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.
Aid 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.
An 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]