Across Five Aprils

It’s April, and spring has come to the Hill Country. On the short drive to Fredericksburg on Saturday, Ron and I noticed wildflowers everywhere—some pale pink ones I can’t name, brilliant orange Indian paintbrush, and patches of sapphire-colored bluebonnets, our beloved state flower. Despite the beauty of a Texas spring, as a student of Southern history, I’m reminded of five Aprils when the War Between the States ravaged our land and seared our national conscience.

“April is the cruelest month”. So T  S Eliot began his 1922 poem, The Wasteland.  Those four long years between April12, 1861, when the first shots were fired on Ft. Sumter, South Carolina, and April 9, 1865, when General Lee surrendered his army at Appomattox were cruel indeed for Southern women like the woman pictured here who were left alone to “do a man’s business”  managing farms and plantations, providing food and shelter for their families, and dealing with slaves.

Many Confederate records are lost to us, so it’s impossible to say for certain how many Southern  men died, but most estimates put the number at around 258,000.  Of that number, around 94,000 were killed in battle, the rest died of disease. ( My great great grandfather Uriah McClain, whose portrait you can see on my Photo page, was one of the lucky ones. He returned from the battle of Shiloh, April 6-7, 1862, minus a leg, but at least he survived. )  So many deaths meant that an entire generation of Southern women lost their chances for marriage and motherhood. Today of course, single women have many more options open to them. But in the mid 19th century, a young girl’s chief occupation and purpose was to find a suitable husband. Marriage ensured her a social place and an identity. When marriage was no longer an option, women  banded together for social interaction and for the war effort.   Some women of the middle and upper classes  found work for which they were paid, opening up new possibilities for their lives that they otherwise would never have imagined.  One of these women, Maria Hubard of Virginia wrote in her diary that ” the singular event” of her life had occurred:  for the first time she had begun work “for which remuneration was to be received!”

Hard work and sacrifice, which the women of the South took on with much courage at the beginning of the war  took its toll, and by the last of those terrible Aprils, their letters to their husbands and sweethearts no longer spoke of glory and honor, but instead of the common sense of coming home. Octavia Stephens of Florida wrote to her husband Winston, “Give up now while you have life. {It is foolish] to talk of the defense of your home and country…they are too far gone now so give up before it is too late.”

By early April, 1865,  Confederate General Robert E Lee saw too, that the Southern cause was lost  Additional bloodshed was futile and would only compound the misery of his men and their families.  Several notes passed between him and the Union General Ulysses Grant, negotiating the terms of  surrender. On April 9, 1865, General Lee donned his finest uniform, sheathed his dress sword,  mounted his beloved horse Traveler and met Grant at the McLean farm in Virginia where he signed the terms of surrender. The following day, April 10, 1865, General Lee penned a final note to his army. Both humble and poignant, General Order Number 9 praises his army for “unsurpassed courage and fortitude”  and spells out the terms under which they may return home. He concludes:  “I earnestly pray that a merciful God will extend to you His blessing and protection. With an increasing admiration for your constancy and devotion to your country and a grateful remembrance of your kind and generous considerations for myself, I bid you all an affectionate farewell.”

It is said that few families in the South escaped the war unscathed. One family, the Christians of Virgina, lost 18 family members to the war.  My family lost one, and had one injured. I’d love to hear your family’s story.

2 thoughts on “Across Five Aprils

  1. Denise

    I was looking for the photo of Uriah McLain. Didn’t find it on your website. I’m also a direct descendant. How can I get to it?



    1. dorothy Post author

      Denise, it’s in my photo album here on the website. Click on the “About” tab and then from the drop down menu, click on “Doro’s photo album” His picture is there.

      What fun to connect with another direct descendant!


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