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.
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.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.