Civil War Wednesday: Women and Food

As I transcribed the Civil War diary of Columbus Williamson Holbrook, a distant uncle-in-law of my husband, John, I noticed the timelessness of it. Although it was written 155 years ago, much of what Holbrook writes could have been written in 2016.

first entry-blog cropped
A portion of Holbrook’s first diary entry

As Holbrook wrote in his first entry, he and the Mt. Vernon Grays left “fathers, mothers, brothers and sisters and numerous near and dear friends.” No wives are mentioned (although there might have been at least one, which I’ll address in a future post).

It’s safe to say these were young Texans, off on an adventure — as Holbrook put it, “to join the army of the Southern Confederacy.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising then, that much of what Holbrook wrote about concerned women and food. I’ve pulled a few sentences from the diary on these topics. Note: for the most part, I’ve left the entries as written, with spelling and punctuation errors.

On women:

August 1: …Before we got to Clarksville T.B. Turner and myself called by to see some female friends …

Aug 11: … passed over the boston mountains and on the top of the mountain we met three grand ladies going to church two of whom had their shoes in their hands walking barefoot over the rocks. I suppose they intended to put them on before they got to church …

Aug 18: … had the pleasure of seeing some of the Missouri girls to day and five of them attended church. They look good, but poorly compare with the ladies at home.

Aug 22: … had the excruciating pleasure of being placed on guard. I have now come to the conclusion that soldiers should be paid well, honored highly and get the prettiest women in the land for wives.

Sept 1: … We were visited this evening by ten or fifteen well grown Missouri girls.

Sept 9: … All were buisly engaged yesterday and till a late hour last night writing letters. No doubt there were many aerial flights and expressions of love pened to the fair bright eyed Ladies of Texas by the way-worn home-sick lovers of this regiment. If they were all collected and published they would furnish a volumn with as much variety and mirth as Maj Jones Courtship.

While transcribing Holbrook’s diary, there were lots of things I had to Google, among them, “Major Jones’s Courtship.” A popular novel of the day, it first published in 1843 and written by William Tappan Thompson.

It’s evident from this book reference and his writing in general — however bad the spelling and punctuation — that Holbrook was an educated man.

After reading this entry, I also had to find out what “tipped our beavers” meant:

Sept 18: … heard the soft notes of a piano up the street and after taking a little Missouri peach brandy a friend of mine and myself called at the young Ladies door, tip[p]ed our beavers and walked in. Had some fine music by the lady, who was a fifteen year old girl but very talkative. The excitement caused by the young Lady, the music or the brandy, I wont say which, had some effect on my legs and head and oiled the runing … of my tongue.

After (carefully, nervously) Googling the phrase, I discovered that hats in that time period were made of beaver fur, thus, the men tipped their hats upon meeting the young lady.

Sept 22: …We were visited in camp to day by several very nice Ladies they all seem anxious to bestow any favor on us that they can I record it to their praise that the Ladis Missouri seem more zelius in the cause of liberty than the men.

[Sept] 25: … I have been in town almost all day took diner at the Hotel with my friend [A.G.] Hargrove we sasshaed around town generally and called on Miss Muller and had some fine music, for Missouri.

Civil War mess cart
Drawing of a Civil War mess cart

On food:

Aug 5: … got a supply of Bacon and some fresh buiscuit. …

Aug 6: We left camp this morning very early traveled over some rough rocky road got a birds eye view of the Ozark Mountins … found some good watermelons the owner of which was patriotic enough to charge us fifteen cents a piece. The citizens in this portion of the county would have you believe they are very patriotic, but they love to charge too well to suit me. …

Aug 9: … We staid in town all night, took supper and breakfast with Mr. Trotter it being a good place …

Aug 13: This morning, we were so anxious to go on we left without our breakfast and traveled eight or ten miles and made some coffee to refresh us and on we went again. …

Aug 20: … When diner time came, we found we had no flower. We boiled some beef and made some rosting ear soup and digned bountifully on the same without bread. … At supper, fortunately we got a little corn meal and Irish potatoes accidentally.

Aug 23: … After breakfast, Capt [Jonathan] Russel myself and ten others went out in the county foraging. We got two waggen loads of old corn some fine apples and had the unusial pleasure of digning at the table of a true Secessionist. We had a good county diner and all eat heartily of the snaps & Bacon potatoes & fried corn stewed apples and apple pies and honey and other rare dainties. …

Aug 26: This day was Tuesday but nothing of note occured except that we did not have much to eat.

Aug 28: … fine to day plenty to eat such as it is corn bread beef and coffee is the only three articles we have in our pantry …

Sept 12: This is a very drizzly unpleasant day. I got back to camp this evening about four oclock, found nothing to eat at my mess looked around among the other messes and finally found some cold bread and molasses and made a hearty diner out of it. …

Sept 13:  … Nothing occured to day worthy of note except the arival of a hoghead of sugar and two bbl [barrells] of whisky … We have not had the opportunity of sampling the whisky and dont know wheather we will or not.

Sept 14: … [George] Stringfellow and myself cooked we made a peach pie, washed up the tin pans, had some good buiscuit and some beef hash and coffee with sugar in it. Asked Capt Russel to dign with us. We had a sumptious repast. It is laughable sometimes to see the boys guarding over there rashings and dividing the forage. Some allwais sware that someone has more than he has.

Sept 22: …Our mess had a fine diner today had beans the first time I have had the pleasure of eating this favorible vegetable since I left home. …

Sept 24: … took diner with Dr. Bradford, by invitation who is a good Secessionist and is a very clever Gentleman. His good Lady prepared us the best diner we have had the good fortune to partake of since we have been in Missouri and gave us a pressing invitation to come back again.

Oct 2: … Orderly [Harry] Height came in from an excursion in the country to day and brought with him three or four chickens. The boys alwais say they buy them, but the supposition is they press them.

Perplexed by Holbrook’s use of the word “press,” I did a little Googling and discovered that the young men of the Third Texas Cavalry, Company H, probably stole the chickens. Again, the diary proves itself timeless. Boys will be boys.

Next week, we’ll shift gears to the more serious subject of war and its horrors, and what Holbrook had to say about that. Until then.

2 thoughts on “Civil War Wednesday: Women and Food

  1. That’s fascinating stuff, Suzanne. When I saw the word “press,” I thought of the word in relation to the British navy, where it meant basically kidnapping men and forcing them to “join” the ship’s crew.


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