Search using this query type:

Advanced Search (Items only)

Protect Us! White Female Protection on the Home Front

Letter from Mary A. Windsor to Zebulon Baird Vance, February 1, 1865
Item 661: Letter from Mary A. Windsor to Z.B. Vance, February 1, 1865

Protection from Starvation 

     Introduction | Starvation | Confederates Slaves | The Enemy | Conclusion 

During the Inner Civil War, conditions on the home front reached new levels of desperation. Before 1863, the main shortage in the Confederacy was manufactured goods due to the Union blockade. Blockade runners smuggled goods into the South and exploited the shortage by demanding high prices. Items like cotton cards, used in the process of making cotton thread, were in short supply. [1] The shortage of manufactured goods also caused demand for farm equipment and other machines used in food processing. The blockade created shortages for the whole South and affected all the classes. During the war, the North Carolina General Assembly distributed twenty million Confederate dollars. Over the course of the war, the currency struggled to hold value. For example, wheat prices rose 1600 percent and flour prices 2800 percent. In addition to inflation, there was not a singular currency for the Confederacy. North Carolina issued over twenty-five different types of notes in more than 150 varieties. [2] Inflation and the insecurity of Confederate currency created more chaos on the home front.

Labor shortages hurt yeoman families the most. At first, both the North and the South thought it would be a quick conflict. Many western North Carolinians volunteered for one year of service and did not make long-term plans for their farms. Throughout the war, early frost, wheat disease and drought cause the farms in western North Carolina to fail. In the state as a whole, the war drained the most valuable resources the state had: manpower, textile production and agricultural goods. By 1863, the demand for these resources hurt women and children in North Carolina the hardest. White women of the yeomen class participated in farm work before the war, but running a small farm took the whole family. Without adult men, no one could do the backbreaking labor of breaking the sod or moving large rocks. Without men, many farms’ fields lay fallow. Starvation became a possible fate for many white women.  For example in 1863, a white woman and her child starved to death in the outskirts of Wilmington. Her husband was arrested for disloyalty so she was without a male protector to provide food. [3] Many white women throughout the state wrote the governor asking to send their husband or male kin home so they would not starve.

Some poor white women in North Carolina participated in un-lady like behavior through bread riots. Faust cites a judge who stated that white women who rioted “cease to be women.” [4] Poverty and starvation motivated white women to deviate from gender norms. White women throughout the Confederacy rioted for food including in the capital, Richmond. North Carolina riots occurred in Davidson, Orange, Montgomery and Granville counties and targeted mills, grain houses, and merchant’s stores. On April 9, 1863, Governor Vance issued a warning to the deviant white women that “broken laws will give you no bread, but much sorrow.” The governor recommended that white women appeal to the government officials for protection instead of rioting. [5] Soldiers’ wives became recognized as a vocal and powerful group during the Inner Civil War.


Letter from Mrs. Love to Zebulon Baird Vance, March 31, 1864
Item 727: Letter from Mrs. Love to Z.B. Vance, March 31, 1864

An appeal to the governor from Mary A. Windsor exemplifies the distress of white women on the home front. In 1865, Windsor of Reidsville wrote to the governor, requesting the release of her husband to help care for the family farm. She was alone except for a handicapped son and young children. The drought the previous year had destroyed her crop. She emphasized her position as a woman writing, requesting that the governor “look on the delicate females with tender mercy.” (Item 661) Without her husband, Windsor could not protect herself and her family from starvation. Before the war, white women like Windsor did not claim a relationship with the governor. But because she was the wife of a soldier, Windsor had an informal political identity. Only out of starvation and desperation did Windsor use her identity as a soldier’s wife politically. The absence of male protection forced white women like Windsor into public roles. 

Other white women took the role of soldiers’ wives to more of an extreme. A Mrs. Love wrote the Governor in March of 1864 from Claytonville about the food shortages on the home front. She wrote “but a suffering for food is the only prospect to many families.” She explained the food shortages in her town saying the supply was, “barely sufficient if at all so to produce bread and meal for consumption.” Without men to help on the farm, there were no crops and the town would starve. Love wanted the governor to understand these facts “If the military are called a few more times, between this and the gathering of corn, our citizens…will suffer for food, next winter and the spring and summer of 1865.” She understood how damaging the male absence was to the families. Love proposed that the governor send Home Guards so the town could plant crops. (Item 727) As Love stated in her letter, starvation led white women to forcefully seizing food. She warned the Governor of the dangers of starvation: “But there can be no guarantees…the power of starvation…Taking by force will be the order of the day.” (Item 727). Love recognized that white women would do anything to avoid starvation, whether they obeyed the law or not. She left the private sphere and criticized politicians who she was not even allowed to vote for. She viewed this deviation as a necessary measure for survival. Starvation on the home front forced white women in the public sphere to protect their families.

The white women turned to the government for protection from starvation though petitions, but with the sheer devastation of the Civil War the government failed the white women. The government did provide some aid to poor whites in North Carolina; in Orange County twenty percent of white women and thirty-five percent of children received aid in January of 1865. However, with the country at war there was not enough aid to combat the rampant hunger and poverty. [6] The aid came too little, too late and failed to make a significant difference in home front conditions. Not only did individual men not protect white women from starvation the government ultimately failed to protect white women from starvation. Some white women took on men’s roles to survive. Due to the social structure, poor white women had the least to lose from rioting because they did not hold to the same strict gender norms of separate spheres. Some might argue that rioting and taking on the men’s roles represented progress for white women. [7] But white women’s participation in bread riots shows the chaos of the Inner Civil War because the entire social structure turned on its head. Governor Vance clearly wanted to protect white women and children from starvation but his failure to do so created violence and upset the social order.


[1] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 120, 47, 49.

[2] “Brief History of N.C. Civil War Currency,” The North Carolina Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, accessed April 10, 2014, 

[3] McKinney, “Women’s Role in Civil War Western North Carolina,” 48; Bynum, Unruly Women, 120, 121.

[4] Faust, Mothers of Invention, 243.

[5] Bynum, Unruly Women, 125, 126, 127, 129.

[6] Bynum, Unruly Women, 125, 127, 129.

[7] Brown, “Women Left Behind,” 776.