City of Alexandria, VA
Page updated Apr 3, 2012 11:20 AM
Unhappiness Abroad - Civil War Refugees
Fear, uncertainty and deprivation was the lot of Civil War refugees. Forced to abandon their homes as occupying forces approached, civilians fled with limited household goods and only modest amounts of clothing and personal items. When they returned, they were greeted with destroyed crops, ransacked homes and beleaguered communities.
Called a "nation of nomads," 175,000 to 200,000 Confederate sympathizers were on the move during the war, the most in U.S. history. Midway through the war, a Mobile, Alabama editor estimated that 400,000 persons were refugees. In Alexandria, VA, two-thirds of the population left town, afraid of the uncertainties of military occupation. Other Alexandrians were expelled for refusing to take the "Oath of Loyalty". Wealthier families chose to "refugee" in England, France and Canada for the duration of the war, but for most, their options were limited.
Civilians were unprepared for the war's intensity and duration. The overwhelming number left of their own choice when enemy invasion was imminent and when fear of what the occupying forces would do to them and their property was at its height. Every type of conveyance, public and private, was used to escape. Most tried to stay within Confederate territory, but it was not unusual to be uprooted four or five times in their search for a place to stay.TOP
Diarist Sarah Morgan described the mayhem of the flight from Baton Rouge. Overloaded refugee wagons clogged the roadways and overburdened animals added to the confusion:
In their rush to escape, refugees sometime made poor decisions in choosing what to take and where they would go. Their lack of preparation or financial means created burdens on relatives and whole communities. Cities offered employment, police protection, safety in numbers, the opportunity for socializing and a variety of living arrangements. However, congestion in the cities - especially in railroad communities - became a problem in urban areas:
Anne Frobel, of Wilton Hill, describes the scene in Alexandria, Virginia on Sunday, May 22, 1861:
And in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the same scene played out:
Refugees Taking Household Goods in Wagons
Refugees in rural areas had plainer, but more abundant food than in urban areas. Farmers were reluctant to bring their crops to town if their wagons and contents would be stolen.
Pressures from the economic problems led to conflicts between groups. Attitudes changed from sympathy to indifference to disgust and apathy as food, shelter and jobs became more scarce. The Richmond Examiner described refugees as "vultures preying on the community." The publication initially supported benevolence, but its editorial policy changed during the course of the war, also contributing to dissension among groups.
Conflicts between refugees and local citizens occurred in part due to the attitudes of the refugees, thrust in an unfamiliar role. Refugees came into the community carrying their valuable jewelry and silver, giving the impression that they were more affluent than the locals. They tended to set themselves apart from the locals, giving off a superior attitude. Some refugees were tactless as well, not concealing their disdain for what they perceived as the inferior background, dress and manners of the locals. Most refugees found their acceptance in a new community was determined by their own attitude.
Sarah Pryor was living near Petersburg during the bombardment, her hearing damaged from the noise of the shells and explosions. She suffered near starvation and resorted to pawning family heirlooms and clothing for basic necessities.
Becoming a refugee tested the endurance, faith and courage of the people. Now preoccupied with finding the basic necessities of life, the displacement led to depression, especially among those not gainfully employed. Monotony and boredom were major sources of homesickness. Those who had always been landowners became tenants for the first time, enduring high rents, crowding, frayed tempers, and lack of privacy. In return, landowners were upset because their properties were destroyed as a natural consequence of extreme overuse.TOP
Mary Boykin Chesnut
Other everyday inconveniences made life unhappy for refugees. It was difficult to receive mail and news from others when they were constantly on the move. Children's schooling was interrupted and the new students were subjected to taunts and teasing because of their unfamiliar manners and speech. Women were preoccupied with feeding their children and if they couldn't, the children were often sent away to distant relatives in safer locales. Special occasions, especially Christmas, were very difficult without the family gathering around its own hearth.
Official policies of the two governments were also detrimental to refugees. The Confederacy made no provisions for widows of soldiers, and even stopped the pay of captured men. The strategy of depopulation on the part of the Union, and "requisition of property" also created involuntary movements. Among the most distressing policies was the banishment of Confederate officer's wives from their homes and communities. Banishment was used widely along the Mississippi River corridor in St. Louis, Nashville and Memphis.TOP
Elizabeth Meriwether was banished in October 1862, when she was given 24-hour notice that she must leave Memphis. She had children ages three and five and was pregnant with a third. Her appeal to Gen. William T. Sherman was denied.
Forced on the road, she delivered her third child in a stranger's house on Christmas night, 1862. At first, she attempted to follow her husband's unit, but eventually ended up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She resorted to stealing corn for food for her children, selling clothing and even sneaking back into Memphis on a dangerous mission to pay taxes so her property would not be sold at auction.
Alexandrian Judith McGuire kept a record of her family's experience as refugees from 1861 to 1865. In 1867, her account was published and told of how private citizens were uprooted from their homes and communities, and forced into the civilian workforce to obtain meager sources of support.
Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, VA
Judith McGuire was married to John P. McGuire, an Episcopalian minister and the founder of the Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, where he taught until the beginning of the Civil War. He was elected to the state secession committee and voted for separation from the union. Forced to flee on May 24, 1861, the day Alexandria was occupied by Union forces, Judith McGuire and family began their odyssey of taking refuge with various family members across the state. With great regret and sadness, she wrote of her fears for their property in Alexandria.
With the weak wartime economy and loss of her husband's pastoral salary, it became necessary for both of them to find work. Employment was scarce as hundreds of displaced persons vied for the same few positions. What modest income was earned went to pay exorbitant rents and inflated prices for every day staples. John McGuire found a post as a postal clerk, then eventually became a hospital chaplain. Judith McGuire received an appointment to the Commissary Department. The couple moved several times during their stay in Richmond, seeking affordable housing. Despite her hardships, Judith McGuire knew her situation was better than most. They never went hungry and did not lack for influential friends or basic necessities as did lower classes without jobs.
Prominent families were not immune from the hardships of war. Gen. Robert E. Lee's wife, Mary Custis Lee was forced to abandon Arlington, her family home turned into a Federal cemetery.
In preparation of the fall of the Confederacy, Varina Davis, wife of CSA President Jefferson Davis, sold clothing jewelry, silver, china and other possessions, then made arrangements to convert the proceeds from Confederate dollars to gold. In late March, 1865, Mrs. Davis and their children took a long trip by railroad and other conveyances into North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Jefferson David fled Richmond on April 2, 1865. Varina Davis was captured with her husband at Irwinsville, GA in early May, 1965. She was detained as a prisoner in Savannah until she was permitted to join him at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Davis was never brought to trial, and refused to request a pardon or the restoration of his citizenship. The couple lived apart for long periods of time, with Varina living in Europe and in Memphis, Tennessee.TOP
African American Refugees
This photograph of the Davis children was taken while in exile in Toronto, Canada, 1866-1867. From left to right: Jefferson, Jr., Maggie, Winnie, and William Howell.
People of color faced especially harsh refugee conditions. Native Americans were divided in their loyalties to the Union and were forced to leave their territories in the east after two 1861 battles. Cherokees, Creeks and Seminoles fled to Kansas, leaving property and camp equipment behind. It was bitterly cold; the army surgeon reported that more than a hundred frozen limbs had to be amputated. The Native Americans lacked food, clothing and medicine and many slept on bare ground or in small improvised shelters. The nearby stream was choked with carcasses of dead horses. Government red tape and transportation difficulties slowed Union efforts to give aid to the tribes.
The Bureau of Refugees, Freedman and Abandoned Lands, often referred to as the Freedman's Bureau, was established by the War Department on March 3, 1865. It supervised relief and educational activities relating to refugees, including issuing rations clothing and medicine, and assumed custody of confiscated lands or property. During the Reconstruction period (1865-1872) the Bureau provided practical aid to more than four million newly freed black Americans in their transition from slavery to freedom. Considered the first federal welfare agency, the Bureau built hospitals and gave medical care to more than a million freedmen. More than 21 million rations were distributed to impoverished blacks and whites. More than 1,000 black schools and colleges were established. Obtaining basic civil rights was not as successful, as African Americans made small gains in the court system. President Andrew Johnson's restoration of abandoned lands to pardoned white Southerners and the refusal of Congress to consider any form of land redistribution meant that many blacks were forced into oppressive sharecropper arrangements after the war.
In conclusion, vast numbers of refugees experienced deprivation and heartbreak during the war. Although their individual circumstances varied, all of them regretted the loss of home and a way of life.
Sources for Text and Illustrations:
"Confederate Refugees", Mary Elizabeth Massey. Civil War Times Illustrated, Historical Times, Inc. Gettysburg, November, 1971.
Gragg, Rod. The Civil War Quiz and Factbook, Promentory Press, NY, 1985.
Jones, Katharine M. Heroines of Dixie, Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., Indianapolis, 1955.
McGuire, Judith W. Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War by a Lady of Virginia, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1995.
Meriwether, Elizabeth Avery. Recollections of 92 Years, 1824-1916, EPM Publications, McLean, VA, 1994.
Sullivan, Walter. The War that Women Lived, J.S. Sanders and Co., Nashville, 1995
"The Life of an Average Refugee", Mary Elizabeth Massey. Civil War Times Illustrated, Historical Times, Inc., Gettysburg. May 1964
Ward, Geoffrey C. with Burns, Ric and Burns, Ken. The Civil War, an Illustrated History, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1990.
Wiley, Bell Irvin. Confederate Women, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1975.
Woodard, C. Vann, ed. Mary Chesnut's Civil War, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1981.