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Social life in Richmond during the war. [from the Cosmopolitan, December, 1891.

by Edward M. Alfriend.
For many months after the beginning of the war between the States Richmond was an extremely gay, bright, and happy city. Except that its streets were filled with handsomely-attired officers and that troops constantly passed through it, there was nothing to indicate the horrors or sorrows of war, or the fearful deprivations that subsequently befell it. As the war progressed its miseries tightened their bloody grasp upon the city, happiness was nearly destroyed, and the hearts of the people were made to bleed.

During the time of McClellan's investment of Richmond, and the seven days fighting between Lee's army and his own, every cannon that was fired could be heard in every home in Richmond, and as every home had its son or sons at the front in Lee's army, it can be easily understood how great was the anguish of every mother's heart in the Confederate capital. These mothers had cheerfully given their sons to the southern cause, illustrating, as they sent them forth to battle, the heroism of the Spartan mother, who, when she gave her son his shield, told him to return with or on it.

Happy phases to social life.

And yet, during the entire war, Richmond had happy phases to its social life. Entertainments were given very freely and very liberally the first year of the war, and at them wine and suppers were generously furnished, but as the war progressed all this was of necessity given up, and we had instead what were called ‘starvation parties.’

The young ladies of the city, accompanied by their male escorts (generally Confederate officers on leave) would assemble at a fashionable residence that before the war had been the abode of wealth, and have music and plenty of dancing, but not a morsel of food or a drop of drink was seen. And this form of entertainment became the popular and universal one in Richmond. Of course no food or wine was served simply because the host could not get it, or could [381] not afford it. And at these starvation parties the young people of Richmond and the young army officers assembled and danced as brightly and as happily as though a supper worthy of Lucullus awaited them.

The ladies were simply dressed, many of them without jewelry, because the women of the South had given their jewelry to the Confederate cause. Often on the occasion of these starvation parties some young southern girl would appear in an old gown belonging to her mother or grand-mother, or possibly a still more remote ancestor, and the effect of the antique garment was very peculiar; but no matter what was worn, no matter how peculiarly any one might beattired, no matter how bad the music, no matter how limited the host's or hostess's ability to entertain, everybody laughed, danced, and was happy, although the reports of the cannon often boomed in their ears, and all deprivation, all deficiencies were looked on as a sacrifice to the southern cause.

The dress of a grandmother.

I remember going to starvation party during the war with a Miss M., a sister of Amelie Rives's mother. She wore a dress belonging to her great-grandmother or grandmother, and she looked regally handsome in it. She was a young lady of rare beauty, and as thoroughbred in every feature of her face or pose and line of her body as a reindeer, and with this old dress on she looked as though the portrait of some ancestor had stepped out of its frame.

Such spectacles were very common at our starvation parties. On one occasion I attended a starvation party at the residence of Mr. John Enders, an old and honored citizen of Richmond, and, of course, there was no supper. Among those present was Willie Allan, the second son of the gentleman, Mr. John Allan, who adopted Edgar Allan Poe, and gave him his middle name. About one o'clock in the morning he came to one other gentleman and myself, and asked us to go to his home just across the street, saying he thought he could give us some supper. Of course, we eagerly accepted his invitation and accompanied him to his house. He brought out a half dozen cold mutton chops and some bread, and we had what was to us a royal supper. I spent the night at the Allan home, and slept in the same room with Willie Allan. The next morning there was a tap on the door, and I heard the mother's gentle voice calling: ‘Willie, Willie.’ He answered, ‘Yes, mother; what is it?’ And she replied: [382] ‘Did you eat the mutton chops last night?’ He answered, ‘Yes,’ when she said: ‘Well, then, we haven't any breakfast.’

Frightful contrasts.

The condition of the Allan household was that of all Richmond. Sometimes the contrasts that occurred in these social gayeties in Richmond were frightful, ghastly. A brilliant, handsome, happy, joyous young officer, full of hope and promise, would dance with a lovely girl, return to his command; a few days would elapse, another starvation party would occur; the officer would be missed, he would be asked for, and the reply came, ‘Killed in battle;’ and frequently the same girls with whom he had danced a few nights before would attend his funeral from one of the churches of Richmond. Can life have any more terrible antithesis than this?

A Georgia lady was once remonstrating with General Sherman against the conduct of some of his men, when she said: ‘General, this is barbarity,’ and General Sherman, who was famous for his pregnant epigrams, replied: ‘Madam, war is barbarity.’ And so it is.

On one occasion when I was attending a starvation party in Richmond the dancing was at its height and everybody was bright and happy, when the hostess, who was a widow, was suddenly called out of the room. A hush fell on everything, the dancing stopped, and every one became sad, all having a premonition in those troublous times that something fearful had happened. We were soon told that her son had been killed late that evening in a skirmish in front of Richmond, a few miles from his home.

Wounded and sick men and officers were constantly brought into the homes of the people of Richmond to be taken care of, and every home had in it a sick or wounded Confederate soldier. From the association thus brought about many a love affair occurred and many a marriage resulted. I know of several wives and mothers in the South who lost their hearts and won their soldier husbands in this way, so this phase of life during the war near Richmond was prolific of romance.

General Lee kissed the girls.

General Robert E. Lee would often leave the front, come into Richmond, and attend these starvation parties, and on such occasions he was not only the cynosure of all eyes, but the young ladies [383] all crowded around him, and he kissed every one of them. This was esteemed his privilege, and he seemed to enjoy the exercise of it. On such occasions he was thoroughly urbane, but always the dignified patrician soldier in his bearing.

Private theatricals were also a form of amusements during the war. I saw several of them. The finest I witnessed, however, was a performance of Sheridan's comedy, The Rivals, in which that brilliant lady, Mrs. Senator Clay, of Alabama, played Mrs. Malaprop. Her rendition of the part was one of the best I ever saw, rivalling that of any professional. The audience was very brilliant, the President of the Confederacy, Mr. Davis, Judah P. Benjamin, and others of equal distinction being present.

Mrs. Davis is a woman of great intellectual powers and a social queen, and at these entertainments she was very charming. Mr. Davis was always simple, unpretentious, and thoroughly cordial in his manner. To those who saw him on these occasions it was impossible to associate his gentle, pleasing manner with the stern decision with which he was then directing his side of the greatest war of modern times. The world has greatly misunderstood Mr. Davis and in no way more than in personal traits of his character. My brother, the late Frank H. Alfriend, was Mr. Davis's biographer, and through. him and through personal intercourse with Mr. Davis, I knew him well. In all his social, domestic, and family relations he was the gentlest, the noblest, the tenderest of men. As a father and husband he was almost peerless, for his domestic life was the highest conceivable.

Leaders in social life.

Mr. Davis, at the Executive Mansion, held weekly receptions, to which the public were admitted. These continued until nearly the end of the war. The occasions were not especially marked, but Mr.Davis and Mrs. Davis were always delightful hosts.

Conspicuous figures in the social life of Richmond during the war were the accomplished and learned Judah P. Benjamin: the silver-tonged orator, William L. Yancey, of Alabama; the profound logician and great constitutional lawyer, Ben. Hill, of Georgia; the able, eloquent, and benevolent Alexander H. Stephens, also of Georgia; the voluble but able Henry S. Foote, of Mississippi; the polished William Porcher Miles, of South Carolina; ex-President John Tyler, of Virginia; the present Senator Vest, of Missouri, and the proximity of the army to Richmond rendered it possible for General Jeb Stuart, [384] A. P. Hill, John Bankhead Magruder, Joseph E. Johnston, and other officers of distinction to contribute their contingent to its brilliant intellectual life during that sanguinary period.

Benjamin, Stephens, Yancey and Hill.

I have never known a man socially more fascinating than Judah P. Benjamin. He was in his attainments a veritable Admiral Crichton, and I think, excepting G. P. R. James, the most brilliant, fascinating conversationalist I have ever known. He was a great social lion in Richmond during the war, and always shone most brilliantly whenever occasion gave him the opportunity. Mr. Benjamin loved a good dinner, a good glass of wine, and revelled in the delights of fine Havana cigars. Indeed, even while Richmond was in a state of siege he was never without them.

That great and good man, Alexander H. Stephens, of Georgia, in consequence of his feeble health, mingled little in the social life of Richmond. He went out only among a few friends, but his tender, loving, benevolent heart was constantly doing good offices among the sick and wounded Confederate soldiers. His tall, frail figure frequently wended its way through the streets of Richmond with packages of such little delicacies under his arm as he could procure, and when thus seen the remark was always made: ‘There goes Mr. Stephens to a hospital.’

William L. Yancey, of Alabama, was also very quiet in his tastes, but mingled a good deal in the social life of the Confederate capitol. He posessed a finely developed head, with a broad, almost massive, forehead. His eyes were a large and lustrous blue, and his manner very gentle and exquisitely refined. His voice was as sweet in some of its notes as a strain of music from a lute, and would swell when speaking to the deep, rich tones of a church organ. Mr. Yancey was an extreme southern man, and was always viewed by the North as a ‘fire-eater’ of the most violent type, but to those who saw him socially he was the gentlest of men, the most considerate, courteous, well-bred of gentlemen—was the embodiment of the highest type of southern chivalry.

Ben. Hill, of Georgia, was very fond of society, and went out a great deal. His nature was pre-eminently companionable, kindly and tender. In his social life he was kind, unpretentious, most fascinating intellectually, fond of a good joke, and possessed a most genial nature.


John Wise and his Big clothes.

The spectacle presented at the social gatherings, particularly the starvation parties, was picturesque in the extreme. The ladies often took down the damask and other curtains and made dresses of them. My friend, the Hon. John S. Wise, formerly of Virginia, now of New York, tells the following story of himself: He was serving in front of Richmond and was invited to come into the city to attend a starvation party. Having no coat of his own fit to wear, he borrowed one from a brother officer nearly twice his height. The sleeves of this coat covered his hands entirely, the skirt came below his knees several inches, and the two buttons in the back were down on his legs. So attired, Captain Wise went to the party. His first partner in the dance was a young lady of Richmond belonging to one of its best families. She was attired in the dress of her great-grandmother, and a part of this dress was a stomacher very aggressive in its proportions. Captain Wise relates with exquisite humor that in the midst of the dance he found himself in front of a mirror, and that the sight presented by himself and his partner was so ridiculous that he burst out laughing; and his partner turned and looked at him angrily, left his side, and never spoke to him again.

Contrasts that were pretty.

The varied and sometimes handsome uniforms of the Confederate officers commingling with each other and contrasting with the simple, pretty, sometimes antiquated dresses of the ladies, made pictures that were beautiful in their contrasts of color and of tone. An artist would have found in these scenes infinite opportunity for his bencil or brush,

I am sure that this phase of social life in Richmond during the war is without parallel in the world's history. The army officers, of course, had only their uniforms, and the women wore whatever they could get to wear.

In the last year of the war, particularly the last few months, the pinch of deprivation, especially as to food, became fearful. There were many families in Richmond that were in well nigh a starving condition. I know of some that lived for days on pea soup and bread. Confederate money was almost valueless. Its purchasing power had so depreciated that it used to be said it took a basketful [386] to go to market. Of course, the people had very few greenbacks, and very little gold or silver. The city was invested by two armies, Grant's and Lee's, and its railroad communications constantly destroyed by the Union cavalry. Supplies of food were very scarce and enormously costly; a barrel of flour cost several hundred dollars in Confederate money, and just before the fall of the Confederacy I paid $500 for a pair of heavy boots. The suffering of this period was dreadful, and when Richmond capitulated many of its people were in an almost starving condition. Indeed, there was little food outside, and the Southern troops were but little better off.

Loyalty of the slaves.

But in April, 1865, the Confederacy ceased to exist; it passed into history, and Richmond was occupied by the Northern army. Many of its people were without food and without money—I mean money of the United States. It was at this period that the colored people of Richmond, slaves up to the time the war ended, but now no longer bondsmen, showed their loyalty and love for their former masters and mistresses. They, of course, had access to the commissary of the United States, and many, very many, of these former negro slaves, went to the United States commissary, obtained food seemingly for themselves, and took it in basketfuls to their former owners, who were without food or money. I do not recall any record in the world's history nobler than this—indeed, equal to it.

These are memories of a dead past, and thank God! we now live under the old flag and in a happy, reunited country, which the South loves with a patriotic devotion unsurpassed by the North itself.

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