Hard Choices on the Home Front:
Pittsylvania's Care for Indigent Families of Civil War Soldiers

By Herman E. Melton

Civil War casualty lists from the Battles of Big Bethel and Malvern Hill were arriving in Pittsylvania County in the Summer of 1862. There would be bad news from the West and casualty lists from Second Manassas and Fredericksburg very shortly.

By August, most of the surplus food supply was on its way to General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia via the Richmond and Danville Railroad. Men who would normally be supervising the production of grain were at the front. Production fell, while demand increased as the situation became critical. Systems were devised to look after the families of indigent CSA volunteers and this required limiting the amounts the indigents received. They would get tougher as the war progressed.

With the above serving as a backdrop, the Justices in the Pittsylvania County Court were forced by economic need and perhaps by public clamor to “bite the bullet” and impose stricter limitations on food rations for indigents. At their August 18, 1862 meeting, the following were on duty: Joab Watson, John W. Wilson, Pleasant Waddell, John Carter, Joseph Howard, David Barker, John Hall, Asa Hodnett, Joseph Anderson, Thomas Shelton, David Snow, D.L. Ragsdale and William Carrington Tate.

The records suggest that the justices were taking note of the dependents of indigent soldiers whom they pledged to support but could not longer do so. To alleviate the situation, the decreed that “no allowance be made to the able bodied male children of indigent soldiers who have attained the age of 12 years and upwards.” Female, children, regardless of age, who depended solely on the indigent soldier fathers for support were to continue receiving rations. The food allotment to each indigent soldier's wife and dependent child included eight pounds of bacon (probably more aptly described as “fat back” in modern parlance) per adult and three pounds of same for each child, or, double the quantity of beef per month.

The justices came down hard on the indigent soldier's wife who had no children that were dependent on the soldier, by cutting off her allowance. Moreover, no allowance was to be made to the families of volunteers who reside with their parents who are “able to support them.”

The county fathers dealt ruthlessly with families of soldiers who were AWOL by decreeing that nothing be allowed the family of any volunteer who might be at home after his furlough had expired until he returned and reported to his company.

They gave the backs of their hands to deserters and dictated that “no allowance be made to the family of any deserter after he is published and ascertained to be such.”

Qualified dependents were allotted one bushel of grain per adult per month and a half bushel for each child. Widows of indigent soldiers who were killed in the line of duty were to be furnished with supplies as per “the former orders of the Court.”

There were Commissioners appointed for each Magisterial District who were charged with the responsibility for issueing the rations only to people in their respective districts. Coleman D. Bennett was appointed Chairman of the Commission and given a salary of five hundred dollars for his services.

The court closed the meeting by ordering that the Committee of Pensions, previously appointed, to attend to the county's sick and wounded soldiers be required to continue their services and to repot out of pocket expenses “from time to time.” Some of the measures seem drastic and harsh by modern standards — especially the one requiring twelve-year-olds to be self-sufficient. However demanding the order may seem to be on the surface, it was enacted at a time that innumerable instances when only “young boys and old men” were available to face the fire of an oncoming enemy.

Shortages of elements necessary for survival came well before the time of the above court entry. Salt, for example, was in such short supply that a Salt Agent was appointed to procure and distribute the ration of that item to each citizen. The position was filled by Mr. James Lovelace, an honorably discharged veteran with good family connections. In any case, it seemed foreordained that the meat rations mentioned above would be rancid.

Conditions at home in Pittsylvania County were hard in that era, but not nearly so bad as those endured by Confederate soldiers at places such as Manassas, Malvern Hill, Fredericksburg, Fort Donelson and others.


Notes


Books by Herman Melton

(Available from the sponsor.)

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On


Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse



Other Books Concerning Pittsylvania County History

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County


An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (Dover)

Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina


Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town



Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications and the Sims-Mitchell House as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.