The Women of Winchester (part 2): The Beginning of the Civil War

Today we welcome back guest author Virginia Bensen.

This is a sketch of the Winchester Market located on Cameron Street (commonly known as Market Street). The Market was located one block south from Mary Greenhow Lee’s home. Directly behind the Market was the Winchester Courthouse and Loudon Street (Main Street).

Part two in a series.

In April of 1861, the State of Virginia seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy.  Although this was an uncertain time for everyone in Winchester, Virginia it was a particularly tenuous time for the Unionists, since they were not sure how they fit into this new Confederacy.  There were two Winchester Unionist women who wrote about this time, Julia Chase and Harriet Griffith.

These two women most likely rarely cross paths.  Julia Chase was in her early thirties and unmarried.  She lived with her mother and father.  Her family moved to Winchester from upstate New York when she was a young child.  Julia was very religious and a devout Presbyterian.  From her writings, she appears to be fairly well educated, and comes from an upper-middle class family.  Julia reads and reports about the war news from every newspaper that is available to her.  Harriet Griffith is approximately seventeen and from a strict Quaker family. Her father, Aaron H. Griffith was an active Elder and Clerk in the Orthodox Branch of Hopewell Meeting.  She is also from the upper-middle class.  She lives between two locations, her family’s townhouse located in the city of Winchester, and a large farm located just outside of Winchester.

Through initial entries in these two women’s diaries, one can observe the uncertainties and anxieties these two women must have felt.  Harriet Griffith’s diary opens with her entry of June 9, 1861:

“I have thought much about dear Sisters and Brothers this morning. They are now in the United States – that foreign country. We miss the mails so much, but they have stopped, between that country and this ‘Southern Confederacy.’…Virginia, our once honored State, is now a traitor to the Constitution and the laws of the Government of the once happy Union. Now we have no laws, no government, and our country is a disorganized state of affairs. Thousands and thousands of troops have marched through Winchester to the Ferry and other points on the Potomac River – Virginians, Kentuckians, Alabamians, Georgians, etc. Most of all the men in Winchester have gone – gone to fight for their country and the right that they are taught to believe. I do not blame them at all; tis only their leaders.”

Julia Chase opens her diary on July 4, 1861 as follows:

“But few rejoicing in this state, or any of the southern states in regard tot his day, which has been observed for so long a time. When independence was declared by our forefathers, into what a said condition our beloved country has fallen. God have mercy on us from your enemies. This will be the worst of wars probably that has taken place in the world, and oh, what hard fighting there will be. One party trying to suppress rebellion, the other, as they think and say, defending their rights, if the Sotuhern’s cause is a just and right one. God will certainly defend them, and give them success, but if not, how can we expect it?”

The secessionist women in Winchester gave profound support to the Confederate cause.  Of the available Winchester pro-Confederate women’s diaries, many did not start until the first Union occupation.  There is one source that shows this enthusiasm, yet a stoic quality, and it is found in the Memoirof Randolph Barton. He is recalling a comment that his mother made just after the attack on Fort Sumter.

Fort Sumter

“If they (the Yankees) ever waged war upon the South she would send six sons into the Southern army; to see three of them sacrificed and three exposed to all the perils of battle. And yet I never but once saw her flinch from the stern duty of pressing us on to perform our part.”

During the first year of the war, both the Unionists and the Secessionist women discussed the lack of organization felt within the Confederacy during 1861.  Emma Riley, a Secessionist in her teens in 1861, describes this confusion in her Reminiscences as follows:

“The Confederacy was then in its infancy, the quartermaster had no tents and scarcely any provisions prepared for them, and when the dear brave fellows – the flower of our land – who had just left their comfortable homes and reached Winchester footsore, weary, and hungry in changeable April weather, often in rain, the patriotic citizens could not see them turned out on Mother Earth with nothing but the sky to cover them, so they sent word to the quartermaster to divide them out among the people, which he did for weeks, until tents could be procured for them.”

Throughout the Winchester civil war experience in the women’s diaries there are references made about both the Union and Confederate flags.  Finding Confederate flags hidden among the local population almost became an obsession with the commanders of the Union army.  In her June 6, 1861 entry, Harriet Griffith states,

“It became quite the rage in Winchester for the Confederate ladies to make the flag of the Secessionists and for the pro-Unionists to make the United States flag. Each family appeared to ultimately have one or the other.”

Although they had chosen sides, either Unionist or Secessionist, during the first four months of the war the citizenry of Winchester were amiable toward each other.  They would visit each other’s homes and socialize as well as debate political issues.  Each side voiced their opinions, but neither side was particularly hostile toward each other.  Both Harriet Griffith and Julia Chase talk about visiting friends who were secessionists, as well as inviting their secessionist friends to dinner, and having “spirited talks.” Julia Chase even mentions that during the summer of 1861, she and her family housed a Confederate soldier who had become ill.

During the summer of the women describe that a measles and a typhoid fever epidemic struck Winchester.  This not only affected the soldiers, but it quickly spread throughout the community.  Because of the number of soldiers in the town, the woman complained of the town smelling of animal and human waste.  Many of the women would only walk through town if they had no other choice.  On top of the nasty conditions, they all complained of that it was so crowded with soldiers, one could hardly wield their way on the streets, and they also felt unsafe to do so.

The younger women mentioned the sewing societies, and their attempt at knitting.  Both Harriet Griffith and Emma Riley had little experience in sewing and knitting.  Each mentioned their effort briefly, and because both were unproductive in their efforts, they either stopped participating or were asked to leave.

Union Blockade of Wilmington

Julia Chase recorded the rising prices of various staple good that were affected because of the Union blockade.  Throughout the late summer until the beginning of January 1862, you can see her frustration with the unstable prices of staple goods. In early August of 1861, she merely notes the prices of various things.  On August 31, 1861 she mentioned that she is now mixing rye with the coffee.  In her September 2, 1861 entry she states, “No salt to be had in town. What will people do?” In her September 21, 1861 entry she comments, “I fear the poor as well as others will suffer much this winter. No coal to speak of, and wood is selling for $4.50.  On September 25, 1861 Julia mentions that the use of gas has stopped.  Winchester provided natural gas service to light the streets and to heat people’s homes.  Her comment was, “This war causes trouble in everything and way, in this part of Virginia, we are put to a great deal of inconvenience and expense to procure things.”

Emma Riley describes how civilians prepared coffee in order to stretch it.

“I was a dear lover of coffee and I longed once more for a taste of the genuine article, for I was surfeited with Confederate coffee which was rye, washed and ground, and for lack of sugar, sweetened with honey or molasses, so you can imagine what a dose it was. Towards the close of the war, even this would have been considered a luxury, for when rye could not be had, toasted corn, chestnuts, or sweet potatoes, toasted and ground, were used. As it no longer deserved the name coffee, we dubed it “beverage” in derision. Unlike coffee, the longer you boiled it, the better it was and my dear friend Miss Sherrard always put her breakfast ‘beverage’ on the stove the night before, it simmered all night and a prime article was ready for breakfast.

Chase Diary Chart.

To sum up the year of 1861 for the Unionist women, here are two diarist’s comments about Christmas 1861. Harriett Griffith’s entry states: “Nothing like Christmas in this our Confederacy! Oh, I do try to keep cheerful and hope all will be well and aright. I try to hope for the best and look on the bright side, yet there are moments when the gush of feeling hath its way that hidden tide of unnamed woe which none but God can know.”  Julia Chase simply states, “Christmas. Dr. thinks mother has typhoid.”

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