Soldiers’ Aid Societies

Even before North Carolina officially left the Union,  the state had already begun making uniforms, accouterments, hospital clothing, etc. for its volunteers. Their goal was to outfit entire companies before they left for the front. Unlike the Northern Sanitary Commission which was expertly organized and initially headed by men, the South’s effort was instead composed of small groups in local communities. Women mostly were in charge.

SAIAid Societies were immediately formed to carry out their task in homes, churches, community centers and the state capital. Ladies and students met in the actual capital building with their sewing machines. Others knitted neck comforts, gloves, and socks. These “clubs” endured competition from other schools to see who could fill the greatest number of boxes sent to the camps. The students from the Deaf, Dumb, and Blind School in Raleigh added to the war effort by making cartridges and sewing.

Called by similar names (Ladies Aid Society, Christ Church Sick Soldiers’ Society, Military Sewing Company, Soldiers’ Relief Society, etc.) some chose to meet daily while others gathered two or three times a week. The average club met weekly. Even children volunteered their time knitting socks, rolling bandages, and writing letters or poems for the soldiers. If living near a hospital, the youngsters often visited patients bringing flowers, straw, water, or singing. This patriotic frenzy spread throughout the South. Though the intensity of such efforts later declined, aid societies continued in North Carolina throughout the war. Research has found the last benefit performed on behalf of the troops was on March 27, 1865 in Raleigh.

Those men too old or unfit for service contributed by making donations of uniforms, food, money, and labor including hauling boxes to camp, hospital work, and help with bazaars/benefits. It was also not unusual for slaves to donate to the aid of soldiers. A slave woman from Richmond County named Hattie gave freely of a linen blanket, gloves, and bandages. The donations of women, children, men, and slaves were printed in local newspapers, perhaps to garner up competition. When supplies grew short newspaper editors made appeals in their papers for people to come forward and give a blanket, a pair of shoes, or whatever was needed. Usually an officer acknowledged the women’s generosity by writing a thank you letter that was often printed in the newspaper.

From the mountains of North Carolina a soldier named Alfred Martin wrote to his wife on February 17th, 1862:

. . .the people are very kind to us & they bring into camp to sell chickens . . . they sell them at very moderate prices. The ladys have a soldiers aid society here & have some clothing on hand that they had not sent off. They called on me & other officers to know if we had any very needy men that had not a change of clothing…they distributed in proportion to our wants . . .This is Southernism in true Dixie . . .”

Aid Societies in the state sought not just to clothe the troops but to care for their spiritual needs as well. Army colportage was considered essential by ministers and their families as a means to fight vice in the military. Thousands of religious tracts as well as testaments circulated in camps.

General P. G. T. Beauregard called for church bells to be melted for war armaments. The state complied. The four cannons comprising the famous Edenton Bell Battery cannons were made from church bells. A few hotels donated their bells as well. Women collected money to be used especially for a gunboat fund. Citizens of Martin County contributed to the building of the iron-clad steamer “Old North State.” Whether any of the funds collected actually went toward the construction of iron-clads is not known. Research indicates that part of the fund was diverted to hospital relief use.

Minstrel shows, concerts, plays, and tableaux (a mute scene on stage) took place to raise money for the war effort. Although it was considered scandalous for women to be on stage at that period of history, it seems society turned a blind eye for the benefit of the troops. Ladies, teens, and even children stepped on the stage many times. One particular popular entertainer was William Gus Reich/Rich. He was a magician, comedian, ventriloquist, and musician with the 26th North Carolina Regimental Band, also known as the Salem Brass Band. A portion of Reich’s performances added to the coffers for the war effort.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn eighty-year old colored man Frank Johnson and his sons played for recruiting officers. It was said that their band’s patriotic performances threw erstwhile recruits into paroxysms of revelry. Before they knew it the recruits had signed their names to muster rolls. Another unique performer was Thomas Bethune, also known as “Blind Tom.” Born a slave to a Georgia family, he played the piano throughout the state and the South raising money for soldiers. “Blind Tom” was an autistic savant. He could play one tune with his left hand and a different song with his right.

The YMCA was active in raising funds for the troops in addition to helping at the hospitals both at home and out of state. Other benevolent organizations included the Raleigh Mutual Relief and Charitable Association, the Cumberland County War Association, the Cumberland County Hospital Association, and the Raleigh Ambulance Committee. Lastly nearly all churches donated money and church members went wherever they were most needed.

The Confederate Congress passed a vote of thanks to the women of the South “for their ardent and cheerful patriotism and well do they deserve, for they have indeed done nobly and upheld the hands and strengthened the hearts of the soldiers.

by Brenda McKean [Adapted from her two volume work: Blood and War at My Doorstep: North Carolina Civilians in the War Between the States]


The Oval ‘CS’ Belt Buckle

The stamped-brass, lead filled oval “US” belt plate was issued by the millions to enlisted Federal soldiers of the Civil War era. It is so common that most casual students of the conflict assume the average Confederate soldier also wore a counterpart embossed “CS.” The plethora of reproduction oval “CS” buckles produced since the 1960’s reinforces this perception. In actuality,  these plates are quite rare.

BP Rope Border CS LA 16thTo be sure, various patterns of oval “CS” buckles saw some usage by southern troops during the war. The firm of Magee & George of New Orleans produced a die stamped “CS” plate that is known as the “rope border” style because of the beaded inner ring around the perimeter. It was made of heavy gauge sheet brass, had no solder filling, and its hooks were of scraps cut from the base material. When New Orleans fell, this production source ended. Most issues of these went to Rebs in the western and Trans-Mississippi theaters, although a very few made their way east, as archaeological recoveries show. Before the Battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862, a member of the famous Missouri Brigade recalled receiving “cartridge boxes and belts with CS on them,” which records show were part of the Magee & George output.

Another pattern that seems to have been produced in some quantity was an egg shaped CS plate of extremely crude construction. These buckles were usually cut from sheet copper and had “frog” type hooks fashioned from telegraph wire. Most did not have solder filling and could not have withstood heavy field usage. There is some evidence to indicate a Mississippi provenance (which is the case with many “CS” plates), but this is not totally substantiated.

A fairly common style that looks the most like the reproductions offered today is called by many the “Breckenridge” plate, because some examples have been found in positions occupied by his Confederate division. Actually, their distribution is widespread. Many of these are of sheet brass or copper, but some are of stamped sheet iron. Other examples are of solid cast brass with extruded hooks and are quite sturdy. Photographic and archaeological evidence seems to indicate their usage as a saber belt plate rather than as an infantry accouterment.CS plate LOC Other random styles of “CS” buckles exist, but most of them also seem to have been used on saber belts rather than infantry gear. It is my personal opinion that this was the intended usage for most “CS” type buckles, except for the Magee and George production. Several photographs exist of North Carolina cavalrymen wearing saber belts adorned with the “Breckinridge” pattern oval “CS” plate.

It should be noted that most of the above buckles do not bear any resemblance to the arrow hooked, lead backed CS buckles that are so commonly offered for sale by sutlers today. Furthermore, the usage of “CS” cartridge box plates was all but non-existent, although prototype patterns are known. Brass frame, roller buckles, or captured US plates were far more common in Southern ranks than any distinctively marked “CS” patterns, certainly among North Carolina troops.
[Both images courtesy Library of Congress]

by Bob Williams


War Within a War

As early as April 1863 General Robert E. Lee expressed concerns to the Confederate Secretary of War about the frequent desertions from North Carolina regiments in the Army of Northern Virginia. The reasons were complex and varied. Disaffection with the war, strong Union sentiment in some NC counties, the questioned legality of the Conscript Act, and heart-rending family and starvation issues all played a hand in driving this behavior. Proximity to the front was another factor: It was a fairly easy matter for a Tar Heel soldier to slip away from the lines and use the Virginia mountains as refuge while making his way back to North Carolina.

By late summer the desertion issue had reached alarming proportions. These “outliers,” as they were called, tended to band together in what were considered safe areas of the state and forcibly defied the best efforts of Confederate authorities to bring them to bay.  North Carolina Governor Zebulon Vance complained these gangs were “plundering and robbing the people” and admitted “I have found it impossible to get them out.” A Confederate Colonel who studied the situation was forced to concede that within the state “Desertion has assumed . . . a very different and more formidable shape and development than could have been anticipated.” He added ominously that the deserters were “determined to kill in avoiding apprehension.”

Vance wisely sought help from the Confederate government in Richmond. He asked “If General Lee would send one of our diminished brigades or a good strong regiment to North Carolina” to help deal with the problem. In return, Vance avowed that these units would be recruited back to full strength while within the state to compensate for any temporary loss in manpower to the army. It was a sound and reasonable request, and promptly granted.

In early September, Confederate General Robert F. Hoke was appointed to lead this mission. A native of Lincoln Co., NC, Hoke was a seasoned and dependable officer who had recently returned from wounded furlough. Accompanying Hoke would be the veteran 21st NC Infantry from Hoke’s own brigade, the 56th North Carolina from Robert Ransom’s brigade, and a small cavalry squadron.

The 21st North Carolina was recruited primarily from the central part of the state and would be operating in many of its home counties. The unit had a distinguished battle record that dated back to Jackson’s Valley Campaign of 1862 and had fought in most of the army’s key engagements since. Its ranks had been greatly reduced during the recent invasion of Pennsylvania where most of its officers were killed or wounded. In many ways, it was a” typical” North Carolina regiment in the Army of Northern Virginia. The regiment’s reliability made it a superb choice for such an assignment. Plus it gave the men an opportunity to refit and visit home.

HW1864P460858Hokes instructions from Vance were to” capture the bands of deserters and conscripts and break up and disperse any organized bands of lawless men to be found . . . resisting the authority of the Government.” Accordingly, Hoke initially ordered the 56th NC to foray into Randolph, Moore, and Chatham counties while the 21st concentrated on activities in Forsythe, Iredell, Yadkin and Wilkes counties. Rather than take a hard-handed approach and provoke conflict with the deserters, Hoke sought to utilize more subtle measures. Before conducting a sweep of an area, Hoke gave the “outliers” time “to reflect & Come in & behave themselves.”  The creative general even offered them furloughs to attend to personal business if the errant soldiers would turn themselves in. Through such means, more than “500 deserters and draft-dodgers” were rounded up in Wilkes County alone by mid-October. Hoke also managed to obtain new uniforms for the 21st NC and restore the unit to adequate fighting strength.

MRIPacification activities of this sort continued in various NC counties throughout the balance of 1863.Yet, as might be expected, they were not without their dark side. Minor skirmishes were frequent, crops were stripped and burned, homes sacked, and other outrages occurred including summary executions, sometimes of innocent individuals. Hoke even seized the property of known deserters when softer measures did not work. One officer in the 21st NC freely confessed that his men were “doing a good deal of harm, in indiscriminate plunder of property to deserter families . . . [including] depredations on property of good citizens.” While Vance deplored the practice, Hoke insisted that “This has had a fine effect on them.” Later however, the general sought to address any claims of misconduct on the part of his soldiers.

Hoke completed his mission against the “outliers” in mid-December and declared it a success. However, bitter feelings, recrimination and revenge for some of these events would linger for decades. All in all, this dirty little “war within a war” remains a little known chapter in Old North State History.

by Bob Williams


Jamestown Arms for the Confederacy

MJGIFor more than half a century prior to the Civil War, skilled craftsmen along Deep River in Guilford County, North Carolina produced some of the most beautiful muzzle-loading rifles in America. Known locally as the Jamestown Rifle, these ornate, hand-made arms became one of the county’s chief exports during that period. Many families worked in the “Jamestown School,” including the Armfields, Couchs, Gardners, Lambs, Ledbetters, Woods, & Wrights. When war erupted in 1861, it was only natural that many of these tradesmen entered into contract to produce arms for North Carolina and the fledgling Confederacy.

Perhaps the best known and most highly respected of the Jamestown gunsmiths was William Lamb, known locally as “Captain Billy.” Lamb operated a water powered gun barrel mill with four employees. The site of Lamb’s mill is in present day Gibson Park,  at the north end of High Point City Lake. In December 1861, George Huntley of the 34th N.C. wrote to his father from Camp Fisher near High Point: “They can’t get arms for there are about five regiments of volunteers here and at Raleigh to be armed yet. Old Lamb is here now making guns, but he is getting along slow.” Later, along with his son H. C. Lamb, they produced 532 military rifles of three different models. Their initial contract with the State of North Carolina was for 10,000 arms. They were crudely made weapons of .58 caliber, stocked with yellow oak, and sporting brass furnishings. The 33-inch barrel included a stud for a saber bayonet. Lamb’s shop was burned by the 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry on a raid in April 1865.

MJG IIMore prolific was the firm of Mendenhall, Jones and Gardner, located one mile east of present day Jamestown. They likewise received a contract for 10,000 .58 caliber rifles, and by 1862 employed from 75-100 workers. Their output consisted of “Mississippi-type” two banded rifles with iron butt plate, notched rear sight, and brass bands, trigger guards, and nose caps. The lock plates are marked: “M. J. & G., N. C.” “C. S.” Several surviving examples have documented Confederate usage. The 15th Pennsylvania Cavalry also sought to destroy this facility on their 1865 raid. Legend has it that a local boy on the street was asked by marauding Federals to point out the MJ&G Factory. He pointed to an old frame building which was promptly burned. What the Unionists did not know was that they burned an unused woolen mill, while the gun factory two blocks away was left standing.

It should also be noted that many of the original non-military Jamestown long rifles also saw service in the hand of the earliest volunteers. A photo exists of Private Jeremiah Jaco of the 35th Tennessee holding an elaborately decorated Jamestown gun. It appeared in a past issue of Confederate Calendar. In addition, store owners from as far away as Alabama were seeking Jamestown rifles in late 1861 to arm the volunteers around Mobile.

Many other Jamestown Rifle makers furnished their goods to the Confederate cause other than those cited above. In 1994, a monument to them was erected in Gibson Park in High Point by the Colonel John Sloan Camp of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Excellent specimens of surviving Jamestown arms can be seen in the historical museums of both Greensboro and High Point. For further reading on this subject see William Albaugh’s classic Confederate Arms and Michael Brigg’s pamphlet The Long rifle Makers of Guilford County.

by Bob Williams