I am a former teacher in North Carolina and Indiana. My areas are history and English. I wrote a poem about an imaginary family during the 1860s immediately before and during the Civil War. Unfortunately, history seems to have forgotten the hardships suffered by the women during that time-period. The majority of the men who fought for the South were small and medium-sized farmers who never participated in the slave trade. They were fighting either because of the unfair tariffs levied when they sold their crops to the North or because their states drafted them. The movie Cold Mountain illustrates what happened if they dodged the draft of the Southern states or if they deserted, and Mammy is a reference to the fact that only the very rich had an enslaved person in their family as their “Mammy.” So, this is a nod to the women at home, who put in the crops and did so much more to survive during the hard times of the American Civil War.
Non-Gentry Life in the 1860s in Georgia Heat
I toured an antebellum house in Georgia—
one that Sherman didn’t burn—
set among ancient ash parasols.
Armed with a hallway, running front door to back,
the opposing doors were propped open in summertime
to capture prevailing winds for intermittent relief.
Upstairs—with four bedrooms
and no porches where they could sleep—
I imagined inhabitants lay smouldering*
at night; men with knives or loaded guns at hand,
kept one eye open to save their lives
in case bears or wolves or worse wandered in.
Mornings, they likely dressed, tied back hair,
emptied chamber pots,
chopped wood, rekindled fires,
gathered eggs, baked bread,
fried meat, and fetched water
from the well or creek.
They bathed—mixing boiling water with fresh—
in pitchers they carried themselves to bedroom basins—
scrubbing heartily with homemade soap.
Mammy wasn’t there to tie corsets they didn’t wear
with chore dresses, and nobody fanned the young ladies
during afternoon naps.
On a typical day, one might find . . .
women and girls wringing chicken necks, plucking feathers,
boiling linens and clothes outdoors in huge cast iron pots,
cooking, cleaning, baking, or canning.
Boys and men and women, due to the war, might slaughter
hogs, cure hams, repair tools, plow, plant, or harvest crops.
All cared for livestock.
When the sun went down, ladies mended, family
conversed. Guided by candles, they climbed stairs
to beds, lying down exhausted
another night; women with knives or loaded guns
on bed stands, kept one eye open to save their lives
in case hungry wolves or thieves wandered in.
Fanning themselves, they prayed for next-day strength
and for more hours sleep than they likely got
before the rooster crowed.
*Taken from Sherman’s memoirs: “Behind us lay Atlanta,
smouldering and in ruins, the black smoke rising high in air,
and hanging like a pall over the ruined city.”