Fannin County TXGenWeb
     "Confederate Makeshifts"

 This is a chapter from the book
 by Rusty Williams who so graciously shared with us

 Note: "Confederate Makeshifts" describes how a North Texas wife
and mother copes with the shortages and hardships alone on the
Texas frontier for four years while her man serves in the Confederate
Army. It is from Scatterlings: Blair, Williams & Turner to Texas
1858 to 1873 by Julian "Rusty" Williams.]
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 her pigsties.
  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.
     The 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 unable to 
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 later.)
    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 poppy plants.)
    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 berries.
   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.


© 2007
Email Any Additions or suggestions

  Fannin Home page