Recollections of the First Year of the Civil War

Nullification, States’ rights, etc., and the principles thereof were as household words to most South Carolina children; but I having had the misfortune to lose my father when little more than a baby, knew nothing of politics; although I had often heard the days of 1832 discussed, and how the State should have nullified and did not. Therefore, it was not surprising that secession was almost an accomplished fact before I knew very much about it. My brother, a young man of 23, was most enthusiastic, and in his eyes South Carolina could never be wrong; but even from him, I heard but little. The English teacher at the school I attended was a red-hot secessionist, and from her I may say I received my political impressions; and can recall when, one day at dinner, a political discussion going on, I, a shy, awkward, silent girl, ventured a remark, my brother’s surprise as he asked me, ”Where did you hear that?” “At school,” I replied; “Mrs. W_____ told us so.” He laughed heartily, and said: “I had no idea politics was a branch of your education; I must treat your opinion with more deference hereafter!”

With the voting for delegates to the convention called by the State and the almost immediate passage of the Ordinance of Secession on the 20th of December, 1860, the whole State became enthusiastic; although many were grave, and realized there was a terrible issue at stake.

At this time, I had gone on a Christmas visit to a friend in the country, and as we read of the enthusiasm in Charleston, torch-light processions, speeches, firing of cannon, flags flying, etc., we thought we would not be behind the times, but try to have a patriotic emblem with our Christmas decorations; so a long board was got, covered with blue, on which we pasted, in yellow letters, “Dum spiro spero,” and nailed to the pillars of the piazza that, as visitors turned into the avenue, it would be the first thing to meet their view. This was the 24th of December, and with great impatience we awaited arrivals from the city, expected that evening. As we ran out to greet our host, a genial, good-tempered, warm-hearted gentleman, we eagerly asked, “Did you see our motto? don’t you like it?” and were crestfallen at his answer, “It looks like a tavern sign – cakes and ale; welcome, all!” However, he was kind enough to let it remain, although it was evidently an eyesore.

On the 26th of December, i860, Major Robert Anderson evacuated Fort Moultrie and occupied Fort Sumter, never before garrisoned. This was regarded by Governor Pickens as an overt act of war, and a detachment of the Marion Artillery, with other companies of the State militia, was ordered to occupy Fort Moultrie. My brother, an officer of the Marion Artillery, went with this detachment; thus, to me the war commenced from the first, for he was on duty all that winter, being among the first appointed as an officer in the “Provisional Army of South Carolina,” and in May received from the Confederate Congress, at Montgomery, a commission in the regular service of the Confederate States, was ordered to Gen. R. S. Garnett’s staff, and with him shared the dangers, trials, and untold privations of that ill-starred campaign in Northwestern Virginia. No men in the Confederate Army suffered more than these. Badly supplied commissary; reinforcements denied them; overpowered by the enemy; sickness rife in their camp; General Garnett killed at the Battle of Rich Mountain; their forces almost entirely demoralized by their reverses, it needed the news of General Beauregard’s splendid victory at Manassas to cheer their drooping spirits. It was the defeat of this small band of starving men which, in 1861, made McClellan a toast throughout the North! It was under these painful circumstances that my brother yielded up his life for the cause he held so dear! – and he was all the war to us.

But to return to South Carolina. By the middle of January, Charleston seemed transformed into a military camp, companies from the upper counties came hurrying to the seacoast, batteries were being erected at all points, there was a constant drilling, and nightly patrolling the streets – all was changed.

In Charleston, it was decided that the issues at stake were of too serious a nature to admit of a gay winter; therefore, the St. Cecilia and Jockey Club societies determined to give no balls; and great was the chagrin of the expected debutantes at a season being scored against them of which they had had no enjoyment; but as the horses had all arrived, the Jockey Club in February held their annual three days meet; and the pleasure of racing was enhanced by the then new sight of our everyday acquaintances being dressed in uniform, and plain “Mr.” transformed to “Captain,” etc.

January 26, 1861, saw our first war experience, when the “Star of the West,” bearing provisions to the garrison of Sumter, was fired into by the Morris Island batteries. The special battery which did most of the firing was manned by the cadets from the State Military Academy. These boys, being the beaux of our little Friday evening dances, the girls felt special interest, and were proud to hear their coolness spoken of by their elders as worthy of veterans!

It was about this time that General Beauregard first came among us, and from then to the close of the war, South Carolina seemed to claim him as her very own. He was a small, erect, handsome man, of great personal magnetism – all he approached, he made his own.

All Charleston remembers the first Battle of Sumter – how, before daylight, on the 12th of April, we were aroused from sleep by the signal gun fired from Fort Johnson. Although some miles from Charleston, the sound seems to have passed like an electric shock through the length and breadth of the city, rousing even the heaviest sleepers. I do not think any would have been found willing to confess they did not hear that gun!

The whole community with one accord seemed to crowd to the Battery, and adjacent houses, where, with strained eyes, or the aid of opera glasses, telescopes – whatever one was fortunate enough to possess – for two days we watched the bloodless battle, wondering what would be the fate of our loved ones, for every house sent its youth; there was scarcely a family that had not at least one son in the fight. Slowly and steadily our batteries fired, and sullenly Sumter answered them; and when, on the second day, the white flag was hoisted, on all sides came the cry, “They surrender! they surrender!” and soon we saw the little boat shoot out from Morris Island, with those to make the terms.

On Sunday, the 14th, the transports came up for Major Anderson and his men; as they passed Morris Island, our troops were drawn in line on the beach, and saluted their late foe.

This first battle of the war had many trying circumstances connected with it – those on whom our guns were turned had lived among us as friends and honored guests, and all in one day, as it were, they became deadly enemies; the change was too sudden to engender much bitterness of feeling.

After the battle, we heard many amusing anecdotes of occurrences. One, I remember: the Charleston Light Dragoons, with other cavalrymen, had been ordered to the eastern end of Sullivans Island, known then as the Myrtles (from the thick growth of this shrub), with orders to prevent the landing of the fleet, should it be attempted. After all was over, and they came riding down the island, they were greeted with the taunt from some countrymen, “You’rns look right pert and brave; now that we’uns have done the fiteing, you’rns come out to see!” I smile now as I remember the indignation of the young Dragoons who told us the story.

After the fall of Sumter, nearly all of our volunteer companies were relieved from duty, and a season of recreation followed. An elegant fete champetre, in honor of General Beauregard, was given by Mr. Wm. Izard Bull, at his beautiful home, “Ashley Hall,” which had been the home of the Bulls since colonial days, when Governor Bull was one of the Governors of the Province of Carolina. Ashley Hall, on this April day, seemed to have donned its fairest dress, as though there could not be too much beauty to do honor to the occasion; or perhaps there was a foreknowledge that this would be the last fete day under those grand old oaks! though no such feeling clouded the gayety of those who joined the brilliant throng that day, and in spite of there being comparatively few civilians to be seen, none seemed to realize that grim-visaged war was near at hand, and that ere the close of the year, many of those with us would have sacrificed their lives on the altar of their country!

That spring was marked by flag presentations to the different military companies, for it was in May that the companies intending to join the Hampton Legion left for their rendezvous in Columbia, prior to going on to Virginia. My grandaunt, Mrs. Jane Ancrum, a lady of over seventy years, following the example set by her mother, Mrs. Jane Washington, who presented the battle flag of her husband, Colonel William Washington, to the Washington Light Infantry, emerged from her retirement, and personally presented the Washington Light Infantry, on the eve of their departure, with a flag that had been embroidered by some of her young grand-daughters.

The flag of the Legion was embroidered by a cousin of mine, and was made of a crimson silk dress presented by one of the Hampton family, the design a wreath of oak leaves encircling “Hampton Legion.” Great was the interest with which we watched the daily growth of those leaves and acorns! It was not finished in time for presentation before they left for Virginia – this ceremony took place at Richmond, President Davis making the speech. Some years later, the flag, tattered, stained, and bullet-riddled, was returned to my cousin with the request she would add their most conspicuous battles – a goodly number!

The Battle of Manassas brought sorrow and gloom to many a home in South Carolina, for our regiments suffered terribly, the Hampton Legion being no exception; and when General Bee and Colonel Johnson were brought home and laid to rest, where they first saw the light, Charleston felt she could not do enough to honor her dead heroes. After Manassas, things were quiet for a time, and attention was turned to providing for our boys in camp, hospitals, and those preparing to go; pickles and preserves were made, socks knit; all material possible was brought into use, for it was incredible how soon after the blockade was established articles of every-day use became scarce.

The “Bermuda” was, I think, the first English vessel that ran the blockade into Charleston, and for the first time we realized the tremendous advance in prices; it seemed as though we were not the same people, nor these the same stores. Up to this time, the Charles-ton merchants had either kept the same scale of prices or advanced them so little it was not worth complaining of; but when the advance once commenced, it did not soon stop and, in comparison with things of today, it reads like a page from the Arabian Nights Entertainment. I often wish I had kept a diary of the times – there is so much, both grave and gay, forgotten that would have been worth remembering. Many a laugh have we had in talking over the outre things we, as well as our friends, were delighted to get, and the marvelous prices paid. What a bonanza the war must have been to the English merchants, in clearing off the unsalable stock that had accumulated for years, and that we blockaded Southerners were only too glad to get.

In the fall of 1861, the enemy landed upon our seacoast, and the planters, with their families, had to make a hasty exit from Edisto, St. Helena, Beaufort – in fact, all the sea islands. In most cases, the flight was so sudden they were compelled to leave all household effects behind; everything had to be concentrated in moving the Negroes and, if possible, the cotton; in many instances, this had to be burned, and at night the seacoast for miles would be illuminated with fires from the burning cotton that meant so much loss of credit to the Confederacy!

Fort Walker was the first reverse we met with in South Carolina, and a terrible one it was, for we were never able to regain what was there lost. It was here, too, that was first brought home to us the cruel sight of brother arrayed against brother, when the two Draytons (brothers), one commanded the Federal, and the other the Confederate forces. Our sympathies were much excited for those who were driven from their homes at this time, who in one day fell from wealth to poverty. Later in the war we saw refugees living in box-cars (and glad to get them), but by that time we had all had our share of suffering, and were able to resign ourselves to whatever came. Nothing ever seemed as pitiful as the woes of the sea island refugees. Many of them came to Charleston only in time to undergo the horrors of the great fire of December 11, 1861, which swept Charleston from east to west – from the Cooper to the Ashley!

Although December, the night was warm enough for us to stand bareheaded, and without discomfort, on the piazza, and watch an apparently unimportant fire that had broken out in a machine shop, not more than a square away. As though Pandora had opened her box, before 11 o’clock the wind commenced to rise, and we could see the flames reach higher and higher, and burn steadily in a south-westerly course. All night long vehicles of every kind were passing. laden with the effects of those seeking safety, and when some stopped at our door and asked shelter for furniture moved from the south-western part of the city, it was hard to understand how so much damage had been done in so short a time. Direful, indeed, was the tale we heard next day; many near and dear to us were homeless; the public buildings, the pride of the city, were, many of them, in ashes. The Institute Hall, where the Ordinance of Secession had been passed, the Circular Church (Presbyterian), St. Finbar’s Cathedral, St. Peter’s (Episcopal), covering an area of certainly a half-mile apart, were all in ruins!

This, coming so soon after the fall of Fort Walker, and all the re-verses we had met with that season, seemed more than our share. The working people, in many instances, having lost their all, means for their relief had to be immediately thought of, and, in providing them with shelter, food and raiment, the woes of the richer were, for the time, thrust out of sight.

Many of those who had lost their homes now commenced their refugee life, the military advising the removal of noncombatants from Charleston. Columbia was the point of safety (?) agreed upon by nearly all of the first refugees as being nearer communication with their friends – only a few families at this time sought refuge in the upper counties.

By May, 1862, almost all Charleston were refugees. The up-country towns were overcrowded, food was scarce, prices exorbitant; in many instances Confederate money was refused at any price, the farmers preferring to hoard their provisions rather than sell for money they deemed worthless. The refugees all over the State had a hard time, although at the hands of many they met with unlimited kindnesses which could never be forgotten or repaid.

The men all away at the war, only those over or under age were left to plant the crops. The struggle for food was terrible, and many were the shifts the low-country people were put to. Among the ignorant farmers were many who regarded a “refugee” as a bitter foe, who was personally responsible for the war, and the privations they and theirs were enduring. They refused to sell us provisions, except in the way of barter, and in that light, almost everything, particularly clothing, had a market, but with no means of replenishing, it was not often we could spare our clothing. Going out into the country on one occasion to see what we could get to eat, we had stopped at a farmhouse where the woman refused all overtures we had made her. On this day I wore a white waist, known as a “Garibaldi,” and then considered most stylish, somewhat on the order of the shirtwaist of today. The woman suddenly turned to me, and said: “I will give you a turkey for your jacket.” I replied: “It is not for sale.” She kept on urging the exchange; at last she said:

“I will give you two turkeys.” After hesitating some time, as to whether my wardrobe would allow of the exchange, I consented. Our household consisted of thirteen women and children, and turkeys were a rarity with us!

Almost the greatest privation the refugees had was the want of wood. The severity of the climate in the upper counties was especially hard to them. The farmers having their stock of mules or oxen much reduced, needed their services for farm work, so that it was only during a spell of bad weather they would consent to haul wood. I am afraid many were the heartfelt prayers put up for a rainy day, particularly if the woodpile was growing beautifully less!

After this, events came so thick and fast, it is impossible to recall them in anything like order, and, until Sherman overran South Carolina in 1865, most of us were removed from the seat of war. We were constantly cheered by rumors of England’s recognition, and never lost hope. Poles never loved their cause more deathlessly than we Southerners our “Lost Cause,” although today we may forgive and try to forget.

Forget the rage of the hostile years,
And the scars of a wrong unshriven,
Forgive the torture that thrilled to tears
The angels calm in heaven.

Forgive and forget? Yes, be it so,
From the hills to the broad sea waves,
But mournful and low are the winds that blow,
By the slope of a thousand graves.

Martha B. Washington.

South Carolina Women in the Confederacy. Edited and Published By Mrs. Thomas Taylor, Chairman, Mrs. Smythe, Mrs. August Kohn, Miss Poppenheim, Miss Martha B. Washington, State Committee Daughters of the Confederacy. Columbia, South Carolina, The State Company, 1903.

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