A Blockaded Family in Southern Alabama During the Civil War
by Parthenia Antoinette Hague (1888)
paperback; 176 pages
Though the title is erroneous (it was not a "civil war"), Parthenia Antoinette Hague's 1888 book A Blockaded Family: Life in Southern Alabama During the Civil War is worth a very careful read. Miss Hague begins in early summer of 1861, proceeds through the War of Northern Aggression, and then onto Reconstruction. Surprisingly, she located a Yankee publisher to accept the book, which is critical of the Union and its treatment of the South.
Frankly, considering the current state of the United States, its economy, and civil unrest, this is a must-read for those who need to be well-versed in how to "make do." Hague is so very thorough with her descriptions, she actually wrote a "how to do it" book and not just a "here's how we survived the blockade, war, and aftermath" kind of book. A schoolteacher before and during the infamous conflict, Hague is a craftswoman with words, making her readers feel as if they were alongside her through the turmoil and the ordeal.
A quarter century after the war, Hague recalls that she felt no glee with secession; her attitude was that war had been thrust upon them by invading Union forces. In other words, the South was fighting because the North invaded.
A Blockaded Family is filled with stories of the interaction between slaves and their owners, Negroes and Whites. In the first chapter, the author and friends prepare for the wedding of one of the "Negro girls." They spent time twining flowers and decorating the "big house" where the girl was to be married as a daughter would have been. The festivities included a big supper feast. The author's friend removed her own jewelry for the bride to wear and, because the planned-for preacher was late, an "old and honorable" Negro preacher ascended the pulpit for the ceremony. Hague's recollections reveal a friendly and familial setting.
Hague and others in the south Alabama village in which she taught and lived during this era soon felt the restricting bands of the blockade and the encroachment of invading Yankee troops as they incrementally edged throughout the South:
But soon it came home to us, as the earnestness of the strife began to be realized, and when we found ourselves encompassed by the Federal blockade, that we had to depend altogether upon our own resources; and no sooner had the stern facts of the situation forced themselves upon us, than we joined with zealous determination to make the best of our position, and to aid the cause our convictions impressed on us as right and just. And if up to that time, in the South, many had engaged in work purely as a matter of choice, there were none, even the wealthiest, who had not been taught that labor was honorable, and who had very clear ideas of how work must be done; so when our misfortunes came, we were by no means found wanting in any of the qualities that were necessary for our changed circumstances (page 14).
And the work was plenty: feed and clothe soldiers, civilians, and slaves – from scratch:
The huge bales of kerseys, osnaburgs, and boxes of heavy brogan-shoes, which had been shipped from the North to clothe and shoe the slaves, were things of the past. Up to the beginning of the war we had been dependent on the North for almost everything eaten and worn. Cotton was cultivated in the South almost universally before the war, it was marketed in the North, it was manufactured there, and then returned in various kinds of cloth-material to us (page 15).
Hague recalls that it was without murmuring that her village went to work for the "giant emergency" (p. 16). The Confederate government stepped in with crop requirements and taxes to support the soldiers. Things not cultivated much before the war were now sown in earnest for people and animals including chufa, ground peas (goobers), peas, nuts (grown even in orchards between the trees), wheat, rye, rice, oats, corn, and pumpkins. Chickens lived in the chufa plots, eating morning till night.
Threshing the wheat and preparing the rice required the Southerners to improvise and be inventive, and that same ingenuity Hague records over and over: watermelon juice for sugar; homemade castor oil; ways to extract hard-to-obtain salt; tanning hog, dog, mule, and horse hide for leather; and hog bristles for paintbrushes.
"Every household now became a miniature factory in itself," Hague writes, noting the teamwork and "pleasant rivalry" in the home production of thread for cloth and clothing. In their "hedged-around situation," they found the woods to be a "great storehouse" where the women obtained indigo mud for dyes, dogwood tree berries for quinine, blackberry roots for a cordial for dysentery, and more. She notes that every garden included poppies from which they made opium for laudanum. Villagers saved oat straw and cornhusks to be woven for hats. Goose feathers with whittled handles served as fans, and served well apparently since Hague mentioned that her handiwork sold for $10 to $20 each in town.
As soon as a new need arose, it was "not long ere some one found out" a way to meet that need. "Old ways" of doing things came back into vogue: spinning, weaving, shoe making, pottery making, rope making, and the like. Sewing clothes by hand was a must since the homemade thread was not fine enough for the sewing machines of that day. Slave owners sewed for their servants first, Hague noted. Sharing the labors by these community activities helped keep the war at bay, at least for a time.
Even in their circumstances, the "home folk" shunned a hardened "get by" attitude and instead strove to create a sweet and loving environment for home and hearth. Homemade shoes got extra attention to detail with bits of cloth remnants fashioned into flowers or decoration. This was a solid attempt by all – rich and poor, slave and free – to overcome hardship by as pleasant means as possible. The villagers surrounding Hague seemed to have taken in stride the lack and deprivation, and kept their good attitude and sense of humor. There were no pampered Hollywood-envisioned Southern Belles in Eufaula, Alabama – only grit personified:
I often wonder how we were able so quickly to adapt ourselves to the great changes rendered necessary in our modes of life by the blockade. But be it remembered that the Southerners who were so reduced and so compelled to rely entirely upon their own resources belonged to the Anglo-Saxon race, a race which, despite all prating about "race equality," has civilized America. The reflection to which memory gives rise when I recall war times in the South is this, that "blood will tell" (page 97).
Does the reader want to know suitable substitutes for coffee, tea, cement/putty, candles, and kerosene? Read Hague's 176-page paperback, which provides, alongside the myriad "how to's," anecdotal information on bartering, non-slave owning Whites, Negroes and Whites all worshiping together at church, how Southerners attempted to keep valuables safe from scavenging Union troops, how the North incited slaves to rise up and murder whites, and yet how, when Yankee troops came into town, Negroes and Whites hid together, one having no fear of the other. She also fires off a response to the Northern journals that castigated the South for not feeding Union prisoners in a better manner: "But I ask in all candor, how could it be otherwise, hemmed in as the South was?" (page 132) Her ending pages recount some of the wanton destruction Yankee soldiers perpetrated upon Southern women and children, her return to her father's home, and a few thoughts on how the South survived Reconstruction.
- reviewed by Deborah Deggs Cariker