This five-part essay series on Kate Stone and her Civil War is modified from a paper I presented at the New York Military Affairs Symposium in October 2011.
On her birthday, Jan. 8, 1862, Stone swore herself to a new motto: “Live for today. Tomorrow’s night, tomorrow’s cares shall bring to light.”
By the end of January, the newspapers confirmed a Confederate defeat in the Battle of Logan’s Cross Roads, in Kentucky, and Stone felt under siege. “The whole Northern Army is now on the move preparing to attack us at all points” she wrote. “The manner in which the North is moving her forces, now that she thinks us surrounded and can give us the annihilating blow, reminds me of a party of hunters crowded around the covert of a deer, and when the lines are drawn and there is no escape, they close in and kill.”
By early February, word came that Fort Henry, a Confederate installation on the Tennessee River, had surrendered to Union Brig. Gen. U.S. Grant. Stone despaired: “The war news is very bad, only defeats — Roanoke Island, the fall of Fort Henry … and shelling of Florence, Ala. We still hold Fort Donelson, though it has been under fire for two days.” But she had little sympathy for the Kentucky region falling under Union domination. “We do not care for those Kentucky towns; they deserve their fate. But Nashville, so true to the South, is a different matter.”
She was even gloomier a day later: “The general impression is that both Nashville and Memphis are doomed. …” But that discouragement was only temporary, and it only served to strengthen her resolve as she accepted the fact that the war would be longer and harder than she originally expected.
A key to Federal strategy was control of the Mississippi River. The struggle became one of the great sagas of the Civil War, and Kate Stone found herself in a front-row seat to that drama. On Feb. 22, 1862, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard — deputy to Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston, the commander of the Department of Kentucky and Tennessee — asked the governors of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee to contribute 5,000 to 10,000 men to supplement the defense of the Mississippi River above Memphis. “There have been calls from the governors of all the river states for all the able-bodied men to come forward,” Stone reported.
“Every man is speaking of joining the army, and we fear within a week Brother Coley will away.” By March, Coleman Stone was serving with a cavalry company.
As she watched her brothers, relatives and friends don uniforms and voluntarily ride off to the front, Stone was deeply offended by men who refused to serve in the military. She saw military service as a solution to her own anxiety: “How can a man rest quietly at home when battles are being fought and fields lost and won every day? I would eat my heart away were I a man at home [during] these troubled times.” She saw service as a cornerstone of a man’s character: “I would not trust any man now who stays at home instead of going out to fight for his country.” She saw service in terms of fairness: “With all our relations going out to fight, I am not apt to think other men should sit comfortably at home.”
Stone found uniformed officers enchanting. She once encountered three Confederate officers at a Sunday church service, including “a perfect love of a lieutenant in blue uniform and brass buttons galore. Six feet of soldier with brass buttons is irresistible, and all the girls capitulated at once.” But war’s reality soon stripped the romance from her memory. Two months later, she reported the beautiful lieutenant was dead.
Stone always tried to do her part to help the war effort. Emulating her mother, Stone learned how to sew gloves for the soldiers. She hemmed towels. She made hats from palmetto, grass and straw. She sewed pillow cases, underwear, and blankets, and she helped others make uniforms for local units. She never figured out how to make socks, though. “It is too complicated for my head.” Her younger brothers also tried to help with knitting.
Stone wrote that at first she sewed and knitted items that could be shipped to Confederate soldiers. As the war progressed, she limited her efforts to the needs of her relatives on the front. As the home front situation grew more desperate, the fruits of her labor went exclusively to her family. “No one’s dresses are ever considered worn out these days — as long as they can be held together.” In late 1862, she learned how to weave. “It is like going back to the days of the Revolution,” she joked. Later in the war, she resorted to buying linen sheets just to make fresh underwear. “Clothes have been a secondary consideration,” she concluded glumly. “Fashion is an obsolete word, and just to be decently clad is all we expect.”
Union naval blockades grew more effective as the war progressed, choking off or at least delaying vital Confederate imports and exports. Army movements left regional textile economies paralyzed. Prices for daily necessities skyrocketed. Flour grew scarce, and by 1862 Stone reported that it sold for $50 a barrel. She called cake “a most rare occurrence.” A pair of shoes cost $15 to make, and as Brokenburn editor John Q. Anderson noted in a footnote, civilians tried to make their own shoes “out of leather furniture, saddles, belts and trunks.” A pair of boots cost $50. A gallon of brandy cost $40 to $60. Later in the war a knife cost $25. A deck of playing cards cost $5.
Coffee was scarce. People tried to replicate it with parched potatoes, roasted acorns and okra seeds. Quinine, used to treat malaria, was no longer available. As 1863 neared, Stone ominously predicted that “there will soon be no dry goods in the Confederacy.”
Despite her vow to be optimistic as 1862 began, Stone was disgusted with the poor defense of New Orleans, which she called the “greatest City of the South,” and the subsequent collapse of any network to defend Louisiana. The state, she wrote, “lies powerless at the feet of the enemy.” And so does Brokenburn, she may have thought to herself. And so do I.
Dark, silent and sinister
And then the skies over Brokenburn darkened, literally.
As Federal forces closed in, in early May Gen. Beauregard urged Louisiana’s plantations to destroy their cotton to keep it out of Federal hands. Soon, Stone wrote, “as far as we can see are the ascending wreaths of smoke … we hear that all the cotton of the Mississippi Valley … is going up in smoke.” At Brokenburn, Stone’s mother ordered $20,000 worth of cotton to be incinerated. Stone reported that the bales burned for two days. “The planters look upon the burning of the cotton as almost ruin to their fortunes,” she wrote, “but all realize its stern necessity. …”
As a long summer loomed, Stone felt the coils of the Union anaconda tighten around her. Union victories at Fort Donelson and New Orleans brought her closer to the war than ever before. Her aloof observations of what were once far-off battles now turned into bitter rage and iron determination, compounded by the frustration that Union forces cut her off from regular contact with her relatives.
From the conquered Mississippi delta the Federal naval forces moved north. From Memphis, a Union army marched south. Their supreme objective was the conquest of Vicksburg, a target only 30 miles away from the pen with which she recorded her predicament, was their supreme objective. By mid-May, a new, horrifying sound echoed throughout Brokenburn’s tense, humid air: the booming of cannon fire focused on Vicksburg. By late June she saw the enemy for the first time with her own eyes. Union gunboats, “dark, silent and sinister,” sailed past as she watched from a friend’s riverside home.
As she imagined the sacrifices the future may demand, Stone radiated if not confidence then apocalyptic defiance. “How much better to burn one’s cities than to let them fall into the enemy’s hands.”
Capable of any horror
Once Federal commanders decided new canals were needed to bypass the strong Vicksburg batteries, soldiers swept the region’s plantations to find the black workers they needed to do the digging. Stone wrote that her mother instructed all the Brokenburn slaves to immediately hide if Union soldiers entered the property.
The slaves, however, had other intentions. Stone reported that some planters marched their slaves westward, and her mother planned to do the same. Stone worried what the consequences would be when Federal troops arrived, looked for slave workers and found none. “Our fear is when the Yankees come and find them gone they will burn the buildings in revenge. They are capable of any horror. We look forward to their raid with great dread.”
In April, Union Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan decided he would assault Richmond, Va., and he glacially moved his army up the peninsula between the York and James rivers. On May 31, after contesting the Union advance, Confederate commander Joseph E. Johnston was injured at the Battle of Seven Pines, and field command passed to Robert E. Lee. As McClellan timidly waited for almost a month, Lee, a former military adviser to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, reorganized his new army, strengthened the Richmond defenses, and gathered intelligence. Lee united with forces under Maj. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, and on June 26 he launched a massive, week-long, blood-soaked counterattack that hammered the Union army away from Richmond.
News of the Seven Days fighting reached Brokenburn in early July with a list of the units engaged in combat. Stone’s Uncle Bo survived the battles, but her brother’s unit had also been involved. She silently grew frantic as she awaited word of his survival and none came. “Oh, this long, cruel suspense. … Every day adds to my conviction that My Brother is desperately hurt.” In desperation, she studied the faces of any visitors to the house, searching for any shade of sadness a bearer of the worst news would express. By July 24, her anguish evaporated as word finally arrived that William had also survived the Seven Days.
The recent conscription law passed by the Confederate Congress called for all suitable men between ages 18 and 25 to sign up for military service, and Stone reported that Mr. Hazelitt, who taught her brothers, had to close his school and enroll in a military unit. “One of the worst features of the war,” she wrote, “is that is deprives all the boys of an education.”
A bloody death
Federal determination to conquer Vicksburg intensified, and more and more blue-coated troops poured down the Mississippi and raided the area around Brokenburn. By mid-August, Stone illustrated the first wave of refugees moving west. “The planters,” Stone wrote with frustration, “generally are moving back to the hills as fast as possible. There are two families refugeeing in our neighborhood.” As cold winter rain drenched Brokenburn, Stone, emotionally exhausted, wondered what lay ahead for her family and her plantation.
Depression and hopelessness consumed her, “Could I only be content to watch the Future as it unfolds instead of trying to pierce its mystery and mold it to my will, how much happier I would be.”
Adding to the grim feeling in the air was the departure of her brother Walter, who joined their brother Coleman in ranks of the 28th Mississippi.
After Lee’s victory over McClellan on the Peninsula and over John Pope at Manassas, he turned his armies north and invaded Maryland. McClellan, armed with a copy of Lee’s deployment orders, pursued him with uncharacteristic speed. Lee confronted him at Sharpsburg, and their armies fought the Battle of Antietam on Sept. 17. After a day of unprecedented bloodshed, Lee was the first to withdraw his stunned army from the area, and Lincoln took the Union non-defeat as an opportunity to announce the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation on Sept. 22.
The executive action, theoretically freeing all slaves held in areas still controlled by Confederate forces, would become official on Jan. 1, 1863. By Oct. 1, word of the proclamation reached Brokenburn. Stone was outraged by what she called Lincoln’s “diabolical move. … How can he ever sleep with the shades of the thousands he has consigned to a bloody death darkening his soul?”
Lincoln replaced a recalcitrant McClellan with Maj. Gen. Ambrose Burnside, who foolishly attacked Lee’s impregnable defenses at Fredericksburg, Va., in mid-December. Union forces were massacred. On Christmas Day, an old neighbor came to Brokenburn to report that Stone’s brother William was killed in the battle. “Mamma was at once in despair,” Stone recalled, “and gave way to the wildest grief.”. But the neighbor’s information was wrong. Later the Stone family learned William was only injured. Nevertheless, Stone complained, “our Christmas was ruined.”
Adding to their misery, Union Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman landed 30,000 troops at Milliken’s Bend, just a few miles from Brokenburn, and a brigade was sent south to destroy the Vicksburg, Shreveport, and Texas Railroad on the eve of his attack on Chickasaw Bluffs, just north of Vicksburg. But brigade’s soldiers did not molest the Stone family, and Stone’s second year of war, later brightened by news of Sherman’s bloody defeat, ended quietly.
Works cited or consulted for this essay series:
Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 1996. Print.
—. Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace and War. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri, 1992. Print.
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. New York: Vintage, 1986. Print.
Johnson, Ludwell H. Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1958. Print.
Kronk, Gary W. “C/1861 J1 (Great Comet of 1861).” Cometography.com. n.d. Web. 11 Sept. 2011.
Long, E.B. and Barbara Long. The Civil War: Day by Day. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. Print.
McPherson, James M., ed. The Atlas of the Civil War. New York: Macmillan, 1994. Print.
—. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford UP. 1988. Print.
Parrish, T. Michael. Richard Taylor: Soldier Prince of Dixie. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP. 1992. Print.
Stone, Kate. Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861-1868. Ed. John Q. Anderson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana UP. 1995. Print.
Sullivan, Walter. The War the Women Lived: Female Voices from the Confederate South. Nashville: J.S. Sanders & Company. 1995. Print.
Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: W.W. Norton, 1962. Print.
Wooster, Ralph A. Civil War Texas. Texas State Historical Association. 199. Print.