Monday, February 26, 2018

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Presents Women's Lives During The Civil War


Capt. Francis W. Dawson,
Academy of Music, Baltimore, Md.
Walker, Evans & Cogswell Company, Printers,
Nos. 3 and 5 Broad and 117 East Bay Sts.

Have you any just idea of the burdens and cares of the Southern women in the last two or three years of the war? Take the vivid description given by Mrs. Mary Rhodes, of Alabama, as an illustration:
“We not only had to furnish clothes for our own immediate soldiers, but there were others belonging to the company whose friends were entirely out of reach, and we clothed them to the end. The clothing for the negroes was a heavy item, and all supplies of that kind was cut off, and we could only give them what was made at home. On every plantation, and almost in every house, were heard the constant hum of the wheels and click of the looms. The soldiers’ clothes were a constant care. As soon as one suit was sent another was made, for they often lost their clothing, and it had to be ready to send at a moment’s notice.

“We wore homespun dresses, which were really very pretty. At a little distance they looked like gingham, and we were very proud of our work. We dyed them very prettily, and were more anxious to learn a new process of dyeing than we ever had been to learn a new stitch in crochet or worsted work. We knitted all the undershirts the soldiers wore, also socks and gloves, besides those required at home. We often knitted until midnight, after all the day’s work was done, and ladies knitted as they rode in their carriages. Indeed, we were very busy, and in the constant employment found our greatest comfort. I heard one woman say: ‘I never go to bed until I am too tired and worn out to think.’

“And through all the trials, and trouble, and work, the love of the South kept us up. We never would listen to the thought that we might fail. We fully realized what defeat meant, and dreaded it so much that we were willing to risk our all rather than submit to it. We had the hardest lot. The men were moving about—to-day a fight, or looking forward to one, the constant excitement keeping them up; and even when not on duty the camp seldom failed to provide amusement. We at home had to sit still and wait.

“Now in those last two years all our medicines were exhausted, and we had to go to the woods for bark, and roots and herbs. We made quinine of dogwood and poplar, boiled to a strong decoction, and then to paste. We had to do the work of a chemist, without his laboratory. We made our own mustard and opium and castor oil. This last, with all the refining that we were capable of, was a terrible dose, and only used in extreme cases.”

There was a host of queer devices. Shoe blacking was made from the China berry, and it unfortunately happened, once at least, that a bottle of it which was sent, with a quantity of edibles, to a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute was applied internally instead of externally. The comment of the cadet who swallowed it was that “the catsup was rather insipid.”

For ordinary candles and lamps there were many substitutes, such as sycamore balls split in half and soaked in some fatty substance. On the large plantations candles were made from beef tallow, with twisted cloth for wicks, or of tallow and beeswax. There were also green candles made of the wax of myrtle berries.

Then the children in those days, as even in these days, would burst their buttons. Pins could take their place, but pins cost $5 a paper. Persimmon, peach and gourd seeds were then resorted to. It was only necessary to extract the seeds and bore holes in them, by which they could be sewed on, and lo! there was a button more durable than that of pearl or porcelain.

Exquisite artificial flowers were made from goose feathers, and what was considered a very pretty head-dress was made from the pith of a pumpkin.

House-made dyes were easily devised: For yellow, sassafras; for drab, kalmia or dwarf laurel; for slate color in cotton and blue-black, in wool or linen, willow bark; for chocolate brown, red oak bark; for lead color, white oak bark; for dyeing cotton a dun color, sweet gum bark; for dyeing wool lead color, the seeds of guinea corn.

Here is another woman’s story:

“The nimble fingers were never idle, nor did they stop at the adornment of self. The women stitched incessantly. What a precious thing a needle was in those days! Bone and wooden knitting needles were used when steel failed. Our women wove domestic and linsey-woolsey. Black and white check was very popular. Gray and brown flannels, piped with scarlet, made very pretty and serviceable suits. Then Garibaldis came into vogue. These were made of every material, from velvet to muslin, and worn with black or plaid skirts. Cotton and woollen yarn was used for a hundred different purposes. It was knitted into gloves, caps, jackets, comforters, socks, shirts and skirts. Our shoes were carefully husbanded. Happy was that maiden whose lover captured and sent her a pair when out on a raid. Sheepskin made a soft but stretchable shoe. Hats were crocheted of homespun cotton, bleached, starched, pressed and trimmed with odds and ends of ribbons and flowers made of feathers. Sometimes they were made of palmetto, bleached, split and plaited. Those palmetto hats, without trimming, cost only $30. They were trimmed with ornaments made of palmetto or dried natural grasses, wheat ears, &c. Hats for the boys and men were made of remains of the soldiers’ clothes, or of rushes, and sometimes of pine needles twisted and sewn together with strong homespun twisted and dyed thread. Heavy? Yes, but what would you do? They could not go bare-headed. Stylish jackets were contrived out of the cast-off clothes of some male member of the family, and all were glad to make over old clothes which, in ante-bellum days, were scarce good enough for the negroes.

“Money there was in plenty, but some things were not to be bought. One dollar was good for a piece of gingerbread five inches square, but the syrup and flour were home-raised, and ginger there was none. Fifty cents would buy a pint of ‘goobers,’ but they, too, were home-raised. ‘Striped candy’ for the little ones was not come-at-able, but our women boiled the home-made syrup, and that answered as well.”

Tea was made of the sassafras root or blackberry leaf. Coffee was made of parched meal, rye, wheat, okra, corn and black-eyed peas. Late in the war, it was discovered that parched sweet potato was the best substitute. Miss Kate Burwell Bowyer, of Bedford, Va., gives an amusing illustration of the patriotic adaptability of our people. It was, as she says, at once amusing and pathetic when the old Virginia cavaliers would meet and innocently endeavor to assist each other in sustaining our various patriotic Confederate delusions. Then such a colloquy as this would take place:

“Now, Mr. B., what do you think this coffee is?”

Mr. B., emphatically: “Think it is? Madame, I do not often now, as I said, taste the genuine article, but still I can never be deceived when I do come across it. This is the real old Mocha!”

Mrs. Bowyer’s mother, who prided herself upon her own particular admixture and adjustment, as did other housekeepers, with equal right, pride themselves upon theirs, now came forth deliberately and with triumph.

“This, sir, is parched wheat, with a little rye and a few roasted chestnuts added, I never put sweet potatoes in mine!”

Mr. B., rising in eloquence: “If such a drink as this can be compounded without coffee, I find we have in our time expended hundreds of dollars uselessly upon the product, and if the war should end to-morrow, I protest I shall never desire any better drink than the cup of coffee you gave me to-day.”
And not only in Virginia. There is a venerable gentle woman in South Carolina, who numbers well-nigh four-score years, who insists to this day that the best coffee she ever tasted was made during the war, and from rye at that. Such were our Southern women. This lady last mentioned was born in a Northern State, yet firmly believes that there is no place like the South, and that, as one of the preachers said at Columbia, after the burning of that city, “there will be no villanous Yankees in the New Jerusalem”—unless “they have entirely new hearts.”

Dress was peculiar, if pretty. The bodies of black silk dresses were turned into bonnets, which were lined with red or blue satin from the lining of old coat sleeves.

For ornaments the girls wore jewelry of their own making. Dainty chains and bracelets were formed of water-melon seeds, linked together and varnished and dried. Earrings, pins and bracelets were made of S. C. army buttons, also of palmetto cut into lace fibres, and so prepared and cured as to be cream-tinted. Gleaming pearl-like flowers were formed of bleached and polished fish scales.
The most ingenious dress that is recorded was a black silk, made from the covers of worn parasols, the umbrella-form being preserved. It was lined with mosquito netting and considered very stylish.

By the autumn of 1863, any lingering tendency to follow the fashions “had long since been beaten out of the female mind, and women now aspired to nothing beyond the mere wearing of clothes, irrespective of style, shape or texture. Large women appeared squeezed into garments of smallest proportions, small women floating about in almost limitless space, while women of tall statue dangled below circumscribed skirts, and others trailed about in fathoms of useless material. To all these eccentricities of costumes the Confederate eye had become inured, as well as to the striking effect of blue bonnets with green plumes, red dresses with purple mantles, &c., until these extraordinary modes failed to offend even the most fastidious.”

But there were some bright spots, as in the account of a Confederate marriage at Bull’s Gap, Tennessee, which is found in Mr. de Fontaine’s Marginalia:

“The bridegroom stood largely over six honest feet in his socks, was as hairy as Esau, and pale, slim and lank. His jacket and pants represented each other of the contending parties at war. His shoes were much the worse for wear, and his toes, sticking out of the gaping rents thereof, reminded one of the many little heads of pelicans you observe protruding from the nest which forms a part of the coat of arms of Louisiana. The exact color of his suit could not be given. Where the buttons had been lost in the wear and tear of the war, an unique substitute, in the shape of persimmon seed, was used. The bride had assayed to wash ‘Alabam’s’ clothes, while he modestly concealed himself behind a brush heap.

“The bride was enrobed in a neat but faded dress. Her necklace was composed of a string of chinquapins, her brow was environed by a wreath of faded bonnet flowers, and her wavy red hair was tucked up behind in the old-fashioned way. She wore a stout pair of number nine brogans, and her stockings and gloves were made of rabbit skin, fur side next to the skin. On her fingers were discerned several gutta percha and bone rings, presents, at various times, from her lover. All being ready, the ‘Texas parson’ proceeded to his duty with becoming gravity. ‘Special’ acted the part of waiter for the bride and groom. Opening the book, the parson commenced: ‘Close up!’ and the twain closed up. ‘Hand to your partner!’ and the couple handed. ‘Attention to orders!’ and we all attentioned. Then the following was read aloud: ‘By order of our directive general, Braxton Bragg, I hereby solemnly pronounce you man and wife, for and during the war, and you shall cleave unto each other until the war is over, and then apply to Governor Watts for a family right of public land in Pike County, the former residence of the bridegroom, and you and each of you will assist to multiply and replenish the earth.’”

The end was drawing nigh. Sadness sat on the brows of patient mothers who had demeaned themselves so gallantly, and of wives who had blithely buckled on their husbands’ swords. In the latter part of 1863 flour was $50 a barrel, bacon $2.25 a pound, salt 70 cents a pound, butter $1 a pound, meal $2.25 a bushel, tobacco $4 a pound, sugar $2 a pound, sheeting $1.75 a yard, nails $1.50 a pound. Fearful prices; but low in comparison with the prices a year later, when butter was as high as $10 a pound, bleached domestic $12.50 a yard, spool cotton $1 a spool, and a pair of cavalry boots $250. In Richmond, in March, 1865, the prices, as recorded at the time, were: Barrel of flour $300, coffee per pound $40, butter $25, beefsteak $13, shoes $80 a pair, and sewing cotton $4 and $5 a spool.

Under the stress of the rapidly depreciating currency and the demands of refugees who had no place where to lay their heads, rents became enormously high, and houses of average size were usually occupied by five or six families. Each family had its own rooms, with the right to use the common parlor. Those who had had whole houses now only had rooms. The fit phrase was coined, “Are you housekeeping?” “No,” was the response, “I room-keep.” Prices went higher and higher. It sorrowfully was said, towards the end of the war, that the frugal housewife took her Confederate money to market in a basket and brought back in her pocket all she could buy with it. But how touching is the history of the Confederate note:

Too poor to possess the precious ores,
And too much of a stranger to borrow,
We issue to-day our promise to pay,
And hope to redeem on the morrow.
The days rolled on and weeks became years
But our coffers were empty still.
Gold was so scarce, the treasury quaked,
If a dollar should drop in the till.
17But the faith that was in us was strong indeed,
Though our poverty was undiscerned,
And this little note represented the pay
That our suffering veterans earned.
They knew it had hardly a value in gold,
But as gold our soldiers received it;
It gazed in our eyes with a promise to pay,
And every true soldier believed it.
But our boys thought little of price or pay,
Or of bills that were overdue.
We knew if it bought our bread to-day
’Twas the best our poor country could do.
Keep it, it tells all our history o’er,
From the birth of the dream to the last;
Modest, and born of the Angel Hope,
Like our hope of success it Passed!
Nevertheless, there was no doubt, no dismay. The army must be fed and clothed. Boxes must still be sent to the dear boys in the West, or in the trenches around Petersburg and Richmond. Yet how different was the picture. Miss A. C. Clark, of Atlanta, draws a vivid sketch of the scene:
“Were these the same people—these haggard, wrinkled women, bowed with care and trouble, sorrow and unusual toil? These tame, pale, tearless girls, from whose soft flesh the witching dimples had long since departed, or were drawn down into furrows—were they the same school girls of 1861? These women who, with coarse, lean and brown hands, sadly and mechanically were stowing away into boxes, (not large ones,) meat, bread, cabbage, dried fruit, soda, syrup, home-made shoes and coarse home knit socks, garments of osnaburg and homespun, home-woven clothing of every description—these women with scant, faded cotton gowns and coarse leather shoes—these women who silently and apathetically packed the boxes, looking into them with the intense and sorrowful gaze that one casts into the grave—were these, I say, could these be the same airy-robed, white-fingered women, so like flowers, who, months and months ago, (it appeared an eternity) packed away, ’mid laughter and song, smile and jest those articles de luxe for the boys at the front?
“Before the close of the conflict I knew women to walk twenty miles for a half bushel of coarse, musty meal with which to feed their starving little ones, and leave the impress of their feet in blood on the stones of the wayside ere they reached home again. When there, the meal was cooked and ravenously eaten, though there was not even salt to be eaten with it. Yet these women did not complain, but wrote cheerful letters to their husbands and sons, if they were yet living, bidding them to do their duty and hold the last trench.”

Compiled from sources in the public domain.

Please take a moment to "Like" Shadows In A Timeless Myth on Amazon.

(Shadows is also available at Barnes & Noble for the Nook)

Complimentary Shadows In A Timeless Myth Short Story

Shadows In A Timeless Myth Book Trailer Video

Shadows In a Timeless Myth on Facebook

Smiles & Good Fortune,
It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915

No comments:

Post a Comment