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Depths of Despair: A Northern newspaper engraving sends a clear message: The Southern home front is at the breaking point.

Valley of Despair: The hardships of war strained Southern patriotism

By Edward L. Ayers
JANUARY 2018 • AMERICA'S CIVIL WAR MAGAZINE

The hardships of war strained Southern patriotism, but galvanized the will of soldiers and families to persevere.

In the months that followed the July 1863 Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederacy saw its capacities weakening dramatically. Although the war-born and war-fed nation sustained its fighting power, mobilizing every human and material resource it possessed, that very mobilization fractured and eroded the South. Slaveholders and their government wrestled with impressment and taxation. States wrestled with the central government, people of property and means wrestled with those without, and enslaved people wrestled against the order that kept them as slaves. Dissent also came from ordinary soldiers and white civilians who struggled with the limits of their commitment to the cause. In every community and in every regiment, people asked how much more they could, should, or would give to an imperiled cause. On the home front, white women measured their loyalties, balancing the safety of their families against the Confederacy’s success. Soldiers in the hard winter of 1863-64 struggled to sustain loyalty both to hungry wives and children back home and to their comrades in camp.

Across the South, recruiters for local military units returned in the winter months of 1863-64 for yet another scouring to fill the ranks. Companies and regiments within the Confederacy competed with each other for able-bodied men. In Augusta County, Va., the Conscription Acts of 1862, drafting all white men between 18 and 35—and the impressment of slaves to dig entrenchments—had picked the land clean of the men needed to farm. Many white people called for black men to be kept closer to home and put to work producing food. To make matters worse, bitter Confederates knew those enslaved men drafted by the Confederate Army slipped through the Union lines whenever they could and gained their freedom by doing so.

Even more worrisome to civilians was the Confederate government’s talk of extending the draft to boys as young as 16 years and to men over 45. The draft of boys, many people warned, would consume the “seed corn” of the nation and the draft of older men would “furnish food for disease and death, and to crowd the hospitals and graveyards.” Instead, it was: “Bring back the stragglers and the absentees, place negroes in the place of white teamsters, nurses, &c., and we shall have as large an army as the people can feed. What we need is skill and produce in the development and husbanding of our resources, rather than an increase of numbers.”

‘News from Home’: This watercolor by William L. Sheppard depicts a Confederate cavalryman reading a letter from loved ones. (Granger, NYC)

Another grievance on the Confederate home front in the winter of 1863–64 was “speculation,” identified by newspapers and politicians as the great cancer eating away at their cause. Speculators bought food, horses, and other necessities and then hoarded them, forcing prices to rise and people to suffer. Greed and pride became the great sins of the Confederacy, the explanation for military setbacks and loss of heart at home.

A letter from an anonymous soldier in an Augusta County unit appeared in the Staunton (Va.) Spectator about Christmas 1863. “Mr. Editor—in these ‘crazy times of war’ it seems like it is ‘every one for himself and the devil take the hindmost.’” This soldier had been in the Confederate Army for all three years of the war and knew about the effects of speculation on the people at home and in the army.

While officials claimed to be doing the best they could, the soldiers of Augusta were “shivering with cold, gaunt with hunger, wasted with disease, broken spirited from oppression and tyranny of incompetent field officers and our wives and children suffering for the actual necessaries of life.” The government went through the motions of helping, but “no one can attend to the wants of a family so well as the head thereof—the father and husband. I know that it is impossible for every poor soldier who has a family to go home at once,” but the author of this letter proposed that Congress pass a law that allowed some men to go home on a scheduled basis. The failure of the army to honor promises of furlough had “led some of our best men to desert, who have never come back, while others have been brought back and punished in the most disgraceful manner.” He had seen soldiers cry when they received letters from home, telling of the hunger of their wives and children.

‘[I have] seen soldiers cry when they received letters from home, telling of the hunger of their wives and children’ — Confederate soldier

The white women of Augusta County, like their counterparts across the Confederacy, had been integral to the transformation of peacetime society into a war-making society. Those women, no less than the men among whom they lived—maybe more, judging from their letters and diaries—hated President Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionists, blaming them for starting the war, threatening racial insurrection, and turning it into a grinding destruction of the South. These women admired Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson even as they resented the Confederate government responsible for taking the young men, food, money, and horses necessary to sustain the Confederate armies.

Letters written by Augusta County women to soldiers in the field speak of backbreaking farm labor and high prices, runaway servants, and sick children, but do not overtly urge a soldier to desert or go absent without leave. However, they did sometimes drop broad hints: “I do think it strange that Adam Steele has succeeded in ‘getting off’ (whether on detail or how he did get off I don’t know) and you cannot…” [Hannah Ott to Enos Ott, November 29, 1864] Another pointed out that “Henry is at home now, came home on a twenty-day furlough, to attend his business. I wish you could meet with such luck as that, only to get a longer one and come home to stay…” [Phebe Ann McCormick to Enos Ott, December 9, 1864.] The winter of 1864-65 saw many men taking the hint, whether they received the official furlough or not.

In response to the crisis, Jefferson Davis implored his “countrywomen—the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters—of the Confederacy…to take care that none who owe service in the field shall be sheltered at home, from the disgrace of having deserted their duty to their families, to their country, and to their God.”

‘I wish you could meet with such luck and come home to stay’ — Phebe Ann McCormick to Enos Ott December 9, 1864

A public letter written from Augusta County by a correspondent identified only by his initials and his rank as captain made a specific appeal “To the Valley and Its Ladies.” After effusive praise of those women, the officer urged them to act. “There are a certain class of men in Virginia, remaining at home, who look upon the progress of this war with careless indifference,” he charged. Those men “have folded their arms and said, ‘Let the Confederacy slide.’” The Confederate officer pleaded with the women: “Can you not reclaim them?” Women possessed a power no man did, with their “winning smiles, earnest solicitations, and patriotism.” That patriotism, “so far, has no parallel in history, and we feel confident that you will not be found wanting in this instance.”

The flattery betrayed anxiety. The same succor the women of the Shenandoah Valley had offered the wounded and the hungry soldier could be turned against the cause. If the Confederacy was indeed sliding into oblivion, might not the duty of the mother, the wife, the sister, and the sweetheart be to protect the men they loved from the merciless demands of the dying Confederacy? If a woman’s first duty, as men repeated endlessly, was to her family, might not the needs of that family in the hard winter, with food scarce, firewood taken by the soldiers, animals hungry or gone, and prices impossible to pay, mean that her duty was to take in a husband or son who had walked away from General Lee’s army? The army was protecting the “happy homes” of the Confederacy and that protection might mean leaving the army for a while, patriotic pleas notwithstanding.

Those moments of decision might confront any family at any time a man without a signed furlough—a number rapidly growing in these months—appeared at the door of his home, any time a pleading letter from home tempted a man to reconsider his loyalties.

Expectations: Honor demanded that Southern men enlist, and Southern wives endure sacrifice and hardship. (Library of Congress)

The Confederate Congress wrestled with how to keep soldiers in the field and to keep people at home from suffering, adjusting policies so that prices and production of food could be controlled. The County Court of Augusta gave local attorney J.M. McCue the authority to buy 10,000 bushels of corn, at $4 per bushel, for the families of soldiers and others suffering in the harsh winter. He did all that he could, McCue reported, but “in consequence of the great demand in Virginia and North Carolina for corn, to say nothing of the wants of the army,” the price “has enhanced so much in the extreme South as to render it utterly impossible to meet its wishes.” The families of Augusta would have to do without in the dead of winter.

James McCutchan wrote his cousin, Rachel, with dark humor. “Gen Breckenridge is here + I think if our rations get much less, Gen[.] Starvation will be here also or Gen. ‘Skidaddle’ to a quarter where there is more to eat.” James admitted that “I’m getting awfully tired of this camp, I despise this inactivity. I am tired of the war—I want to fight it out, + the sooner we begin this spring the better.” John Pearce, for his part, wanted to visit Lizzie Brown in Staunton. “[I] wish this cruel war was over so we could all come home again and enjoy ourselves once more.”

John knew he “could enjoy myself first rate in Staunton but there is no chance of my getting away from here a soldier is worse than a negro used to be we have to get a whole sheet of paper full of writing before we can get home.” No analogy held more meaning—“worse than a negro used to be.” While black people seemed to be gaining freedom in wartime, white men were losing theirs.

“I[’]m very sorry to hear of you all having to fight so much but I dont suppose peace will ever be maid without a great deal of hard fighting yet,” Mollie Houser wrote her cousin James, a private in the 5th Virginia Infantry. Despite her participation in the characteristic female patriotic activities of weaving, darning, and sewing, Mollie wrote what no one was supposed to admit: “I think this Confederacy is almost gone up the spout the next time you write tell me what you think about it. I dont think im wrong & the sooner the better.” Mollie wrote with irreverence about the draft. “They have taken almost evry man & talk of Caling on the men from seventeen to fifty & then I suppose they will search they graveyards and sware them to the length of time they have been dead.”

‘Take care that none who owe service in the field shall be sheltered at home, from the disgrace of having deserted their duty to their families, to their country, and to their god’ — Jefferson Davis

Letters to the Staunton newspapers offered discontented people a chance to express their anger at the inequities they saw around them. For one thing, farmers in Augusta who had corn for sale often would not accept Confederate currency, one farmer complained. He said he knew “many who desire to purchase corn, and other grain, for their horses and families & cannot procure it without the gold, or silver, which few can command. Confederate money has been denounced as trash, worth nothing.” The Confederate Congress, in response to such problems, adjusted the value of the currency and penalized those who would not accept the money of the struggling nation.

Officers in the Confederate Army chafed at other kinds of injustice: “Why is it that Quartermasters and Commissaries with the rank and pay of Captain or Major can dress finer, ride finer and faster horses than company or field officers of the same rank and pay?” asked someone who signed himself as “JUSTICE, Co. F, 5th Va. Infantry.” “Why is it that Commissaries can feed their horses on corn-meal at the rate of from two to three gallons per day, and themselves on ham, sweet potatoes, molasses and every other good thing that the country can afford, while a private or company officer does not know that there is such a thing in existence?” Unhappiness in the Confederacy did not result only from absolute suffering, but also from perceived injustice and slights accumulated over years of fighting.

Desertion, rampant in the fall and winter, declined rapidly in the spring as soldiers, returned to camp. Many soldiers had not seen their visits home as desertion in the first place but as necessary efforts to sustain their families until the fighting of the spring. With crops in the ground, stores of firewood replenished, fences mended, and animals attended to, soldiers returned to service.

Jesse Rolston reflected the resilience that seemed to characterize the Army of Northern Virginia as the spring of 1864 approached. “You wish to no what i think about our chance about the times of war,” he wrote his wife, Mary, in March. “[I]t is a hard question but i dont think that our chance looks as gloomy as it did some months a go. the soaoldiers is in pretty good sperits now to what they was some time a go.” Desertion had diminished and some of the men had come back to camp. Everyone knew what was at stake. “I have not heard anything about giving up in Virginia. It may be so, but I dont believe that they are going to do it, for I think if they give up Virginia this crewell war will be over soon.”

Worthless Paper: Rampant inflation destroyed the Confederate dollar’s value. Without gold or silver, families could not buy necessities. (Granger, NYC )

A report on the “spirit of the army” in the Staunton paper argued that many soldiers agreed with Rolston. “Our armies are in fine spirits and our soldiers in all of them are re-enlisting with a spirit which reflects great credit upon their bravery, fortitude and patriotism.” In heartening contrast, “the soldiers in the armies of the enemy are re-enlisting slowly and reluctantly, whereas the noble soldiers in our armies are re-enlisting with a ‘perfect rush’.” The United States would be forced to fight with untrained and untested men, confronting “our brave and tried veterans, whose flags have waved in triumph over so many bloody fields of battle. Whilst we will be stronger in the next campaign than ever before, the enemy will be weaker than at present.”

The people of Augusta County faced the spring of 1864 with a better understanding than most of what renewed war in Virginia would bring. “In a short time, the earth will be made to tremble beneath the shock of armed forces in hostile and deadly conflict,” the Staunton Spectator intoned.

When the Yankees came to Augusta County in the early summer of 1864, women—whether they were quiet harborers and allies of deserters and shirkers or bold mothers, wives, and sisters of uniformed soldiers—stood together in defiance, proclaiming their loyalty to the rebellion.

Union invasion, rather than breaking the spirit of the white people in the Valley, seemed to galvanize their loyalty to the Confederacy. Faced with such intransigence, Union soldiers felt justified in taking whatever they wished, wherever they found it. A cycle of hatred and vengeance, years of warfare in the making, now fed off itself.

Edward L. Ayers, Ph.D., is the Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Virginia.

Excerpt adapted from The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America by Edward L. Ayers. Copyright © 2017 Edward L. Ayers. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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