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The Women of Petersburg from “Southern Soldier Stories” by George Cary Eggleston

The Women of Petersburg from 
“Southern Soldier Stories” 
George Cary Eggleston

WE went into Petersburg in June, 1864, with the horses at a brisk trot, and the men on foot at a double quick. The enemy's battalions were already at the other end of Sycamore Street, and it was our task to drive them back before they should be reinforced.

Nevertheless those good women of Petersburg ministered to us. They knew that we had been marching all night and that we were in a famishing condition. They knew also that we must not waste a moment if Petersburg, the key to Richmond, was not to be lost.

So they formed themselves in platoons —God bless them! —bearing gifts of sandwiches and coffee. We could not stop even to take, much less to eat, the food they offered, so they thrust their platoons between ours and marched backward as fast as we marched forward, serving their food and drink to us as we went. 

Every now and then a Federal shell would come bowling down the street, but these alert women would jump it as nimbly as if its passage had been a prearranged figure in the dance. Not one of them showed the slightest fear. Not one of them faltered for a moment in her ministrations in consideration of herself. There was not one of them, I think, who would not have gone with us into the crash of the battle itself; but by the time we had refreshed ourselves a little, we were so near to the aggressive enemy's lines, that we cried aloud with one voice the order for the womenkind to go back. A minute later we were in the thick of the struggle for Petersburg. The enemy was not in such force as we had supposed, and we had fortunately arrived some hours in advance of General Grant's ponderous divisions. After fifteen minutes of hard fighting the enemy retired beyond the Jerusalem turnpike and we spent the night in beginning that thin line of earthworks which was destined for eight months to come to hold at bay a force two or three times as strong in numbers as our own.

At any hour during all that eight months the Federal forces could have broken through our lines at any point they pleased, if they had been resolute.

Anybody who will look at the old works today, as I have recently done, and consider the facts dispassionately, can see this clearly for himself. Our enemies had behind them, and running parallel with their lines, a system of roads that was out of our sight. They had resources practically illimitable. They had in front of them an attenuated line of men, stretched out for twenty miles, and without the possibility of reinforcement from any source. They could have concentrated any force they pleased at any point they pleased and at any time they pleased, without the possibility of our discovering what they were doing. They could have made an irresistible attack upon any point of our line at will. They did not do it. And so the fight went on.

During all those weary months the good women of Petersburg went about their household affairs with fifteen-inch shells dropping occasionally into their boudoirs or uncomfortably near to their kitchen ranges. Yet they paid no attention to any danger that threatened themselves.

Their deeds of mercy will never be adequately recorded until the angels report. But this much I want to say of them—they were "war women" of the most daring and devoted type. When there was need of their ministrations on the line, they were sure to be promptly there ; and once, as I have recorded elsewhere in print, a bevy of them came out to the lines only to encourage us, and, under a fearful fire, sang Bayard Taylor's "Song of the Camp," giving us as an encore the lines;—

"Ah, soldiers, to your honored rest,
Your truth and valor bearing.
The bravest are the tenderest,
The loving are the daring."

With inspiration such as these women gave us, it was no wonder that, as I heard General Sherman say soon after the war: "It took us four years, with all our enormous superiority in resources, to overcome the stubborn resistance of those men."

George Cary Eggleston, Southern Soldier Stories (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1915), 70-73.


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