1863: “Who Can Count The Cost Of War?”

Providence La.

March 16th 1863

My Dear Jennie,

Another bright beam has come to cheer the darksome way of the wandering soldier boy, another happy moment calls me to thy side while I would gladly peruse thy dear message of the 28th ult, that came on the 24th inst, would that I could lay aside this tardy medium. Oh how cruel! Yes cruel that I cannot greet thee as two months ago, but perhaps tis well life cannot all be sunshine. Yet I should not complain when the recipient of such a dear letter as yours of the 28th ult. Continue reading

Power of the Pen (Civilians and War, Part 4)

Handwritten letters were the primary source of communication during the American Civil War

Handwritten letters were the primary source of communication during the American Civil War

I still like to write and receive hand-written letters. I know, it’s very old-fashion, but emails, texting, and private messaging (despite their convenience) just don’t compare to words shaped by friend’s hand. However, I have a rule – I do not write letters when I am upset. (No, Pen-Pals, I haven’t been upset – just up to my eyeballs in work…sorry!) Why? Because my attitude will come through my writing.

Are we talking about letter writing on the last Friday of “The Forgotten: Civilians In War”? No. But letters play a key role in what we are discussing – the effects of civilian attitude on military morale. Again, there are so many positive and negative examples from history, but we’re going to use the American Civil War as our era of study today.

Looking South

The North (Union) had its fair share of wives and mothers begging their soldiers to come home, but it appears that their appeals are mostly to get their loved ones out of harm’s way. An understandable motive, but not one that can be particularly effective for studying civilian morale…unless all the underlying themes are considered and we are not doing that today.

Instead, we will take the more obvious example and look South, to the Confederacy.

An Very Generalized Overview of the Southern Homefront

The Civil War started in April 1861. Though Southern states had been seceding throughout the previous winter and there were plenty of mixed feelings about that, by the time the military conflict began, the civilians generally supported the troops. The women sewed uniforms and flags, and though there were the sad good-bye scenes, on the whole a feeling of excitement prevailed outwardly.

A first victory pleased the fledging Southern nation, until the casualty lists appeared. The next months passed rather quietly, but with military defeats in the winter. However, the rest of 1862 had quite a few Confederate victories and civilian morale rose again.

In 1863, things started getting rough on the home front. Supplies were starting to run scarce, inflation began, the farm work was getting harder. And military defeats and longer casualty lists weren’t helping matters either. The draft was also extreme unpopular.

1864 and 1865 were the lowest points for Confederate morale. Everything seems dark and defeated. In some areas, there was barely enough food for the civilians to survive.

Three_Confederate soldiersThe Connection

There is a very obvious link between letters from home and desertion rate in the Confederate armies.

Having made that bold statement, let me now explain something. We are talking in board terms; certainly not every Southern family wrote letters begging for their loved ones to come home.

There is another thing we must take into consideration. Argue as much as you, the rank and file soldiers in the Confederate Armies felt they were defending their families and homeland from invasion. These men went to war because 1) they had to because of the draft or 2) they wanted to defend what they valued. (No, I am not talking about slavery – most Southern soldiers didn’t own slaves.)

…put us to jail in place of giveing us aney thing [anything]  to eat and I had to come home without anything [anything]…I have 6 little children and my husband in the armey and what am I to do. . . . if you don’t take these yankys [Yankees] a way from greenesborough we wemen [women] will write for our husbands to come . . . home and help us. . . . (Nancy Mangum’s final plea to the North Carolina state governor before writing the decisive letter to her husband, April 1863 – emphasis added by Miss Sarah)


Thus, when a soldier received a letter from his wife saying his children were starving, she did have the strength to harvest the fields, and had no idea how they were going to survive, that letter had a big impact. Was it better to keep fighting (or keep losing, depending on the period of the war) and return home to no family or leave the army and care for his loved ones?

Confederate_prisoners_FairfaxIt is not in the power of Yankee armies to cause us to wish ourselves at home—we can face them, and can hear their shot and shell without being moved; but, Sir, we cannot hear the cries of our little ones, and stand. We must say something, must make an effort to relieve them, and would do it through you, believing it to be the best way. . . . But it is not of ourselves that we would complain, it is of our wives and little ones at home… Do something for them and there will be less desertion, and men will go into battle with heartier good will. But it is impossible for us to bear up under our many troubles, the greatest of which is, the suffering of our wives and little ones at home. (Soldiers from North Carolina petition their state governor, January 1865 – emphasis added by Miss Sarah)


Many soldiers chose to desert because the letters they received from home begged them to back and take care of their families. This is an example of the power civilian influence.

Things to Consider

We could fault the Southern Soldier. Was it wrong for him to desert? I say yes. But can you fault him for wanting to save his children from hungry and extreme hardship? That is something to consider.

(Let me be clear – the men who deserted and went bounty hunting or became thieves or general “bad guys” are not the soldiers were talking about.)

We could fault the Southern Civilian. I’m not sure is very fair either. When a woman had worked the fields for months or years and could not get a good crop and her children were crying for their father…or the basic physical need of food, I can understand her plea for his return.


When civilian morale breaks and when they stop supporting the military, the battlefield soldier finds himself with two enemies: the one in front and the one at home. Of course the opposite is also true, when supported he is encouraged by the thought of his loved ones waiting and home and doing what they can to ensure his safety and comfort. (And, let’s be fair, there was plenty of the in the Confederacy too.)

This wasn’t a “pick on Confederate soldiers and civilians” day. But it is a vivid illustration of the importance the civilian spirit can have on the front line soldiers…for better or for worse.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Is this topic still of importance today with a professional military? Or has it become irrelevant with the passing of the volunteer armies? Your thoughts?


Civilians – My Historical Quest

Walk into the military history section of your bookstore or library. Search for a famous battle. There will be many, many books (assuming it’s a well-known battle) on the tactics and strategy of the fight, the commanders, even the common soldiers.

Looking for whose farm became a battlefield? Who were the widows and orphans affected by the stark casualty numbers? Searching for the civilian experience in war? Good luck. It’s there, but you’ll have to search to find it. Occasionally, there will be diamond-valued book digging in-depth into the subject of civilians during a particular war or battle. But usually these people are forgotten.

Miss Sarah Kay Bierle

The beginning of my experience doing living history presentations (first-person civilian, of course). 😉

When I started my studies as a serious historian (at the end of high-school and beginning of college), I discovered that I was interested in the campaigns and battles, the commanders, and the soldiers. But ultimately, I found myself gravitating toward “forgotten” characters or people groups from the past, particularly civilians or military medical staff. My end-of-college paper was a lengthy report and analysis of the Ladies of the Confederate Homefront during the American Civil War. Then I launched an eight month study of the civilians of Gettysburg which was the foundation for my newly-released book, Blue, Gray & Crimson.

This month (July 2015) I’ve decided to do something a little different. Rather than pick just one historical era or event to write about on Fridays, I’ve chosen to write generally on the topic of civilians and war. But I promise not to make it depressing…okay? We’ll talk about the many exciting ways civilians have played a crucial role toward victory.

Today, however, is an introduction and I thought I’d share a few of my musings on the topic.

Civilians and a Sleeping Soldier (by Caspar Netscher, 1600's)

Civilians and a Sleeping Soldier (by Caspar Netscher, 1600’s)

1. Civilians Are Often Forgotten In Studies Of War

I’ve already touched this topic in this post, and I’ve preached on it in my “Back to Gettysburg on Tuesday” series. So I’ll not weary you again.

I’d just like to mention that there has been an increase in “Women’s Studies” in the last couple decades, but, personally, I don’t feel these are covering the civilian story very well. What about the men who did not enlist? What about the children? (And, be careful: “women’s studies” often have a very specific agenda which may not reflect the real feelings of ladies of past eras.)

2. Civilians Pay An Price During War

If a country is at war, civilians will be affected. That is the simple, hard truth. Loved ones in the military may be killed or maimed. The economy may suffer. Civilians themselves may become directly involved in the fight. Civilians may be innocent bystanders (so to speak) and become casualties of war.

These facts are seen in every era, every war in history – from Ancient Times to our own era. I think I became most aware of this when I studied World War I during high school. In the text book, the military casualties were listed, then the civilian casualties. Allied military forces alone lost about 10 million. Recorded allied civilian deaths numbered around 7 million. And yet…we forgot them.

I am not going to write extensively on this, and I will not write an entire post on the subject at this time. But, do not forget the civilians involved directly in the war, whose deaths are forgotten because they were not on “glorious” battlefields.

Jean-Jacques-François_Le_Barbier_-_A_Spartan_Woman_Giving_a_Shield_to_Her_Son3. Civilians Have Done Extraordinary Things During War

Spying. Building thousands of airplanes. Raising money. Sheltering guerillas. Keeping up morale. Caring for the sick and wounded. Forcing governments to seek peace.

We will be exploring more of these roles in the next few weeks.

I’ll look forward to seeing you on Fridays as we discuss the courageous role of civilians throughout the centuries. I promise lots of action and adventure…certainly a different type than you’ll find on the battlefields, but still crucial to victory.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. How much time have you spent considering / studying the civilians’ role during a battle or war? Are you particularly inspired by the civilians of a particular era or incident?