June–December 1874 The Civil War

A Rebel’s Recollections

A Confederate soldier from a plantation family provides a Southern perspective.

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 …

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 …

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 … 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 …

of the time when money was “easy”

The modest Dunker Church, seen in this September 1862 stereograph of Antietam, created a poignant backdrop for one of the war’s bloodiest battles. (Library of Congress)

The financial system adopted by the Confederate government was singularly simple and free from technicalities. It consisted chiefly in the issue of treasury notes enough to meet all the expenses of the government …

We knew only that money was astonishingly abundant. Provisions fell short sometimes, and the supply of clothing was not always as large as we should have liked, but nobody found it difficult to get money enough …

We were never able to determine what was a fair price for anything. We fell into the habit of paying whatever was asked, knowing that to-morrow we should have to pay more …

The feeling was universal that the speculators were fattening upon the necessities of the country and the sufferings of the people. Nearly all mercantile business was regarded at least with suspicion, and much of it fell into the hands of people with no reputations to lose …

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 …

It is impossible to say precisely when the conviction became general in the South that we were to be beaten. I cannot even decide at what time I myself began to think the cause a hopeless one, and I have never yet found one of my fellow-Confederates, though I have questioned many of them, who could tell me with any degree of certainty the history of his change from confidence to despondency …

Up to the hour of the evacuation of Richmond, the newspapers were as confident as ever of victory. During the fall of 1864 they even believed, or professed to believe, that our triumph was already at hand. The Richmond Whig of October 5, 1864, said: “That the present condition of affairs, compared with that of any previous year at the same season, at least since 1861, is greatly in our favor, we think can hardly be denied” …

And yet I think we must have known from the beginning of the campaign of 1864 that the end was approaching …

If General Grant had failed to break our power of resistance by his sledge-hammer blows, it speedily became evident that he would be more successful in wearing it away by the constant friction of a siege … During the first two months of the siege my own company, which numbered about a hundred and fifty men, lost sixty, in killed and wounded, an average of a man a day …

There was no longer any room for hope except in a superstitious belief that Providence would in some way interfere in our behalf, and to that very many betook themselves for comfort … I think hardly any man in that army entertained a thought of coming out of the struggle alive …

Prayer-meetings were held in every tent. Testaments were in every hand, and a sort of religious ecstasy took possession of the army … Men in this mood make the best of soldiers, and at no time were the fighting qualities of the Southern army better than during the siege …

When at last the beginning of the end came, in the evacuation of Richmond and the effort to retreat, everything seemed to go to pieces at once. The best disciplinarians in the army relaxed … their reins. The best troops became disorganized, and hardly any command marched in a body. Companies were mixed together, parts of each being separated by detachments of others … The battery to which I was attached was captured near Amelia Court House, and within a mile or two of my home.

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