Southern Women In The Civil War
T. C. DeLeon's Eloquent Tribute to Their Courage
WHAT THEY DID FOR WOUNDED AND SUFFERING SOLDIERS.
The Hospital Offered Opportunities for Heroism.
[From the New Orleans, La., Picayune, June 12, 1904.]
The great German who wrote:
Honor to woman! to her it is given
To garden the earth with roses of heaven!
precisely described the Confederate conditions--a century in advance. True, constant, brave and enduring, the men were; but the women set even the bravest and most steadfast an example. Nor was this confined to any one section of the country. The "girl with the calico dress," of the lowland farms; the "merry mountain maid," of the hill country, and the belles of society in the cities, all vied with each other in efforts to serve the men who had gone to the front to fight for home and for them. And there was no section of the South where this desire to do all they might, and more was oftener in evidence than another. In every camp of the early days of the great struggle, the incoming troops bore trophies of home love, and as the war progressed to need, then to dire want--the sacrifices of those women at home became almost a poem, and one most pathetic. Dress--misconceived as the feminine fetish--was forgotten in the effort to clothe the boys at the front; the family larder--ill-stocked at the best--was depleted to nothingness, to send to distant camps those delicacies--so equally freighted with tenderness and dyspepsia--which too often never reached their destination. And later, the carpets were taken from the floors, the curtains from the windows--alike in humble homes and in dwellings of the rich--to be cut in blankets for the uncomplaining fellows, sleeping on freezing mud.
So wide, so universal was the rule of self-sacrifice, that no one reference to it can do justice to the zeal and devotion of "Our Girls." And the best proof of both was in the hospitals, where soon began to congregate the maimed and torn forms of those just sent forth to glory and victory. This was the trial that tested the grain and purity of our womanhood, and left it without alloy of fear or selfishness. And some of the women who wrought in home and hospital--yen in trench and on the firing line--for the "boys," had never before handled aught rougher than embroidery; or seen aught more fearsome than its needle-prick. Yes, these untried women, young and old, stood fire like veteran regulars! indeed, even more bravely in moral view, for they missed the stimulus of the charge--the tonic in the thought of striking back!
Again, taking Richmond as an example, because Richmond was cosmopolitan and representative of every section in its phase--we find the strangest familiarity of women with danger. Indeed, it literally bred contempt. In the early occupation of the capital, "Pawnee Sunday," scarce became a laughing by-word. The churches were crowded, and fluttering with expectant and well-dressed femininity. At that date war was a mere shadow of a name; and rigors had paled no feminine cheek, nor denuded her fluffiest gown or frill or flaunting ribbon. Richmond women were eager to inspect the flounces and furbelows of their incoming cousins. All the churches were packed; the one where Mr. Davis and his family sat under the then famous Dr. Hoge, literally overflowing to the streets.
[Mr. De Leon trips in this statement in his entertaining communication. Mr. Davis was then at Montgomery, Ala., the first capital of the Confederacy, and was besides, an Episcopalian, and attended, while in Richmond, St. Paul's Church, under the ministration of the late Rev. Charles Minnigerode, D. D., of beloved memory.
He was seated in St. Paul's on the Sunday of April 2, 1865, when he received from General Lee intelligence of the intention to evacuate Richmond, and this incident of the "Dies Irae" of April 3, 1865, was doubtless the occasion of the lapsus memoriae of Mr. De Leon.
The ludicrous Pawnee scare of Sunday, April 21, 1861, was only three days after the passing of the Ordinance of Secession by the Virginia convention. The description of the consternation prevailing is not overdrawn; it pervaded all classes of citizens. A well-known merchant, of diminutive stature, armed with a gun on each shoulder, and a venerable and famous divine, armed with a double-barrelled shotgun, were with the frenzied throng, seen hastening through the streets to the defence of our loved city, and Main street in front of the Custom House, remained obstructed for several days with a quaint, French, brass cannon, a trophy of the Revolution, and of the reign of Louis XIV, which had been taken from the State armory, placed upon a wagon and drawn to the point at which abandoned by staid citizens, led by the whimsical Martin Meredith Lipscomb, a whilom City Sergeant of Richmond.
The three heroes mentioned have been for years numbered with the dead.]
There a crowd waited dismissal benediction; the men curious to see the new president at close quarters, and the men and women alike eager to inspect--and possibly to dissect--Mrs. Davis and her brilliant sister, Miss Howell, of Mississippi. It was a balmy, breezy Sunday, the whole face of nature and the flutter of society alike breathing peace. Suddenly that changed to a nameless, predominant and never-understood war panic. Whence coming, none paused to ask; possibly the invention of some fear-crazed brain; more probably the cruel hoax of some thoughtless wag--but the gruesome whisper ran round every church simultaneously: "The Pawnee is coming!"
That whisper was enough. It caused ten times the consternation that the close cannonading for months did a brief year later; and it fluttered dainty bodices as the whine of the Minnie, or the whoo of the shell over the battlefields did not do in still later trials of the leaguer. The "Pawnee" was a not very terrible United States cruiser, and her captain was reputed to "Git onto Uncle Jeff's har!" as a member from a border State expressed it. First singly, then in pairs; quickly in battalions, the congregations melted into the outer air. Making history as they went, crowds converged to Capitol Hill, where the dingy doors were tightly closed for peace, and where "The great 'First Rebel' point the storied past!"
Thence it surged into the throng without Dr. Hoge's church. That divine had never paused in his reading; Mr. Davis had never turned his eyes from him, and the two steadfast women in that pew had probably never looked upon a preacher with such strained interest. So only--by a look or gesture--Dr. Hoge had to silence the fear-born whispers. Then when the--surely not lengthened--services was ended, that congregation poured into the crowd without pressing close upon the narrow little lane that let the White House family through. Then it was rumored that Mr. Davis had denied any despatch to him; but pandemonium reigned. Men rushed home, flew back to the Capitol Square, with shotguns, target rifles, and one stately old gentleman with his dueling pistols! Companies fell in, under any volunteering the command; same started on the terrible march to Rocketts, full three miles off; and each courier, or staff officer lashing by, followed at a run. None paused to recall that the dreaded ship was a single one; and that she would have to pass Drewry's Bluff, eight miles below.
Still the hubbub raged, in spite of formal denial from the War Department that there was any ship above Norfolk; until woman's wit calmed the storm. Some one repeated Miss Howell's quiet speech to her, on the steps of the White House. It flew from lip to lip, was caught by popular fancy, and laughed the bugaboo out of court "in one round." The President's sister-in-law had only said:
"How is the Pawnee coming; on wheels? These people forget that there is no water above Drewry's Bluff, and her guns do not carry half the distance."
Shame brought revulsion that reason had not, and the panic allayed itself. I may add that no one paused to analyze either the brilliant woman's hydrography or her gunnery. That was not needed.
On many a Sunday, a few months later, these same women assembled in their churches and worshipped calmly and unnoting, while the dull boom of great guns made dread discordance with the hymnal. Thence, bravely as gently, they moved almost as one, to Rocketts, Chimborazo Heights, or other hospital, to receive the incoming loved ones--of their own kith, or with unknown faces, alike--and then--
"To do for those dear ones that woman alone in her pity can do." During the entire war--and through the entire South--it was the hospital that illustrated the highest and best traits of the tried and stricken people.
Doubtless, there was good work done by the women of the North, and much of it. Happily, for the sanity of the nation, American womanhood springs from one common stock. It is ever true to its own, as a whole--and, for aught I shall deny--individually. But behind that Chinese wall of wood and steel blockade, then nursing was not an episode. It was grave duty, grim labor; heartbreaking endurance--all self-imposed, and lasting for years, yet shirked and relinquished only for cause.
But the dainty little hands that tied the red bandage, or "held the artery," unflinching; the nimble feet that wearied not by fever cot, or operating table, the active months of war, grew nimbler still on bridle, or in the dance when "the boys" came home. This was sometimes on "flying furlough," or when an aid, or courier, with dispatches, was told to wait. Then "The One Girl" was mounted on anything that could carry her; and the party would ride far to the front, in full view of the enemy, and often in point-blank range. Or, it was when frozen ruts made roads impassable, for invader and fender; and the furlough was perhaps easier, and longer. Then came those now historic dances, the starvation parties, where rank told nothing, and where the only refreshment that came in, that intoxicant--a woman's voice and eyes.
Then came the "Dies Irae," when the Southern Rachel sat in the ashes of her desolation and her homespun was sackcloth. And even then she rose supreme. By her desolate hearth, with her larder empty, and only her aching heart full, she still forced a smile for the homecoming "boy," through the repressed tears for the one left--somewhere in the fight.
In Richmond, Atlanta, Charleston and elsewhere was she bitter and unforgiving? If she drew her faded skirt--ever a black one, in that case--from the passing blue, was it "treason," or human nature? Thinkers, who wore the blue, have time and oft declared the latter. Was she "unreconstructed?" Her wounds were great and wondrous sore. She was true then to her faith. That she is so to-day to the reunited land, let the fathers of Spanish war heroes tell. She needs no monument; it is reared in the hearts of true men, North and South.
T. C. DELEON.
Source: Southern Historical Society Papers, Vol. XXXII. Richmond, Va., January-December. 1904.
This Page last updated 11/21/04
RETURN TO CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA PAGE