Tuesday, October 17, 2006

When Jenny Reb Shipped Out for the Front

Earnest defenders of the cause busy themselves in blurring the distinction between slaves impressed into labor for the army, and so-called black Confederate soldiers in the ranks, but no one seems willing to celebrate the honor of the truly forgotten, and curviest, Confederates. While perusing transcriptions of wartime Southern newspapers tonight, I came across this intriguing item from the New Orleans True Delta by way of a Natchez paper:

NATCHEZ DAILY COURIER, April 1, 1862, page 1, column 2

Women in for the War. We find the following dispatch in the New Orleans True Delta of last Saturday evening. We publish it for the information of our readers: Natchez, March 29. The girls, one hundred and three rank and file, each in herself a Joan of Arc or a Maid of Saragossa, have completed their military organization, and are in for the war. They will leave here by steamer for New Orleans on Monday morning. Give them a warm embrace. Hurra for Mississippi!

Imagine that, a full company of fighting women heading off to war, fully 58 years before they had the right to vote. I ran across this particular snippet while scrolling the addictive web site maintained by Vicki Betts, University of Texas at Tyler, the URL for which was posted on one of the history lists. Ms. Betts describes here website, found here, as "Beyond the usual commercial online newspaper databases . . . which includes articles from less frequently cited Southern papers. These transcribed articles, searchable by word, focus primarily on the Southern homefront, although there are some Northern papers and some military letters home, etc."

Alas, the saga of the female company was short lived. One week later, the day after the folks of Natchez turned out down at the landing "under the hill," the Daily Courier offered a correction to its April 1st article, this time citing the New Orleans Bee:

NATCHEZ DAILY COURIER, April 9, 1862, p. 2, c. 2

All Fool's Day. A large number of persons took a stroll yesterday afternoon on the steamboat landing, with the fond hope of witnessing the arrival of the young female Mississippi volunteers. But they saw nothing of the kind, though there were at that time on the levee many a Miss Volunteer of another sort. It was soon whispered in the crowd that they had been badly sold it being All Fool's Day, and then one by one they all retired, very much excited against the newspapers, and more particularly the True Delta, which published on Sunday, with a flaming heading, a telegram from Natchez, "from a respectable party," in which it was announced the girls would leave that place for this city on Monday. The female company turns out to be a military canard. N. O.
Bee, April 2.

Well, it was fun while it lasted, but rest assured that discrediting the account will not impede someone among today's serial memorialists from ordering a governent tombstone for a member of this phantom unit (quick, someone get the word "memorialist" into the dictionary).

There are some fascinating tidbits at Betts' site, which is particularly enjoyable for the convenient access and searchable text (though heed her warning about double-checking the transcription before you get serious with citations). I found a number of items about slaves joining in the attack on the Yankees, which was interesting. There was also an item about the "Preacher's Regiment," an Arkansas unit with "no less than eight preachers in the regimentone of whom is over seventy years of age!" There is an indignant editorial about "Negro parties," which sound, frankly, like they must have been the best parties in town, but the editorialist is suspicious about where the party-goers were finding the provisions for such general feasts.

There was this strange snippet:

TEXAS BAPTIST [Anderson, TX], April 6, 1860, p. 2, c. 4

During the past session of our court, nineteen negroes chose masters for themselves and were made slaves for life. Wise choice, far better than to sink to the level with the free blacks of Canada and the North."

Not sure what to make of that. I will indulge myself here and include several full excerpts from my casual reading tonight. You can dig out some highlights of your own. It's always striking to recognize how much the people of the past sound like the people of today, just with different trappings. We're no smarter today, and less hearty—that much seems plain.

Most interesting, to me, were the helpful hints for health, and hearth. A couple of letters to the editor offered detailed instructions on making homemade salt from the dirt of the smokehouse—not as white as you'd like, but just as good as imported. Other helpful entries told how to clear a room of bedbugs, which, disgustingly, are enjoying a resurgence in hotels and motels today. I can't tell you how disappointed I was to learn that this archaic bug of the past—something I thought would always be relegated to books, and quaint "goodnights" about sleeping tight—is still with us, as tenacious as the Taliban (if you travel a lot for work, you might not want to read this at the NYTimes, or this at the LATimes (subscription required for both). But I digress.

Lastly, I'll paste in a bit of an editorial from a no-nonsense author in Fort Smith, Arkansas that sums up the centrality of slavery in the secession crisis as succinctly as possible.

AUSTIN STATE GAZETTE, June 22, 1861, p. 4, c. 1

Interesting to Housewives.—Fly time is now fairly upon us, and these troublesome little insects are as much of a nuisance as the Black Republican army in St. Louis. The weapon wherewith to repel this invasion may be found in the following, which we find in an exchange: Take three or four onions and boil them well in a pint of water, and then brush the liquid over your glasses and frames, and the flies will not light in smelling distance of them. The receipt is a safe one, and will do no injury to your furniture.

CHARLESTON MERCURY, May 24, 1861, p. 4, c. 2

How to Take Care of the Hair.--As to men, we say, when the hair begins to fall out, the best plan is to have it cut short; give it a good brushing with a moderately stiff brush, while the hair is dry; then wash it well with warm soap suds; then rub into the scalp, about the roots of the hair, a little bay rum, brandy, or camphor water. Do these things twice a month--the brushing of the scalp may be profitably done twice a week. Damp the hair with water every time the toilet is made. Nothing ever made is better for the hair than pure soft water, if the scalp is kept clean in the way we have named. The use of the oils or pomatums, or grease of any kind, is ruinous to the hair of man or woman. We consider it a filthy practice, almost universal though it be, for it gathers dust and dirt, and soils whenever it touches. Nothing but pure soft water should ever be allowed on the heads of children. It is a different practice that robs our women of their most beautiful ornament long before their prime; the hair of our daughters should be kept within two inches, until their twelfth year. —Hall's Journal of Health.

SAVANNAH [GA] REPUBLICAN, August 20, 1861, p. 1, c. 5

A Remedy for Killing Bed Bugs.—When the crevices are large enough, insert gum camphor, or make a solution of two ounces of camphor and one pint of alcohol, and apply in the cracks with a feather. Follow up the application a few days and you will exterminate your disagreeable visitors. In warm weather musquitoes [sic] may be kept at bay by keeping a cloth wet with camphor near the person.

DALLAS HERALD, May 22, 1861, p. 2, c. 5

The Rusk Enquirer says that a number of young ladies of Cherokee County have formed themselves into a corps of sharpshooters, for rifle practice. At their first practice, they had an effigy of Old Abe, for a target, which they completely riddled with bullets. The Enquirer adds: "Talk about wiping out a people whose women and children are expert rifle and pistol shooters! The idea is absurd."

FORT SMITH NEW ERA, August 20, 1864, p. 3, c. 2

No man ever yet saw an American who hated slavery, yet upheld the rebellion; and no one ever saw an American who justified and wished to perpetuate slavery who had not at least a sneaking tenderness for the rebel cause. For all practical purposes, the rebellion and slavery are related as mother and child.

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