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High hopes and hard war

by | Apr 8, 2014 | News

A Texas soldier stationed in Arkansas, one of eight Reb brothers born and reared on the same Cape Fear River plantation, was reservedly optimistic as the Civil War passed its first anniversary.

“If I am still blessed with good health,” Jimmie Smith wrote his future bride, “I shall remain in the service as long as the war lasts. In fact, there is no choice about it. We have no men to spare. We must all do our duty and I think the result is beyond a doubt. I would like very much to see you, but there is no chance of doing so soon, or rather before the war ends, which I think will be next summer.”

By midsummer he was among countless thousands in both camps who had realized that this conflict was following no one’s script.

“I notice that you still think that the war will end shortly,” he wrote Emma. “I can’t say that I have an opinion on the subject. I sometimes try to weigh the pros and cons of peace, but I never come to any conclusion.”

By the spring of 1864, with a year of war still ahead, Southern optimism had been reduced to a profession of faith. No one on either side had grounds to doubt that Confederates could and would win battles; but grand talk of an ultimate conquest of the North came mostly from the security of the plantation while soldiers strewn from Tennessee to Texas to Georgia to Virginia grimly lowered their heads and trudged onward.

Jimmie’s sister Bettie, hoping to coax a letter out of Curt, another brother who had moved West, paused to offer her assessment: “You have no doubt heard of the disgraceful peace party in N.C. I am glad to (see) it losing influence and ever has been confined principally to the ignorant who knew not what they had at stake. This feeling of despondency has never reached our soldiers and there are none better or braver.”

Another sister, Janie, informed Jimmie that “A great many of the Bluff congregation have been killed leaving helpless widows with their little ones to suffer. The congregation is going to assist in educating them, of which there are over forty-five.”

“How long,” she wondered, “will this cruel war continue to break up happy family circles and make loving hearts mourn?” Yet five months later, with Lee’s army surrendered in Virginia and Johnston’s making a last bid to outwit Sherman in North Carolina, Janie answered her own question with what can fairly be called fantasy: “When our Army invade the North…”

This little collection from a single family would, by itself, prove nothing. But the same mix of spunk and blind faith pervaded correspondence of the era: All seems lost, but Southern courage and divine intervention will prevail.

Jane Evans Elliot of Ellerslie plantation on the Lower Little River dutifully prayed for the miracle that would turn the tide — but not before recording in her diary her dismay at the fall of Vicksburg and the siege of Charleston. And her most fervent prayers were for the souls and the families of two kinsmen who fell in battle.

Another diarist, Melinda Ray of Fayetteville, also prayed, on a day set aside for it by Jefferson Davis and the Confederate Congress. But prayer didn’t relieve her fear that “the yankees have such a foothold in our State but that we may be driven from our homes before another spring.”

The diary entries of Bladen County resident Elizabeth Ellis Robeson were both more prolific and more perfunctory, but she allowed herself several lines, on a spring day, to take stock: “Mary Willis called here, tells me our army is fighting in Virginia. Mary and I went to Mrs. Barry’s to hear from the army, did not hear any news at all. We cannot hear the casualties but trust he that shielded them before will preserve them again if it is his righteous will.”

The point is neither that prayer is futile nor that Southerners were delusional. Indeed, it’s likely that for every such story another can be uncovered that relates the anxiety or grief of someone with a preference for Union blue. But only rarely and briefly were those who fought and those who stayed behind looking at the same war.

For days after Appomattox and for days after Johnston’s surrender ended the war, there either was no news or the reports were skeptically received as “rumors.” If you look at what intrigued noncombatants on July 4, 1863 or Dec. 21, 1864 or April 9, 1865 or April 26, 1865, you find them writing about the weather, chores, visits from cousins, sickness in the community and what scripture the preacher cited in his sermon. They had no notion of what that miracle would look like to a general, or require of a private.

They clearly saw that some soldiers came home maimed and others didn’t return at all. They learned that blockades lowered their standard of living and compelled self-sufficiency and ingenuity. But they knew nothing of what war was like — until, of course, the war came to them.

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