December 18, 1863 - What Shall We Do with the Women?I do not mean contrabands, but white women, aye, ladies, whom the circumstances of war have caused to drift up upon the sea of events and be stranded upon the bleak and barren shores of poverty. “What shall we do with them?” is no doubt the question put with anxiety to one another by our superiors. More especially must this query be raised at this time, just upon the edge of winter; and at this place, with us, when our force holds the picket gates and our offices grant “passes,” and now that our General, tired out by the ceaseless din of daily applicants for market privileges of coming to the camps, has shut them all down, and refused any one to bring articles for sale, this momentous query returns with greater force than ever.
“Shall we keep them all on Government rations, and let the ‘commissary of subsistence’ feed some six or eight hundred in the two cities, that number no doubt to be greatly augmented?” This is one side of the question, and it gives me the chance of telling you of a number of cases where women have tried not to be reckoned among the weekly pensioners at the office of the commissary of subsistence in Portsmouth.
I have in mind Mrs. H., of whose culinary skill I have told you before, a married woman aged 45, husband a prisoner somewhere, formerly in the Confederate army, grown up son on board one of the Union gunboats at Hampton, a girl and two little boys at home to be fed and clothed. She got a permit to come to the camps with a borrowed horse and cart, the cart laden with various market produce and a variety of nicely cooked dishes: chicken pie, beef pie, oysters, gingerbread, fried fish, &c., at various prices from five to twenty-five cents; her wares would be sold by the piece-measure or plateful, and long before sundown the entire cartful would be disposed of. The net profit to Mrs. H. of such a day’s traffic would not be less than eight to twelve dollars, and she came twice a week. She cannot come to camp now, yet she and her children must be fed by somebody.
Also the old lady, Mrs. E., who came from our upper picket line with a sturdy Negro wench for a driver. It was she who brought those red apples which I told you of; and while she could also bring poultry and eggs, and sell three ordinary sized apples for ten cents (!) she would readily make from one to four dollars per day. She cannot do it now, yet herself and a blind sister, and the sable wench above-mentioned, are to be fed.
Biddy O’G., too, the cheerful fishwoman; fresh spot-fish and sheep’s heads, every morning in season for breakfast; she could buy them at the wharves at fifty cents per hundred and readily sell them at more than double profit. Biddy is a “widder” with “four wee childer,” and with the characteristic independence of her race she does not want to ask bread and meat of the Government, yet now, when she can no longer bring her fish to camp, she must do it, for her children must not starve.
Multiply the instances above noted by about one hundred, and you have the aggregate of what comes under our own notice in our own department; and when we consider that this district merely represents a tithe of the same perplexity, is not the question “what shall be done with them?” of solemn and momentous import? The question, here and now, and by our officers, is easily met. It is of the highest military importance that no possible chance of treachery should be left open; hence the wisdom of keeping all classes from passing the lines; therefore let all be kept at home, and such as are in need, be fed from the public stores.
Thus much for the present solution of the question. Yet a thought of the future, with these impoverished communities, whole families living on public alms, children growing up in such wholesale beggary, is it not enough to make the lover of his country tremble and turn pale? Aye! Ten years hence, what shall we do with them then? This is one of the inside horrors of war, and like every other evil of the kind, must be calmly and prayerfully met.