The Civilian Camp

The Civilian Camp




 Copyright - May not be reproduced without permission from:  Victoria Rumble  

War ultimately brings with it utter chaos, and during the War Between the States destruction of property in the South, both personal and public, reached devastating proportions.  Families found themselves having to abandon their homes and seek refuge in areas they thought to be farther from battle lines and advancing troops. Homes, churches, schools and universities, mills, etc. were burned, sometimes entire cities and towns were left in ashes.  

Some parts of the country saw little change in day to day activities while others saw their towns change hands from their own troops to enemy hands many times during the course of the war. With each occupation came new dangers. Families had to put a lot of thought into leaving their homes because there was a high likelihood their homes would be looted and/or burned leaving them adrift in the world with nothing more than the possessions they carried with them.  Some families were lucky in that they had family who could take them in on a temporary basis, others soon learned the harsh realities of being homeless.  For them refugee camps offered refuge when all around them war raged on.  

The amount of possessions a family took with them when they left their home depended on how much warning they had of the approaching danger, and whether or not there was a wagon or cart and horse,  mule or other animal left to pull it.  In our impression of refugees we may choose to carry only our clothes, a haversack with a little food, and take shelter under a tree or shebang or we may feel the scenario will support an impression of families having refugeed with enough notice to pack the items they considered essential to their well being.    

Some refugees were able to stay relatively close to home and under cover return to their homes for various items they needed.  Perhaps in the case of Vicksburg a break in enemy shelling would afford an opportunity to go into the home and obtain clothing, food, or some other essential item.  

Some of the items we might have taken if we had lived during the war are listed below.  While no one expects you to carry all these items, this will allow us to discuss what a refugee with a little time to pack "might" have taken.  Your impression might incorporate different items for different settings.  

Seating.  Chairs were important enough to mid-Victorian women that if they'd had time to load them and a conveyance to carry them they might well have taken what they could.  These might have consisted of: a small rocking chair, ladder back kitchen chairs, caned chairs, they might have even crafted log or board benches.  They might have had access to wood and canvas folding chairs or stools - either with white cotton canvas or tapestry seats.  

Tables.  A table would have been of immense importance to a woman to keep from bending over to prepare food, or to hold sewing supplies while she worked, etc.  A table could be as simple as boards laid over barrels or saw horses, or a table from home might have been a candle stand or center table, drop leaf table, or even a wash stand.  For most of us carrying an antique table outdoors is a little eccentric so the folding camp tables usually suffice.  

Bedding:  Bedding was hard to come by and once lost it was very difficult to replace.  A woman fleeing her home would have taken her feather beds if possible.  In addition to wool blankets and quilts a good reproduction coverlet would be an excellent choice.  For those who are not plagued with allergies a straw stuffed tick or one stuffed with dried corn shucks would be very appropriate.  (See also bedding for refugees.)  

Other items which might have found their way into a refugee camp might include a small wooden framed looking glass, a braided, hooked, or wool rug, tin or wooden buckets, gourd dippers, a bowl and pitcher for washing hands and faces, a chamber pot, lighting devices etc.  

Candle lanterns, candle holders, and perhaps an oil lamp would have been of use.  The railroad type lanterns are a post-war creation which is inappropriate for an l86l-l865 impression.  Oil lamps of the period used whale oil, kerosene, etc., but oil was very scarce in the South during the war which is a factor in our decision to use the lamps.    

Dishes and tumblers:  Once the blockades went up dishes, glasses/tumblers, cups, etc. were almost impossible to replace.  When they could be found at all they brought exorbitant prices.  When replacements could not be found gourds, wooden bowls, and tumblers made from cutting the tops off bottles were the choices available.  If these items could have been carried an effort would have been made to do so. Dishes included white, sprigged, flow blue, spatterware, spongeware, etc.  Sprig ware had gone out of fashion by l860, but some houses might have continued to use it.  Rockingham is characterized by dark brown to reddish brown to cream mottling.  It was being produced in America by l834.  Flow blue or blue willow of the era was characterized by deep blue design, and was first produced in England and shipped to America.  After l830 the lighter blues began to appear.  Mulberry, black, pink, and green were also used for this type china.  

Tinware:  Easy to transport without fear of breakage.  Cups, plates, and utensils were being used in many homes and some items such as trays, bowls, canisters, etc. were painted in bright colors.     

Silverware was of the utmost importance because like dishes and cookware replacements were almost impossible to find and when they were found were very expensive.  Silverware that was lost was often replaced with utensils carved from wood.  Forks of the period usually had wooden or bone handles.  Forks and knives were usually sold together while spoons were sold separately.  The blades of knives were broader than those found today.  Forks were often three-tined, but four-tined forks had begun to appear by l860.  Spoons could have been pewter, steel or coin silver.  Fiddle-back designs often turn up in antique stores at a nominal cost and are an excellent choice.    

Clothing was hard to replace during the war.  It was sometimes lost due to homes being raided or burned, sometimes had to be abandoned as a refugee fled for safety because a conveyance to carry it couldn't be found.  Fabrics were hard to find and brought extravagant prices.  A woman would have valued having her spinning wheel with her so as to be able to reproduce fabric to replace the lost clothing.  

A woman would have gone to great lengths to pack and carry her sewing basket with needles, pins, scissors, and other essentials.  She might well have sat in her new shelter and busily crafted clothing items to replace those lost - either for herself and her children, or for her husband far away on the battlefield.  

Items found useful in camp would have included a shovel (wooden D-handled is most authentic), a hatchet or ax, a broom (round, hand-tied is most authentic), a water bucket or barrel, dipper, etc.  Once the blockades went up and tools became irreplaceable a hammer, shovel, saw, etc. would have been important once civilians realized the difficulty of replacing such items.  

Storage containers to haul these possessions in might have included a wooden barrel or keg, a trunk, cloth bags, a wicker hamper or basket (please avoid obviously modern designs), a wooden packing crate (the equivalent of today's cardboard box), a carpetbag, leather valise. etc.  Trunks might have had rounded tops or been flat, of leather or paper with leather or rope handles.  The first of the decorative metal trunks appeared about l860, and these are characterized by round tops with three wooden strips across the top.  

For those special living history settings which allow us to truly interact with the public items we might include in our refugee impression might also include quills or pens, period stationery and envelopes, ink wells, books - hard bound titles of early favorites, etc.  Books were destroyed by the thousands and for those with a love of books that was an exceptionally hard blow.    
Something most Victorians prized among their most valuable possessions was their Bible.  A Bible not only held the word of God between its covers, but also a family's history.  Bibles from the period generally recorded births, deaths, marriages, christenings, and other events of importance.  They were valued heirlooms often having been passed down through one or more generations, and if a conveyance could have been found to carry this precious book chances are it would have found its way into a refugee setting. Bibles also often held pressed flowers from a loved one's grave, a CDV, a lock of hair or some other precious memento which held special significance for its owner.  CDV albums might have been salvaged.  Perhaps they held images of long dead loved ones - parents, siblings, or children whose undernourished bodies simply couldn't fight off disease.  Many parents waited to bury a child until a photographer could come to capture the image for them - these images would not have been abandoned if it were possible to carry them.

I'm not sure how practical it would be to reproduce these for a camp setting, but another thing refugees carried if they could was deeds and other legal papers.  These were often the family's only claim to property after the war.    

The photo to below was taken by Matthew Brady in l861.  It shows a Southern family that has loaded as many of their possessions as their wagon can carry in preparation to leaving their home for a safer area.  The grave expression on this woman's face shows the gravity of leaving her home.  Would she find adequate shelter along the way, would her home be there if she returned?  These questions plagued refugees who sometimes had no word of the homes they'd abandoned.  Please note the chairs, bedding, and other items that can be identified in the photo.


Refugees often fled in large numbers from places or events such as the burning of Atlanta, the siege of Petersburg or Vicksburg, occupation of towns such as Winchester or New Orleans.  They sometimes encountered people who were sympathetic to their plight and tried to help them as much as possible, and sometimes large numbers of refugees entering a strange town found a cool reception from the residents who might already have been struggling to feed their families and knew supplies would not stretch to feed so many.  These groups of refugees found safety in numbers and could comfort each other in a way that brought some measure of relief of their circumstances so our camp setting with multiple numbers of participants is appropriate.

It is important to remember that refugees came from all walks of life and their circumstances prior to the war might have varied from working class to wealthy.  Once the situation became desperate in the South these social classes were forgotten.  Women who had previously dressed in silks wore homespun and ate peas and hominy just like the poor widow who had barely made ends meet before the war started.

Mrs. Jefferson Davis wrote after the war of the hardships of Christmas in the Confederate White House and Mrs. Robert E. Lee became a refugee like thousands of others when her home was taken over and her grounds used as a burial ground for Union soldiers.  She and Gen. Lee were never able to return to their home, Arlington, because these graves were just a few feet from their front door.  

We can see that refugees' circumstances varied greatly, and so can our impression of them.  We might be extended members of one family fleeing for safety, or neighbors from a town which found itself occupied by the enemy.  A little thought and planning can afford us an opportunity to explain the circumstances of these people to visitors who might otherwise never know of their plight, or that they even existed.

 18th Century

 19th Century

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