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From Flag to Flag A Woman's Adventures and Experiences in the South During the War, in Mexico, and in Cuba by Eliza McHatton Ripley

From Flag to Flag A Woman's Adventures and Experiences in the South During the War, in Mexico, and in Cuba
Eliza McHatton Ripley


Basking in the sunshine of prosperity during the stirring events that crowded one after another through the winter of 1860-'61, buoyed up by the hope and belief that a peaceful solution of national complications would be attained, we were blind to the ominous clouds that were gathering around us. Prophets arose in our midst, with vigorous tongue and powerful eloquence lifting the veil and giving us glimpses of the fiery sword suspended over our heads; but the pictures revealed were like pages in history, in which we had no part nor lot, so hard it was for people who had for generations walked the flowery paths of peace, to real ize war and all that that terrible word imports. 

It was during the temporary absence of my husband, and Arlington full of gay young guests, when our city paper described the device for "the flag," as decided upon at Montgomery, the cradle of the new-born Confederacy. Up to and even far beyond that period we did not, in fact could not, realize the mightiness of the impending future. Full of wild enthusiasm, the family at Arlington voted at once that the banner should unfold its brave States-rights constellation from a staff on our river-front. This emblem of nationality (which, on account of its confusing resemblance to the brilliant "Stars and Stripes," was subsequently discard ed) consisted of a red field with a horizontal bar of white across its center; in one corner was a square of blue with white stars. There were red flannel and white cotton cloth in the house, but nothing blue could we find; so a messenger was hastily dispatched to town with orders for goods of that color, no matter what the quality or shade.

On a square of blue denim the white stars were grouped, one to represent each seceded State. We toiled all that Saturday, and had no little difficulty in getting our work to lie smooth and straight, as the red flannel was pieced, the cotton flimsy, and the denim stiff. From the negroes who had been spending their half-holiday catching drift-wood, which in the early spring floats from every tributary down on the rapidly swelling bosom of the broad Mississippi, we procured a long, straight, slender pole, to which the flag was secured by cords, nails, and other devices. When the staff was firmly planted into the ground, on the most prominent point on the river-front, and its gay banner loosened to the breeze, the enthusiastic little party danced round and round, singing and shouting in exuberance of spirit At that critical moment a small stern-wheel Pittsburg boat came puffing up the stream; its shrill whistle and bell joined in the celebration, while passengers and crew cheered and hallooed, waving newspapers, hats, and handkerchiefs, until the little Yankee craft wheezed out of sight in a bend of the river. Of all the joyous party that danced and sung round that first Confederate flag raised on Louisiana soil, I am, with the exception of my son, then a very small boy, the only one living to-day.

It made such a brave show, and we were so exhilarated, that we passed all that bright Sunday in early spring under its waving folds, or on the piazza in full view of it.

When my husband, after a two weeks' absence, boarded the steamer Quitman to return home, the first news that greeted him was, "There is a Confederate flag floating over your levee! " He was thunder struck! That far-seeing, cautious man was by no means an " original secessionist," and did not, in his discretion, and the hope that lingered long in his breast of an amicable adjustment of the difficulties, countenance the zealous ardor of his hasty and impetuous household. Our flag was already beginning to look frayed and ragged-edged. We had no means of lowering it, and its folds had flapped through fog and sunshine until the sleazy cotton split and the stars shriveled on the stiff blue ground. The coming of the "general commanding," as we now playfully called him, signalized the removal of our tattered banner; but we had the satisfaction of knowing that advantage of his absence had been taken to float it a whole week, and that it was no hostile hand that furled it at the last.

The wild alarms of war roused us at last from this Arcadian life of ease and luxury. The rumbling thunder of battle was making itself heard from Sumter on the one side and Manassas on the other. "Dixie" and "The Bonnie Blue Flag" were replacing the soul stirring battle-songs of our fathers.

Men who had never saddled their mettled steeds, nor harnessed their own teams for pleasure-excursions, now eagerly bestrode any nag they could command, or drove lumbering mule- teams, or, worse still, plodded on foot with a military company on its march to the front; while the daintily nurtured women, who, in the abundance of service that slavery afforded, had scarce put on their own shoes, assembled and toiled day after day in the preparation of clothing for the soldiers, which quickly became their all-absorbing occupation. 

In the neighboring city of Baton Rouge we organised the "Campaign Sewing Society." Its very title shows how transient we regarded the emergency; how little we deemed the campaign would develop into a four years' war! There many of us received our first lessons in the intricacies of coats and pantaloons. I so well remember when, in the glory of my new acquirements, I proudly made a pair of cottonade trousers for a brother we were fitting out in surpassing style for "service," my embarrassment and consternation when I overheard him slyly remark to my husband that he had to stand on his head to button them—they lapped the wrong way! Stockings had also to be provided, and expert knitters found constant work. By wearing a knitting-bag at my side, and utilizing every moment, I was by no means the only one able to turn off a coarse cotton stocking, with a rather short leg, every day.

From the factory in our little city—the only one, by the way, of any size or importance in the State—we procured the cloth required for suits, but in the lapse of time the supply of buttons, thread, needles, and tape, in fact, of all the little accessories of the sewing-room, was exhausted, and to replenish the stock our thoughts and conversation were necessarily turned into financial channels. I cordially recommend to societies and impecunious institutions the scheme in all its entirety that we adopted as vastly superior to the ordinary and much-maligned fair; the plan was the offspring of necessity; the demand was so instant and urgent that we could undertake no fair or entertainment that involved time, work, or expense.

A "Tombola," where every article is donated and every ticket draws a prize, was the happy result of numerous conferences. The scheme was discussed with husbands and brothers; each suggested an advancement or improvement on the other, until the project expanded so greatly, including all classes and conditions of donors, that it was quickly found that not only a large hall but a stable and a warehouse also would be required to hold the contributions, which embraced every imaginable article from a tooth-pick to a cow! The hall was soon overflowing with minor articles from houses and shops. Nothing was either too costly or too insignificant to be refused. A glass show-case glittered with jewelry of all styles and patterns, and bits of rare old silver. Pictures and engravings, old and faded, new and valuable, hung side by side on the walls. Odd pieces of furniture, work-boxes, lamps and candelabra, were arranged here and there, to stand out in bold relief amid an immense array of pencils, tweezers, scissors, penknives, tooth-picks, darning-needles, and such trifles. The stalls of the stable were tenanted by mules, cows, hogs, with whole litters of pigs, and varieties of poultry. The warehouse groaned under the weight of barrels of sugar, molasses, and rice, and bushels of meal, potatoes, turnips, and corn. Tickets for a chance at this miscellaneous collection sold for one dollar each. As is ever the case, the blind goddess was capricious: with the exception of an old negro woman, who won a set of pearls, I can not remember any one who secured a prize worth the price of the ticket. I invested in twenty tickets, for which I received nine teen lead-pencils and a frolicsome old goat, with beard hanging to his knees, and horns like those which brought down the walls of Jericho. Need I add that the "general commanding" refused to receive that formidable animal at Arlington?

The "Tombola" was a grand, an overwhelming success; without one dollar of outlay—the buildings and necessary printing having been donated—we made six thousand dollars. Before this sum could be sent to New Orleans for investment, that city was in the hands of its captors.

Thus cut off from the means of securing necessary supplies, and at the same time from facilities for communication with those whom we sought to aid, the "Campaign Sewing Society" sadly disbanded. The busy workers retired to their own houses, the treasurer fled with the funds for safe-keeping, and, when she emerged from her retreat, six thousand dollars in Confederate paper was not worth six cents! 

The Federals captured New Orleans in April, and there was intense excitement all up and down the river. We boasted and bragged of what we could do and what we were going to do, like children whistling in the dark to keep their courage up. We had never seen soldiers "on deeds of daring full intent." We had never seen any drilling and manoeuvring of companies and battalions, except our own ardent and inexperienced young men, full of enthusiasm that was kindled and encouraged and in many cases bolstered up by the women, who, like most non-combatants, were very valiant, and like all whose hearthstones are threatened very desperate. So the landing of the enemy in our chief city, and the capitulation of our defenses, roused every drop of blood in our hearts. Nothing but "war to the knife" was spoken of. While we openly declared that New Orleans should have been fired, like Moscow, rather than surrendered, men went about destroying cotton wherever it was stored, and fierce and loud were the denunciations against any man who even by gentle remonstrance made the slightest objection to having his property touched by the torch of his neighbor, to prevent the possibility of its capture by the "hordes of hirelings" as we called the Northern soldiers and their naturalized comrades.

All the blankets and bedding that could reasonably be spared had been gathered during the winter, by teams driven from house to house, making one grand collection for our suffering troops.

Now, thoroughly alarmed at the possibility of being cut off from all communication with our soldiers in the field, and prevented from contributing to their comfort, carpets were ripped from the floors of many houses, cut into suitable blanket-size, and sent via "Camp Moore"—now our only outlet—to the army in the mountains of Virginia and on the borders of Tennessee. There was no combined or concerted plan; each acted his individual part, and made personal sacrifices to help the cause. Plantations were adjoining, but the residences too remote to meet and discuss matters when time was so precious. Black William and I drew the tacks from every carpet at Arlington; brussels, tapestry, and ingrain, old and new, all were made into blankets and promptly sent to the front. One half the house was closed, and a deal of management was required to keep the other half comfortable with out a carpet or rug to lay over the bare floor. So it happened that when the Federals, after an exciting siege, captured New Orleans, very little was left in the houses on the river that could be made available for the use of the army.

Eliza McHatton Ripley, From Flag to Flag A Woman's Adventures and Experiences in the South During the War, in Mexico, and in Cuba (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1898), 10-18.


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