Aunt Katy's Civil War Tale
At home Ma and Aunt Mary enjoyed their housekeeping except for the nagging worry about Pa and their brothers. They had three rooms over Uncle Wes' store. The sitting room was in front with horse-hair sofa and chairs and a hand-painted, glass-globed oil lamp on the table beside the picture album.
The bedroom had a high headboarded bedstead, two dressers, a wash stand and a curtained corner to hang clothes in. There was a small iron cookstove in the kitchen, cupboards, table and chairs, and a dry sink beside which stood pails of water drawn from the well in the courtyard below. As they boiled coffee and made their breakfast they could hear the horses being tended and the stage horses being harnessed up.
Ma and Aunt Min got up early each morning, five o'clock or so, to tidy their rooms and fix breakfast before Min left for her duties at the inn and Ma went down to dust up the store which opened at seven.
Aunt Min did chamber work and waited on table at the inn. It was there that she met Bea, a tall, willowy blonde girl with huge deep-blue eyes and a voice like an angel. It was her voice that interested Aunt Min at first for she and Ma missed Aunt Mary's high soprano in ther evening singing. So the three became good friends and would make a late supper and sing together over their letters and mending. That was how Ma and Aunt Min got the idea of having Uncle Lonzo write to Bea. They always said her voice was too good to let escape from the family. The three girls sang at church and parties and even at benefits held to raise money for the Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission which supplied food and comforts to the soldiers when they could.
Imagine the two young women ready for work, Ma's red curls tucked into a bun at the nape of her neck and Aunt Min's russet braids wound tightly around her head. They each wore one heavily starched muslin petticoat and two or three other petticoats under their dark dresses, saving their hoops for Sundays and parties.
Aunt Min wore a large white apron over her black dress and Ma wore a coverall apron to dust up the store and one of black silk to wait on trade. Their shoes buttoned high over their ankles and had low heels but they were glad to get into carpet slippers come evening.
Dresses were made with a normal waistline, some bodices were pointed, others plain or cut in tabs which lay over the skirt. Bodices were high at the neck and fitted snugly. Skirts were up to five yards around, sometimes having a band of crinoline six to fifteen inches wide around the hem to stiffen them. Very daring young women might wear walking costumes which showed up to eight inches of their high boot tops, but most ladies wore skirts that just cleared the floor for daytime and right down to the floor for dress. Sleeves were sometimes plain and long, of course, but the fashion was for bell shaped sleeves worn over a brighter colored fitted sleeve or a full lawn undersleeve gathered at the wrist.
For outdoor wear there were mantles decorated with braided designs or shot-silk capes with long pointed fronts heavily fringed. Most women had a Paisley shawl or tassel trimmed woolen cape and hood to keep off the cold.
Ma took her dinner at the inn as did Uncle Wes, and usually went to the post office first to see if there were any letters from Pa or the boys. The two girls had a light buggy and the use of one of Uncle Wes' horses to drive home on Sunday as Pa's horses were turned out at the farm. Grandma kept their laundry done up and always had baked stuff for them to take back with them.
For the most part life went on as before in the Northern villages. Of course most of the young men and many older ones were gone and the newspaper bulletin board was watched carefully for the war news and casualty lists. But in our small town there were no Copperheads, an uncomplimentary name for Southern sympathizers, nor rabid Abolitionists. Men enlisted willingly or accepted the draft calls with good grace so there was no chance of riots such as occcured in protest of the draft in New York and other big cities.
Prices of food stuffs went up in some cases; tea, sugar, coffee, and flour for example. Cotton yard goods became scarce and higher in price. And coins, too, became scarce being in demand for paying the army and also because people distrusted paper money. Many stage lines, restaurants, horse-car lines, and ferrys issued "shin plasters" as a result. These were notes in denominations of 5, 10, 25, 50, and 75 cents showing that the bearer had a credit of that amount at that certain establishment and were freely exchangable.
The government had trouble financing the war and the soldiers went months at a time without pay. Ma and Aunt Min often sent stamps to their soldiers and sometimes money orders too. Uncle Lonzo's diary is sprinkled with references to lending, borrowing, and repaying sums of money.
Many people in the North were not as fortunate as my family. Husbands and fathers often went off into the army leaving their families with no means of support. Women and children could hardly make farming pay and many underwent severe privations, facing starvation daily at times. One mother, Ma told about, grew so heart-sick at her children's begging for food that she put stones in the ashes of the fireplace, telling them they were potatos which could be eaten when they baked. Often they made stews of potato leaves and other grasses. Anything to fill empty stomachs.
Of course the men sent most of their pay home when they got any but if they were killed there was no provision made at first to help surviving families. After the war, pensions and other benefits were made available.
As it is on a direct route to the lakes and Canada, our town was a stop on the Underground Railway. In fact Uncle Wes many times picked up a passenger or two from one side of town, brought them to the store in his covered grocery wagon and hid them in a room in the cellar. After a day or two during which Ma would feed the fugitives and provide clothing if necessary, Uncle Wes would take them on out the other side of town to the next stop.
Poor, tired, frightened creatures that they were, these contrabands, as run-away slaves were called, still had hope of a better life in their hearts and the light of freedom in their eyes. Quiet and uncomplaining, Ma said they were, no matter how ill or under what conditions they had to hide.
Nothing was ever said in either Ma's or Pa's letters about this part of their lives tho Pa must have known about it at least after he and the boys came home on furlough in March.