When the Virginia Convention voted to leave the Union on April 17, 1861, there was no doubt about where the Reverend Francis McFarland would spend the war. The aged Presbyterian minister and his wife resided on a farm in southern Augusta County. Two of McFarland’s three sons were at home helping run the family farm. A third, in his late twenties, was living out of the area.
From north to south, the rich agricultural region known as the Shenandoah Valley teemed with families just like the McFarlands. Soon those communities—tiny hamlets, blossoming market towns, and the verdant countryside—found their world turned upside down. As battle lines were drawn across the country, life on the home front underwent tremendous change. Almost immediately, most able-bodied men, like the three McFarland sons, went off to war leaving farms, grain mills, and iron furnaces without adequate labor. Later in the war, the slave labor disappeared as well—with African-Americans either slipping away to Union lines or being drafted and sent to build fortifications around Richmond.
The task of holding the farms together thus fell to women, youngsters, or elderly men like McFarland who wondered in his diary how he would manage the farm without his two sons but decided to “submit to the will of Providence” for the answer. The reality was that farms in this Breadbasket of the Confederacy were soon operated by whoever was left. In 1863 the Churchville Farmers Club visited the farm of Samuel Wilson and noted that the fencing was in disrepair. Club members, however, refused to be too critical, noting the “circumstances of the war” and the fact that Mrs. Wilson was “tending to the farm while her husband was away.”
The strain on the families left behind as well as the helplessness felt by the absent soldiers is obvious in the thousands of letters that made their way back and forth from 1861 to 1865. There is no doubt that letters between the home front and the battlefield were often filled with emotion and longing. But just as often they were of a practical nature as when Jesse Rolston Jr., a thirty-seven-year-old farmer from Mt. Solon in northern Augusta County, sent frequent missives home with advice on livestock management and crop cultivation. “I wish you would let me no how you are getting along and how all the stalk[stock] is doing as I don’t know when I will get a chance to come home,” he wrote. His wife must have managed well enough as she was able to send her husband a supply of butter to supplement his camp rations.
Not only did the women often find themselves carrying out unfamiliar tasks on the farm, but they were also expected to redouble their efforts within their traditional domestic sphere in order to supply clothing and food to soldiers and hospitals. Typical is a diary entry from a woman in Shenandoah County who is obviously going from one task to another: “I helped spade in the garden; doubled and twisted cotton for stockings.” Women’s circles and church auxiliary societies met regularly for work parties and newspapers throughout the valley issued regular pleas for women to knit socks for the soldiers. In May of 1861 McFarland’s church became the headquarters for women from area congregations who transformed three hundred yards of plaid linsey into one thousand uniform shirts in three days. A few weeks later they were making tents.
All resources, whether supplied individually or as a group, were focused on the soldiers. The same Shenandoah County woman noted giving socks to a soldier who stopped by and mending the coat of another. Passing military personnel ate dinner with her family on many occasions and sometimes slept in the hay mow.
Once the wounded started filtering back to the valley, the women turned their attention to the hospitals that were quickly established. Towns located on railroads became the recipients of the wounded, transforming sleepy communities into military encampments. By the summer of 1861 there were more than three hundred sick and wounded soldiers in Staunton. “The streets are full of soldiers, many of whom are lying against the houses and on store boxes,” wrote one man in his diary. The town, located at the southern end of the Valley, transformed a school for the deaf and the blind into a hospital and Staunton women were drafted as volunteer nurses.
The Mt. Jackson hospital in Shenandoah County also turned to the community for help and was the recipient of a variety of items ranging from food and medicine to clothing and bed linens. In October 1861 community contributions included tomatoes, buttermilk, pickles, apples, apple butter, turnips, dried cherries, shirts, “drawers,” pepper, pillows, pumpkins, butter, cabbages, tea, elm, red pepper, pillow cases, jelly, ham, and black mustard.
As the war dragged on, providing for soldiers either on the battlefields or in the hospitals became more and more difficult. Shortages became commonplace and the inflated Confederate currency made it almost impossible to purchase those items that were actually available. Leather for instance went straight to the army meaning no shoes or horse harnesses at home. The wife of Fishersville farmer Jacob Hildebrand sold twenty-five pounds of her butter in Staunton and received $10—a princely sum before the war. In 1864, however, she needed $115 more just to buy a hank of cotton yarn. In Edinburg a 134-pound sack of salt commanded $80.40. James Waddell kept track of rising prices and shortages in the upper valley while lamenting that “money is plentiful, but alas! It cannot be used for food or clothing.” He added that “the money value of a day’s rations for one hundred soldiers, formerly $9, is now at market prices more than $123.” In many instances items like paper, salt, and candles were not to be had for any price and substitutions were commonplace. Waddell described the rather messy
“Confederate candle” made by dipping a candlewick in melted wax and resin, wrapping it around a stick,
and drawing it through a wire loop fastened on the end of the stick. “The end of the wick burned freely when lighted, but the illumination was very feeble, and unless the candles were watched, and the wick drawn through the loop and trimmed every few minutes, the whole affair was soon aflame,” he wrote.
In the new currency, if a day laborer could be found the fee was $30 a day. The going rate before the war was $1. In late 1864 McFarland convinced his congregation to pay his ministerial wages in produce,
“Confederate money having so depreciated, the Congn. agreed to pay in Produce at old prices,” he penned in his diary.
In Rockingham County, the doctors agreed to the same terms from their patients. An announcement in the newspaper said that the physicians would accept pay in the form of produce and further that they would “practice at old rates, notwithstanding the present high prices of medicines.” Eventually the currency became so useless that even the government abandoned it. Nonetheless, valley farmers were required to tithe to the government and were penalized fifty percent if the requisite produce was not turned over. The urgency of the situation resounded in a valley newspaper: “The Government needs the products and not money, and will not receive the latter in lieu of the former except where the collection of products is impracticable.” In January 1865 McFarland gave four barrels of flour to the army and was compensated with a Confederate note. “…the Govt give $400…In an order on the Treasy. Where I presume there is no money,” he wrote with an air of resignation.
Perhaps the hardest task for those left on the home front, however, had nothing to do with labor and community shortages or inflated currency, but rather in dealing with the emotional upheaval that war created. Diaries and letters are filled with the anguish and uncertainty of not knowing the fate of loved ones or when Union soldiers would show up at the front door. Rumor was the order of the day, and even newspaper accounts and telegrams were based on hearsay and were often wildly inaccurate. Mail delivery was such that letters arrived that were written on the eve of battles that families on the home front knew had already been fought leaving them wondering if they were reading the final thoughts of their loved one who had already breathed his last. The quest for concrete knowledge was relentless: “reports of Yankees” in the area; “rumour of Yankees in Middlebrook,” “rumors of a great battle,” were common entries. Everytime the rumor involved possible Union soldiers, families scrambled to take horses and cattle to the Blue Ridge or Allegheny Mountains and to hide their family possessions.
Wounded and ill soldiers staying in private homes were often spirited away as well. At times the suspense and rumor must have been nearly unbearable. Take the example of the McFarland family in May and June of 1864. On May 12 one son, James, was captured at Spotsylvania Courthouse and imprisoned in Fort Delaware. It would be weeks before the family knew of their son’s fate. Soon, however, armies clashed at Cold Harbor and their second son, Robert, was in that fighting. On June 4 the family received two telegrams from their eldest son who was in Richmond. The first said “Robert in hands of Enemy, reported seriously wounded.” The second, sent two days later but arriving at the same time, said “Robert was shot through the heart…never spoke.”
Because of uncertain communication, the McFarlands held out hope. In fact, two days after the
telegrams they ran into a neighbor who had news from a member of Robert’s company who reported that Robert was safe and then on June 17 they received reports that Robert was wounded but not seriously. Thirteen days after the initial conflicting telegrams, the family still rode a see-saw of emotions. “O to be relieved from suspense” McFarland wrote.
The situation was not otherwise calm on the homefront. After winning the Battle of Piedmont in northern Augusta county on June 5, Union troops made their way south from Staunton to Lexington. On June 7 McFarland reported in his diary that eleven Yankees had visited the house. Despite the fact that the McFarlands supplied breakfast, the soldiers took a horse, saddle and bridle, and a few bushels of oats. “They offered no violence and did not search the house.” he wrote. It was not until June 16 that they family felt safe from Union incursions. On June 23, all hope of their son’s safety was ended when four letters arrived: one from a man who saw Robert fall, another from a man who found his body, and two sympathy letters. Fellow soldier Samuel Morrison had hastily scrawled in pencil: “I found the body of Lt. McFarland covered with earth—I suppose on the very spot he was killed— also that of Capt. Dold from Tinkling Spring… I send you a lock of his hair and two buttons one from his vest and another from his shirt. I had his grave marked so that his body may be moved in the future…He was regarded as a young officer of good promise by all who knew him.”
Receiving sad news from afar was difficult, but as is seen from the previous account, there were times when the battle front and the home front blurred so much that they became one. A diary entry from the upper valley mentioned “a great uneasiness” in 1862 during Jackson’s Valley Campaign when both armies played cat and mouse from one end of the valley to the other. In the fall of 1864 a woman in the lower valley wrote of trying to bake bread but “worked some little in dreadful suspense” of the Union forces suddenly appearing. “Plenty of Yankees riding about,” read another entry. The blurring of fronts in the upper valley came in three short and distinct waves: 1862, 1864, and 1865. It was a far different story in the lower valley where cities like Winchester changed hands on numerous occasions and there was really no opportunity to settle into a routine. In many instances private buildings suffered damage and homes and churches were turned into field hospitals. A Winchester diarist described a scene of what happens when war comes to the home front. “Every available place was turned into a hospital, the courthouse was full, the vacant banks, and even the churches.” At Fishers Hill the Barbe family survived the battle raging around them only to see their home commandeered as a field hospital with piles of amputated limbs left outside in the yard. Belle Grove plantation in the middle of the Cedar Creek action was also turned into a hospital.
Perhaps the classic example of the home front becoming the battle front occurred in the spring of 1864 at the Battle of New Market. As the battle swirled around the farmhouse of Jacob and Sarah Bushong, three generations of the family sought refuge in the cellar. For a week after the battle, the house served as a hospital, leaving permanent blood stains on the parlor floor.
The entire village of New Market was affected by the battle, as can be seen in this newspaper account: “The conduct of the people of New Market, during the fight and after the conflict terminated, was above all praise. A better people—more generous, self-sacrificing and devoted to the Confederate cause, does not live. The ladies stood in the doors of their dwellings with refreshments for the wounded and hungry soldiers as they came from the battlefield, and some of them assisted in dressing and binding up the wounds… Private parlors were cheerfully given up to the wounded. ”
When war comes to a country the wounds go far beyond the bloodshed on the battlefield. On the home front in the Shenandoah Valley those that were left behind struggled to keep going—to run the farms and industries, to make do despite shortages, to emerge strong from devastation, and to support the cause to which they had committed themselves in 1861. But the home front in the Shenandoah Valley differed in one huge way from most of the home front for the North. When the home front is transformed into the battlefield, when your private foodstuffs are plundered by marauding soldiers, and when your children are forced to salvage nails from the ruins of your burned barn, the memory of war becomes hard to shake even generations later. That is what set the Shenandoah Valley home front apart from much of the nation.
Francis McFarland, who lost two of his three sons to war, and preached at sixteen soldiers’ funerals within his southern Augusta County community, had experienced the civilian side of the war as deeply as any soldier. His experience was echoed in similar diaries and letters and experiences from one end of the valley to the other. It was no wonder that McFarland described with sorrow what he called a “torn and bleeding country.”
About the Author:
Nancy T. Sorrells is an independent historian, freelance writer, and museum consultant specializing in themes associated with the Upper Shenandoah Valley, African Americans, church history, and agricultural development. She is also a partner in Lot’s Wife Publishing Company, and award-winning local history publishing firm based in Staunton, Va. Sorrells co-edits the annual journal of the Augusta County Historical Society and is the author, co-author, or editor of numerous books and essays including Virginia’s Cattle Story: The First Four Centuries and “Slave Hire and the Development of Slavery in Augusta County, Virginia” found in After the Backcountry: Rural Life in the Great Valley of Virginia, 1800-1900. She is also a trustee on the Shenandoah Valley Battlefields Foundation Board.
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.