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[Audio] How Farm Families Struggled to Survive During the Civil War

Matt Markgraf, WKMS

Well told from the American Civil War are the stories of battles and heroic leaders. Among the lesser known stories are those of the farm families and their homesteads who found themselves struggling to survive in the midst of conflict. "It was a trying time," says Land Between the Lakes Homeplace Lead Interpreter Cindy Earls. She speaks with Matt Markgraf on Sounds Good about what life was like for the farm families of western Kentucky and northwestern Tennessee ahead of their reenactment event "Civil War Comes to the Homeplace" this Saturday.

What did this region look like?

The region around what is now known as Land Between the Lakes looked "pretty devastating," Cindy Earls says. She believes the civilian side of the war is often under researched and under talked about. While Kentucky was a neutral border state, Tennessee was one of the last states to join the Confederacy. All of it was a battlefield, she says.

Between the Rivers, as it was then known, was unique because after the fall of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, civilian laws were disbanded and the area was placed under Martial law by the federal government. Foraging parties would come by homesteads taking food and clothes from families. There was no way of growing crops or making money and animals were often taken away, she says. These parties would promise repayment or require the families to take an oath of allegiance to the United States. This would be a conflict of interest, she says, if you had a son, brother or cousin fighting for the Confederate Army. And if you didn't take the oath, the parties would take what they wanted. In many cases, it was a lose, lose situation.

Families struggled to hold on to what they had, lest it get stolen or their homes would get burned down. Friends and neighbors may have had Union sympathies, which complicated relationships. Women often didn't know where the men were or if they were dead or alive. Also, illness in Dover spread to the civilian population.

Recovering after the war

The region was slow to recover. Many families moved either north or south to be with friends and relatives. If they came back, they may discover their farm in ruins. Investors from the north bought tracts of land in the area. For the iron industry, which had been booming in the land between the rivers, very few furnaces came back and returned operation. The Center Furnace continued to operate off and on until 1912.

Why western Kentucky and northwestern Tennessee?

Before the war, this was a lively and unique area because of its proximity to the rivers and inexpensive transportation. Farmers could raise extra crops and livestock and send them out around the country and world, she says. Tennessee was one of the largest producers of hogs in 1850. Dover was the second largest port city on the Cumberland River. The iron industry also made it an affluent area, shipping pig iron out from the waterways. For these reasons, this area was one of the first areas targeted in the Civil War.

Civil War coming to the Homeplace this Saturday

Interpreters at the Homeplace will be demonstrating the civilian experience. There won't be marches, military bands or skirmishes, but instead families struggling to survive in 1863. Women will be gathered together in the double-pen house cooking, getting clothing ready to send to soldiers, cooking dinner and doing housework. They'll be recycling materials to make clothing since Christmas is coming and they want to give something to their children.

A Confederate camp will be nearby showing what civilian soldiers experienced in the winter months when there wasn't much fighting. Members of the Union have occupied the single-pen house where the provost marshal asked a civilian representative to go into the community to have them take oaths of allegiance to the United States. Also, a resident historian from Fort Donelson will provide more background information on the time period.

Cindy Earls recommends reading Fort Donelson's Legacy: War and Society in Kentucky and Tennessee, 1862-1863 for more information.

Note: On Sounds Good, Monday, December 14, Matt Markgraf speaks with Earls about how farm families celebrated Christmas and occupied themselves during the winter months in the 1850s.

Matt Markgraf joined the WKMS team as a student in January 2007. He's served in a variety of roles over the years: as News Director March 2016-September 2019 and previously as the New Media & Promotions Coordinator beginning in 2011. Prior to that, he was a graduate and undergraduate assistant. He is currently the host of the international music show Imported on Sunday nights at 10 p.m.
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