"Where Home Used to Be": The Civil War's Impact on Women at Home
By Donna E. Kelly
During the Civil War Janie Smith lived in Harnett County, located north of Fayetteville. She witnessed the devastation of the war firsthand, as the Battle of Averasboro took place near her home.
Like many other women, Janie suffered external and internal upheavals. Her house was spared but she suffered shortages of food and clothing. Furthermore her "home" would never be the same, since it was used as an infirmary where she viewed the horrors of battle, including amputations. In April of 1865 she wrote "The painful impression has seared my very heart. I can never forget it. . . . Every southern breeze is loaded with a terrible scent from the battlefield, which renders my home very disagreeable at times." The memories haunted her, hence the title of her letter: "Where home used to be." This phrase symbolized the disruption of home life, especially for women.
Like Janie Smith, hundreds of women wrote letters about their trials and tribulations. The majority were written to loved ones expressing longing and reporting on events back home. Martha Futch of New Hanover County wrote to her husband John in February of 1863 "Dear husban I shal come to see you if you aint back by April, fore I want to see you veary bad fore I have aplenty of nuas to tell you." Their words changed, however, as the war progressed and as feelings of despair increased.
At the beginning of the war women were expected to play the role of the Spartan, exhibiting self-sacrifice and patient suffering, just as their Revolutionary foremothers had done. It was the patriotic duty for men to enlist and women to support them. The feeling of preserving family honor ran rampant. These women were expected to endure, and if they complained, they felt guilty.
Women outwardly pretended that everything was all right while inwardly they were apprehensive. Many recorded this feeling in diaries and letters, many of which have been well-documented, such as Mary Chesnutt and Catherine Edmondston. I have chosen to use letters as my primary source, selecting those directly relating to the husband-wife relationship.
The advent of war led to domestic confusion. There were unconventional courtships and hasty marriages. Few eligible men were available so there were brief engagements and age disparities. Some marriages were postponed because of the war. Alfred M. Scales of Rockingham County, who would later serve as governor, wrote letters to "Cousin Kate" beginning in late 1861. Although it was implied that there was a great difference between their ages--how much we do not know--she agreed to marry him. In a letter dated November 15, 1862, he wrote "I am writing to my own Dear Kate. She has agreed to give up home & mother and kindred & pledged herself to be mine in weal or woe." They were to be married in late January but he could not get away. According to a letter dated February 9, 1863, he said "How cruel the fate that separates us! . . . I hope that I shall yet . . . see & call you my own my beloved wife." No marriage record survives, but letters reveal that they were married by March.
Many times the letters articulated emotions that had been left unsaid. John Futch wrote to his wife Martha in November of 1861, "No man can tell how well he loves a woman until he is con fine wear he has but few liberties." Letters like this were filled with sentimentality, longing, and mutual worship--all characteristic of the Victorian era. In 1862 he wrote "It makes me feel quite solemn when I think how far I am seperated from you, my dear one." Martha, longing to see him wrote on March 29, 1863:
If you wanted to come home as bad as I do want you to come you would . . . tri to git home if you can and dear husban if you wanted to see me as bad as I do want to see you, you would be wiling fore me to come and see you fore I would give the world to see you if it was in my puseshen . . . I dont fore git you day nor nite, I dreme of you every nite.
Isaac Lefevers of Catawba County wrote June 12, 1862, to his wife Catharine "Send me a lock of your purty black hair. Put it in a plat sow it will gow own my vesk."
Letters were also written by husbands instructing their wives on how to take care of things back home. They felt that the women could not manage the farm without them or were not capable of doing so on their own. Isaac Lefevers wrote to his wife in April of 1862, "I want you to have as mutch plowing done as you can but not plant now till I come home or rite again." He also wrote "I don't want you to do it [plowing] yourself for it is too hard for you to do it."
There was a misconception that the men would only be gone a year so they would be back in time to harvest. Obviously, this was not the case. Women had to manage on their own and therefore exhibited a growing assertiveness. The common expectations about feminine frailty and dependence went out the window, so to speak, as they assumed new roles.
Women suffered numerous threats from outside their home. They were faced with raiding by Confederates as well as by Federals. They often endured physical danger, especially the threat of rape.
Inadequate transportation led to shortages of food, clothing, and medicine. The lack of salt led many women to gather up the dirt from curing barns in order to salvage what they could. These scarcities led to high costs and inflation.
Many women wrote to Gov. Zebulon B. Vance for help, which resulted in some public assistance. Others wrote seeking special favors or commissions for their husbands. Prisoners' wives petitioned to receive their husbands' pay. One group of ladies in Warren County wrote:
Mr. Gov. Vance, if you please to tell me what we poore . . . soldiers wifes is to do that we are hear sufering for the want of somthing to eat. . . . I never have suferd so much as I have for the last three or four months, for I have to go some times week with nothing but bread to eat and I think that is to hard to take a poor man from his wife and children to leave hear to perish to death . . . my husband has ben in the army nearly two year and they dont let him come home to see me, much less provide any way for me to live. If you dont provide some way for us to live we will be compell to take our little children and to our husband or they must come home to us. If you plese [write] to me as soon as you get this and let me no what we are to [do].
Other women took matters into their own hands. In 1863 nearly seventy-five women seized flour and other food from Salisbury speculators. Daniel Brown recorded the incident in his April 5th letter to his wife:
I heard last week in Salsbury N.C. thare was a portion of soldiers wives armed themselves and went to the flower speculators and demanded flower. He gave them twenty three lbs then they went to the man that had salt. He gave them one sack and they went to the man that had molases and he gave them all he had. I glory in thir spunck. I wish as many wives as is starving good luck in so doing.
Not only were extraordinary measures taken to preserve the family, ordinary problems like fidelity and child rearing, taken for granted before the war, became more complicated. Wives worried about the morals of their husbands, yet were hesitant to "oblige" during furloughs for fear of having another mouth to feed nine months later! They were virtually single parents as it was, since their husbands were many miles away.
Despite their distance, men advised their wives on raising children. Isaac Lefevers wrote:
I want you to give the children all howdy for me and tell them to be purty till Paw comes home . . . I want you to try and keep the children under as mutch as you can and tell them to bee good childrean till I come home and I want you to not lette Alles for get what she lernt last winter.
Daniel Brown wrote to his sons in 1863 "You be smart my little boyes till you Pap goes back home." He told his wife "Dear Wife I want you to make them mind you the best you can but not whip them." Apparently only the father was to administer discipline.
In addition to being without their spouse for emotional support, there was a breakdown in the community institutions like churches and schools which usually provided such outlets. All women had to rely on was their faith, and even that wore thin as the war dragged on.
As is obvious, the letters themselves created emotional roller coasters for these women. Isaac Lefevers missed his wife's cooking and longed to see the baby walk. Daniel Brown wrote May 22, 1863, "You must do the best you can for I cant do nothing for you nor my little children."
Many letters of complaint and suffering led husbands to desert, as did news of the rioting mentioned earlier. When faced with either having disabled husbands or no husband at all, these wives urged their men to come home to avoid either circumstance. Their letters also exhibited a growing pessimism which hurt morale. As one scholar (Gordon McKinney) wrote "women played a central role in the decline of the southern willingness to sacrifice for the cause." Ironically, Martha Futch's own letters contributed, though indirectly, to her husband's death. He deserted, was court-martialed, and shot for desertion in the fall of 1863.
Mail, then, often was a mixed blessing. The wives loved to hear from their husbands, but they also dreaded to get bad news, so it increased anxiety. Furthermore, communication channels led to conflicting accounts of battles and casualties. Not knowing made it harder to accept death, mourn, and to start over. They were prevented from going through the normal stages of grief. Only a few short days after Martha Brown had received a letter from her beloved Daniel, another letter came informing her of her husband's death on June 5, 1863, from typhoid fever.
To help heal their grief, many women searched for their husbands' remains in order to ensure a proper burial. These pilgrimages made it easier to begin the process of living again. Martha Brown, after learning of her husband's death, wrote to the hospital where he died to find out more details about his death. J. D. Bachelor, the man who was with him when he died, wrote to her explaining how he had "expressed a great dissatisfaction at being absent from his home and family." He also told her how her husband "was put away." He was in a marked grave but it would cost $200 to transport the body. Whether she ever recovered his body is not evidenced in the records.
The poignancy of these letters reveals the difficulty in expecting supposedly weak, sensitive women to become strong all of a sudden and automatically in this crisis. George Rable in his book, Civil Wars: Women in the Crisis of Southern Nationalism put it very well when he wrote:
Too many men died, too many families mourned. Women struggled to maintain a semblance of stability by preserving as much of traditional family life as possible. But pain and death, separation, and suffering blunted their efforts. Wives . . . had to weigh once again their personal losses against their love for a struggling nation, and slowly the scales began to tilt away from sacrifice and toward self-preservation. Perhaps family honor had survived as women were forced to take on the task of safeguarding their families, but this must have been small comfort for those who realized that the war had destroyed so many of the sinews of home life.
The war in effect wreaked havoc on "where home used to be."