Civil War Non-Elite White Women
During the Civil War, over one million southern men left their families to fight for the Glorious Cause, causing extreme hardships for the women and children they left behind, who found themselves unable to compensate for the lost labor of husbands and brothers. The non-elite, white women of the South wrote to their family members begging them to return home and assist with heavy labor on the farm that they could not do themselves. As women like Telitha Brooks, a non-elite farm wife, bombarded the soldiers with tales of starvation and woe, the common answer was that, “our men is not a giving any furlows now,” leading to increasingly dire situations.The letters of desperation at home led to desertions en masse from the army in order to return and rescue starving families, as men viewed their family’s survival as far more important than the survival of the Confederacy.
After their husbands and sons left to fight for the Confederacy, many non-elite white women found themselves in dire straits. According to historian Laura Edwards, the absence of men forced non-slaveholding women to take up the burden of labor that had previously been accomplished by their men, a challenge exacerbated by the high premium placed on labor in these households. All family members worked in order to keep the family going, leaving these women with no way to offset the labor shortage caused by missing husbands and sons. In his letters home to his wife Telitha, Confederate soldier Richard Henry Brooks repeatedly spoke of the troubles that his family faced in his absence. In one letter sent midway through the war, he asked Telitha if “you have got your potato patch planted yet,” showing that responsibility for the hard farm labor now fell upon Southern women. Another southern farm wife, Martha Revis, wrote to her husband that, “I am done laying by my corn. I worked it all four times. My wheat is good; my oats is good,” demonstrating the burden of farm labor falling once again upon the women who had been left behind.
Without men to contribute to the labor of non-elite white households, many fell victim to hunger and privation. Not only could soldiers not provide their families with the benefits of their labor on the farm, the benefits of their labor in the army often went unpaid. Therefore, their wives and children were denied alternate means of support. Brooks wrote repeatedly to his wife about not being paid, saying that “I have not drawn any money yet an I do not know when I will,” making it impossible for Telitha and her children to buy necessities. In one of his letters, Brooks responds to his wife’s complaint that “[she] had not got any meat yet,” by telling her that he “[did] not know how you will manage but you must do the best you can.”He could not provide her with money to purchase meat for their family because he had not been paid in months.
In order to attempt to provide for their families, soldiers requested furloughs from the army to go home and plow their fields or harvest crops; labor intensive tasks that proved challenging for the women left at home. However, the Confederate government often denied these furloughs. Brooks wrote to his wife on numerous occasions to tell her, “I have tried to get a furlow until there is no use in trying.” In fact, by March of 1863, the Confederate Army had “stoped giving furlows now for the fighting time a year is clost at hand,” leaving soldiers with an unpleasant choice between loyalty to the Confederacy and letting their families starve. In many cases, the soldiers chose to risk being executed for desertion rather than continue to let their families suffer. Although some relief programs for the families of soldiers existed, they frequently proved inadequate, as in the case of Brooks’ wife, who “wrote that what the County gave you would not support you and our family.”
The desperate circumstances faced by the Brook’s family eroded their support for the Confederacy, a sentiment shared by many who had decided that “Confederate officials were now the enemy.” The non-elite white women wrote to their husbands begging them to return home and care for their struggling families. These pleading letters reached such proportions that Superintendent of Conscription Col. J.S. Preston recognized the issue, writing that, “letters are being sent to the Army stimulating desertion and inviting the men home.” In 1863, the Secretary of War acknowledged that “there [were] from 50,000 to 100,000 men who are in some form or another evading duty,” showing the scale to which this issue had pervaded the army. Letters from wives pleading for them to come home, and even encouraging desertion, sapped morale from the troops. Soldiers no longer wished to fight for a government that many had begun to view as an illegitimate, occupying force while their families suffered in their absence.
Even though support for the Confederacy had been strong among non-elite whites at the beginning of the war, as they fought for a system that bound them to the elites through racial unity, this support rapidly waned as the hardships faced by women and children on the home front took their toll. The women the soldiers left behind felt abandoned by the Confederacy, which had stolen their men and left them to starve, and thus abandoned all support for it in turn. These women wrote to their husbands and sons begging them to return, causing Richard Henry Brooks to assure his wife that, “if they wont give us furlows we will run away an go home,” which thousands of soldiers, including Brooks, eventually did. Non-elite Confederate women withdrew their support from a government that no longer benefited their families, and through the use of letters begging their husbands and brothers to come home, withdrew troops illegally from the army in order to preserve the lives of their loved ones.