civil-war-women

Nancy Leigh Pierson Bennett has absolutely nothing to gain from the war.

She and her husband own no slaves. She has expressed no public political convictions. The federal government in Washington is virtually irrelevant to her Piedmont North Carolina life, which is defined by hard work and a close-knit family. The compass of her life is limited. She does not travel and has no financial holdings affected by the tariff wars or lofty debates about states’ rights.

Indeed, the war intrudes on her life at a moment when she and her husband, James, are finally making a decent living for themselves and their three grown children. When the war begins, they have already been married 30 years. He was her second chance.

She came to him a widow, already 30 — five years younger than James. They struggled during the early years. James labored as a sharecropper, a tenant farmer who did not own the home they lived in. Those were lean years of borrowing and getting by, always just one dry season ahead of ruin and one bumper crop away from a more secure life.

James is 40 in 1846 when he purchases a 325-acre farm on the Raleigh-to-Hillsborough road, three and a half miles east of Hillsborough. Once again, the couple take on debt, but this time, they pay off the mortgage by reselling half of their land. By the time the war begins, they own the remainder of the property free and clear.

Their farm is not much: a small, unpainted, wood-frame homestead with a substantial stone chimney, a separate cookhouse, a couple of outbuildings, a well, fertile acreage for gardens and cash crops, a small orchard of cherry trees, and an oak-shaded grass dooryard enclosed by a neat fence. Nancy keeps a tidy house. A visitor later describes it as “scrupulously neat, the floors scrubbed to milky whiteness, the bed in one room very neatly made up, and the few articles of furniture in the room arranged with neatness and taste.” The furniture includes a handsome, drop-leaf table, a treasured possession.

They are now yeoman farmers, part of the respectable backbone of their community. James is elected orderly sergeant in the local militia, but the weekend soldiers have not much to occupy themselves except drills and socializing.

Meanwhile, he and Nancy grow potatoes, melons, corn, and oats for horse feed. They raise chickens and hogs and keep two milk cows. Because their farm is located on the main east-west thoroughfare, it’s a natural stopping place for travelers. Nancy lodges them and cooks their meals. One dollar buys a bed, breakfast, and supper. James sells them tobacco plugs and whiskey. In the fields, he still uses an old-fashioned, horse-drawn Dagon plow.

It’s not an easy life, but they are making a go of it. Using store-bought patterns, Nancy sews trousers, vests, and coats for sale in order to augment the family income. At the general store, a coat sells for $10, but she can make a profit at $1.50. The two sons, darkly handsome Lorenzo and bookish Alphonso, work in the fields with their father until they are grown.

Lorenzo marries Martha Shields in 1858, and the couple have two children, a boy and a girl. He goes into partnership with his brother-in-law, Charles Shields, operating Alpha Woolen Mills on the nearby Eno River, where they oversee the work of five women and three men. In 1860, they turn out 1,200 yards of “jeans etcetera.”

The daughter, Eliza, helps her mother until she marries Robert Duke in October 1861 and bears him a son.

Always alert to a new opportunity, James builds a wagon in which to haul goods to market. From time to time, the wagon functions as an omnibus, carrying young scholars to the University of North Carolina at New Hope Chapel Hill, 15 miles away. The Bennetts have not achieved prosperity but have built a stable life unencumbered by debt — with a thriving family, all of whom can be counted on to help out when the seasons demand it.

When war comes to North Carolina in May 1861, their fortunes turn. Lorenzo and his partner Shields enlist in the Hillsborough Orange Guards. Eliza’s husband, Robert Duke, joins the 46th North Carolina Infantry, which will see some of the heaviest fighting of the war.

Before long, all of the young men are absent. The Bennett farming clan is reduced to an aging couple and their daughter, now back home. Nancy’s life has suddenly become much harder, physically and emotionally.

Battlefields by class

For women in North Carolina, as for women throughout the South, the war brings privation and want. But for every class of woman, it is a different war.

Women of the plantation class are buffered in several ways. First, many of their husbands stay home from the war, exempt under the terms of the Conscription Act. In addition, their properties hold storehouses of meat, flour, coffee, wine, and other foodstuffs, so it takes much longer for shortages to reach them. They still control slaves to perform any additional physical labor required for the war, including the building of defense works. When invasion is imminent, they can pack up and go to someplace safer, traveling in style or at least in comfort, under the protection of a trusted escort of servants and family.

The Bellamy family of Wilmington, for example, leaves their grand mansion in the city during the yellow fever outbreak of 1862 and weathers the epidemic from the safe remove of Grovely Plantation down the Cape Fear River. Later in the war — when it becomes clear that Wilmington will fall and the Cape Fear region will be invaded — Elizabeth Bellamy and her six youngest children take refuge inland at Floral College, a women’s seminary in Robeson County. There, they occupy Steward Hall, one of two spacious houses.

The house has a long dining room at the rear, with one end used as a kitchen. The other is crowded with sacks of corn, peanuts, and other provisions from Grovely, all stamped with the letters C.S.A., so they won’t be confiscated by Confederate troops for the war effort. Of course, they are not C.S.A. stores at all, and the labeling is merely a ruse. While John D. Bellamy, the patriarch, travels between his various holdings, the women of the family remain safe and well fed at Floral College in the care of nine household slaves.

But eventually, the shortages reach even the moneyed class. All textiles in the state are commandeered for uniforms, so clothing is suddenly scarce — even for the well-to-do. From her Looking Glass Plantation in the eastern part of the state, Catherine Edmonston complains to her diary, “Have been all day devising ways to make a small piece of flannel do duty for a large one. But all my table covers go and bare mahogany is the order of the day.”

Middle-class women raid their attics for discarded dresses, blankets, baby clothes. They laboriously pull out the stitching, recut the cloth, and fashion new dresses, shirts, or uniforms. Carpets and drapes are unraveled and made into blankets and coats. And no wonder: The price of any fabric is dear.

Alice Campbell, a young upper-class woman from Fayetteville, laments, “I had a calico dress for State occasions for which I paid ten dollars a yard and shoes that cost one hundred dollars a pair.” By war’s end, a new pair of shoes will cost as much as $500, a gentleman’s overcoat $1,500.

Farther down on the social scale, the shortages hit early and hard — and only get worse.

One by one, the small amenities that make life bearable disappear into the cataclysm of the war. At the time of secession, a barrel of flour costs $8. Less than four years later, it costs $500. The price of coffee rises from 15 cents a pound to more than $100 a pound, and then it becomes simply unavailable. A writer in the Greensboro Patriot reports, “Where the blockade rendered coffee so scarce … my wife began to cast about for a substitute and we tried … okra seed.”

Wheat and rye are also ground for coffee. Sorghum is substituted for sugar. Hats are woven from palmetto leaves, buttons made from persimmon seeds. Leather goods disappear into the quartermaster’s stock, so an enterprising firm in Raleigh, Thiem and Fraps, offers a line of wooden shoes.

Many women across the state go to work in the 39 cotton and nine woolen mills, the first time in their lives most have worked outside the home. Numerous others work in “cottage” factories, which are private homes. Patriotic women form sewing circles and fashion cartridge boxes from layers of precious linen painted with varnish. They spin rabbit fur with wool and make socks for men at the front. They fashion “helmets” or “smoking” caps — colorfully decorated head-warmers — for soldiers living in outdoor camps to wear while sleeping.

The women are resourceful and game, but their industry is no substitute for the bounty of trade goods cut off by the Yankee blockade.

Blockade runners manage to slip their cargoes into the few open ports, but corruption takes its toll. Unscrupulous traders and speculators hoard staples, such as bread and cloth, and charge astronomical prices. Tea and sugar now cost $10 a pound, then disappear altogether from the market for ordinary people.

“Talk about Yankees worshipping the almighty dollar!” writes a Confederate officer describing the speculators’ trade in cotton, tobacco, silks, tropical produce, and spirits at the port guarded by Fort Fisher. “You should have seen the adoration paid the Golden Calf at Wilmington during the age of blockade-running.”

Hardest hit of all white women are the farm wives, especially sharecroppers. Not only do they survive from season to season on their crops, with little or nothing stored up against shortages, but also they rely on their men to do the backbreaking physical labor of plowing and harvesting, digging and hauling, chopping and splitting. When the army takes their men, their lives — already precarious — teeter on the verge of starvation and ruin.

One farm woman seeks help from Gov. Zebulon Vance: “I am a pore woman with a pasel of little children and i wil have to starve or go naked.”

Another pleads to Vance for “mearcy” and provisions: “I have plowed & hoed and worked in the field like a negro I have … no relations near me that is able to help me now.”

Isolation meets desperation

With most of her men gone from the farm, and hired men scarce, Nancy Bennett — like women all over the South — is forced to work the fields. At least she has her husband at her side. Other women are not so fortunate — left behind by husbands, sons, brothers, fathers. For the first time in their lives, they must not only plow, plant, and harvest; they must also make crucial decisions about what and when to plant, and how and where to bring their goods to market during a turbulent time. They must do this while fending off corrupt local Home Guards, roving gangs of deserters, and later Yankee “bummers” who come to pillage and vandalize their property.

Often alone and isolated, in a region where loyalties are at best divided, they face the ever-present risk of being assaulted or burned out by neighbors who suspect they favor the other faction. They are also easy targets for the lawless men set adrift by the war.

Women of the plantation class have very few practical skills to fall back on. On many plantations whose masters have gone to war, the women are not able to control their slaves. Some slaves help themselves to the bounty of the plantation — the fruits of their own hard work. More and more slaves run to Roanoke Island to join the Freedmen’s Colony. At first, it is mainly the male slaves who take the dangerous chance to run away, leaving behind their wives and children — all too often to face reprisal at the hands of their masters.

Whatever the hardships facing white women, the ones faced by black women — especially those in bondage — are magnified many times over. Some whose husbands have run away to join the Union forces are punished with beatings or turned out of their homes. Increasingly, women slaves take the gamble of running to the Union lines. But they are not always welcome there and are frequently treated as whores and beggars. Many are brutalized and raped by soldiers on both sides. If caught while escaping, they are whipped or even hanged. They know the risks. But freedom is precious, for themselves and their children, and they make the risky journey anyway. Once in the Union lines, many work as cooks and laundresses.

As the war draws closer, most cities and towns set up hospitals, usually near railroad stations. A number of women volunteer for hospital duty as nurses and housekeepers. Women from poor and working-class backgrounds prove more useful, their sensibilities generally not so delicate. They have lived their whole lives around physical suffering, blood, and bodily functions, and deal with the septic horrors of army hospitals with legendary aplomb. Some women, black and white, give clandestine aid to Union soldiers confined at the Salisbury Prison: food, medicine, clothing.

Some women of the educated class become teachers. Before the war, fewer than seven percent of schoolteachers in North Carolina were women. By the end of hostilities, women preside over more than half the classrooms in the state.

In general, except for the plantation class, white women are less enthusiastic about the war than their men. And as the war goes on and the casualty lists grow, they see the fighting almost as a natural disaster to be borne. Talk of glory fades; patriotic fervor, now tempered by long suffering, gives way to grim resignation.

In cities such as Raleigh and Salisbury, women openly revolt against the privations of war with “bread riots,” raiding storehouses of supplies stockpiled by speculators.

On March 18, 1863, the Salisbury Daily Carolina Watchman reports:

“… Salisbury has witnessed to-day one of the gayest and liveliest scenes of the age. About 12 o’clock, a rumor was afloat, that the wives of several soldiers now in the war, intended to make a dash on some flour and other necessities of life, belonging to certain gentlemen, who the ladies termed ‘speculators.’ They alleged that they were entirely out of provisions, and unable to give the enormous prices now asked, but were willing to give Government prices.

Accordingly, about 2 O’clock they met, some 50 or 75 in number, with axes and hatchets, and proceeded to the depot of the North Carolina Central Road. … The agent remarked: ‘Ladies … it is useless to attempt it, unless you go in over my dead body.’

A rush was made, and they went in, and the last I saw of the agent, he was sitting on a log blowing like a March wind. They took ten barrels, and rolled them out and were setting on them, when I left, waiting for a wagon to haul them away.”

The “rioters” in general are members of the poor and working classes, women for whom the cause is not noble but a curse. Their lives hold nothing extra, no cushion against hard times, and these are the hardest of all times — getting harder every day.

But worse than shortages of food and clothing, worse than the sicknesses brought on by malnutrition, is the absence of the young men. Whole communities are made up mostly of women and children, with a few old men and maimed veterans to remind them of who is missing. News from the front grows ever more dire.

Historic truce

None of the young men from the Bennett clan ever return. Lorenzo and Charles Shields die of disease and lie in Virginia graveyards. Their mill closes. Lorenzo’s widow, Martha, is awarded $134.03 in back pay. Robert Duke also dies in a Confederate hospital. Alphonso succumbs to sickness in spring 1863.

On April 17, 1865, a beautiful, sunny day, Nancy is at home with her husband and their daughter, Eliza. She has lost two sons. They own the farm, it is true, but without the young men to help, she and her aging husband are having a more difficult time making it pay. Soon Nancy and James will have to make a bargain with sharecroppers to work the farm and sell off more acres just to survive.

She hears the hoofbeats of a party of riders approaching, the jingle of tack, the clamor of voices as they dismount in her dooryard. Someone calls a greeting to the house, and she opens the door to an officer clad in gray.

Behind him, she can see a retinue of other soldiers in blue and gray uniforms, a white flag of truce. Two men stand out from the others, clearly in charge. One wears gray, the other blue. The gray-uniformed man wears a wispy goatee, with big, sunken eyes and an angular face below a balding head. He is thin to the point of gaunt. The other has a darkness around the eyes, the weariness of a soldier after long, hard service. His red hair is thinning. He moves with a compact energy.

The war has taken her sons, has taken her daughter’s husband, has taken her modest prosperity, and now the generals have come to call. Johnston and Sherman. Confederate and Yankee. At the outbreak of war, Joseph E. Johnston was the premier commander in the Confederacy, was exiled in disgrace, and now has been recalled to duty to play out the war’s final act. William Tecumseh Sherman rides at the head of the mightiest army in history, 60,000 battle-hardened men who have laid waste a swath of Georgia and the Carolinas.

They are two men who have fought across many battlefields but have never met before this day. Now they request to use Nancy Bennett’s parlor to conclude the fate of the Confederacy. She could protest, send them away, vent her crushing grief on these two men who have been in charge of so much death.

Instead, she offers them a pitcher of cool buttermilk. Then she retires with her husband and daughter to the cookhouse. In the orchard, the cherry trees are in blossom. She will do what women like her have done all through the war: wait for the men to be finished.

Behind her, the red-haired general talks to the other in low tones, a hint of alarm in his voice. He unfolds a dispatch from his pocket. The other reads it, stupefied with grief — for his beloved Confederacy. President Lincoln has been assassinated. There will be no easy peace now. The red-haired general sits down at the table and begins to write.

Life on the Home Front

Bennett Place, located in Durham and the site of the largest troop surrender for either side during the Civil War, is now a North Carolina Historic Site.

After a fire in 1921 destroyed the original structure, Civil War sketches and early photographs guided the reconstruction process to ensure that Bennett Place appears exactly as generals Johnston and Sherman saw it in 1865. The restored model of the Bennett family farmhouse offers an authentic look into the day-to-day life of an ordinary Southern family struggling to make do during the war.

Guests can take guided tours, peruse the Bennett family’s personal belongings and artifacts from the period at the site’s museum, and stroll along the many walking trails extending through the forest of Bennett Farm.

“There’s nothing like walking the original ground of historical figures,” says Site Manager John Guss. “It’s hallowed ground.”

On December 10-11, Bennett Place will play host to Christmas in the Carolinas, a commemoration emulating how the Bennett family would have celebrated Christmas amid the hardships of the Civil War. Musicians will perform period music, simple decorations will adorn the Bennett farmhouse, and a traditionally garbed Santa Claus will make a visit.

— Abbey Dean

Bennett Place State Historic Site
4409 Bennett Memorial Road
Durham, N.C. 27705
(919) 383-4345
bennettplacehistoricsite.com
Christmas in the Carolinas:
December 10, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.
December 11, 10 a.m-3 p.m.
Free admission

Selected Sources

“The Five classes of Antebellum Women in North Carolina” by Victoria E. Bynum, from Tar Heel Junior Historian, 36:1, Fall 1996; “James Bennitt: Portrait of an Antebellum Yeoman” by Arthur C. Menius III, North Carolina Historical Review, Vol. 58, No. 4, Oct. 1981; Durham County: a History of Durham County, North Carolina, by Jean Bradley Anderson, Historic Preservation Society, Duke University Press; A Woman’s War: Southern Women, Civil War, and the Confederate Legacy, edited by Edward D.C. Campbell and Kym S. Rice, The Museum of the Confederacy, Richmond, and the University Press of Virginia, 1996; Confederate Goliath: The Battle of Fort Fisher by Rod Gragg, HarperCollins, 1991; North Carolina Women of the Confederacy by Lucy London Anderson, Winoca Press and Cape Fear Chapter #3, United Daughters of the Confederacy; African American Women During the Civil War by Ella Forbes, Garland Books 1998; special thanks to John Guss, Site Manager, Bennett place Historic Site, Durham.

Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and his book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is standard in college classrooms across the country.

To view all stories from Our State‘s Civil War Series, visit http://www.ourstate.com/topics/history/civil-war-series

This story was published on

Gerard is the author of Our State’s Civil War series. He has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous other magazines, and is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina. He is the chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He lectures widely on the art and craft of writing history-based stories. His book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is a standard in college classrooms across the country.