by Kay L. Grondahl
Throughout time, women traditionally "maintained the home fires" while their men have gone off to fight wars. With the Civil War, in particular the area known for the Border Wars that changed. Women were no longer safely tucked away by distance. Instead they were on the front lines along with their men folk. While the women of both the Union and Confederacy faced similar problems, it was the ‘southern’ woman who showed remarkable stamina when necessary.
The ‘southern’ woman of the border states were for the most part used to toil and hardship. They along with their families were from families who had come from the likes of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky. They were honest, hard-working people who desired nothing more than to tend to their business and raise their families. They were mostly the daughters or wives of the working class, such as farmers, cattlemen, carpenters, etc.
With the issuing of Orders #9 and #10, and finally Order #11 – women and children became causalities of a war never before seen in this country. When the ‘war dogs’ were turned loose, men left their homes-women were left behind to deal with fortune or misfortune as it came. The words ‘Jayhawker’, ‘Home Guard’, or ‘Federal’ struck fear in the heart of these women! To understand some of what these brave women went through, you must understand what Orders #9-11 did to the citizens of Missouri. The infamous Order #11 was the most legendary order of the war given in that part of the country. From this order, General Sherman got his idea for his brutal march to the sea.
I want to tell the story of typical Missouri southern women. Until hostilities started her life was that of the typical woman. She took care of her family, tending to home and hearth. When the men folk (fathers, husbands, brothers, and sons) left to join the numerous Missouri State Guard (sometimes called ‘bushwhackers’), this woman was forced to tend not only to the home and remaining children, but also the fields and livestock. Plus she had to protect this with her very life against the dreaded Federals.
This woman would see armed troops (either Federals of Jayhawkers) ride to her home at any time of the day or night. There were instances of the Federals demanding a meal. This woman would prepare and serve a meal, realizing to refuse would bring the rage of the troops down upon her house! There were cases of after the meal; this brave woman would see her men folk taken into custody on the charge of being ‘a southern’. Unknown to these women until later, their loved ones were shot when the group got few miles from the home! Groups of Federals or Jayhawkers would show up at her home and search for ‘southerners’, taking into custody any crops, livestock, males, and anything else they found.
Silver, gold, jewelry, bedding, wearing apparel and furniture were among the items stripped from their homes. Often these homes were then burned to the ground, leaving the women and their children with not much more than the clothes on their backs to survive. Patchwork quilts were ripped off the beds of both slave and slave owner, sometimes off the beds occupied by invalids.
At the beginning of the hostilities, groups would surround a house at night, knocking on the door. When the head of the household-usually the husband answered the door- he was shot dead in the doorway. One example of this happening was the James family at Liberty, MO. When Mr. James answered the door one evening he was taken out and hung in front of his wife and young son, Jesse.
This gave way to women answering the doors while the men hid in various places in the homes until they could join the Missouri State Guard. Men would return home usually only under the cover of darkness and be gone before the morning light. Occasionally, they would be home along enough for a meal before returning to the woods and their units.
To feed her family, women had to hide the food, keeping only the barest of essentials in sight in case of raiding parties. Also hidden were livestock as well as the harvest of the fields and any family valuables.
One woman after her husband had managed to harvest the corn and loaded into a barn ran out to put a padlock on the one unlocked door. When Federals approached and ordered to open the barn to his troops, this brave woman with not thought of her safety, stood in front of the door armed only with a hand axe! Whether because of her stance, the look of determination in her face and words, or because of the ax; the Federals decided against looting this particular barn. Another woman was shot as she attempted to shield her bedridden husband from the Federals. This woman never walked again without the aid of crutches.
Women were arrested for no more than having a son or husband in the Confederacy. These women soon learned the art of war. Items like material, food, money, bibles, and letter were among the items considered ‘contraband’ by the Federals. Anyone caught smuggling these across Union lines faced the possibility of being arrested and shot or hung. Women learned to hide a multitude of ‘contraband’ in various places. One woman, upon hearing that Gen. Sterling Price needed quinine and morphine, wore the bottles of the medicine in her rolls of velvet hairpiece.
Women were arrested and given no time to arrange for the business of maintaining their home or the care of their children. They rarely had time to gather a few items before being sent to any number of prisons in the state. It is one such case that started the ball rolling which ended with the raid on Lawrence.
Women would cut flannel into shirts and wear the material under their skirts. Many a woman gained 5-25 pounds when they went out. Ingenuity was used when these women smuggled goods to the guerrilla forces. Women were often detained or arrested if Federals even ‘suspected’ they were smuggling contraband. Some women were arrested and jailed for no more than a rumor of being a southern supporter.
In their part of the long war, southern women proved themselves glorious heroines in many ways. They fought with what was available to them, mainly their wits and desire to help their loved ones in a cause they all believed in. These are women who saw their homes and farms burned to the ground; their loved ones tortured, held prisoner, shot, and hung sometimes before the eyes of their children. These women should be remembered for their extraordinary strength and courage to face an enemy who destroyed their way of life.