Recollections of the Civil War

Mrs. Sylvester Bleckley.
Read before the Robert E. Lee Chapter of the
Daughters of the Confederacy, 1901

The muttering discontent of two dissatisfied parties, North and South, had long disturbed our peaceful nation, and the people of South Carolina were in anxious expectancy of the bursting storm. Finally, when Lincoln was elected President of the United States, and Fort Sumter had been fired upon, war was declared inevitable, and our fair Southland was in the throes of a revolution. Despair and dismay for a while held sway. The people of the little town of Anderson gathered together and, with saddened faces and tear-dimmed eyes, would ask each other, “Oh! do you think there will be war?” And the answer would always be, “Yes; war is inevitable.” And in groups we women would gather at a neighbor’s house and debate the coming crisis. All was sad and gloomy, and a dark pall seemed to envelop our little town and extend its black folds far over our land. We groped about our household work in silence and death-like gloom, too sad to take any interest in our affairs, for we expected the war cloud to break over us any day.

Truly, in a few weeks after Lincoln was inaugurated, our executive head, Governor Francis Pickens, called for volunteers to hasten to Columbia for orders. The order from the Governor reached the village on Saturday evening, and by daylight Sunday morning our streets were filled with an excited crowd of people from all over the country old men, and young men, riding, walking, hurrying, scurrying through the streets, anxious for departure to the seat of war. The entire day on that eventful Sunday in April was spent in getting things ready to send men to Columbia for inspection.

There was sorrow and weeping among the mothers and sisters over parting from their dear ones. Many a brave-hearted schoolboy, who had thrown aside his books and left his school, bade goodbye to home and its comforts, enlisted for his country’s rights, and returned no more.

It was at this time the women of the proud old State showed themselves to be noble, self-sacrificing heroines in the strife. They wiped all tears away, set aside all repining, and went to work at once to help all they could in assisting the brave soldiers in the cause which they knew was right. Sewing societies were immediately organized, and the work of making clothing for our men in the war commenced. We met once a week in the old Temperance Hall, over the storeroom of the late Mr. A. B. Towers, located about where Mr. Ab. Kay’s store now is, in what was called Granite Row.

Mrs. Rosa Webb, now deceased, was president of the sewing society. She and Mrs. Daniel Brown, and Mrs. Judge Monroe (now both dead) spent two or three days together, cutting out garments of gray jeans and cotton underwear, and when the society assembled we were each handed a garment to sew on while we remained, and our needles and our tongues would do duty for an hour or two as we discussed the army and its horrors. In this way we accomplished much in making garments. Every month we would send out a box of clothing, together with boxes of eatables, to gladden the hearts of our soldier boys, who were then in camp in Virginia.

We spent all of our spare time knitting socks, getting the thread spun on the plantations by the Negroes; and we never went out to pay a visit without taking our knitting along. It was a common salutation, when we met our friends, to say, “Come, bring your knitting, and spend the day.” Sometimes several days would be spent in scraping lint to be sent to the hospitals for dressing wounds. We would get together all the old, worn-out table and bed linen, and scrape it up into a soft down, make it in packages, and send it to the army surgeon. Many a poor, sorrowing mother’s tears were bound up in that downy package of lint as she prayed that her boy might be spared in the coming conflict.

The years passed slowly on. Our clothes began to grow worn and thin. All the cloth in the stores was used up. Merchants had locked up their places of business, given the key to whom it belonged, and departed for the war. We then had to resort to spinning and weaving our cloth. Spinning wheels, cards, and cotton looms and reels were brought actively into use. Not only did they have to clothe the Negroes on the plantation, but the white folks had to wear homemade clothes. Ingenuity and invention played an important part. We searched the woods for barks and roots to dye some pretty colors to make our dresses. There was no indigo blue or madder red for us to buy, so we used all kinds of dyestuff. We made a beautiful red dye from poke berries, setting the color with vinegar. Ivy or laurel root made a nice gray color, and red oak bark and walnut root a rich dark brown and black.

We often made trips to old Pendleton factory, then run by Mr. Ben Sloan, the same now managed by Mr. Gus Sitton.

Confederate money got so cheap it was hard to buy thread with money. We had to barter tallow, beeswax, leather, and sheep’s wool for thread. I have often thought what a blessing we had a cotton factory then to supply our country and town in thread for our use. A neighbor woman would get ready to make a trip to the factory in a buggy, sending word around to her neighbors that she would carry anything she could for them. So she started off in her buggy or one-horse wagon, loaded up with articles for barter from many families, and great would be the excitement when she returned, bringing the needed requirements for our clothing. One bunch of thread would warp about thirty yards. Ladies in the country who took in weaving would have to be paid in something more valuable than Confederate money. I heard of one woman who had thirty yards of cloth woven for a half-pint of castor oil.

When our shoes were worn out, we made the tops from any scraps of jeans we happened to have left from soldiers’ clothes. And then commenced the weary walking every day for weeks to the old colored shoemaker, Elias Caldwell, who had his shoe shop on Whitner’s creek, at Mr. Leverette Osborne’s tanyard, the spot now built up, and a new, enterprising cottonseed oil mill nearly covering the place where the old tanyard used to be. Elias Caldwell was the only shoemaker in the town, and he was always hard pressed and filled with orders ahead. It was hard work to get him to make all the shoes we needed.

We made our own lights. Candles were made by melting tallow and pouring into tin molds, made at Mr. Luten Brady’s tin shop. When the melted tallow cooled, we would draw from the molds a half dozen very shapely candles. Our parlor lights were quite fancifully made a long cord, made from several strands of thread, was stretched across the yard, six or ten feet, and we then took a saucer of hot, melted tallow and beeswax, holding it under the cord, and walked along the line, backward and forward, until the cord was about the size of a lead pencil; then the cord was taken and wrapped around a bottle, up and down, and across, in a fanciful design, and set on the parlor mantel, to be lighted only when company came.

We made our own gloves, from bits of cloth, or knit them from homespun thread. We made buttons out of gourds, cut into molds, covering them with cloth of any color or kind. Our bonnets and hats were made from the straw hats we had before the war. We had but one milliner in our village and all looked upon her as a great genius. Old Mrs. Garrison’s house still stands on the corner, near the square, and is yet used as a boardinghouse. Mrs. Garrison ripped up our old hats and bonnets, dyed them, made and molded them over. She had but two styles one she called a droop, the other a boulevard so we had to accept one or the other. The droop was a wide-brimmed hat, strapped down with colored ribbon or scraps of silk from old silk dresses. A boulevard style hat was a small round hat, that turned over the head like a soup plate or a bowl, and was usually trimmed in palmetto rosettes, made from the native palmetto bark or leaf. With either kind of these hats on our heads we sat in church as complacently as we do now with our fashionable and richly trimmed headgear.

Pins and needles were scarce. A half-dozen pins did duty for a year or two, and were stuck away carefully in a secret hiding place. Needles were borrowed from each other. One old lady I knew, who had but one needle, kept it hid away in the clock she said from meddlesome busybodies. We used ink made from ink balls from oak trees; walnut juice was often used. We used a kind of coarse, thin, brown writing paper, made somewhere in the State (I have forgotten where). For shoe blacking, elder berries were cooked up and strained; with a little sorghum molasses stirred in the mixture, a beautiful, glossy blacking was produced. Our substitute for coffee was okra seed or rye, parched. Some made coffee from persimmon seed; it tasted sweet and pungent. Potatoes, peeled and dried, were sometimes used as a substitute for coffee; and I have heard some old ladies affirm that they would never buy any more coffee from the Yankees, as they had gotten used to the substitute and liked it just as well.

Before the war ended, salt became very scarce, and brought very high prices. Many farmers resorted to digging up the ground of their smokehouses, the salt having dripped from the meat which hung above during the smoking and drying process. The ground would be dug up, the dirt put into a hopper like an ash hopper, dripped down into a vessel, then taken and boiled down, getting the sediment, which was a brown salt, and used for salting the stock, and very often used on the table.

The first vessel that ran the blockade, I think, was the “Ella Warley” (though I am not certain). The vessel brought over some supplies, both in dry goods and groceries and were sold at fabulous prices in Confederate money. Calico sold for $10 a yard, and went like hot cakes. My! my! $100 for ten yards of calico, and dingy, ugly calico at that!

We attended parties and big dinners, where were served roast turkey, roast pig, and all kinds of eatables raised in abundance on the farms. For dessert we often had fruitcake made of dried peaches or grapes, prepared by our good housewives. We wore our homespun dresses, made en train, trimmed in palmetto buttons on the shoulders and on the sleeves, a la militaire. We wore these stylish dresses to all the social entertainments, and women vied with each other in making the most effective homespun costume. Our winter cloaks or wraps were made of brown or gray jeans, called the Chesterfield style. They were long and close-fitting, something like the automobile cloak of these days. Scarves, made for the neck, were knit from colored wool, dyed on the plantation. Many of these scarves we knit and sent to our soldier boys, to keep them warm while they stood picket during the cold winter nights. I remember my brother wrote home to my mother while in winter quarters:

“Dear Mar: When the next box is sent here, please send me a pair of breeches. The scarf you sent me is all right as far as it reaches, but it only covers my neck, while the lower part of me is almost naked. My breeches are worn out, and my drawers are only pieces of drawers. Two shirts and a thin gray jacket is all I have. I am messing with Arch Saddler and Jim West. Each have a part of the work to do. I tote water; West makes up the bread, and Saddler cooks. If this is all we have until we raid somebody’s hen house, then listen for squalls, for I’m bound to pull some old hen or rooster off the roost, and if they don’t surrender quietly I’ll knife her. That’s a fact.”

When any neighbor would receive a letter from a soldier it was sent around so we all might read it and keep up with operations of the army. As a general thing, all letters were bright and cheerful, and showed endurance and a willingness for duty.

Whenever there was an interval of several weeks between the receiving of letters, we knew the army was moving, something in war circles which betokened a getting ready for battle, and we awaited news with great anxiety whenever the newspapers would report a battle had been fought. And if the Fourth Regiment had been engaged, our excitement and suspense was intense, and many a poor mother’s heart was rent on reading over the list of casualties.

During the last two years of the war, we had a hospital established in the old Masonic Hall, and many a poor wounded and sick soldier was nursed and attended by the ladies of our town. We also had a committee of ladies to meet every afternoon train. With pitchers of buttermilk, and a bottle of whiskey, we would go through the cars, and if any sick soldiers were on board we ministered to their wants. I remember on one occasion, when it came my turn to meet the train at the depot, Mrs. Marion Allen Hill and I entered the car and found several weak and sick soldiers, on furlough, going to their homes. We would stand by them, asking the question: “Buttermilk or whiskey?” “Whiskey, if you please,” would almost invariably be the answer. Mrs. Hill’s bottle was soon emptied, whilst my pitcher was as heavy as it was when I left home. I remember saying on one occasion, “Marion, I won’t carry another pitcher of milk to that depot; if the committee wants me to carry anything to the soldiers they must provide me with a bottle, for I see you carry the favorite beverage.” How we laughed as we wended our way home in the twilight.

At one time during the war a company of Wheeler’s Cavalry passed through our town. This was a great time for us to turn out and show our attention to the brave Confederates. All the young ladies went out on the sidewalk and greeted them with waving of handkerchiefs and bouquets of flowers. One jolly Reb rode by and, looking mischievously down from his horse to a bright young girl, said, “You better be bringing out your meat and bread; we can’t eat flowers.” This saucy speech caused the girls to realize that their flowers were not substantial food for hungry soldiers.

And so the years rolled by four years of hardship and suffering and sorrow! Never in the history of the world did there ever exist such a noble, heroic and self-sacrificing people, both men and women, as lived in our beloved Southland. They made every sacrifice, endured every hardship, and carried forward to triumphal success every charitable scheme that would enhance the interest and comfort of the noble army. Never day so long or night so dark that they did not rise in oneness of purpose to assist in maintaining the Southern Confederacy. For four long years they toiled and suffered, and when the end came, when the great Lee had to surrender to overwhelming foes, the people with bowed heads and breaking hearts accepted the cruel fate and turned at once to work and toil to build up their fallen fortunes. We have at last reaped the reward in seeing our South arise from its ashes and take its place among the nations of the world.


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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