Introduction | The
Powhatan Troop | Billy Sledd |
Philip St. George Cocke,
Walking in General Longstreet's Shoes | Confederate Wagon Train | General Lee Visits Powhatan
The Other Lee in Powhatan | John Singleton Mosby | Huguenot Springs Hospital
The year 1861 would long be remembered in Powhatan -- remembered as a year of jubilant anticipation.
Months and years of debate over the prospect of a great civil war finally became stark reality as political and philosophical differences between North and South came to a head. Secession fever was at a high pitch -- enthusiasm for the proposal to leave the United States of America -- and Powhatan county’s citizens were trapped. Whether or not they supported the concept of a new, southern nation, their lives would be forever changed.
|With all the clamor for secession, surprisingly
little thought was directed towards the potential impact on the population
should any engagement become prolonged.
Most people doubted that a hostile confrontation would develop, or that if hostilities turned into open warfare, the duration would be less than ninety days. The prospect of four long years of bitter warfare -- or the decades it could take to recover -- was far removed from most people’s imaginations.
That Powhatan was essentially an agricultural community becomes obvious when the makeup of the population is considered. Of the 8,391 individuals living in the county in 1861, 5403 were slaves; 399 free blacks; and the remaining 2,589 were white.
Powhatan was the home of many wealthy planters, vast land holdings and luxurious mansions. In this setting, Powhatan’s ratio of non-free to free population provides an indication of the dependency of Powhatan County’s economy on the institution of slavery.
South Carolina’s secession from the Union, announced on December 20, 1860, became an event that caused a rapid exit from the Union of several other Southern states. Mississippi followed on January 9, 1861, and from January 10 to February 1, 1861, came Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. On February 8, 1861, delegates from the seceded states adopted a provisional Confederate constitution.
The inauguration of Jefferson Davis of Mississippi as the Confederacy’s provisional president of February 18, 1861, brought together the first skeleton of a Confederate administration. The March 4, 1861, inauguration of Abraham Lincoln as the President of the United States completed the top administrative structures in each part of the now-divided country.
Virginians remained divided as to which faction they owed their allegiance. Virginians had contributed heavily to the formation of the United States; destruction of the country it so intently helped found was not embraced in total. However, many Virginians believed that the government they had so greatly shaped in the late 1700s was rapidly becoming a government vastly different from its original concept, moving towards a tightly controlled central government. The southern states were adamant in their commitment to their own independent self-government. The were willing to split the country and risk a civil war.
A Virginia convention, attended by delegates selected by the white male population for the various counties and cities across the state, was held for a test vote on secession on April 4, 1861. The results of the test vote indicated the state’s desire to remain with the union.
On April 11, 1861, the Confederacy demanded the surrender of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and opened fire on the fortification on April 12. The Union troops at Fort Sumter surrendered April 13.
Over the next four years, Powhatan was spared the experience of open warfare across its landscape. Except for various troop maneuvers and being crossed by a portion of the Army of Northern Virginia on its way to the fateful rendezvous at Appomattox, the citizenry of Powhatan would not be touched directly by the hostilities of war.
But without cannon and gunshot, Powhatan residents suffered just as horribly as other residents of the Confederacy. The hardships of shortages caused by supporting an army in the field and the effectiveness of the Union Navy blockading the Southern coastline took their toll on supplies. The eventual loss of the Mississippi River was a devastating setback from which the South never recovered.
The shortages were crippling, and before the war was over almost everyone was affected in some form. Many folks went hungry -- some nearly starved.
Innovation was the focal point for survival. Richmond, Vicksburg, and many other areas sacrificed their dignity, eating rats. President Davis was heard to say they were "as good as squirrels." In Richmond, ladies exchanged recipes for them. As a result of the shortage of flour, bread was made from rice flour and became known as "secession bread."
The shortages of foods and medication were so severe that it has been estimated the Southern women had to find substitutes for three-fourths of the articles of everyday life. The lack of medication was extremely difficult. Even more difficult was the lack of doctors, who were traveling with the armies.
Scarcity placed pressure on the supply and demand cycle then, just as it does now. The results were inflation and profiteering, which drove prices up sharply.
To complicate matters further, as the Confederate gold supplies disappeared, the value of Confederate money fell. In January 1862 it took $120 in Confederate currency to purchases $100 in gold. By the war’s end, that figure was up to $5,500 in Confederate currency to buy $100 in gold.
Perhaps the worst shortage was the scarcity of men at home to maintain the small farms. Fields and homes, if not abandoned, fell into great disrepair. Very little livestock remained and life became a meager existence.
All too often, news of the death of loved one brought the realities of war to closure. If deprivation had not been bad enough, this news made it intolerable.
The people of Powhatan lived the war as intimately as if the battles were fought within its boundaries. As they learned, war has many facets, and they experienced their share.
For some who survived the hardships, they could justifiably ask the question, "Where was the real war, at home or on the battlefield?"
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