June 11, 2015

  • Share:
  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • Email Article

As the 1862 Shenandoah Valley campaign concluded, Winchester resident Mary G. Lee reflected on local women’s ability to rise above the challenges of living in an area that alternated between the home front and the battle front. Pleased with the support that Confederate women provided to their cause, Lee made a bold recommendation. “I propose that we declare ourselves a separate & independent sovereignty,” she mused in her diary, “& elect a Queen to reign over us.”

As Lee’s comments suggest, Confederate women played a critical role in upholding the cause in the Shenandoah Valley. Throughout the war they supported the Confederacy by producing and gathering supplies, providing information, resisting occupying Union soldiers, and providing succor for Confederate soldiers in their midst. When the guns fell silent, the Valley’s Confederate women influenced postwar memory by organizing Confederate Memorial Day ceremonies. Through all of these activities, Confederate women decisively shaped the ways in which the Valley’s noncombatants experienced and later interpreted the war.

Like their counterparts throughout the South, Shenandoah Valley women supported the Confederate cause by harnessing household production to meet the new nation’s needs. In Winchester, women made lint, rolled bandages, sewed jackets, trousers, haversacks, and tents. In May 1861 they sent hundreds of mattresses to comfort the soldiers at Harpers Ferry. In the same month, Mary A. Smiley reported that the ladies in Newport, Augusta County, were busy making tents for the soldiers, while the women of New Providence, Rockbridge County sewed uniforms. A month later, the Richmond Enquirer reported that women in Jefferson County were busy making tents, haversacks, and shirts for Confederate volunteers. Soldiers’ aid societies formed to pool the efforts of local women. Women would meet together and work, while one read a book aloud to provide entertainment. While many Confederate women embraced their new role as producers for the Confederate army, some found that the new challenges clashed with their family responsibilities. Clarke County resident Ellen Moore wrote her husband that she gave as much money as she could to the local aid society, but she still felt “ashamed to say I am working for [our] children when I see every hand around me busily going for the soldiers.”

This largesse would continue throughout the war, even as times became hard. In the spring of 1862, the Staunton Spectator praised the women of Augusta County for sewing supplies for Confederate soldiers and collecting money for the building of a gunboat to defend Richmond. After the battle of Fredericksburg, Front Royal resident Lucy Buck knitted socks for a local unit and coordinated a fundraising effort to relieve the suffering civilians in the battle-scarred town. In February 1864 Buck organized a children’s concert that netted $94.00 for the benefit of Confederate soldiers.

When in the midst of the Confederate army, Valley women did their best to feed and care for rebel soldiers. Lucy Buck recalled that one afternoon in November 1862 was “pretty much spent in feeding soldiers, running up and down stairs, and harkening to numberless requests from them.” Buck’s only concern was that she did not have more food to give the soldiers. When Confederate soldiers returned to Winchester in May 1862, Laura Lee noted that many of the civilians were busy feeding them. In the winter of 1864-1865 the women of the Churchville Soldiers’ Aid Society prepared a meal for the veterans of Brigadier General John Pegram’s Brigade. One of the officers wrote in gratitude that “the patriotic kindness of the noble dames and beautiful damsels of Augusta shall not be forgotten.”

Sick soldiers also needed care. The great number of sick Confederates taxed the time and resources of local civilians. Winchester suffered especially in this regard. When Joseph E. Johnston evacuated the Valley in July 1861, he left about 1,700 sick soldiers behind in Winchester. Judith McGuire, who described the town as “a hospital,” noted that local women “attend to their comfort in every respect; their nourishment is prepared at private houses.” The ladies of Greenville, Augusta County, provided comforts including bread, pies, butter, honey, chicken and vegetables for the sick Confederates in their midst, prompting a local newspaper to assert that many soldiers wished for sickness in order to partake of the feasts prepared by Greenville’s women.

Even when Confederate military fortunes declined in the Valley, women found ways to contribute materially to the Confederate cause. During Union military occupations, women gathered and hid supplies in anticipation of the Confederates’ return. In May 1862 Mary Lee observed that “Every one is laying in supplies, to have in readiness for our army.” Lee herself was one of the most resourceful supporters of the Confederacy in the Shenandoah Valley. She had a network of suppliers north of the Potomac River who provided her with a great deal of goods that she kept hidden in anticipation of the Confederate army’s return to Winchester. She used the services of a local Unionist to send letters to Baltimore and New York requesting money to fund her purchases. In the winter of 1863 she confided to her diary, “It requires no little management to spend so much money judiciously & to collect such treasonable supplies, without exciting suspicion. If [Union General Robert] Milroy knew my occupation I would be sent to Fort Delaware.” When General Philip Sheridan banished Lee from Winchester in early 1865, she claimed to have “dozens of treasonable possessions” among her baggage.

Many Confederate women in the Valley found it easier to gather information than collect supplies. The women hoped that their information, like their supplies, would contribute to Confederate military success. Belle Boyd of Berkeley County, now West Virginia, was perhaps the most well known female spy in the Valley, but other civilians played equally important, if less noted, roles. Union authorities arrested Mollie Pultz of Jefferson County, now West Virginia, for providing information on troop movements around Smithfield. Mary Lee seemed just as successful gaining information as she had collecting supplies. In October 1863 she boasted, “I have changed my rank in the C.S.A. & instead of being Post Commissary, circumstances have made me chief of the detectives.”

While some Confederate Valley women gathered supplies and information during periods of Union military occupation, most devised strategies for resisting occupying authority. As they demonstrated their displeasure with the Union military, women appealed to nineteenth-century assumptions about gender roles for protection. In May 1862, Mary Lee informed a Union surgeon that he was her enemy, but “as women, we demanded the courtesy that every lady has the right to expect from every gentleman.” Mrs. Dr. R.C. Randolph offered a similar plea when she applied to the Winchester provost for protection of her Clarke County property in the winter of 1863-1864. “In this address, I have laid aside party,” she concluded, “and as a helpless woman, have presented my cause and the cause of my countrywomen to manhood, in its strength and power—may I not hope in its nobility and generosity?” When a Union search party found military buttons and gray clothing in her bedroom, Mrs. Randolph attempted to pass it off as insignificant women’s work. “For this I was called to account,” she wrote. “If every button were a shell, and the poor gray material so much gunpowder to which we intended applying a match in their presence, more indignation could not be expressed, than has ever been by them, at the criminality of any one who should dare to have under his roof these instruments of so much evil.”

In the early stages of their battles with the Union invaders, Valley women adopted a strategy of showing their displeasure with the Federal army without offering any threatening form of resistance. The safest way to do this was to simply ignore Union soldiers. Mary Lee complained that Winchester men were too cordial in their interaction with Union troops. She believed that there was “no necessity for noticing them or speaking to them, at all, unless in a matter of business.” Lee also expressed concern that some women were beginning to appear in the presence of Union soldiers on the streets. In Berryville, Ellen Moore proudly informed her husband that she had refused all applications for housing sick Union soldiers in her home. When Union soldiers approached Lucy Buck’s home in Front Royal, she carefully peeked out of the window, as the women of the family were “determined not to let them see us….”

For most Valley women, remaining in their homes to avoid encountering Union soldiers was not a realistic option. To continue their resistance, women went out of their way to avoid walking near Union soldiers or under the United States flag. When they did go out, women wore heavy bonnets, commonly called “Jeff Davis bonnets,” so that they could avoid eye contact with the soldiers. Kate Sperry delightedly reported that Winchester women walked in the streets to avoid passing under the shadow of the Stars and Stripes, and expressed her fear that soldiers would soon stretch a flag across the street to make avoidance more difficult. Sperry’s fear was soon realized; a few days later the Federals put up a large flag that spread across the street to the other side. Sperry and a few friends took a side street to avoid walking under Old Glory. On another occasion, Union soldiers placed a large U.S. flag over the entrance of a Winchester hospital, so that women who visited the Confederate wounded had to pass under it. Portia Baldwin managed to avoid walking under the flag by using the side gate, but when she left the hospital she found the gate nailed shut. She passed under the flag and told the Union soldiers standing nearby that she did not care for the “rag” any more than an “old shoe.”

As Portia Baldwin’s experience suggests, when Confederate women could no longer avoid interacting with Union troops, they made sure such encounters were unpleasant to the soldiers. When a Union soldier expressed the thought that all of the secessionists had fled Winchester with Stonewall Jackson’s army in the spring of 1862, Mrs. Philip Williams shot back, “not so fast as you ran at Bull Run.” Mary Taylor entertained some Union soldiers with “rebel songs” one evening. The performance was well received until she broke into a chorus of “Yi Yi You old Bull Runner / Yi Yi You old Bull Runner / Yi Yi You old Bull Runner / Run ten miles to the tune of our gunners.” After her performance, one of the soldiers told her that if she was a man he would have killed her. U.S. Secretary of State William H. Seward expressed a sentiment that many Union soldiers serving in the Valley would share—after visiting Winchester in the spring of 1862 he proclaimed, “the men are all in the army, & the women are the devils.”

Union commanders, who took women’s resistance seriously, began to treat male and female secessionists equally. Because of these more stringent policies, women became more circumspect when confronting Union authority. This coyness derived not only from harsher Union policies, but also from fears raised by the women themselves. Even as they engaged in fierce verbal battles with Union troops, women became concerned that they were no longer acting like “ladies.” Belle Boyd blamed women’s aggressiveness on what she deemed the outrageous behavior of Union troops. She believed that their behavior “exasperated our women no less than our men, and inspired them with sterner feelings than those which inflame the bosoms of ladies who know nothing of invasion but its name, who have never at their own firesides shuddered at the oaths and threats of a robber disguised in the garb of a soldier.” Mary Lee noted that “the women of Winchester are so utterly fearless & indulge in such strong language, that I fear Billingsgate style will become habitual.” Kate Sperry reflected on her new habit of cussing at Union soldiers and concluded, “[I] have become reckless—stonehearted and everything, hard and pitiless—never knew I was so revengeful.”

As they gained experience in encountering Union soldiers, many women became convinced that unswerving opposition was not their best option, considering the circumstances. Laura Lee, a staunch Winchester secessionist, was not sure that excessive Confederate enthusiasm was such a great idea in occupied Winchester. “Some of the ladies talk very freely, and rather abusively, to the [Union] officers,” she wrote. “I think it a very bad plan…calculated to irritate and excite bad feeling, which they have the power to use for our injury.” Anna Andrews of Shepherdstown agreed. “We are in their power now & what is the use or sense in infuriating our jailors to incite them to practice atrocities?” she wrote. “There is no wisdom in it.”

Furthermore, the suffering endured by many Valley women caused them to see their enemies in a more humane light. During the first battle of Winchester in 1862, as Union Captain James W. Abert was riding near town, a woman left her home and warned him not to go any further on the road, because it was in possession of, as she said, “our troops.” After Captain Abert thanked her she explained, “I have lost my husband in the Southern army, and I would not wish any other woman to suffer as I have.” Clarke County resident Bettie Van Metre had similar sentiments when she discovered a wounded Union soldier in an abandoned house in Berryville. She knew that she should have reported him to Confederate authorities, but instead took him into her home. The fate of her own husband, a prisoner of war, dominated her thoughts. “I kept wondering if he had a wife somewhere,” she explained, “waiting, and hoping, and not knowing–just as I was. It seemed to me that the only thing that mattered was to get her husband back to her.” British observer Arthur J. L. Fremantle observed a change in the women of Winchester when Confederates swept down the Valley in the summer of 1863. Fremantle was surprised that the women spoke of the enemy “with less violence and rancor” than any other Southern women he had encountered. When some women heard this, they explained that “they who had seen many men shot down in the streets before their own eyes knew what they were talking about, which other and more excited Southern women did not.”

As they redefined their relationship with Union military authority, many Confederate women faced another challenge: their changing relationship with their slaves. Union occupation severely weakened the master-slave relationship, and Confederate women often witnessed the breaking point. On the morning of June 9, 1863, Lucy Buck awoke to find no fire made and no movement on the first floor of her home. She heard her father say that all of the slaves had gone, taking the horses with them. The women of the Buck household sprang into action. Buck noted, “Laura and I went to milk the cows while Ma Grandma and Nellie cleaned the house, got the breakfast and dressed the children.” Such scenes were repeated in households throughout the Valley when slaves claimed their freedom. Confederate women who lost slaves found new domestic duties added to the challenge of living in an occupied territory. Even when slaves remained in their households, the fear of their leaving weighed heavily on the minds of the Valley’s Confederate women. Clarke County resident Mattella Harrison felt frustrated and helpless in the spring of 1863 because of the uncertain future of her slave Sallie, “who says she is going to the Yankees, and if she goes tomorrow, or anytime, I will have to shut up house and move off.” This challenge to their identity as slaveholding women was another obstacle that Confederate women faced during Union occupation.

The great joy evidenced by the Valley’s Confederate women when Confederate troops returned to the region suggests that the hardships of Union military occupation did not wither Confederate patriotism. The return of Stonewall Jackson’s troops in May 1862 spurred demonstrations of Confederate pride. Writing from Shepherdstown, Carrie Bedinger informed her mother, “You never saw people so happy as they were in town when the first confederate soldiers appeared.” One witness recalled that as the Confederates passed through Winchester, “men, women and children were shouting ‘thank God we are free—thank God, we are free once more!’ Confederate flags and white handkerchiefs were waved from every window.” Captain Jim Edmondson of the 27th Virginia wrote “I never saw such a demonstration as was made by the citizens— the ladies especially as we passed through—every window was crowded and every door was filled with them and all enthusiastically hurrahing for our generals and soldiers.” Because of these scenes, Stonewall Jackson claimed that the Confederate army’s return to Winchester was one of the most stirring scenes of his life. Allegedly, some women took their enthusiasm to extremes; members of the 2nd  Massachusetts Infantry accused women of firing on them as they retreated through Winchester.

The joy at the prospect of a Confederate return was tempered by the dread of the loss of loved ones in battle. The sheer number of casualties that needed tending to in the aftermath of battle quickly overwhelmed these feelings. After the battle of Antietam, Winchester faced an influx of 3000 wounded soldiers; Laura Lee recalled “[I]t is perfectly heart-rending to know how much suffering and misery there is around us.” Mary Lee observed, “all that I had conceived of the horrors of battles sinks into insignificance compared with the sights of the day—the streets have been crowded with ambulances bringing in thousands of wounded men…though what I saw was a drop in the ocean….” Lucy Buck also encountered wounded Confederates from Antietam as they passed her home in Front Royal. “I would not live here for the world to see all the poor wounded fellows dragging themselves wearily along,” she remembered.

Confederate women did what they could to care for the wounded. Buck helped simply by holding a basin for her sister as she dressed the wounds of an Alabama soldier; even this simple task made her feel faint. Most women quickly got over their initial squeamishness and pitched in to provide comfort to the wounded soldiers. Mary Lee spent the day after the battle of Kernstown in March 1862 attending to the wounded. She recalled, “there were numbers of ladies there & our enemies, as well as our friends, received our attentions.” In the following days, women provided food for wounded Confederate and Union soldiers who were languishing in the many hospitals established in town. These unfortunate scenes would repeat themselves throughout the Shenandoah Valley as the war continued. In every instance, Confederate women did their best to provide for wounded soldiers on both sides.

At war’s end women played an important role in shaping the memory of the conflict. In May 1865, Mrs. Philip Williams of Winchester was deeply disturbed upon learning that local farmers had begun to plow up Confederate remains as they prepared for spring planting. Williams and other Winchester women determined to organize a memorial association to gather all of the Confederate remains within a twelve to fifteen-mile radius and inter them in a central location. The women further proposed to plan annual gatherings to place flowers on the graves and celebrate the deeds of the fallen. Out of their efforts came the Stonewall Cemetery, which hosts a Memorial Day celebration every June 6, the anniversary Gen. Turner Ashby’s death. These ceremonies, and others like them in the Valley and throughout the South, helped to lay the foundation for the Lost Cause interpretation of the war, which has dominated how the war has been remembered ever since.

Despite her rhetoric in the spring of 1862, Mary Lee never seriously supported a separate and independent sovereignty for the women of Winchester. However, her comments reflect the central role that Confederate women played on the home front in the Shenandoah Valley. Their material support of the Confederate cause, their determined opposition to Union military authority, their care for the Confederate wounded and their protection of the memory of the Confederate dead demonstrate the important ways that the Valley’s Confederate women shaped the war in the Shenandoah Valley. On another occasion, Lee boasted, “This is surely the day of woman’s power.” Throughout the war, the Shenandoah Valley’s Confederate women exerted their power to further the Confederate cause; this effort continued even after Appomattox. Through their activities Confederate women shaped the Valley’s wartime experience and their own self image in complex ways.

About the Author:

Jonathan M. Berkey is assistant professor of history at Concord University in Athens, W.Va. He has published essays on Shenandoah Valley Unionists and civilians during the Civil War. He is completing a study of how civilians in Virginia’s lower Shenandoah Valley shaped their Civil War experience.

This article is included in the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation’s booklet, Home Front to Front Line: The Civil War Era in the Shenandoah Valley.  Copies of the booklet are available at most visitor centers and many bookstores in the Valley, or in the online bookstore on CivilWarTraveler.com.