MANY are the war-time diaries and personal letters that tell of the ingenuity of the Southern people in devising substitutes for three-fourths of the articles commonly in use prior to the war. They devised substitutes not only for almost every kind of manufactured article, but for accustomed foods, drinks, and medicines. It often happened that so common and essential an article as salt could not be obtained.
No people of modern times were so ill-prepared for war. The Southern Confederacy began its existence without any navy whatsoever, and without vessels for purposes of trade. With a few exceptions, such as David G. Farragut, Southern-born naval officers in the Federal service turned over their commissions to the Government against which they were soon to be arrayed in war. They then went south to await whatever should take place. The issue of battle was by no means assured; for Horace Greeley was one of many thousands in the North who in one way or another expressed the thought, based on the writings and sayings of the founders of the Republic, that the Southern States had a right to withdraw from the Union and that they should be permitted to depart in peace as they sought to do.
Except for a small number of cotton mills, there were almost no factories in the South. The Southern States depended upon the North for household furnishings and agricultural implements, and even for articles so common as ordinary nails. The "Lower South," given almost wholly to the service of "King Cotton," was dependent upon the great northwest for staple foodstuffs. At the very beginning, therefore, of a four years conflict, the Southern people were face to face with food scarcity and economic ruin. As the war went on, some manufacturing was developed, but all of it had to be done with the crudest kind of machinery, improvised, or not infrequently "invented," for the purposes required.
The women of the South and other non-combatants had to provide, as best they could, for themselves; and it must also be remembered that nowhere then was woman's "sphere" widened beyond the domestic field. Notwithstanding these facts, the Southern women, suddenly and violently plunged into the midst of an economic cataclysm, rose equal to the occasion, and showed that they were even more ingenious than the men; for they were called upon to establish new processes and to provide substitutes for a much greater variety of things. Their adaptations and discoveries were not so spectacular; for these did not involve the destruction of hostile forces, but they were equally important in that they sustained and conserved life at home and enabled the Confederate forces to keep the field.
A number of things took the places of coffee, tea, and sugar. There could be no substitute for salt, so sea water had to be boiled, or the floors of the smoke houses removed and the dirt beneath dug up and washed in order to procure even so limited a supply of this human necessity. For ordinary common cooking soda, the Southern woman learned to substitute the ashes of corn cobs. The ashes were put into a jar, covered with water, and allowed to stand until clear. In making various breads and cakes, one part of ashes was mixed with two of sour milk.
"Coffee" was made in several ways; by boiling parched wheat and rye, and some times corn. In some localities, sweet potatoes were cut into small squares, dried in the sun, and afterwards parched, ground up, and boiled. By way of variety, the seed of the okra was also used. As sugar became scarce or non-existent, the beverages thus made were sweetened with sorghum. "Tea" was manufactured from any leaf which seemed to provide a distinctive flavor. For example, it was made from the dried leaves of the black berry and the sassafras. In the lower South, other leaves were used, such as those of the cassena or yaupon plant. It is said that the care with which these substitutes for tea were prepared made a decided difference in the flavor, which was not a particularly happy one at best!"
In those parts of the South overrun by hostile forces, milk was scarcely to be had. This was especially the case in Virginia. In Richmond it was quoted at $4.00 a quart. In their diaries and in their letters to friends, many women declared that they had had no milk for months. This lack was especially hard on children and the sick and wounded. Moreover, the dearth of ice must have worked untold hardships, yet this lack was mentioned almost exclusively in connection with hospital work in the upper South.
Ingenious as the women were in planning substitutes for accustomed foods, they excelled themselves in the matter of providing clothes and household necessities. The apparently simple matter of lighting was, during the war, a serious problem. There were no oils to be had for the various lamps then in use. The supply of store candles gave out, so lard and greases were saved in pans, and woolen rags were used as wicks. In some parts of the South, myrtle berries were gathered by the wagon-load. These were "boiled and refined, " and from them was made a translucent, green, and aromatic wax, "fit," as one lady described it, "for the candelabra of a king. Very many homes had to be content, however, with pine "lightwood" knots and the grease tapers. These were even sent off to the soldiers to light the evening hour while they wrote to sister, sweetheart, or mother.
The manufacture of soap appeared to offer the greatest scope for the imagination and resourcefulness of the housewife. Many were the recipes independently worked out for the homemade aricle. On the other hand, when cooking implements gave out, there was the direst distress. Suffice it to mention the fact that metal pots and pans were much handed about in a community wherever distances did not make borrowing an impossibility! One Southern heroine hired an only skillet from a colored woman at one dollar a month rental. That she laughed over the incident helped to make the circumstances more cheerful; but, none the less, it represented suffering and real distress. Other cooking utensils were often "hired" on the same plan. In households where there were many refugees from the homes and farms laid waste, the hardships in matters of this kind increased greatly throughout the duration of the war; yet these women cheerfully sacrificed their carpets, curtains, and household things for use in camp and hospital.
In all history no people were universally more unselfish, and no government was so free from "profiteering" and corruption. The Confederate Government may have been inefficient in some particulars, but its officials did not take private advantage of public position. Whatever may have been the weaknesses of Southern men in public life prior to the war, they had ever maintained a singularly high standard in their official relations. They had before them the sterling examples of Washington, Madison, Mason, Jefferson, Marshall, Monroe, Tyler, the Pinckneys, Laurens, and a thousand other such leaders of lesser fame but equal honesty. Subsequently to the outbreak of the War, outspoken partisans of the North lamented the loss of the powerful influence of the example and practice of these men of scrupulous honesty in public affairs. Therefore, with Davis, Stephens, Lee, Jackson, Stuart, Forrest, and the two Johnstons as the successors of the founders and builders of the first Union, the women of the South were more than willing to suffer everything humanly possible for a cause upheld by leaders worthy of the confidence of their people. Supplies of clothing of all kinds rapidly diminished as the war continued. Neatly trimmed thorns were often used in place of pins, and it was discovered that persimmon seeds made excellent buttons when thoroughly dried and pierced with the necessary holes for needle and thread, which, in their turn, became alarmingly scarce, so that the loss of a sewing needle became a household calamity. Buttons were also made out of gourds, cut into moulds and covered with cloth of any color or kind. Corn shucks, palmetto, and many kinds of grasses were woven into hats and bonnets. Every variety of dye was home made. When the dyes failed to hold their respective colors, the articles were "redipped" again and again. When hat trimmings were worn "too long a time," the hats were reshaped and dyed another color.
All girls and women learned to card and spin and knit, if not previously acquainted with these arts. Every woven stocking was, of especial value. When the feet were entirely worn out, the upper part was carefully unraveled and the thread first twisted on the spinning wheel and then knitted into new stockings or into gloves or mitts. All woven wearing apparel was treated in the same way. Leather became very scarce and the providing of shoes a big problem. Women learned, in time, to make their own uppers and all of their bed-room and house slippers. Soles for outdoor use proved to be the greatest difficulty. Sometimes they were made of wood, and, again well, there were times when there were no shoes available!
The foregoing brief review may serve to illustrate what the women of the South did in the face of economic difficulties and even destitution. The homespun dress of the Southern girl became famous, giving expression to the popular war verses which were sung to the tune of "The Bonnie Blue Flag":
Oh yes, I am a Southern girl, and glory in the name; And boast it with far greater pride than glittering wealth or fame. I envy not the Northern girl, her robes of beauty rare, The diamonds grace her snowy neck, and pearls bedeck her hair. Hurrah ! Hurrah ! for the Sunny South so dear ! Three cheers for the home-spun dress that Southern ladies wear !
- The Women of the South in War Times, Compiled by Matthew Page Andrews, 1920