Friday, November 14, 2014

To Feed Hungry Mouths: Civil War Refugees

"It is not unusual for us to have nothing but sweet potatoes and corn bread for days at a time." This sentiment expressed by refugee Frances Fearn of Louisiana could be echoed across the South during the war years.  

Hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens in the South were displaced from their homes when armies tore through the land that they had once called home. As a result, many were left with little to live off of, and even less to eat. The blockade, inflation, and shortages all played their part in the Southern diet during the war. While some areas seemed "untouched" by war the women and children at home felt the effects if they had to purchase goods such as flour, sugar, and coffee. 

Refugees often left their homes not knowing when they would return, or if they would return. Many families packed their belongings and moved on not knowing what was ahead of them.
Refugee family with belongings in a cart
Refugees often depended on the locals for food supplies. Relying on what was in season around them and what was available from the local for purchase. 

 "Yesterday I drove for twenty miles with Jack in the wagon drawn by four horses, carrying with me several hundred dollars with which to buy provisions. Imagine my despair and disappointment when I returned at night with one pint bottle of milk, a dozen eggs, a small sack of corn meal, and one chicken to feed twenty hungry mouths! What really saves us from starvation is a beautiful clear stream that runs through this forest. In it are the most delicious freshwater trout, at least they seem so to us." (Frances H Fearn, "Diary of a Refugee", 1910) 

Later Fearn notes that their food supplies were "limited to smoked beef and corn bread and tea..."
Frances H Fearn

Katherine Polk Gale (daughter of Gen. Leonidas Polk) sought refuge in Asheville, NC during the war and notes the generosity of their new neighbors. After her father had sent "twenty excellent negro men & their families" from the plantation in Mississippi, the family hired them to neighboring farms with their wages to be paid in "Bacon, wheat, flour, potatoes, etc." Gale explains that this is how the family was able acquire their food supplies. 

Sara Rice Pryor published her memoirs after the war noting "With all our starvation we never ate rats, mice or mule meat. We managed to exist on peas, bread, and sorghum. We could buy a little milk, and we mixed it with a drink made from roasted and ground corn." 

Mary Boykin Chesnut

Even famed Mary Boykin Chesnut was driven from her South Carolina estate and felt the pain of shortages and want for food. She notes one night she dined only on cold asparagus and blackberries. While in her refugee state  in February 1865 she notes, "I am bodily comfortable, if somewhat dingily lodged, and I daily part with my raiment for food. We find no one who will exchange eatable for Confederate money; so we devour our clothing."
She also observed in Columbia "Men, women, and children have been left homeless, houseless, and without one particle of food- reduced to picking up corn that was left by Sherman's horses or picket grounds and parching it to stay their hunger."

While many of these instances are based on women that came from "affluent" families at the beginning of the war, it shows that women of all classes were affected by the war. It is always a good idea to research the local area where you will be portraying a refugee. 


Chesnut, Mary Boykin. A Diary from Dixie,1905. New York. 

Fearn, Frances Hewitt. Diary of a Refugee, 1910. New York. 

Gale, Katherine Polk. Recollections of Katherine Polk Gale, undated. Gale and Polk Family Papers, UNC Chapel Hill. 

Massey, Mary Elizabeth. Refugee Life in the Confederacy, 1964. Louisiana. 

Pryor, Sara Rice. My Day Reminiscences of a Long Life, 1909. New York.