There is a lot of hoopla going on right now about the 150th anniversary of the start of the War Between the States. I thought it might be a good time to write about a little book Elayne Goodman leant me. It was printed in 1961 by the Stephen D. Lee Chapter No. 34 of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It contains the personal recollections of the women of Columbus who went through those war years, l861-1865, and who were still alive in 1896, when the local chapter of the UDC was organized.
On the other hand, nowadays it is almost politically incorrect to acknowledge the Confederacy, equating it with slavery. Yet only 4.9 percent of Southern whites owned slaves at all. Only 10.27 percent of enlisted men in the Confederate army, those who volunteered to fight and/or die, owned slaves. (Joseph T. Glathaer, “General Lee”s Army.”)
Historian James M. McPherson writes, ” … only 20 percent of the sample of 429 Southern soldiers explicitly voiced pro-slavery convictions in … letters and diaries … and only one-third of those [pro-slavery soldiers] came from a slave-holding family.”
In addition, a sore subject among conscripted soldiers was the fact that many, if not all, large landholders and slave-owners were exempt from compulsory conscription, which meant the soldiers were most often fighting for someone else”s way of life. It doesn”t make much sense, does it?
I say all that in order to point out that all Confederates were not necessarily involved personally in the odious institution of slavery, no matter how long or in how many world cultures it had existed. The South was where these soldiers lived. It was home.
It was home, too, to the Columbus women who remembered the war, and their home was invaded. So I ask readers to look at and listen to them in that context.
Early high spirits
“Gone with the Wind” had it right. Spirits were high at the beginning of the war. Optimism reigned. Dancing was a priority, just like the ball depicted in the movie. It is vital to keep morale up. (Although all that frivolity seems strange to me, it seems to be the rule, rather than the exception. Christian author C.S. Lewis reported feeling that way before he fought in World War I. Once as a tourist, I visited an ancient castle in Scotland. On the wall of the great hall was a huge painting which showed a kilted Scot dancing what looked like a jig on the night before a big battle.)
In their words
Let some of these Columbus ladies speak of their early war-time experiences:
Georgia P. Young wrote, “The ordinance for the withdrawal of the state of Mississippi from the Federal Union was adopted January the ninth, two days afterward, January the eleventh, the ”Columbus Riflemen” were enroute to the place of military rendezvous which, I think, at that time was Mobile, Alabama.
“The night before their departure there were two social functions to which their presence added interest, one was an entertainment at Mr. Harrison Johnston”s given in honor of the marriage of Mr. C. A. Johnston, himself a Rifleman, and Miss Olivia Williams; the other was the debut party of the beautiful Mary Oliver, daughter of General and Mrs. Jeptha L. Harris.
“In the elegant home of the latter were assembled quite two hundred guests, well filling the three large parlors. There were gray-haired gentlemen and stately dames whose daughters and grand-daughters composed the bevy of rare beauties that crowned the occasion. There were young matrons and their husbands; there were bachelors whose elegance of bearing made them like the imposing portraits of Sir Joshua Reynolds and there were the dear Soldier boys that with the coming morrow were to bid a long good-bye to loved ones.”
Helen R. Garner wrote: “The dreadful years … are now chronicled among the blood-stained pages of our country”s history, yet, after a lapse of years, the memory of these crucial times is not faded, nor the love and reverence for our heroes lessened.
“Coupled with these sacred memories comes the recollection of many a sunny day, when we were in the spring time of youth, and our pulse beat quick and the blood chased hot through our veins, when we thought of war, only the glamour of war, thought only of the laurels and the triumphs of the heroes and of their glory …
“It was not an unusual thing for a dance to be gotten up in a few hours while, upon the news that a Regiment had gone into Camp beyond Blewett Bridge. No cards were issued soliciting the pleasure of your company, but a list of the young ladies” names was sent from house to house announcing the fact thus: ”There will be a dance this evening at Miss so-and-so”s.”
Bring your escort, if not written, was expected of each. On one occasion it was my pleasure to take five, four of whom I had never seen before they called for me. They belonged to Co. D. 28th …
“Only at weddings were refreshments served, unless bowls of luscious plums and delicious water melons were considered refreshments. A tray of salted popcorn was not a contemptible menu …
“Four years without fashion plates, we fashioned our dresses according to individual taste … I cannot resist … telling … of Miss Purnell”s marriage at the Presbyterian Church. Her bridal wreath was of flowers made from white chicken feathers. … A while later there was a wedding at the Baptist Church, when the bride wore a homespun dress, wearing in her hair a cotton bloom.”
Both citizens and soldiers camped nearby presented tableaux and plays which served two purposes, to raise money for the soldiers needs and to keep morale high. Their ingenuity in fashioning costumes provided laughter.
Perspective on politics
Regina L. Lee wrote of accompanying her father, who was elected one of Mississippi”s five congressmen to go to Montgomery to form a new government.
“A number of ladies accompanied the various members. My grand-father took me along, as a pleasure trip. A small dining room was allotted to these, opening into the larger one, at the Exchange Hotel. For two weeks I sat opposite Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson Davis … Every day we went up to the State House, and after two or three bills were read, some mean old member would rise, and say, ”I move we go into secret session,” and every old fossil of them would grin, and ladies, escorts, and all but those entitled to stay, had to leave …
“The greatest men in the South were there; think of being introduced to them, and listening to them! ”There were giants in those days.”
“Even then everyone believed there would be ”Peaceable secession.””
Sadly, no matter how optimistically people embrace war or how valiantly they strive to overcome its anxieties and tragedies, or even how necessary it may become, people will die and will suffer unspeakably. How we need to remember that today!
The so-called Civil War was so uncivil that it caused the worst bloodshed ever to take place on American soil. In my next column I hope to present some of the experiences of these Columbus ladies during the actual fighting. While we commemorate that dramatic era in our nation”s history, we teeter on the brink of yet another war. I hope sanity will prevail.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.
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