Great Privation

In this day and age when waistlines keep expanding, super-sized meals more common, and obesity waddling around everywhere, I’ve been reading of another time when food was scarce, malnutrition evident, and even starvation threatening.

Just over the Great North Mountain from me lies the north central portion of the Shenandoah Valley, a rich and fertile agricultural area that was once known as “the breadbasket of the South.” The last year or so of the Civil War, though, brought a harshness to this land and its people, a people beaten down and now facing a bleakness with no promise of end.

Shenandoah Valley, Sept. 1864 (Alfred R. Waud, Morgan collection, Library of Congress)
Shenandoah Valley, Sept. 1864 (Alfred R. Waud, Morgan collection, Library of Congress)

Anecdote has it that Grant told Sheridan to lay such waste to this once great source of food so that a crow flying over it would have to bring its own knapsack. Since I enjoy cooking and eating good food, I wondered what life would have been like at that time for people facing extreme food shortages. The idea of having no food in the pantry, going to bed hungry, suffering from malnutrition, and even facing starvation seems so foreign to our lives today. Two informative books, however, gave me some stark details of what life in the Valley without a proper amount of food was like. More importantly, both books feature the stories of the heroic women who were resourceful, imaginative, and tireless in saving their families and homes.

The late John L. Heatwole wrote a chilling book back in 1998 called The Burning. In it, he chronicles the systematic destruction that Sheridan’s army inflicted on the Valley in the fall of 1864. George Custer, his chief lieutenant, could easily have been the prototype for the reckless Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore character played by Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now. Like Kilgore, Custer loved the smell of fire and smoke and took psychopathic pleasure in torching barns, slaughtering livestock, and destroying crops. Legend today says that when the golden boy finally met his end at Little Big Horn in 1876, church bells throughout the Valley rang in joy.

For thirteen fiery days, though, in October 1864, soldiers burned barns, mills, factories, and standing crops. Livestock were driven away or killed where they stood. With the mass slaughter of hogs, Yankee troops believed that driving a spike in the head would taint the meat and render it inedible. Some farm boys from Sheridan’s home state of Ohio became so sickened at what they were doing that they chose court martial over continuing to follow orders. In the end, though, the fires burnt on and left the people little to survive on as the winter of 1864/65 loomed.

War policy had changed. No more was the strategy just to defeat a military foe. It was now directed against the people, a well-planned and merciless scorched earth campaign within the main campaign of clearing the Valley of belligerents. As with most wars, questions remain that defy understanding. In those late days of the war, the North had already destroyed most of the railroads and other transportation infrastructure that was used to move food stuffs to Richmond and elsewhere. Farmers could raise crops but they could not get them to where they would have benefited the South’s military effort. So in the end, the land was pillaged and people left to starve for little military reason.

A second book I have now finished is called Portals, an account of the Valley’s folkways published for the Augusta County, Virginia, Historical Society. In the final section, Danielle M. Torisky writes of “comfort foods and food remedies in nineteenth century cooking manuals.” In this chapter, we learn much about the food, nutrition, and health practices of the day. During the war period, many of the remedies and recommendations for home medical treatments proved essential in life and death situations.

But it’s really a story of the resolute inventiveness and improvisation of the people, especially the women, who coped with shortages and found remedies for life-threatening conditions such as dysentery and diarrhea which stalked the countryside. In today’s world where we pop pills and take shots for our ailments, we learn that life was indeed different for the sick of that time. Some of the ingredients for home remedies included mutton tallow and sugar and a steeped mixture of “grated Turkey rhubarb root.” Other preferred curatives included “pulverized maple charcoal, boiled molasses and West India rum.”

People followed various manuals as well as relied on family practices passed down through generations. A particularly useful reference book was The Family Nurse by Mrs. Lydia Child, a guide first available in the earlier part of the century. One concoction listed in it, which called for milk porridge and “slippery elm gruel,” helped people deal with dysentery, a common Civil War woe.

On another page, we are told that malnourishment and scurvy seemed to be occurring at an alarming pace. Although Vitamin C as such had not yet been identified, people knew that scurvy was a debilitating and fatal disease if not treated. Another guide called Beadle’s Dime Family Physician and Manual for the Sick Room called for a “muriatic tincture of iron” and quinine for scurvy. It also added that “better than all are fresh and juicy vegetables and fruits, including spinage (sic), sorrel, dandelion, and cresses.” Other cures recommended the juices of pokeweed and the “fresh root of the great water-duck.”

According to Torisky, military food manuals reflected practical household knowledge and a concern for economy, cleanliness, and nourishment, “as well as efforts to achieve a home-cooked quality in camp cooking for small groups or massive numbers of soldiers.” A theme common to both the household and military cookbooks of the period called for order and cleanliness. Despite the admonitions, diseases that are known today to be the result of cross-contamination and poor hygiene were rampant in the Civil War. As she sadly notes, “disease was not only in military camps but was also an undesirable calling card often left behind for civilians in occupied towns and villages where homes, churches, and businesses were used as hospitals following battles.”

But the ultimate praise for the women in the Shenandoah Valley comes from how they dealt with the painful scarcity of food in general as well as “luxuries” such as coffee and sugar that were no longer readily available due to Union blockades. Women learned how to find substitutes for the many commodities and staples they needed. The devastation and destruction of the war itself, not to mention floods, droughts, late-season freezes, fires, and epidemics, forced these women to be resourceful beyond their imaginations. For coffee, grains such as rye would be roasted or dried and then ground. Others ground up corn, wheat, chicory and okra seed to make something called “seed tick” coffee. Parched ground yam or sweet potato coffee was also common.

Because most of the meats such as beef or pork were diverted to feed the army, women turned to alternate protein sources such as eggs, mule, and pigeon, as well as any fish or fowl that could be obtained. Less favorable but still edible choices were frogs, crows, insects, and even rats as well as domesticated cats and dogs. Grains would also be mixed with egg, fat and seasoning to produce a meat-like substitute. Housewives faced with food scarcity and families to feed had to develop additional resourcefulness, ingenuity, creativity, and determination.

In the face of tightening restrictions, Richmond directed Confederate surgeon Francis Porcher to catalog all plants, trees, and herbs known to be either edible, medicinal, or otherwise useful in some way. The result was the field guide Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests. The 601-page volume of Southern plant life was advertised as “not merely expedient during the pressure of war and blockade, but continuously, through all time, as affording profit, use, interest, and employment to our people.”

All and all, the various manuals, diaries, letters and reminiscences of civilians create a picture of how families on the home front dealt with food issues and the nutritional challenges brought on by the war in the Valley. Many of the women described the difficulties of getting enough food, storing it without spoilage, and finding and making substitutes for various missing foods that had been abundant before the war.

One woman spoke of the plight of all families in occupied areas, the fear of getting caught up in the fighting as well as surviving the threat of disease and hunger. As the book recounts, “there was also the psychological toll connected with the constant anxiety and stress of being in such close proximity to the conflict and missing or even losing family members.” The presence of an army in the area often meant bad health conditions for the community. One lady’s research on her Valley ancestors showed how people of the time knew about “the relationship between stress and malnutrition and the resulting susceptibility to disease and death in solders and civilians…” They were well aware of the effect of a serious wound or amputation on a system already weakened by disease and malnutrition.

Despite their great privations, people still sought to help one another and to share whenever possible. Putting her own needs aside, one lady joined others in preparing food for wounded soldiers being transported to hospitals. She and others busied themselves cooking and carrying food to the wounded…”soup, milk and everything we could obtain…I saw several poor fellows shot through the mouth–they only wanted milk; it was soothing and cooling to their lacerated flesh.”

In the end, food and basic needs were almost non-existent. Many families ended up impoverished, starved and resigned to their fate. The shortage of able bodied men and the loss of horses and mules which had been confiscated made farming even more difficult, if not impossible. Price inflation had taken its toll, too, even if stores had not been ransacked by marauding troops on both sides and emptied of whatever pitiful remnants that remained. Troops of both sides took on a savagery not seen earlier and also frequently raided farms for whatever they could find. One lady wrote in her diary of a drunk soldier who forced his way into her house and went into the pantry where “he drank milk from the crock and stuck his hands in newly-made preserves.” You can almost hear her angry response as she insisted that “considering that almost ‘sugarless’ time our wrath was excusable.” Life was untenable.

As commanding general of the entire United States Army in 1886, Sheridan once again visited the Valley. When asked why he had been so ruthless in 1864, he defended himself by saying his campaign had actually shortened the war and saved lives. We’ll never know for sure, of course, but one thing is for certain: the good general never went to bed hungry and would not die of starvation.


David Evans

I'm retired from another life and live in the mountains of eastern West Virginia with my muse Jody along with one remaining dog.  We've decided no more dogs and cats.  Losing them is just too painful. Being independent and no longer in the reins of someone else's driver, I now have the chance to revisit the many people and places that have enriched my life. The good folks at Wesleyan College in central West Virginia guided me to a graduate degree in fine arts in early 2018.  My plan is to use some of the skills I learned from two years in this creative writing program to tell my story.