Belles, bullets and bacon: Women in the Civil War

Forget about the balls, give me some food! Photo: Eastern Charity Society, Civil War Living Historians, taken in 2006 at Ridley Creek Colonial Plantation

VIENNA. Va, February 7, 2011 — A friend recently asked me a question – “What happened to the women during The Civil War?  It couldn’t all have been big skirts and fancy balls,“ she queried.

This is a very intelligent, professional lady.  It hadn’t occurred to me that this simple subject would be such a mystery; growing up in the South I had heard many stories and read books on the subject.

Eastern Charity Society, Civil War Living Historians, taken in 2006 at Ridley Creek Colonial Plantation

Eastern Charity Society, Civil War Living Historians, taken in 2006 at Ridley Creek Colonial Plantation

Introducing the woman and the lives of the fairer, gentler sex during The Civil War, my hope is to inform readers on this important, of not overlooked, subject.

With the sesquicentennial looming it’s a well-deserved subject and the short answer is no, it was not all big skirts and balls. 

Primarily it was a lot of hard work, of loss and deprivation and of “making do,” as our great grandmothers would say.  The Southern woman was, for her era, one of the most genteel, almost pampered of females; she had been raised in a strong family situation; her education had probably been either at home or in one of the “female seminaries” that dotted the South. 

And quite suddenly it all ended.

It wasn’t just that the men, their fathers, sons, brothers, uncles and consorts, went off to war, it’s that the normal rural homes they lived in, be they large plantations or typical small family farms, or just houses in towns, suddenly had no one to run them. 

Women who probably never milked a cow suddenly had to help tend the stock. In many instances the slaves remained loyal to the family and stayed to help perform the actual labor of planting, plowing, mowing and harvesting the crops.  Younger family members were drafted into service as well.

In contrast with her Northern sisters, whose homes remained basically intact, with any farms they had or crops they raised stayed safe and secure. The war continued with eggs in the chicken house and bacon and ham available from the hogs; alas such was not the case in the South. 

While a dad in the North may have taken one of the horses off to fight in the Union troops, the remainder of the stock was left at home.  Supplies remained remarkably constant, there was little hunger or loss of possessions, and in many respects their life remained the same. 

Merchants still had ample supplies of cloth for dresses and pants, food was still available, milk still came from the family cows or the store, and life continued, albeit with the shadow of concern over their loved ones fighting the war hanging over their heads.

On the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line, as the supply of normal household staples dried up, the Southern women became creative in providing for the family.  There were almost no factories in the South and families had relied on the North for household furnishings, agricultural tools and even such basic things as plain nails.  Foodstuffs not raised on site came mostly from the north and northwest. 

The Southern lady had to become creative, according to Patricia B. Mitchell’s Confederate Home Cooking, and she did.

Coffee, tea, and sugar all were lost to them.  Federal forces had orders to destroy salt and salt works as “contrabands of war” so that even salt was not available.  The only alternative was to make salt by boiling seawater until salt remained, for those close to the ocean. 

There was no baking soda to be found, and women boiled corncobs and retained the ashes that was bottled and covered with water then allowed to sit until the water cleared.  For baking purposes, one part of ashes water could be mixed with two parts of sour milk, assuming the milk could be found, as a substitute.

Making coffee was another involved process. If you could find it, the price was $30.00 a pound, and as the war progressed, the price increased.  In a book called Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests by Francis P. Porcher, it says that they would take parched wheat or rye and even corn and boil it. 

Sweet potatoes or yams were cubed, sun dried, ground up and boiled. The resulting mash was also used as a sweetener.

One of the most bizarre sounding substitutes for coffee was okra seed.  Okra was planted in rows along with the corn, and the seeds were dried.  Supposedly the boiled, dried seeds produced a taste much like coffee. Personally I have no intention of trying that one. 

What passed for tea was made from the leaves of any leaf that might produce a good flavor – and sweetened with sorghum to make the traditional “sweet tea.”

Where hostile forces foraged, milk was a rare commodity indeed, as most of the cows were taken away.  In Richmond, milk sold for $4.00 a quart and then increased; many women complained they had had no milk for their children or those who were ill, for months. 

What were referred to as “store candles” soon gave out, so the women saved grease and lard in pans, and used woolen rags cut in strips for wicks.

Greens did not mean only spinach and kale; it also included dandelion greens, burdock (a stiff, hard weed), cowslips and chicory, all of which became greens for the table.  One instruction I read in the Mitchell book said that after washing the greens thoroughly, a handful of salt should be added to each pan of them which would kill the insects and worms…especially if after the washing, it was allowed to stand in that salted water for half an hour. When that phase was over, they were boiled in water (with another handful of salt) until the stalks were tender, and served with salt, pepper and butter, if available.

Potatoes and beets and other root vegetables that had been dug before the armies arrived could be put away in the smoke house or the basement, and if not found and confiscated, might sustain the family a little longer than without them.

Any of you whose memories go back to the 1950s and 1960s will remember when the fad dessert was apple pie without any apples – saltine crackers became the ‘meat’ of the pie, and with the right spices, it tasted like apples.  Want to guess when that actually began? During those Civil War days of ‘making-do’ in the South.

While soap was absolutely essential for cleaning of all kinds, it was no longer available. If you stopped in a house back during The Civil War to see how this simple staple was provided, each woman seemed to have her own special recipe.  All required boiling of the lard (assuming you had a hog to render it from) and other ingredients so eventually a form of soap could be obtained. Any type of metal cooking implement was in very short supply; metal pots and pans were passed from woman to woman and house to house.

The Mitchell book mentioned that a Southern woman had “rented” a metal pan, a skillet, from a colored woman for one dollar a month rental.

When locals needed to create a hospital for the wounded, the women dug into their already depleted homes to drag out old beds, carpets, and whatever they could spare for the incoming injured men.  And the women provided nursing care, learning to clean wounds, help surgeons and see various aspects of life they were ill prepared for in the 1860s. The role of women in the nursing ranks cannot be overstated.

With supplies of clothing becoming hard to come by, fixing what one had was paramount in women’s minds.  A sharpened thorn became a pin; someone found that dried persimmon seeds made excellent buttons. The loss of a sewing needle became an outright calamity. Buttons were also made from gourds, and covered with any kind of cloth.  Dyes were made from every sort of berry imaginable, and when the dye faded out after washing, the clothes were “dipped” again. 

Hats were made out of various grasses as well as corn shucks, palmetto leaves and the like, and then decorated with a carefully put away scrap of lace or a pretty old piece of jewelry.

The clothes may not have been fashionable, but they sufficed.  And every young girl learned to sew and to spin.  When the foot portion wore out in old wool socks, the remainder of the stocking was carefully unraveled, the resulting wool thread twisted on a spinning wheel and then used as knitting wool to make new stockings or gloves or even mitts.

Diaries of women and even young girls report of knitting for several hours each day.

Those familiar with old Southern songs will recall “The Bonnie Blue Flag” which mentioned the “homespun dress that Southern ladies wear.”  It was not just a melodic line in a tune; it was a fact of life. The homespun dresses were homemade, home dyed and worn until they could no longer be used. The South was in the process of losing the cotton so critical for many things, and any type of fabric found was put into use.

While the old familiar scene of Scarlett O’Hara pulling down “Miss Ellen’s portieres” may be fictional, it seems that curtains and drapes and tablecloths frequently became items of apparel when the need arose.  At this time feed sacks usually lacked the patterns we think of in later days, but the cotton was of a substantial weight and could be used for shirts, blouses, camisoles, petticoats, clothing to send to their family members who were fighting, and anything else that could be fabricated and sewn.

As the Northern forces made their way across the South, anything edible was taken; cows, sheep, horses, all were taken. What could not be taken was shot and killed. I read one diary entry from B. A. Boykin’s Lay My Burden Down that said, “I remember when they shoot the pig; I remember when they shoot the two geese in the yard…”

Meat houses where the bacon was kept and the hams were cured were stripped to the rafters and then burned, likewise with any other outbuildings. Families hid all of the meat and other foods they could around the premises; too often it was found and taken.

At the same time, the women in the North were keeping house as always, with few personal deprivations noted.  They also ran their homes in the absence of their husbands and did the entire child rearing. In many ways the stress level there was similar to that found in the Southern woman’s home, but she lacked very little in terms of everyday items.

When the Yankee prison was built in Elmira, New York, and hundreds of rebel prisoners began arriving, the prison authorities provided only the most basic of accommodations, even in the dead of winter, with drafty tents for lodging. 

The good women of Elmira realized the need and there are numerous accounts of the women sewing woolen clothing in the requisite color and bringing the clothes to the officials to be given to the freezing inmates. Foodstuffs were also made and brought; the officials refused to give the clothing or the food to the inmates, regardless of the noble intentions of the ladies of the North.

So the war was not a time of “big skirts and balls” but it was a time when the women of the country proved their inventiveness and their humanity in a dozen different ways. And they will always be remembered for their actions and devotion.

One suggestion – for those of you with children, regardless of how briefly the Civil War is covered in your kids’ text books, take some time and share with the young people the facts of the four years’ conflict.  They are the future, and they need to learn the facts.

Follow the blog on FaceBook at Martha Boltz; by email it’s

Read more of Martha’s columns on The Civil War at the Communities at the Washington Times.

This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.

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Martha M. Boltz

Martha Boltz is a frequent contributor  to the long running Civil War features in The Washington Times America At War feature in the print and online editions. She has been a regular contributor to the original Civil War Page and its successor page since 1994, and is a civil war buff, historian, and writer. "Someone said that if we don't learn about the past, we are condemned to repeat it," she said, "and there are lessons of all sorts inherent in this bloody four-year period of our country's history."  She is a member of several heritage and lineage groups, as well as the Montgomery County Civil War Round Table. Her standing invitation is, "come on down - check the blog - send me your comments and let's have fun with its history and maybe learn something at the same time."


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