Women in Civil War Texas: Diversity and Dissidence in the Trans-Mississippi
Edited by Deborah M. Liles and Angela Bosworth
Texas was unique in the Southern Confederacy. It was a young state with a volatile past; Spanish law, Chickasaw law, and laws of the Texas Republic still had limited applicability. The western border was subject to Comanche and Kiowa raids; to the south lay Mexico with its laws forbidding slavery. The Texas population included rough-hewn settlers, Tejanos, and mixed-race couples who had escaped to Texas while it was under Mexican rule. For women of Texas, the battles in the eastern states felt far away.
Women in Civil War Texas: Diversity and Dissidence in the Trans-Mississippi is a collection of nine essays edited by Deborah M. Liles of the University of North Texas and Angela Boswell of Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. Together, the essays, all by different authors, have a striking impact, illuminating the variety of experiences Texan women faced during the war.
At the outbreak of hostilities, most Texan women were wildly patriotic, as were there counterparts across the Big River. They supported their men by knitting socks, preparing cartridges, sewing uniforms, tents, and flags. The latter were presented with great ceremony, often with young girls dressed in white representing the seceded states. Men reluctant to fight were treated with feminine scorn and derision- until they enlisted. In the beginning, it was all excitement.
The reality of men fighting far afield resulted in the assumption of unfamiliar responsibilities for women left at home. North and South, women developed new skills as they managed farms, conducted business, and responded to crises. Additionally, they endured the terrible anxiety over their soldier husbands, sons, brothers, and sweethearts. In 1863, Caroline Sedberry of Bosque County, five months pregnant, received the devastating news that her husband had died and been buried in an Arkansas grave. Caroline’s previous letters to her husband, William, had detailed her trials and insecurities. With William’s counsel and encouragement, Caroline cared for her family successfully despite the Union Naval Blockade, inflation, dishonest traders, and an outbreak of measles among her five children. After his death, Caroline’s voice falls silent, but records show that she maintained her farm during the lean Reconstruction years.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, the day Texas slaves were officially emancipated. At that time, the African-American population numbered approximately 250,000; these included roughly 51,000 slaves who had been brought to Texas for safekeeping during the war. Mary Lindsay, a slave in Fannin County recalled the arrival of slaveholders: “They was whole families of them with they children and they slaves along, and they was coming in from every place because the Yankees was getting in their part of the country.”
Texas Reports, decisions of the Texas Supreme Court from the ante- to postbellum years, offer intriguing glimpses into the lives of black women, free and enslaved. Mixed-race marriage, legal under Mexican law, had been outlawed by the Texas Republic in 1837. In 1851, however, Judge Abner Lipscomb ruled that the common-law marriage of Adam Smith and Margaret Gess made Margaret a free woman after his death: she had been recognized as such under Spanish law. Afterwards, a lower court gave Margaret rights to her husband’s property. Many cases concerned the possession or manumission of slaves, and the status of free blacks who were granted residency by the Ashworth Act of 1840, but were denied it by a legislative ban in 1858.
Mexican-Texans, Tejanos, had to adjust to American governance in 1836; by 1861, they were faced with an American war. Although 97% never left Texas, almost 3,700 Tejanos joined the Confederate Army or the Texas State Militia. When Federal troops occupied the Lower Rio Grande Valley in 1863-64, nearly a thousand joined the Union Army. For some Tejanas, the war proved profitable as the naval blockade resulted in a burgeoning cotton trade with Mexico; others struggled with poverty, food shortages and fear of Indian raids. Those that were able, worked as washerwomen, ranch workers, and domestic servants.
A third population sub-group were the German immigrants of the 1840s. Thousands settled in the Hill Country, and many favored the Union cause. In heavily German-Texan Kerr County, 61% of voters opposed secession. When the Confederate Government passed the Conscription Act, a number of German-Texan men attempted to leave Texas for Mexico. At the tragic Battle of the Nueces, Aug. 10, 1862, soldiers from the Texas Mounted Rifles surrounded sixty-two escaping Unionists; all but six were German-Texans. Of the thirty-six that were killed fifteen were from the small German-Texan community of Comfort. It was left to wives and daughters to claim their bodies.
Unionist sentiment in North Texas led to the Gainesville hangings in Cooke County. Forty-one men were convicted of treason against the Confederacy and executed, apparently in the presence of their families. America Jane Dawson later recalled that as a three-year-old, she went with her mother to retrieve her father’s body, and “saw children kicking at his corpse lying in the street.”
As the Union Army invaded and occupied more and more of the South, slaveholding families sought a haven for themselves and their slaves in Texas. Cultural conflicts between the female refugees and native Texan women sprang up immediately. Louisianan Eliza McHattan Ripley found shelter with a family who shared their home with chickens and pigs; of her bed, Eliza wrote, “I think there were a million of cimices lectuarii (bedbugs) in it.” On the other hand, Martha Ingram of Hill County said of the refugees, “I think they are too mutch (sic) on the high feluting (sic) order for this country.”
The final chapter, Not Your Typical Southern Belles considers the fate of women on the Texas frontier. When the war started, Federal troops who had been stationed in that area were withdrawn, leaving the small, primitive settlements defenseless against Indian raids. Dr. Liles explains that the number of buffalo had dwindled due to reckless hunting by white men, and there was competition between Indians and West Texas settlers for wild horses and cattle. Furthermore, Union and Confederate units replenished their livestock from the large herds in Indian Territory which inevitably led to more Indian raids. The Confederate Government recognized that frontier families needed protection and created the First Texas Mounted Rifles. After one year, the Frontier Regiment was formed which included men from the region. However, there were fewer men on patrol than before the war.
Sara Harkley Hall’s invaluable Surviving on the Texas Frontier: The Journal of a Frontier Orphan in San Saba County, 1852-1907 describes making-do during the war years. Sara learned to knit using two pieces of straw. She recounts a soldier’s visit when, to her embarrassment, she was wearing her father’s shirt because her only dress was being laundered. Sara and her eight siblings had pluck. They harvested wild pecans, sold them, and bought calico, sugar, and coffee with their earnings. Abundant wild grapes, were gathered and made into wine. Those sold it for seventy-five cents a quart. Survival was a family effort on the Texas frontier.
Women in Civil War Texas will please a multitude of readers with its intriguing tales. Texas soldiers were among General Robert E. Lee’s elite units in The Army of Northern Virginia, but their native state was worlds away from the Eastern Theatre. The essays in this volume will spur interest in the experience of Texas civilians while the war that would determine their future was fought far from home.
Title: Women in Civil War Texas: Diversity and Dissidence in the Trans-Mississippi
Editors: Deborah M. Liles and Angela Boswell
Publisher: University of North Texas Press