WHEN THE LATE WAR IN ITS PROGRESS crippled
the Commerce of the Confederacy, causing a great decrease of obtainable
commodities, and raising their prices to enormous figures, the people of
the South were put sorely to their wits to find substitutes for necessaries
that were now beyond their reach.
John Keen, 1875
If she?d been one to think
about it much at all, Emmaline Blair Turner
would?ve said it was the boots she missed most.
Big, rough boots that laced
up the front. Thick soles. Large metal eyelets. Two pounds of worked and
sewn leather to keep her feet warm in winter
and protect them from the mud and ooze around
At almost 250 pounds, Emma Turner put a lot
of store in footwear. She was an enormous woman, not tall, not fat, but
assembled from the same stone blocks as her father. (The children
would later remember her as a huge woman with arms like
tree limbs that would enfold her glorious angels and draw them
into breasts as large and soft as sofa cushions.)
As she had before husband
Peter enlisted, Emma did most of the chopping, plowing, carrying, lifting
and moving around the farm. But her last pair of boots had fallen to pieces
from wear and there were no more to be bought. What boot leather was available
in Texas had gone to the army for saddles and harness. So now she wore
sabots, homemade shoes with carved wooden soles onto which coarse leather
uppers were tacked. They rubbed blisters on the tops of her toes and raised
painful red growths on the sides of her feet; her ankles would swell, and
the edges of the unfinished leather chafed her skin.
sabots were just one more "Confederate makeshift" that the Virginians in
Texas had to deal with.
Despite their location on
a barely-settled Texas prairie 700 miles from the nearest industrial center,
the Virginians before the war kept a sur-
prisingly catholic household. Increasing in - dustrialism
in the North, a developing rail transportation network and a strong federal
currency simplified national and international trade. They drank coffee
from beans that were shipped from Brazil, wrote letters on paper that had
been milled in Chicago, used sugar that had come from cane fields in Louisiana
and made clothes from fabric woven in Philadelphia. The Williams, Blairs
and Tuners enjoyed trade with
the world until the war cut off commerce with
the Northern states, then the coastal blockade stopped
shipments from abroad. When the
Union Army cut the Confederacy in half with the capture
of Vicksburg and the Mississippi Valley, the Confederate states were finally
trade with and support one another.
Emma had never been one to
spend her hog and egg money frivolously on things like bonnets and ribbons.
But it was hard now to spend money on anything that made life for her or
her glorious angels a little sweeter.
Shortages of items once taken
for granted affected the way Emma and the other new Texans clothed themselves,
fed themselves and spent their leisure time.
ONE BY ONE THE SOUTHERN PORTS went into the hands of
the enemy, lines of bayonets formed impassable barriers to trade, and thus
hemmed in, the Southerners were driven to the resources of their own section.
John Keen, 1875
Even as a marriageable miss
in Virginia, Emma Turner was rarely seen in fancy dress, and on the farm
in Texas she was apt to wear an oversized cotton duster or even a pair
of legged denim overalls. But before the war, when she did dress receiving
company, attending church, going into town she might have worn her favorite
fashion: a generously-cut black taffeta, scalloped at the waist, ornamented
with jet beads, and trimmed with under-jupe and sleeves of blue cashmere.
The dress had been sewn by
a seamstress in Sherman, but the materials bolts of taffeta and cashmere,
beads, buttons and underpinnings were shipped from the North. So, for the
duration of the war, there were no new hats and no new dresses.
Instead, Emma bartered for
raw cotton and spent more time with a needle and a loom to produce the
rough homespun fabric necessary to clothe her and her children. But there
were no longer commercial dyes available to impart color to the ashen-hued
homemade fabric. So Southern women scoured wood and meadow for black walnut
bark (which furnished a rich brown), wild indigo (for blue), pokeberries
(a bright solferino yellow), or sumac berries (for a durable magenta).
Emma cut dried gourds into circular disks and covered them with cloth for
use as buttons.
The children learned to plait
straw to make hats for themselves and their parents. Eleven -year-old Mollie
Turner became particularly adept at plaiting "old rough and ready"
a pointed braid woven with four straws and her nimble fingers could turn
out yard after yard of it on winter evenings. (It was a relaxing pastime,
like needlework, that she continued for the rest of her life.)
Wheat straw, being most plentiful
on the farm, was most used for durable outdoor hats; rye straw was longer,
whiter and better suited for plaiting. Children?s hats were made of the
inner shuck of Indian corn. And a fabric whose warp was the hair of horses?
tails and whose weft was green willow bark came from the loom like a coarse
paperboard and was made into sunbonnets and hats for ladies.
Emma Turner raised hogs,
which she slaughtered and sold for meat and fat, but there was a time during
the war years when the salt needed to preserve her hams and bacon became
as precious as gold. And, like gold, it was sought in the soil. She dug
out the earthen floor of her smokehouse and mixed it with water to create
a muddy brine. The brine was allowed to settle and evaporate in order to
recover the salt that had been wasted during more plentiful times.
(The Confederate government, recognizing
the importance of salt in preserving the meat needed to feed troops in
the field, nationalized the salt mines in eastern and coastal Texas. Companies
of men, representing counties and communities as far away as the Red River,
were organized to travel to the mines and harvest the mineral for themselves
and their neighbors.)
But the makeshift that most frustrated
Emma and her sister-in-law Lucy Ragsdale Blair was the search for a coffee
substitute. They were addicted to caffeine, as were their cousins in Virginia,
and many letters between them recommended recipes for the latest surrogate.
Rye and wheat were roasted and ground, but they were miserable substitutes;
parched cornmeal gave a sad suggestion of coffee. Chloe Blair wrote that
some women in Virginia had hit upon the idea of chipping and drying sweet
potatoes, and the Texas cousins tried that, too.
Even if coffee had been abundant,
it would?ve lacked the sweetener necessary to render it faultless. The
supply of sugar to Texas, diminished when the blockade ended imports from
Cuba, was halted altogether as Union troops drove down the Mississippi
River into the Louisiana cane fields. Once a common-enough household staple
sold in five-pound "loaves" wrapped in blue paper, sugar disappeared completely
from most Southern kitchens.
Emma managed to hide two loaves
from her family and parceled it out sparingly for the occasional birthday
cake or to mix with a particularly distasteful medicine. She bragged
in later years that she made two loaves of sugar last
more than two years.
Sugar was known as "short
sweetening", in contrast to sorghum, or "long sweetening". A tropical grass
with a spiky flower cluster of glossy grains, sorghum was just coming into
use on the Texas Plains as a fodder crop. Easy to grow and expecting little
from the soil, it was beginning to substitute for the acres of natural
grasses that had come under cultivation for cash crops. A thick brown syrup
derived from sorghum became, of necessity, a substitute for sugar, too.
During one of his furloughs,
Peter Turner had constructed a sorghum mill, two parallel hardwood cylinders
mounted with interlocking cogs in a wooden frame. One of the cylinders
extended outside the frame where a long handle was applied as a lever.
(The device was not unlike the wringer on a washing machine fifty years
The rude machine was mounted vertically
in the Turner?s farmyard, and a mule, hitched to the long handle, was employed
to walk a circular path to turn the rollers. The adopted Williams boys
John Fletcher and Will Henry fed the cane, stripped of its seed and fodder,
between the revolving cylinders. The juice ran into a bucket at the side
which Emma inspected for debris, then emptied into a large iron kettle.
After two days of collecting the juice, Emma and her glorious angels would
boil the liquid to produce gallons of the tar-like syrup, "long sweetener"
with a watery sweetness that was better than no sweetness at all.
The initial enlistment and
later conscription of men into uniform resulted in a shortage of physicians
to attend farm families. Manufactured drugs and medicines, rare before
the war, were virtually non-existent for civilians during the war years.
(In order to obtain much-needed opium, the Medical Department in Richmond
distributed flyers offering a bounty to women of the South who would cultivate
With help from an old medical text
and advice from friends, local Negroes and Indians, Emma learned to make
do with natural remedies. Blackberry root, oak bark, peppermint, peach
pits and elm leaves were ground, boiled or steeped into potions, lotions
or salves. Every source had a different recipe, and Emma tried them all.
Once, little Willie, then seven years old, came down with a case of the
croup that threatened to turn into pneumonia. Before the day was out Emma
had dosed him with boneset tea, fed him an expectorant made of sweet gum
and aloe, and bathed his feet in a hot wash of mullein leaves and mesquite
Emma never suffered a frail constitution.
Besides caring for her own six glorious angels and the two orphaned Williams
boys, she gave birth to two more babies during the war years. Before each
of the deliveries she went into the woods to gather poke leaves from which
she made a decoction that was said to ease the pain of childbirth.
Such "Confederate makeshifts"
required more work in a day, but provided less day and less light by which
to do it. Candles which required manufactured molds and resin to mix with
the wax were in short supply, if available at all. Once the sun set, she
begrudgingly burned resinous pine knots for light, but bemoaned the dark
and dingy walls that resulted from the smoky flame. The best light, Emma
believed, came from a little brass lamp that had been in her childhood
bedroom in Whitmell. It was one of the "pretties" she brought with her
from Virginia, and now she filled it with tallow rendered from her hogs.
At the end of the day Emma carried
her lamp through the cabin to be sure the glorious angels were asleep.
She lowered her bulk onto the bed and removed the wooden shoes, rubbing
at angry red corns on the sides of her callused feet. Finally, after a
short prayer, Emmaline Blair Turner, twenty-nine years old in 1863, blew
out the lamp and went to sleep alone in the darkness of the North Texas
prairie in the years of the War Between the States.