By Vikki Bynum
During the American Civil War, many Southerners expressed hostility to the Confederacy, beginning with strong opposition to secession, evasion and desertion of military service, and, finally, armed insurrections. Nonslaveholding whites, free people of color, and slaves— male and female alike—participated (sometimes together) in undermining the Confederacy, ultimately crippling its ability to wage war effectively against Union forces.
Thanks to the movie The Free State of Jones more people than ever know that Jones County, Mississippi, was the site of one such insurrection. In my post of August 2, 2016, “Tracing South Mississippi’s Inner Civil War through Documents,” I noted that despite overwhelming evidence of multiple uprisings in South Mississippi, few if any letters have survived from Jones County women that describe firsthand their experiences of this insurrection.
The case is very different for North Carolina, however, and, as promised, I am offering a small sample of the many letters written by women during the war, and preserved by the North Carolina State Archives, that criticized Confederate policy.
Farm women particularly suffered from military seizure of farm produce, although official impressment and tax-in-kind laws were not passed until March-April 1863. Non-slaveholding families complained regularly and bitterly about commercial planters who cultivated cotton and tobacco at the expense of food crops, while simultaneously charging exorbitant prices for corn, bacon, and cotton thread. Add to that, frequent abuse of women and children whose husbands and fathers had deserted—described graphically by Phebe Crook in letter #3 and in an earlier Renegade South post—and we see the devastating effects of the Civil War on Southern home fronts as well as battlefields.
I’ve discussed these letters in various works (particularly in my books, Unruly Women and Long Shadow of the Civil War), but I’ve published them here in their entirety. For the sake of readability, I’ve added punctuation and occasional bracketed corrections, but have retained original spelling and prose whenever possible. The quaint spellings used by their authors sometimes make for slow reading, but remind us that these were plain rural folks of the 19th century, rightly proud to be literate, and ready to hold their political leaders accountable. I think you’ll find the effort to read their words well worth your time!
Entitled “Blood or Bread,” this unsigned letter from anonymous citizens of Bryant Swamp to Governor Zebulon Vance is the most overtly political letter. Its opening paragraph, referring to “boath men & women” as the “common people” who will have “bread or blood,” suggests it may have been composed by men as well as women. A later sentence clearly reflects the voice of women, however, in its reference to “sons, brothers & husbands” forced to fight for the “big man’s Negros.” That same sentence warns that if bread is not forthcoming, “we will slaughter as we go.”
Note that the letter writers end by declaring they will call themselves “Regulators” in honor of those who similarly organized to protest corrupt government in pre-Revolutionary North Carolina. We know that a number of Jones County Unionists were descended from such Regulators. Obviously, so were many North Carolinians, and they clearly knew their history.
February 18, 1863
Attn. Z— Vance, Governor of Nc,
Sir we take the privilege of writing you a few lines to inform you of a few things that is mooving at this time in the state of NC. The time has come that we the common people has to have bread or blood & we are bound—boath men & women—to hav it or die in the attempt.
Some of us has bin travling for the last month with the money in our pockets to buy corn & tryal [trial] men* that had a plenty & [we have] bin unable to buy a bushel holding on for a better price. We are willing to give & obligate two dollars a bushel but no more, for the idea is that the slave owner has the plantations & the lands to rais the bread stuffs & the common people is drove off in the [Civil] Ware to fight for the big man’s negro & he at home making nearly all the corn that is made & then because he has the play in his own fingers, he puts the price on his corn so as to take all the soldiers’ wages for a few bushels & then them that has worked hard & was in living circumstances with perhaps a good little homested & other thing[s] convenient for there wellbeing perhaps will be credited—until the debt will about take there land & everything they hav & then they will stop all & if not they will hav to rent there lands of there lords.
Sir, we hoos sons, brothers & husbands is now fighting for the big man’s negros are determined to hav bread out of there barns & that at a price that we can pay or we will slaughter as we go if this is the way we common people is to be treated in this Confederacy. We hope that you & your friends will be as smart** as Governor Elis [Ellis] & his friends was—take us out without the voice of the people & let us try to manage & defend our own state.
We hope sir that you will duly consider the above mentioned items & if it is in your power to remedy the present evils will do it speedly. It is not our desire to organize and commence operations, for if the precedent is laid it will be unanimous but if there is not steps taken soon[,] nessesity will drive us into measures that may prove awful. We don’t ask [for] meet [meat] on fair terms, for we can live on bread. Perhaps it would be better for you to [cane?] your proclamation that no man should sell in the state at more than $2 per bushel. You no best & if you can’t remedy Extosan [extortion] on the staff of life, we will, & as your subjects will make Examples of all who refuse to open there barn doors & appoint other men over there farms who perhaps will hav better harts. We no that this is unlawful at a common [normal] time, but we are shut up; we can’t trade with nobody, only those in the Confedersy & they can perish all those that has not and it seems that all harts is turnd to gizards.
Sir, consider this matter over & pleas send us a privat letter of instruction. Direct it to Bryant Swamp, post office Bladen county, Nc & to RL, as our company will be called Regulators.
Truly Yours. [no names follow]
A few months after this letter was sent, five Bladen County women broke into the grain warehouse at the Bladenboro depot in broad daylight. Though caught red-handed and arrested, the women were supported by a community petition, dated April 13, 1864, that called on Governor Vance to pardon them.
*The term “trial men” is an old-fashioned phrase for men of authority
**Given that North Carolina seceded under Governor John Ellis without a direct vote from the people, I assume the petitioners’ reference to him as having been “smart” was meant sarcastically.
Nancy L. Robbins to Lt. Col. A. C. McAlister, March 16, 1865, A. C. McAlister Papers.
I can informe you that one of them muls is [mine] and the other is J. W. Coner Jr.’s. If you don’t return them tomorrow moring I shall informe the govener of this. I am a solder’s wife, he of the 52nd North Carolina Reg’t, and this can be provied.
We air suffer for the use of them muls. We air out of bread and nothing to go to mill with. We are out of wood also and not one fourth of ground plowed yet.
If you don’t return the mules I shal be out there in the morning.
J. W. Conner Jr. , Nancy L. Robbins
(also discussed in an August 28, 2010 post)
Phebe Crook to Governor Zebulon Vance, September 15, 1864. Governors’ Papers, North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
A member of the Randolph County’s Wesleyan Methodist community, Phebe Crook addressed the governor with respect and reverence for his office. She then proceeded to tell him in no uncertain terms that Confederate militia, home guard, and vigilantes were arresting “poore old grey headed fathers” torturing young children, and knocking women around “as if they were bruts”—all to force them to reveal the whereabouts of their sons, fathers, and husbands.
Although Phebe truthfully claimed no biological kinship to men “in the woods,” she was related by marriage to three brothers—William, John, and Jesse Hulin—who would soon be murdered by Confederate soldiers for their refusal on religious grounds to fight in a slaveholders’ war. Her emphasis here is on an unfair conscript system that forced many into military service for years while others escaped through enlistment in home guard units, thereby escaping the war while gunning down deserters. Phebe’s reference—twice—to deserters and their wives being treated as “bruts” is testimony to Confederacy’s frequent stereotyping of backwoods common folks as degraded and unworthy of its respect.
Sept. 15th, 1864
NC Davidson County
Mr. Vance Dear Sir,
I imbrace this opertunity of writing you a few lines in order to inform you of the conduct of our oficers and leading men of this county as you are appointed govenor of the state and that I Beleave that you are willing to Do all that you can in trying to protect the civil laws and writs of our county whearas I believe you are a Man of high feelings and one that is willing to Do your duty in every respect.
I will now inform you of some of the conduct of our Militia officers and Magistrats of this county. Thir imployment is hunting Deserters they say and the way they Manage to find them is taking up poore old grey headed fathers who has fought in the Old War* some of them and has done thir Duty in trying to support both the army and thir family and these men that has remained at home ever since the War commenced are taking them up and keeping them under gard without a mouthful to eat severl days and taking up the women and keeping under gard and Boxing thir jaws and nocking them about as if they were bruts and keeping them from thir little children that they hav almost wore our thir lifes in trying to make surport for them. And some of this women is in no fix to leav homes and others have little suckling infants not more then 2 months old and they have been taking up little children and Hang them until they turn black in the face trying to make them tell whear thir fathers is When the little children knows nothing atall about thir fathers.
Thir plea is they hav orders from the Govenner to do this and they also say that they hav orders from the govner to Burn up thir Barns and houses and Destroy all that they hav got to live on Because they hav a poor wore out son or husband that has served in the army. Some of them for 2 or 3 years and is almost Wore out and starved to Death and are eating their own Rations and these men that has remained at home ever since the War commenced will take thir guns and go out in the woods and shoot them down without Halting them as if they were Bruts or Murders and this men will also pilfer and plunder and steel on their creadits.
As for myself, I am a young Lady that has nether Husband, son, father, no brother in the woods. But I always like to [see] peple hav jestis and I think if this Most powerfull fighting men that has allways remained at home would go and fight the enemy and let thes poore wore out soldiers remain at [home] a little while and take a little rest that we would hav Better times. But they say that if they are called to go they will lie in the woods until they Rot before they will go to war.** And now why should thes men hav the power to punish men for a crime that they would be guilty of the same? So I will close by requesting and answer amediately.
Salem church p.o.
Randolph County, N.C.
*Phebe had originally written “Revolution” instead of “Old War.”
**Here, Phebe is presumably referring to home guard soldiers.
Martha Sheets to Sheriff Aaron Saunders, Montgomery County, North Carolina, January 27, 1865, Criminal Action Papers, Montgomery County. North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh.
Like Phebe Crook, Montgomery County farm wife Martha Sheets belonged to a Wesleyan Methodist community located in the heart of North Carolina’s Quaker Belt. Arrested early in 1865 for writing a “threatening letter” to the sheriff of her county if he did not provide her with corn, Martha’s language is startlingly direct. Her direct participation in Montgomery County’s inner civil war reveals the close ties of kinship, religion, and Unionism that bound guerrilla bands and local neighborhoods in common cause against the Confederacy.
While teaching at Texas State University, I read Martha’s letter to many a freshman history class during my unit on the Civil War!
January the 27, 1865
Mr. Aron Sanders
I can tell you the truth but I dont reckond that you want to her hit. If you don’t send me too bushels of wheat and too bushels and a peck of corn in the corse of tenn days I will send enuf of Deserters to mak you sufer that you never sufered beefore. And send me good grain if you want to live. Pepel told me Whow mean you was before I went to see you, but I found you wors than they told me, and athout a grate alterrashen, you will go to the Devile—and that soon.
Ther you have got all of your suns at home and when my husband is gon and he has dun work for you and you try to denie hit. When this ware broke out you sad “goe Boys I’ll spend the last Doler for your fa[m]leys.” Drat your old sold [soul] you never have dun a thing for the pore wiming [women] yet, you nasty old Whelp.
You have told lys to get your suns out of this War and you don’t care for the rest that is gon, nor for ther famelys. Now you ma depend if you dont bring that grain to my dore you will sufer, and that bad.”
This from Martha A. Sheets
Categories: southern unionism