EDITOR’S NOTE: In commemoration of the sesquicentennial of the American Civil War, Ellis County resident Rose Ryder has written a series of columns of historical facts relating to the War Between the States.
• First in a series
During the War Between the States, over 400,000 Southerners were forced from their homes when the conflict came to their front door. Kate Stone, a carefree 20 year old from Louisiana, recorded in her diary the Stone family’s story as refugees to Tyler, Texas.
When the war began, Kate lived with her widowed mother and six siblings on a 1,260 acre cotton plantation located in Madison Parish about 30 miles northwest of Vicksburg, Miss.
On May 15, 1861, Kate’s brother, 21 year old William, left at daybreak for New Orleans. “He is wild to be off to Virginia. He so fears that the fighting will be over before he can get there.”
Soon after, the Stone ladies joined a sewing society to make uniforms and knit socks for the soldiers. In March 1862 18 year old brother Coley left for war dressed in his homemade uniform and 16 year brother Walter followed a few months later.
After the fall of New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Natchez, Kate expressed rage that her homeland “lies powerless at the feet of the enemy.”
Confederate General Beauregard advised the burning of cotton to avoid it falling into Union hands. The burning proved difficult. “Mamma has $20,000 worth burning on the gin ridge now: it was set on fire yesterday and is still blazing.”
Shortages caused by the Union blockade began to affect daily life on the plantation. “We have been on a strict ‘war footing’ for some time – cornbread and home-raised meal, and butter, tea once a day, and coffee never.”
“Fashion is an obsolete word and just to be decently clad is all we expect.”
On June 25, 1862 war came to the Stones.
“Well, we have at last seen what we have been looking for for weeks – the Yankee gunboats descending the river.”
Fear gripped the ladies, and they began to think about fleeing.
In the fall, Kate learned to weave. On a home-made loom, the family began to produce fabric to clothe everyone at the plantation.
“Silk of the poorest kind is now $500 per yard and walking shoes $15 a pair and difficult to get at that. We expect to suffer for clothes this winter.”
As Christmas arrived, Kate lamented separation from her brothers who were far away on the battlefield and the difficulty in getting reliable information.
“No news from My Brother for weeks. Do not know his address even. We get neither papers nor letters these days.”
While the Stones entertained Confederate officers on Christmas night 1862, Union General William T. Sherman with 30,000 men arrived at Milliken’s Bend, only a few miles away. The Confederates scattered to the interior of Louisiana. Federal forces inhabited the western shore of the Mississippi River for 60 miles.
Foraging parties swarmed over the neighborhood confiscating horses, supplies and plantation workers.
By late January 1863 the family was “preparing to run from the Yankees.”
They buried many of their valuables. Mrs. Stone sent 16 year old Jimmy with the strongest slaves to a salt mine to protect them from confiscation.
Soon “the place looks deserted now with its empty cabins and neglected fields.” The women were alone “We can find rest only in the thought that we are in God’s hands.”
During mid-March, the Stones were anxious that the Yankees would soon arrive.
“For the last two days we have been in a quiver of anxiety looking for the Yankees every minute, sitting on the front gallery with our eyes strained in the direction they will come, going to bed late and getting up early so they will not find us asleep.”
The Stones became adept at making do.
“Okra coffee is now the favorite drink. Mamma had several bushels of the seed saved. After experimenting with parched potatoes, burned meal, roasted acorns, all our coffee drinkers decided on okra seed as the best substitute.”
“We have grown quite expert making shoes for ourselves.”
They cut up a pair of old shoes to use as a pattern. Uppers were made from broadcloth, velvet, or any strong black material they could get. Soles were added by a local shoemaker.
“They are not to say ‘elegant looking’ but we are delighted to be able to make them; they are far better than bare feet.”
By late March 1863 the family heard continuous cannon bombardment, day and night.
“The life we are leading now is a miserable, frightened one — living in constant dread of great danger. It is a painful present and a dark future with the wearing anxiety and suspense about our loved ones.”
A few days later two Federal officers took Kate’s beautiful horse Wonka and left in his place “a pack of animated bones.”
Kate had been hiding Wonka in the cane breaks for weeks. Just 10 minutes before the officers arrived she had brought him up to house for fear he would die from mosquito bites.
But worse was to come. While visiting a neighbor, Kate and several other women were shoved into a room by an armed slave and held at gun point while others searched the home.
This incident and other atrocities in the area convinced Mrs. Stone that it was time to leave, although it was forbidden by Union authorities.
Almost constant rain since Christmas had caused flooding. The Federals had cut many of the levees during canal construction and now the land around the plantation was a swamp.
“The water hems us in.”
Around midnight on a dark March night, the Stone family and their house servants left the plantation on horseback and rode until dawn, often in water “up to our saddle skirts.” When the road became impassable, they left their carts loaded with baggage and valuables and walked.
At the bayou, they boarded two small leaky dugouts and rowed away just as Yankee soldiers appeared behind them.
Rose Ryder writes for Parsons’ Rose #9, Texas Society Order of Confederate Rose. For more information, visit www.omroberts.com or www.tsocr.org.