Women on the Home Front

So, how was it at home during the Civil War? In Texas, the women and children were hurting. In Lavaca County, during the winter of 1864-1865, the home front saw a complete lack of firewood. In a time, when wood for stoves and home fires were essential, there was none to be had. Inflation was high. Food was short. The state of Texas set up distribution offices for families of soldiers to receive rations. The Lavaca County distribution office said they could not make a distribution, so a group of women walked in, pistol in hand and insisted they receive their rations. The women got their rations. Lavaca County is about mid-way between San Antonio and Houston. Many members of the Texas Brigade hailed from Lavaca County.

A bad storm hit the community and knocked down the Baptist church. In the middle of the night, women and older children went to the remains and pulled out shards of wood for fire. A male guard was there to stop them. But, the women told him there were enough women there to “whip him, so he had as well say nothing.” He laughed and said he liked their “spunk.” The women replied they would tie him hand and foot if he interfered with them. They were serious.

In the same part of Texas, some of the poor women went to a miller and asked him for a small portion of whatever he was preparing for the wealthier families. He refused. Some of the women then guarded him with their weapons, while other women filled their sacks. As one woman said years later, “Be assured that it was the women that protected themselves in this war and not the men.”

As hard as living conditions were back home, one historian says that of the hundreds of letters between the families and their soldiers in the Texas Brigade, only a few letters encouraged their loved ones to quit the war and come home. As stated elsewhere on this blog, the men of the Texas Brigade were patriotic enough to travel 1000 miles on their own dime to enlist in Virginia. It appears their families were equally patriotic. In the 1860 census, Lavaca County had some 5700 white persons and some 1600 slaves. The economy at the time was more Southern than Western. But, still, one would expect wholesale desertions if the men were only fighting to own another man.

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade, (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press 2017), pp. 243-245


Union and Confederate Soldiers Were Motivated (Mostly) by Patriotism

Many folks are fussing about why the Confederate soldiers served. As a veteran, I find it hard to believe they would endure sickness, poor equipment and starvation simply for material gain. As harsh as it is to say, slaves represented material possession, an investment. The popular perception among some folks today is that most or all Confederate soldiers served to protect their economy or “way of life.” Surely, protecting economic interests motivated some Southerners. But, how many would endure wearing rags for shoes in winter merely to protect economic investment or a “way of life”?

In For Cause and Comrade, by James McPherson (New York: Oxford Univ. Press 1997), Dr. McPherson looked at the motivations of both the Union and Confederate soldiers. We cannot survey soldiers from 150 years ago. But, Dr. McPherson did the next best thing. He looked at personal letters and diaries of both Union and Confederate soldiers to ask the fundamental question, what motivated them to join, and then to stay in military service during very harsh circumstances.

Dr. McPherson reviewed the personal letters and diaries of some 400 Confederate soldiers. He looked at the contemporary correspondence and diaries of some 647 Union soldiers and 429 Confederate soldiers. In his career, he explains that having looked at perhaps 25,000 such records, he believed this was a representative sample. For Cause, p. viii. Dr. McPherson is a well known Civil War historian.

As a combat veteran I can attest that the willingness to endure hardship and danger is not an easy choice. As Dr. McPherson mentions, once the choice is first made, the typical combat soldier is forced to re-examine his choice at least two more times, once after his first battle and then again when he re-enlists. So, the average Confederate soldier had to choose to risk his life and the lives of his family (because life in a rural society without the men was extremely hard) twice, when he first enlisted and after his first combat. Re-enlisting was not an option for most Southern soldiers. Most Confederate soldiers enlisted for the duration of the war.

According to Dr. McPherson’s study, 57% of Confederate soldiers espoused patriotic sentiment for serving. That is, their service was motivated by a sense of patriotism. For Cause, p. 102. Compare that to 61% of Union soldiers who mentioned a sense of patriotism as motivation for their service. Ibid.

Some 20% of Confederate service members espoused slavery as motivation for their service. For Cause, p. 110. Opinion among Union soldiers changed over time. Through the Spring of 1863, 36% expressed sentiment favoring emancipation as a motive for the war. While, 16% expressed the opposite feeling, that the war should not seek emancipation as an end-state. For Cause and Comrade, p. 123. Dr. McPherson posits that likely, if all soldiers had been polled at the time, about one-half would have favored emancipation as a war aim, while 25% would have opposed and 25% had no opinion. In any event, those sentiments changed in 1863.

In the Northern U.S., the peace Democrats (known as “Copperheads”), started to publicly target the Emancipation Proclamation. That caused some soldiers to express sentiments opposing the Northern peace Democrats. And, soldiers began to see emancipation as another weapon against the Confederacy. The Union soldiers started seeing emancipation as something that caused harm to the Southern cause. For Cause and Comrade, p. 125. Too, some white Union soldiers noticed the obvious, if a Negro soldier could stop a bullet that might otherwise be aimed at white Northerner, then that would be a good thing.

In Rebel Yell, by S.C. Gwynne (New York: Scribner 2014), he describes the motivations of the Confederate soldiers as they fought to “repel the Northern aggressors from their homeland” Rebel Yell, at p. 30 (emphasis in the original). Mr. Gwynne also describes that as the simple motive for Gen. Thomas Jackson when he enlisted in the Virginia militia and later the Confederate army, to repel the Northern aggressor.

Many Southerners fought to avoid enslavement by the North. They believed the North sought to subjugate the South in some way. For Cause, p. 21. Many enlisted to defend their home from the invading Yankees. For Cause, at p. 22.

John Mitchel, the Irish rebel and editor for a time of two Richmond newspapers during the war, insisted the North was seeking to subjugate the South as Great Britain had subjugated Ireland. The Republicans, after all, were the heirs of the remnants of the Know Nothing Party. Most Irish suspected the Republican party of harboring anti-Irish and anti-immigrant sentiment at the time.

On May 18, 1865, one 1LT A.R. Mumford went to the home of my ancestor’s aunt in New Orleans. He went to the John Agar home. John’s wife was Theresa, sister to Anastasia Price. Anastasia was the mother of George Price Crane. Anastasia was married to Martin Creane/Crane and later married Cyrus Chism.

Entertained by the ladies, likely including Anastasia, the lieutenant spoke the words all veterans would like to utter when s/he first returns home, “we could not have received a warmer reception. . . . The New Orleans ladies shall long be remembered for their devoted patriotism.” My great-great-grandfather likely met his future wife that day. The lieutenant on his first day back home did not discuss slavery or economic gains and losses. He discussed patriotism. His thoughts were recorded in his diary, not in some polemic destined for a newspaper. One assumes he spoke his true thoughts to his private diary.

We cannot discount the myth of the “Lost Cause.” Certainly, many Southerners whined about the loss of the Civil war in ways that were not productive. But, just as certain, many soldiers served simply because they saw it as their duty.

Irish Life in Ante-Bellum New Orleans

We know the Irish immigrants endured harassment and worse in New Orleans during the 1850’s. The Know Nothings achieved a great deal of influence in New Orleans during the ante-bellum years. In 1854, the American Party (aka Know Nothing party) killed two Irish men during harassment. The harassment was intended to suppress the Irish vote. The Irish generally supported the Democratic party. As the Whig party faded away, the American party succeeded to much of its ideology, but more so. In the 1854 election, the Know Nothing party gained control of City Hall. They forced out the Irish members of the police force. In 1856, violence erupted again and again, the American party candidate won City Hall.

But, how did the “average” New Orleanian feel toward the Irish? My family was part of the Irish community. No horror stories were passed down. But, does that mean some Irish avoided the bias? In her diary, Clara Solomon makes passing references to Irish New Orleanians. Her family was Middle class or upper middle class. Her father was Solomon Solomon, a merchant. The family also happened to be Jewish.

Mr. Solomon did not much care for the Irish. Yet, the family employed an Irish domestic, Ellen Deegan. They also had a domestic slave, Lucy. The family generally seemed fond of Ellen. Clara would complain when Ellen could not come to work, which occurred with some frequency.

When Mary, an Irish domestic for the Nathan family quit, Clara commented that her “thousand and one” aunts, uncles, and cousins desired her services at home. Clara was annoyed. She commented that Irish families tended to be large. She said the problem with Irish domestics was they tended to have “such a quantity of relations.” The Nathan family and the Solomon family lived close to each other and often visited with each other. Clara said she would miss Mary. Mary was an “estimable” girl, said the 17 year old.

Clara was engaging in some stereotyping. But, her comment actually rings true with my New Orleans, Irish ancestors. Four Price sisters all Irish, all married and all had children. It is remarkable that the four couples and their children did everything together. Two first cousins served in the same artillery regiment during the war. After the Civil War, if one cousin participated in some charity fund-raiser, there would always be another one or two other cousins also helping with the same fund-raiser.

The four families generally attended the same churches and the same schools. They always sponsored each other’s children in baptism. They even lived close to each other. Two sisters lived next door to each other. It was truly a community within a larger community.

In 1861, Solomon Solomon lost his temper, or almost so with the milk man. He was, said Clara, easily provoked when it came to Irishmen. The milk man gave Mr. Solomon too much change for a dollar. The father told him to leave. The Irish milk man said he would leave when he felt like it (emphasis Clara’s). As Clara said, that was impertinent. It was the Solomon house, not some public square. But, we can imagine how any Irish immigrant would feel when a landowner gets bossy. Most Irishmen would indeed push back. Mr. Solomon then ran inside the house. Clara thought he was going after his pistol. But, no, it was only to get his fire poker. Clara did not explain how this resolved itself, but she joins in. She said if she knew he was going after his poker, and not his pistol, she would have helped him. And, that was life for Irishmen in ante-bellum New Orleans.

Elliott Ashkenazi, ed., The Civil War Diary of Clara Solomon (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1995), p. 53, 287.

The Emancipation Proclamation

While in camp, when the men of the Texas Brigade had time to write home, they would ask about the slaves back home. They would ask their family member “to say hello to the Negroes.” If the soldier had a “Negro” with him, he would write home how the enslaved American was doing in camp. Many of the men or their family back home owned some slaves. So, the modern reader might expect some resentment of the Emancipation Proclamation. Pres. Lincoln issued the proclamation in the Spring of 1863, soon after the Battle of Antietam.

In letters of the men and families of the Texas Brigade, they mentioned the Proclamation not much. To the extent they did, it was more about the war possibly ending soon. The men noted to the folks back home that the Union soldiers they talked to were not happy to learn they were now fighting for the “for the freedom of the black.” One soldier wrote home that Indiana and Illinois were considering seceding themselves because of the Proclamation. That belief was probably based on news reports of the time, which were perhaps not completely accurate. But, we now know that no such secession ever happened in those two Northern states.

Brig. General John Gibbon recorded in his memoirs that generals in the Union Army were usually picked for command positions based not on military ability, but based on their views of slavery. For much of the Civil War, the Union Army, he recalled decades after the war, preferred persons who viewed slavery favorably. That is probably less a reflection on slavery and more on generals preferring persons with less zealous personalities. Abolitionists tended to be firebrands.

Another Texas Brigade soldier reported to the folks back home in Texas that he had passed through Virginia and had spoken with a group of 60 Federal prisoners. They were not happy to hear about the Proclamation. They said they were still willing to fight for the union, but not for the black man. The Texas soldiers believed the Emancipation Proclamation would help bring the war to a close. One soldier optimistically predicted the war would not last another six months. They believed the western states would rebel at fighting to end slavery. At the time, states west of Pennsylvania were considered “western.” We now know there were some mutinies among Federal units. But, by and large, they fought on.

What is missing from these letters, whether written by soldiers or by the family, was a concern or resentment about the Proclamation. Either the soldiers did not see the Presidential order as close enough to their daily lives, or more likely, while they cared for blacks on an individual basis, for the black man as a whole, they just did not give him much thought, for good or ill.

Susannah J. Ural, Hood’s Texas Brigade (Baton Rouge, La.: LSU Press 2017), pp. 143-144; Allen C. Guelzo, “Meade’s Council of War,” Civil War Monitor, Winter, 2018, p. 75 (citing Gibbon, Personal Recollections of the Civil War (G.P. Putnam’s Sons 1928), p. 21-22, 242).