A different contribution to the “Sesqui landscape”, on the last days of the war

Posted on March 26, 2015 by

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It shouldn’t be too hard to imagine… I subscribe to a number of different Civil War-related blogs, sites, Facebook pages, etc., and over the last week or so, I’ve watched as many have focused on the closing fights… at places like Bentonville and Fort Stedman. While even I noted the anniversary of the attack on Stedman (not in this blog, of course, but on my Facebook page), I realized something was missing from the “Sesqui landscape”… at least something that triggers fascination in me. I remembered a couple of accounts from civilian women in Richmond… one in particular having ties to the Shenandoah Valley.

Some may be familiar with Mary Tucker Magill (if not, by all means, click the link) and her literary efforts… she’s one of about two dozen antebellum (or antebellum-reflecting), women writers (… of published works from the 19th and early 20th century) who have struck my interests in the last year.

Anyway, I looked again for the account I remembered, and lucked upon yet another account that even predates the one which I was thinking about.

Given the timeline provided by Magill (about a week or two before the fall of Richmond), and considering yesterday’s 150th anniversary of the attack on Fort Stedman, I do believe the following account provides a scene from 150 years ago today… or at least this week.

In taking a backward view of the tragic story of the civil war, I am filled with astonishment at the blind security of the southern people even to the very end. This was the case especially with the women. I have sometimes thought that there was, perhaps, better knowledge of the real state of affairs among the other sex; but the women shut their senses, with such stolid determination that what they so desired, should and would come to pass, that they were impervious to the indications which now seem so unmistakable. It has been asserted – and women do not like the assertion – that our sex are more swayed by feeling than reason, and the war tends to confirm the assertion. The southern women prayed as they never prayed before that God would prosper the cause to which they had given lives more precious than their own; and their vows of devotion had, in a majority of instances, been sealed with precious blood. They believed with all their hearts that these prayers must be answered; nor would they allow a word to the contrary, even from their most trusted and devoted friends. Permit me to bring from my memory an illustration: A week or two before the fall of Richmond a number of young girls assembled in a certain drawing room to make a flag for a favored regiment. The stripes of red and white cloth filled up the center of the room and seated upon the carpet around were the girls, thimbles on fingers and shining needles all ready for their labor of love. As I think of it how vividly the scene rises before me.

BLACK EYES AND BLUE,

Fair, sunny heads bending side by side with dusky locks, and delicate fingers plying the flashing needle or deftly fashioning the emblematic star. Their costumes are wonderfully simple, in style of several years ago, and by fashionable people would be termed “old times and decidedly shabby;” but in these times even young girls were rather indifferent to the details of dress. The large predominance of black in the color of the dresses told a dad tale. It was an indication of the times. In vain we look for the sad countenances which should accompany mourning attire. There were more outward appearance of gayety than we would be apt to find in such a group nowadays. I have often read with a shudder of the orgies of dissipation and mad gayety which are invariable accompaniments of the pestilence. I can understand it. Nature demands a rebound. She will not be held down. The blows of sorrow, during the war, fell so thick and fast that life or reason must have succumbed but for the intervening reaction. Laughter followed tears as surely as light follows darkness. And so my party of girls, clad in their shabby mourning, without at all forgetting the precious lives in peril, laughed and chatted as merrily as if life were all sunshine, and no storms, and no storms were in the heavens.

Listen to them as they talk! You hear nothing of defeat, although at this period defeats were not uncommon; it is all of victory. “How we whipped them!” There is nothing said of what they will do in the event of failure, and if the Union be restored. Such an event as that is not numbered among their possibilities. Fail! What did not that involved? That a good God has been deaf to their entreaties, and the precious blood shed in vain? Oh, no! The thought alone would be a death-blow; and do they talk of what they will do when the boys come home, and independence is acknowledged, and new ties and homes are formed, and all “goes merry as a marriage bell.” Suddenly, a gentleman appears upon the scene. He is the head of the house, middle-aged and distinguished in appearance and public estimation. His genial wit makes him the life of every company; and here his arrival is the signal for great rejoicing. Daughters, nieces, cousins and friends greet him with acclamations of joy, which he receives in silence, as he throws himself on the sofa and covers his face with his hands. Instantly the scene changes; such signs can only foreshadow some new stroke of personal bereavement; tears replaced laughter; and one girl whose lover was in the battle yesterday, sinks fainting on the floor. A young matron of a few weeks turns ghastly pale, and shivers from head to foot, without being able to utter a sound. Sisters cry out to know if Willie or Charlie is the victim. The gentleman removes his hands, and becomes suddenly aware of the dismay of which he is the author, extending his hands, he says, with tender pity: “My poor children, be calm! I know of no personal sorrow for any of you, but the prospect of disaster which we must all share.” He then tells them in a few words that there are terrible forecasts for the “cause,” that the most sanguin patriots fear that the end is near.

He never advanced further in his story. A galvanic battery could not have so electrified the audience. They clustered about him, the embodiment of fierce indignation; flashing eyes met him at every turn, common civility was in abeyance to ungovernable anger; the words “oathbreakers” and “cowards” were not wanting. The young matron who a moment before was quivering in speechless agony exclaimed: “The God to whim we have committed our cause cannot fail us.”

I keep thinking about Magill and her mother, hosting Stonewall Jackson at their home, back in Winchester… back in the “sunnier days” of the Confederacy… and the above account stands in such stark contrast. Too bad Magill didn’t note the same.

I plan on providing one more account from Magill, on April 2.