The other side of Swisshelm’s rage–Confederate women, the hated Yankees, and calculations to preserve home

From John Hennessy:

In a recent post I shared the 1866 testimony of Jane Swisshelm blistering the women of Fredericksburg for their apparent ambivalence (or worse) toward the flood of Union wounded in 1864. The bitterness cut both ways, and Swisshelm’s anger was in fact the product of some calculated decisions on the part of Confederate women in the region–calculations intended not to impose suffering, but intended to preserve both homeplace and what these women saw as their honor as Confederate citizens. Many women in and around Fredericksburg came to despise Yankees fiercely and eloquently. When confronted with suffering Union wounded, they grappled with am immense moral dilemma: could they aid those they had long damned? The reticence of Confederate women was the spark to Jane Swisshelm’s fire.  She saw in their ambivalence pure inhumanity and selfishness.  In fact, of course, the calculations of local women were far more complex than all that.

Evidence of that is clear in the two letters presented here.  The first is a missive written by Sallie Todd in Spotsylvania County, who lived just west of Todd’s Tavern, about 13 miles west of Fredericksburg. Sallie’s place was overrun by battle on May 7 and 8. She wrote her letter just a week later and clearly expressed her conflicted emotions upon having to deal with Union wounded.

Sallie Todd's house in the 1930s

Mother was awfully frightened, but I did not feel at all frightened; I did not think we would be killed. I was afraid the house would take fire, but thank God, our lives were spared, though everything else was destroyed. We have nothing in the world but what little we managed to conceal in the house. Our house was only searched once, and by the meanest kind of wretches, one came and tried to get into the milk closet, but I stood before him arid would not let him go in. We had a guard, such as it was, but they were the meanest devils on earth, they killed all of our hogs, even the little pigs, and the cow as it was too poor to eat, but they said they were Secesh cows, killed every hen and took all of our food; broke every lock on the place; our corn, oat and wheat fields are nothing more than the main road; pulled all the pailings from around the yard and garden and played destruction generally, but if we can only whip them and gain our independence, I am willing to give up all, yes everything….

They have a number of killed and wounded now lying on the field. One old dead one is lying behind our barn, and you can see them everywhere you go. I think there are ten in the cornfield. Mr Bradshaw has same wounded Yanks at his house. We have four we attend to out on the field; they cannot live, but still we cannot let them suffer. Their wounds have never been dressed; we simply wash their faces and carry them water and something to eat. I have said I never would do an act of kindness for one of them to save their lives, but I feel altogether different when I see them suffering. We have them in pens, and oil cloth and blanket thrown over them. One asked me yesterday if I would write to h m friends after his death, and asked me to pray ‘for him. I never saw men so hard to die in my life; I would be glad to see them dead and over- their- suffering, but I believe some of them will live a week longer.

In Fredericksburg, after Jane Swisshelm and the Union wounded left in late May 1864, Sarah Alsop wrote of her encounters with Union soldiers at her house at what is today 1201 Princess Anne Street. She described the efforts she made to preserve her home and stores by seeking (successfully) the protection of Union officers. It was just this sort of cozying up to Union officers that so outraged Swisshelm.

The home of Sarah and Joseph Alsop (and diarist Lizzie too) on Princess Anne Street


A party of men came to take corn but the people in the house persuaded them to leave all but one bag. I found there was to be no end to the demands. I took the guard and went to the Commandant of the town in the night (Mr. Little accompanied me). He told me that the search had been made and the corn taken without any authority and if I was interrupted again to send for him immediately…. The Provost sent me a protection paper, also one to prevent the ice being taken. Lieut– Murray (the one who was so kind the first day) continued my friend to the last. Every time anyone came to interrupt me, some one in the house would go for him. (He requested that it might be done.)  Several of them who staid here offered to pay me. I always told them all I asked was that they would be kind to the Confederates whenever they met them…..

These accounts–and Swisshelm’s too– reflect the wondrous complexity of the circumstances faced by women of the Civil War period. That we have such unvarnished expressions on both sides tangles the stories to be sure, but adds too a richness that is a boon for those of us working in the field of public history.

Note:  Sallie Todd’s letter somehow ended up being published in the Montgomery Advertiser of June 8, 1864.  Sarah Alsop’s letter is in the Wynne Family Papers at the Virginia Historical Society.

2 thoughts on “The other side of Swisshelm’s rage–Confederate women, the hated Yankees, and calculations to preserve home

  1. I have enjoyed reading your blog. It is very informative.

    I recently saw a film that fictionally depicts the intense and complicated hatred that was felt by many men and women from the North and from the South. I thought of the film when I read this post. The title of the film is “Pharoah’s Army” if any of your readers are interested.

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