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Chapter 3:

  • War-time scenes on an Alabama plantation.
  • -- Southern women. -- their ingenuity and Courage.

A woman whose husband and one son were in our army had raised, with the help of her few slaves, among other farm products, a surplus of watermelons. The season had been propitious, and her melons were large, well flavored, and very juicy. So one day she determined to make a trial of the juice of the watermelons for syrup. She gathered those which were thought to be ripe enough for use, prepared a large tub with a sack hanging over it, sliced up the melons, and scraped all the meat and juice into the sack. From what dripped into the tub through the sack when pressed, she managed to get several gallons of bright juice, which she placed for boiling in her large iron kettle-generally known in the country as the “wash pot,” and which was always left out of doors, in a shady, convenient place, for washing clothes, making soap, or drying up lard in hog-killing time. She built her fire, boiled [32] the juice slowly, carefully taking off all the scum, and was rewarded with syrup of a flavor as fine, or even finer, than that made from the sugar-cane. Flushed with success, she essayed sugar, also, from watermelon juice, and cakes as nice as those from the sap of the maple were the outcome. The balance of her melon crop was converted into sugar and syrup.

Inasmuch as syrup and sugar had to be placed in barrels, barrel-making was another industry that was forced upon the South. Soon several coopers' shops were built here and there, and it seemed queer enough for us to have home-made barrels, casks, tubs, and piggins. They were manufactured of oak, pine, cypress, and juniper. Those in use for syrup or sugar were generally of oak, as it was thought they gave a more pleasant taste to their contents.

The Palma christi, or castor-oil plant, being indigenous to the South and growing most luxuriantly in the wild state, was soon cultivated in patches near our dwellings, for the beans, from which castor oil as thick and transparent as that sold by druggists was extracted. As we had no rollers [33] to crush the beans, rude mortars were resorted to, in which they were well crushed, the oil passing, as it was expressed, through an orifice in the side of the mortar, near its base. Water was then added to the oil, and the whole was boiled, or rather raised to the boiling point, which caused all the impurities to rise to the top, when it was strained and the oil dipped from the top of the water. An uncle of Mrs. G----had made some castor oil. He brought her a bottle, and when shown me I could scarce believe it home-made, as there was no apparent difference between this bottle of oil so produced in southern Alabama and that which we had been wont to buy before the blockade.

Shoes and leather soon became very high-priced, bringing home to us the fact that we had indeed entered on troublous times. All our planters were reduced to the necessity of tanning leather for their own use, and also in order to aid in supplying the soldiers of our Confederacy with shoes. The home process of tanning among the lesser planters was perhaps as crude as that practiced in the earliest ages; for although there were many rude [34] tanneries set in operation during the war, and still ruder modes of grinding the red oak bark for the vats were in vogue in some places, planters on a small scale did not care to carry the few hides they had the long distances to the tanyards. With them the question was how best to tan at their homes, and as the necessity was urgent, it was not long ere they had devised a plan.

The hides were placed in a trough or barrel and covered with water, in which a small quantity of weak lye, that was made to answer the purpose of lime, had been mingled. When the hides had soaked the required length of time, they were taken from the trough, and with but little difficulty and labor the hair was removed and they were ready for the next stage of the process. A pit, of size suitable for the number of hides to be tanned, was dug in the ground near a spring or stream of running water; the bottom and sides were lined with boards riven from the stock of a tree; the seams were calked tightly with lint cotton, to prevent the tan-ooze from escaping. Then the red oak bark, which had been peeled in long strips from the trees, having [35] arrived, a layer of the bark was placed smooth and even in the bottom of the vat, a layer of hides was stretched over the bark, another layer of bark was put in position, then another of hides, and so on, until the rough vat was filled with hides and bark,--the bark being used just as it came from the trees. Water was poured into the vat, and its contents were left to steep from three to six months, according to the fancy of the tanner. I heard many planters say they had never bought better leather than that which they had tanned by this simple process.

Of course, when neighbor called upon neighbor, the leather that was hometanned used to be displayed. They would double it over and over again, and often pronounce it the best they ever saw. It made a soft, peculiar noise when pressed with the hands, and was very pliant and supple, answering every purpose for which leather is adapted. Its chief usefulness lay in its furnishing shoes for our soldiers and for those at home, but gear of all kinds used on plantations was mended or made anew from this product; harnesses for farm use or for equipping army saddles or [36] ambulance trains were manufactured and repaired out of home-tanned leather. And to meet our pressing wants, the hides of horses, mules, hogs, and dogs were all utilized.

One fall, while I was staying at Mr. G--‘s, he lost many fine fattening hogs with the cholera. These hogs weighed from two to three or four hundred pounds apiece. It had been his habit to butcher every winter from eighty to a hundred fine porkers. This fall the cholera epidemic had been so fatal that there was scarcely a planter in all the neighborhood but lost a great many swine. They would feed at night and seem to be perfectly well, and be dead by morning; or seemingly well in the morning, and dead by night. As this happened in war time, the loss was felt heavily.

We needed leather so badly that the hogs were flayed as soon as dead, and their hides were tanned. The best and heaviest leather was used for making shoes for the slaves, as their work was out of doors as a rule, and heavy brogans could not be bought. But leather from the hides of swine fell to our lot also, for winter shoes; [37] and many other white families were obliged to use it. I remember very plainly when one of Mr. G--‘s daughters and I first wore swine-skin shoes. They were made of leather which Mr. G-himself had had tanned, and, except that the pores were very large and wide apart, it looked like ordinary leather. We had consented with some reluctance to have these shoes made, for, although we were willing to immolate ourselves on the altar of our Southern Confederacy, it had fallen rather severely on us to think that we must wear hog-skin shoes! They were made, however, at a cost of ten dollars a pair, we furnishing the leather from which to make them. But swine-skin leather was very extensible, and our shoes spread out quite flat by the time we had worn them a day or so. This was more than we could endure, so we took them off, and one of the negro house-girls came into possession of two more pair of shoes, while we stepped back into shoes made of homespun.

As no shoe-blacking or polish could be bought during the blockade, each family improvised its own blacking, which was soot and oil of some variety (either cottonseed, [38] ground peas, or oil of compressed lard) mixed together. The shoes would be well painted with the mixture of soot and oil, with brushes made of the bristles of swine. Then a thin paste made of flour, bolted meal, or starch, was applied all over the blackened shoe with another brush, which paste, when dry, gave the shoe as bright and glossy an appearance as if “shined” by the best of bootblacks. Planters were very careful in killing their hogs to save a good supply of bristles, from which shapely brushes were manufactured.

The obtaining of salt became extremely difficult when the war had cut off our supply. This was true especially in regions remote from the sea-coast and border States, such as the interior of Alabama and Georgia. Here again we were obliged to have recourse to whatever expedient ingenuity suggested. All the brine left in troughs and barrels, where pork had been salted down, was carefully dipped up, boiled down, and converted into salt again. In some cases the salty soil under old smokehouses was dug up and placed in hoppers, which resembled backwoods ash-hoppers, [39] made for leaching ashes in the process of soap-manufacture. Water was then poured upon the soil, the brine which percolated through the hopper was boiled down to the proper point, poured into vessels, and set in the sun, which by evaporation completed the rude process. Though never of immaculate whiteness, the salt which resulted from these methods served well enough for all our purposes, and we accepted it without complaining.

Before the war there were in the South but few cotton mills. These were kept running night and day, as soon as the Confederate army was organized, and we were ourselves prevented by the blockade from purchasing clothing from the factories at the North, or clothing imported from France or England. The cotton which grew in the immediate vicinity of the mills kept them well supplied with raw material. Yet notwithstanding the great push of the cotton mills, they proved totally inadequate, after the war began, to our vast need for clothing of every kind. Every household now became a miniature factory in itself, with its cotton, cards, spinning-wheels, warping-frames, looms, and so on. Wherever [40] one went, the hum of the spinningwheel and the clang of the batten of the loom was borne on the ear.

Great trouble was experienced, in the beginning, to find dyes with which to color our stuffs; but in the course of time, both at the old mills and at smaller experimental factories which were run entirely by hand, barks, leaves, roots, and berries were found containing coloring properties. I was well acquainted with a gentleman in southwestern Georgia who owned a small cotton mill, and who, when he wanted coloring substances, used to send his wagons to the woods and freight them with a shrub known as myrtle, that grew teeming in low moist places near his mill. This myrtle yielded a nice gray for woolen goods.

That the slaves might be well clad, the owners kept, according to the number of slaves owned, a number of negro women carding and spinning, and had looms running all the time. Now and then a planter would be so fortunate as to secure a bale or more of white sheeting and osnaburgs from the cotton mills, in exchange for farm products, which would be quite a lift, and [41] give a little breathing-spell from the almost incessant whirr, hum, and clang of the spinning-wheel and loom.

Wide unbleached sheeting was also used for making dresses, and when dyed a deep solid color and tastefully made up the effect was quite handsome. On one occasion, when Mr. G-- had been fortunate in getting a bale of unbleached factory sheeting, Mrs. G-- gave to me, to her two oldest daughters, and a niece of hers, who was as one of the family, enough of the sheeting to make each one of us a dress. We had to hie us to the woods for coloring matter, to dye as each one pleased.

I have often joined with neighbors, when school hours for the day were over, in gathering roots, barks, leaves, twigs, sumach berries, and walnuts, for the hulls, which dyed wool a beautiful dark brown. Such was the variety we had to choose from, to dye our cloth and thread. We used to pull our way through the deep tangled woods, by thickly shaded streams, through broad fields, and return laden with the riches of the Southern forest! Not infrequently clusters of grapes mingled, with our freight of dyes. The pine-tree's roots [42] furnished a beautiful dye, approximating very closely to garnet, which color I chose for the sheeting for my dress. A strong decoction of the roots of the pine-tree was used. Copperas of our own production was was used as the mordant. A cask or some small vessel was set convenient to the dwelling-house and partly filled with water, in which a small quantity of salt and vinegar had been mingled; then pieces of rusty, useless iron, such as plows too much worn to be used again, rusty broken rails, old horse-shoes, and bits of old chains were picked up and cast into the cask. The liquid copperas was always ready, and a very good substance we found it to fix colors in cloth or thread. The sheeting for the dress was folded smoothly and basted slightly so as to keep the folds in place. It was first thoroughly soaked in warm soapsuds, then dipped into the dye, and afterwards into a vessel containing liquid lye from woodashes; then it went again into the dye, then the lye, and so on till the garnet color was the required shade. By varying the strength of the solution any shade desirable could be obtained. My garnet-colored dress of unbleached sheeting was often mistaken for worsted delaine. [43]

Many of the planters in southern Alabama began to grow wool on quite a large scale, as the war went on and no woolen goods could be had. All the woolen material that could be manufactured at the cotton mills was used to clothe our soldiers, so that all the varied kinds of woolen goods that hitherto had been used with us had now to be of home hand-make. In this we achieved entire success. All kinds of woolen goods-flannels both colored and white, plaids of bright colors, which we thought equal to the famed Scotch plaids; balmorals, which were then in fashionwere woven, with grave or gay borders as suited our fancy. Woolen coverlets and blankets were also manufactured. The woolen blankets were at first woven with the warp of cotton thread, but a woman of our settlement improved on that by weaving some blankets on the common house loom, both warp and woof of wool, spun by her own hands. The borders were bright red and blue, of texture soft and yielding; they were almost equal to those woven at a regular woolen mill. The process of weaving all-wool blankets with warp and woof hand-spun was quite tedious, yet it [44] was accomplished. Various kinds of twilled woolen cloth were also woven. In weaving coverlets, the weaver had the “draught” before her, to guide her in tramping the pedals and throwing the design of flower, vine, leaf, square, or diamond on the right side. Beautiful carpets also were made on the same plan as coverlets.

Many of the planters, after the shearing of their sheep, used to carry the wool to the nearest cotton mill and have it carded into rolls, to facilitate the making of woolen cloth; and often large quantities of lint cotton were hauled to the factories, to be carded into rolls to be spun at home. But carding rolls by common hand-cards was a rather slow and tiresome process.

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