This five-part essay series on Kate Stone and her Civil War is modified from a paper I presented at the New York Military Affairs Symposium in October 2011.
Kate Stone began 1863 with optimism. Her brother William was sent home to recuperate from his wounds. Federal moves on Vicksburg were all repulsed, and Lee’s victory over Burnside at Fredericksburg still warmed her spirits.
“Altogether,” she concluded, “we are getting the better of our foes.” Perversely, her renewed confidence in an inevitable Federal defeat at Vicksburg mutated into a new fear of what that defeat would inspire in the Federal troops. She worried they would “lay this whole country [to] waste, send out bands of Negroes and soldiers to burn and destroy.”
And then, on Jan. 26, Stone wrote, “Preparing to run from the Yankees, I commit my book to the bottom of a packing box with only a slight chance of seeing it again.” She would not write again for six weeks.
On March 2, Stone opened her journal and wrote in it for the first time since late January. She was disoriented. She didn’t know exactly what day of the week it was. She guessed it was Saturday.
When Federal troops flooded the neighborhood in late January, Stone’s mother prepared to evacuate the family. But she changed her mind when she learned the roads west were already impossibly clogged with frightened refugees.
When Stone learned they were not leaving Brokenburn after all, she was secretly relieved. She dreaded moving into “the back country … to leave our pleasant home most probably to be destroyed by the Yankees. …”
Whatever misery she endured, whatever property she lost, whatever horrors she witnessed, Stone seemed determined to stand her ground. Perhaps Brokenburn was her own line in the sand. Perhaps she had already seen too many retreats, too many defeats, too many surrenders. Perhaps Stone, fighting what she saw as her part of the war, decided that she would never surrender her ground to the dark, silent, sinister enemy. But it took another enemy, one she’d feared longer than any Yankee, to change her mind.
The close proximity of Federal troops inspired the slaves to leave their plantations for good, and Stone reported dozens of them regularly gathered on the riverbank, hoping to be ferried over to a new camp closer to the Federal lines. “All the Negroes are running away now,” she wrote. [P]oor creatures, I am sorry for them. How horrible it all is.” At the nearby Hardison home, Stone wrote, the slaves “walked off in broad daylight … other Negroes declare they are free and will leave as soon as they get ready.”
Some slaves, however, returned to their estates, guiding Union soldiers ready to strip the properties of any valuables. Some slaves returned not just with soldiers but also with weapons, a horrific new reality to plantation owners. “The country,” Stone wrote, “seems possessed by demons, black and white.”
On March 21, Stone and her family picked lilacs in the garden. Webster, a slave, appeared with Wonka, Stone’s beloved horse. She had kept the horse hidden for weeks to protect it from the eye of Federal raiding parties. Webster said mosquitoes tormented the horse, and it needed some exercise. Stone agreed that Wonka needed some activity, and the horse was set loose to run around the yard near the house.
After ten minutes, two Union soldiers on horseback appeared without warning, demanding to trade one of their old horses for young Wonka. Stone refused. Her mother offered to give the men money instead. The soldiers insisted on the trade. The first soldier galloped toward Wonka to catch it, and Stone ordered a slave nearby to open the gate. When the slave hesitated, Stone ran to open it herself.
The second soldier yelled and pointed his gun at her head. Stone ignored him and ran to open a second gate. Her mother screamed. Wonka was caught. The soldiers changed saddles and rode off, leaving their “pack of animated bones” behind.
Stone, utterly devastated, watched them ride away. The scent of lilacs filled the air, she remembered. “I will never see lilac blooms again without recalling this sad incident.”
“The life we are leading now,” she wrote dejectedly, “is a miserable, frightened one, living in constant dread of great danger, not knowing what form it may take, and utterly helpless to protect ourselves.”
Stone’s mother agreed completely. Her cotton crop was destroyed. Damaged levees flooded the region. Life’s daily necessities were impossibly overpriced. New Orleans was gone, and Vicksburg would not hold out forever. Relatives and friends dead. Home defense forces utterly impotent. Union soldiers taking what they wanted whenever they wanted it. Union gunboats defiling the Mississippi River. Slaves more a threat than ever before. Her mother came to a single solution.
At long last, she decided, it was time to lead her family west.
Cold and white
In late March, Stone reported that a childhood friend, Joe Wicks, was killed during a skirmish with Union troops in Mississippi. She wrote that he died “as a Southern boy should, leading his men in action.” Stone’s journal then fell silent.
Two weeks later, on April 10, she began to write again, this time from Anchorage, La., mourning an even more terrible loss. Her brother Walter became sick and died on Feb. 15 in Cotton Gin, Miss.
“For seven long weeks,” she wrote, “my dear little brother has been sleeping his lonely grave, far from all who loved him, and we knew it not until a few days ago.” She remembered hugging him goodbye, his tears on her face, how he reined his horse on a hilltop and turned to wave at her one last time.
And now, a final image haunted her mind: his dead body in a black coffin, a once sweet and handsome young man now “cold and white.”
Her heart shattered, she concluded: “He was but a boy and could not stand the hardships of soldier’s life. Four months of it killed him.”
Not even the hope of victory, that great fire burning in her heart, escaped the shadow of her sorrow. “Even peace,” she wrote, “will not restore him to us all.”
As her grief eased, she explained what convinced the family to leave Brokenburn once and for all.
On March 26, as Stone and her mother visited a neighbor, an armed slave captured them and contained them in one room as other slaves ransacked the house. After fleeing the house, she saw more slaves descend on the home and walk off with all the possessions. The horror of this incident finally convinced Stone’s mother that it was time to move.
In the middle of the night, defying Federal orders that civilians could not leave their homes, the Stones left Brokenburn. They navigated flooded fields, endured broken roads and swam in the bayous when necessary. Slaves betrayed them at points, riding off with their clothes and other possessions.
Stone agreed with her mother, who “regrets coming away as she did, but what could she do? We could not stand more than anyone else, and nearly everyone left before we did. … So passes the glory of the family.”
From Anchorage, they moved on to a chaotic scene at the train station at Dehli and managed to secure some space on the westbound train to Monroe. From Monroe, they settled temporarily in Trenton. Stone’s mother and brother went back to Dehli, gathered some soldiers and returned to Brokenburn to gather the remaining slaves and bring them west. Stone spat with contempt at the reports of the house stripped of all valuables and of Webster, “our most trusted servant,” who proclaimed himself the new owner of Brokenburn. He is, she wrote, “the greatest villain in the country.”
The dark corner of the Confederacy
In July, they crossed into Texas, where it seemed they were met with one tragic blow after another. A starved, ravaged Vicksburg finally surrendered to Grant’s siege on July 4. In September, word arrived that Stone’s brother Coleman died from injuries sustained in fighting near Clinton, Miss. “Again we are called on to mourn one of our dearest and best,” she wrote.
The tragedy was no less painful, but her heart, she found, seemed stronger, more able to endure. “Death does not seem half so terrible as it did long ago,” she sighed with sad serenity. “We have grown used to it.”
When she heard of the death of Confederate Lt. Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson after the Battle of Chancellorsville, she mourned him deeply. “We have lost the conqueror on a dozen fields, the greatest general on our side. … As long as there is a Southern heart, it should thrill at the name of Stonewall Jackson. …”
Stone despised Texas, calling it “the dark corner of the Confederacy.” She concluded that “there must be something in the air of Texas fatal to beauty.”
As her family moved from one rented room to another, from town to town, the former plantation princess detested the people she encountered: “We have not seen a good looking or educated person since we entered the state.” She ridiculed their clothes: “Nothing looks funnier than a woman walking around with an immense hoop [skirt] — barefooted.” Their causal approach to hygiene sickened her. Before one meal “with the dirtiest people we have met yet,” she lost her appetite when she saw the servants washing the plates “at the duck pond right out in the yard.” She hated the fleas, the ticks, the huge snakes.
Texans hated her right back, her and people like her. They made no sympathetic effort to call people from Louisiana refugees. They called them renegades. Texan boys bullied her younger brothers. Sometimes their requests to spend the night in someone’s home were denied. The hostility left Stone mystified. “It is strange the prejudice that exists all through the state against refugees,” she sniffed, seemingly blind to her own condescending attitudes. “We think it is envy, just pure envy. The refugees are nicer and more refined people.”
The violence in the communities shocked her. “Nothing seems more common or less condemned than assassination,” she wrote
Despite all the complaining over fleas, hoop skirts, and duck ponds, Stone made the most of the journey through East Texas as her mother tried to find the family a quiet home. Louisianans had flooded the region since the Vicksburg campaign began, and as the weeks passed the Stones found friends more often, even people from the old Brokenburn neighborhood. Stone found herself admiring the wide open skies, the endless prairies, fields filled with wildflowers of every color. She munched on ripened berries and fruit. At night she watched fireflies dance around her, listened to the crickets sing, and stared into the huge, star-filled sky.
Near the end of 1863, the family arrived in Tyler, Texas, to live with old friends already there, and there they tried to make a new, long-term home. Stone became less haughty and more sociable. A big step in her acceptance of her new home came when she finally came across a volume of Shakespeare. Her belief in final Confederate victory remained strong — “Our only hope is in Lee the Invincible” — but the war itself, once again, was far away.
Even letters reminding her of its terrible cost simply became part of normal life. “Nearly every household mourns some love lost.” Joe Wicks. William. Coleman. Perhaps Stone saw her pain reflected in the eyes of so many others. She saw how they endured despite losing as much she had, if not very much more. Perhaps her new life finally began once she sensed a shared sorrow binding her to her new Texas community.
She allowed herself to appreciate natural beauty in the Confederate’s dark corner, found old and new friends amid an air of hostility, and found a degree of peace as the war raged on.
Stone ended 1863 quietly, reviewing her family’s still-not-settled situation in Tyler, and writing at last, “Our old neighborhood is scattered to the four winds.” Facing an enormous opportunity to restart her life, perhaps she thought that wasn’t such a bad thing.
Works cited or consulted for this essay series:
Faust, Drew Gilpin. Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slaveholding South in the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP, 1996. Print.
—. Southern Stories: Slaveholders in Peace and War. Columbia, Mo.: University of Missouri, 1992. Print.
Foote, Shelby. The Civil War: A Narrative. New York: Vintage, 1986. Print.
Johnson, Ludwell H. Red River Campaign: Politics and Cotton in the Civil War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1958. Print.
Kronk, Gary W. “C/1861 J1 (Great Comet of 1861).” Cometography.com. n.d. Web. 11 Sept. 2011.
Long, E.B. and Barbara Long. The Civil War: Day by Day. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971. Print.
McPherson, James M., ed. The Atlas of the Civil War. New York: Macmillan, 1994. Print.
—. Battle Cry of Freedom. New York: Oxford UP. 1988. Print.
Parrish, T. Michael. Richard Taylor: Soldier Prince of Dixie. Chapel Hill: North Carolina UP. 1992. Print.
Stone, Kate. Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone, 1861-1868. Ed. John Q. Anderson. Baton Rouge: Louisiana UP. 1995. Print.
Sullivan, Walter. The War the Women Lived: Female Voices from the Confederate South. Nashville: J.S. Sanders & Company. 1995. Print.
Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: W.W. Norton, 1962. Print.
Wooster, Ralph A. Civil War Texas. Texas State Historical Association. 199. Print.