A Rebel's Recollections (Part 4)

A confederate soldier from a plantation-owning family offers the Southern point of view on the Civil War
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I am sometimes asked at what time prices attained their highest point in the Confederacy, and I find that memory fails to answer the question satisfactorily. They were about as high as they could be in the fall of 1863, and I should be disposed to fix upon that as the time when the climax was reached, but for my consciousness that the law of constant appreciation was a fixed one throughout the war. The financial condition got steadily worse to the end. I believe the highest price, relatively, I ever saw paid, was for a pair of boots. A cavalry officer, entering a little country store, found there one pair of boots which fitted him. He inquired the price. "Two hundred dollars," said the merchant. A five hundred dollar bill was offered, but the merchant, having no smaller bills, could not change it. "Never mind," said the cavalier, "I'll take the boots anyhow. Keep the change; I never let a little matter of three hundred dollars stand in the way of a trade."

That was on the day before Lee's surrender, but it would not have been an impossible occurrence at any time during the preceding year. The money was of so little value that we parted with it gladly whenever it would purchase anything at all desirable. I cheerfully paid five dollars for a little salt, at Petersburg, in August, 1864, and being thirsty drank my last two dollars in a half-pint of cider.

The government's course in levying a tax in kind, as the only possible way of making the taxation amount to anything, led speedily to the adoption of a similar plan, as far as possible, by the people. A physician would order from his planter friend ten or twenty visits' worth of corn, and the transaction was a perfectly intelligible one to both. The visits would be counted at antewar rates, and the corn estimated by the same standard. In the early spring of 1865 I wanted a horse, and a friend having one to spare, I sent for the animal, offering to pay whatever the owner should ask for it. He could not fix a price, having literally no standard of value to which he could appeal, but he sent me the horse, writing, in reply to my note, -

"Take the horse, and when the war shall be over, if we are both alive and you are able, give me as good a one in return. Don't send any note or due-bill. It might complicate matters if either should die."

A few months later, I paid my debt by returning the very horse I had bought. I give this incident merely to show how utterly without financial compass or rudder we were.

How did people manage to live during such a time? I am often asked; and as I look back at the history of those years, I can hardly persuade myself that the problem was solved at all. A large part of the people, however, was in the army, and drew rations from the government. During the early years of the war, officers were not given rations, but were allowed to buy provisions from the commissaries at government prices. Subsequently, however, when provisions became so scarce that it was necessary to limit the amount consumed by officers as well as that eaten by the men, the purchase system was abolished, and the whole army was fed upon daily rations. The country people raised upon their plantations all the necessaries of life, and were generally allowed to keep enough of them to live on, the remainder being taken by the subsistence officers for army use. The problem of a salt supply, on which depended the production of meat, was solved in part by the establishment of small salt factories along the coast, and in part by Governor Letcher's vigorous management of the works in southwestern Virginia, and his wise distribution of the product along the various lines of railroad.

In the cities, living was not by any means so easy as in the country. Business was paralyzed, and abundant as money was, it seems almost incredible that city people got enough of it to live on. Very many of them were employed, however, in various capacities, in the arsenals, departments, bureaus, etc., and these were allowed to buy rations at fixed rates, after the post-office clerks in Richmond had brought matters to a crisis by resigning their clerkships to go into the army, because they could not support life on their salaries of nine thousand dollars a year. For the rest, if people had anything to sell, they got enormous prices for it, and could live a while on the proceeds. Above all, a kindly, helpful spirit was developed by the common suffering, and this, without doubt, kept many thousands of people from starvation. Those who had anything shared it freely with those who had nothing. There was no selfish looking forward, and no hoarding for the time to come. During those terrible last years, the future had nothing of pleasantness in its face, and people learned not to think of it at all. To get through today was the only care. Nobody formed any plans or laid by any money for to-morrow or next week or next year, and indeed to most of us there really seemed to be no future. I remember the start it gave me when a clergyman, visiting camp, asked a number of us whether our long stay in defensive works did not afford us an excellent opportunity to study with a view to our professional life after the war. We were not used to think of ourselves as possible survivors of a struggle which was every day perceptibly thinning our ranks.

The coming of ultimate failure we saw clearly enough, but the future beyond was a blank. The subject was naturally not a pleasant one, and by common consent it was always avoided in conversation, until at last we learned to avoid it in thought as well. We waited gloomily for the end, but did not care particularly to speculate upon the question when and how the end was to come. There was a vague longing for rest, which found vent now and then in wild newspaper stories of signs and omens portending the close of the war, but beyond this the matter was hardly ever discussed. We had early forbidden ourselves to think of any end to the struggle except a successful one, and that being now an impossibility, we avoided the subject altogether. The newspaper stories to which reference is made above were of the wildest and absurdest sort. One Richmond paper issued an extra, in which it was gravely stated that there was a spring near Fredericksburg which had ceased to flow thirty days before the surrender of the British at Yorktown, thirty days before the termination of the war of 1812, and thirty days before the Mexican war ended; and that "this singularly prophetic fountain has now again ceased to pour forth its waters." At another time a hen near Lynchburg laid an egg, the newspapers said, on which were traced, in occult letters, the words, "peace in ninety days."

Will the reader believe that with gold at a hundred and twenty-five for one, or twelve thousand four hundred per cent. premium; when every day made the hopelessness of the struggle more apparent; when our last man was in the field; when the resources of the country were visibly at an end, there were financial theorists who honestly believed that by a mere trick of legislation the currency could be brought back to par? I heard some of these people explain their plan during a two days' stay in Richmond.

Gold, they said, is an inconvenient currency always, and nobody wants it, except as a basis. The government has some gold, - several millions in fact, - and if Congress will only be bold enough to declare the treasury notes redeemable at par in coin, it we shall have no further difficulty with our finances. So long as notes are redeemable in gold at the option of the holder, nobody wants them redeemed. Let the government say to the people, We will redeem the currency whenever you wish, and nobody except a few timid and unpatriotic people will care to change their convenient for an inconvenient money. The gold which the government holds will suffice to satisfy these timid ones, and there will be an end of high prices and depreciated currency. The government can then issue as much more currency as circumstances may make necessary, and strong in our confidence in ourselves we shall be the richest people on earth; we shall have created the untold wealth which our currency represents.

I am not jesting. This is, as nearly as I can repeat it, the utterance of a member of the Confederate Congress made in my presence in a private parlor. If the reader thinks the man was insane, I beg him to look over the reports of the debates on financial matters which have been held in Washington.

The effects of the extreme depreciation of the currency were sometimes almost ludicrous. One of my friends, a Richmond lady, narrowly escaped very serious trouble in an effort to practice a wise economy. Anything for which the dealers did not ask an outrageously high price seemed wonderfully cheap always, and she, at least, lacked the self-control necessary to abstain from buying largely whenever she found anything the price of which was lower than she had supposed it would be. Going into market one morning with "stimulated ideas of prices," as she phrased it, the consequence of having paid a thousand dollars for a barrel of flour, she was surprised to find nearly everything selling for considerably less than she had expected. Thinking that for some unexplained cause there was a temporary depression in prices, she purchased pretty largely in a good many directions, buying, indeed, several things for which she had almost no use at all, and buying considerably more than she needed of other articles. As she was quitting the market on foot, - for it had become disreputable in Richmond to ride in a carriage, and the ladies would not do it on any account, she was tapped on the shoulder by an officer who told her she was under arrest, for buying in market to sell again. As the lady was well known to prominent people she was speedily released, but she thereafter curbed her propensity to buy freely of cheap things. Buying to sell again had been forbidden under severe penalties, - an absolutely necessary measure for the protection of the people against the rapacity of the hucksters, who, going early into the markets, would buy literally everything there, and by agreement among themselves double or quadruple the already exorbitant rates. It became necessary also to suppress the gambling-houses in the interest of the half-starved people. At such a time, of course, gambling was a very common vice, and the gamblers made Richmond their head-quarters. It was the custom of the proprietors of these establishments to set costly suppers in their parlors every night, for the purpose of attracting visitors likely to become victims. For these suppers they must have the best of everything without stint, and their lavish rivalry in the poorly stocked markets had the effect of advancing prices to a dangerous point. To suppress the gambling-houses was the sole remedy, and it was only by uncommonly severe measures that the suppression could be accomplished. It was therefore enacted that any one found guilty of keeping a gambling-house should be publicly whipped upon the bare back, and as the infliction of the penalty in one or two instances effectually and permanently broke up the business of gambling, even in the disorganized and demoralized state in which society then was, it may be said with confidence that whipping is the one certain remedy for this evil. Whether it be not, in ordinary cases, worse than the evil which it cures, it is not our business just now to inquire.

The one thing which we were left almost wholly without, during the war, was literature. Nobody thought of importing books through the blockade, to any adequate extent, and the facilities for publishing them, even if we had had authors to write them, were very poor indeed. A Mobile firm reprintedd a few of the more popular books of the time, Les Misérables, Great Expectations, etc., and I have a pamphlet edition of Owen Meredith's Tannhaauser, bound in coarse wall-paper, for which I paid seven dollars, in Charleston. Singularly enough, I bought at the same time a set of Dickens's works, of English make, well printed and bound in black cloth, for four dollars a volume, a discrepancy which I am wholly unable to explain. In looking through a file of the Richmond Examiner extending over most of the year 1864, I find but one book of any sort advertised, and the price of that, a duodecimo volume of only 72 pages, was five dollars, the publishers promising to send it by mail, post-paid, on receipt of the price.

Towards the last, as I have already said, resort was had frequently to first principles, and bartering, or "payment in kind," as it was called, became common, especially in those cases in which it was necessary to announce prices in advance. To fix a price for the future in Confederate money when it was daily becoming more and more exaggeratedly worthless, would have been sheer folly; and so educational institutions, country boarding-houses, etc., advertised for patronage at certain prices, payment to be made in provisions at the rates prevailing in September, 1860. In the advertisement of Hampden Sidney College, in the Examiner for October 4, 1864, I find it stated that students may get board in private families at about eight dollars a month, payable in this way. The strong contrast between the prices of 1860 and those of 1864 is shown by a statement, in the same advertisement, that the students who may get board at eight dollars a month in provisions, can buy wood at twenty-five dollars a cord and get their washing done for seven dollars and fifty cents a dozen pieces.

This matter of prices was frequently made a subject for jesting in private, but for the most part it was carefully avoided in the newspapers. It was too ominous of evil to be a fit topic of editorial discussion on ordinary occasions. As with the accounts of battles in which our arms were not successful, necessary references to the condition of the finances were crowded into a corner, as far out of sight as possible. The Examiner, being a sort of newspaper Ishmael, did now and then bring the subject up, however, and on one occasion it denounced with some fierceness the charges prevailing in the schools; and I quote a passage from Prof. Sidney H. Owens's reply which is interesting as a summary of the condition of things in the South at that time: -

"The charges made for tuition are about five or six times as high as in 1860. Now, sir, your shoemaker, carpenter, butcher, market man, etc., demand from twenty, to thirty, to forty times as much as in 1860. Will you show me a civilian who is charging only six times the prices charged in 1860, except the teacher only? As to the amassing of fortunes by teachers, spoken of in your article, make your calculations, sir, and you will find that to be almost an absurdity, since they pay from twenty to forty prices for everything used, and are denounced exorbitant and unreasonable in demanding five or six prices for their own labor and skill."

There were compensations, however. When gold was at twelve thousand per cent. premium with us, we had the consolation of knowing that it was in the neighborhood of one hundred above par in New York, and a Richmond paper of September 22, 1864, now before me, fairly chuckles over the high prices prevailing at the North, in a two-line paragraph which says, "Tar is selling in New York at two dollars a pound. It used to cost eighty cents a barrel." That paragraph doubtless made many a five-dollar beefsteak palatable.

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

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