encore with the stanza: -

"Ah! soldiers, to your honored rest,
Your truth and valor bearing,
The bravest are the tenderest,
The loving are the daring!"

Indeed, the coolness of women under fire was always a matter of surprise to me. A young girl, not more than sixteen years of age, acted as guide to a scouting party during the early years of the war, and when we urged her to go back after the enemy had opened a vigorous fire upon us, she declined, on the plea that she believed we were "going to charge those fellows," and she "wanted to see the fun." At Petersburg women did their shopping and went about their duties under a most uncomfortable bombardment, without evincing the slightest fear or showing any nervousness whatever.

But if the cheerfulness of the women during the war was remarkable, what shall we say of the way in which they met its final failure and the poverty that came with it? The end of the war completed the ruin which its progress had wrought. Women who had always lived in luxury, and whose labors and sufferings during the war were lightened by the consciousness that in suffering and laboring they were doing their part toward the accomplishment of the end upon which all hearts were set, were now compelled to face not temporary but permanent poverty, and to endure, without a motive or a sustaining purpose, still sorer privations than any they had known in the past. The country was exhausted, and nobody could foresee any future but one of abject wretchedness. It was seed-time, but the suddenly freed negroes had not yet learned that freedom meant aught else than idleness, and the spring was gone before anything like a reorganization of the labor system could be effected. The men might emigrate when they should get home, but the case of the women was a very sorry one indeed. They kept their spirits up through it all, however, and improvised a new social system in which absolute poverty, cheerfully borne, was the badge of respectability.

Everybody was poor except the speculators who had fattened upon the necessities of the women and children, and so poverty was essential to anything like good repute. The return of the soldiers made some sort of social festivity necessary, and "starvation parties " were given, at which it was understood that the givers were wholly unable to set out refreshments of any kind. In the matter of dress, too, the general poverty was recognized, and every one went clad in whatever he or she happened to have. The want of means became a jest, and nobody mourned over it; while all were laboring to repair their wasted fortunes as they best could. And all this was due solely to the unconquerable cheerfulness of the Southern women. The men came home moody, worn out, discouraged, and but for the influence of woman's cheerfulness, the Southern States might have fallen into a lethargy from which they could not have recovered for generations.

Such prosperity as they have since achieved is largely due to the courage and spirit of their noble women.

[Go to "A Rebel's Recollections" June 1874, July 1874, August 1874, September 1874, October 1874, November 1874, December 1874]

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