Hard Times
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Area Civil War period marked by hard times

By W. T. Block

First published in Beaumont Enterprise on Saturday October 30, 1999.

NEDERLAND--Apparently Americans will always be fascinated with Civil War history, and at least four periodicals still devote all their pages to that conflict. Causes of the war are one of the reasons, and the oftentimes mentioned “states’ rights” was only a dimly veiled doctrine for the preservation of slavery. Nevertheless only one in twenty Confederate soldiers actually owned slaves.

The civil struggle is often called “the war of the boys,” because about half of the participants on either side were under 21 years of age. The idea prevailed that if a “boy were big enough to carry a gun,” he was old enough. Yet the other extreme was common too. There were many instances of soldiers more than fifty years old.

In Feb. 1862, six 16-year-old boys at Sabine Pass, tired of drilling on the salt grass prairie, took “French leave” for Jasper, where they re-enlisted in a company soon to fight at the Battle of Shiloh. John Beaumont of Port Neches was 56 years old when he was wounded at the Battle of Fordoche Bayou, La.. Michael Staffen of Smith Bluff, near Nederland, was 50 when he was drafted into the Confederate Army.

Jefferson County was never a significant cotton-producing county, and 49 of the 84 bales grown in this county in 1859 were picked by J. B. Langham of Beaumont. The 309 slaves in the county were mostly devoted to cattle ranching, although some worked in sawmills, building railroads, or worked as domestic servants. There were 101 slaves living at Sabine Pass, 21 at Port Neches, and the remainder were either living in Beaumont or on the outlying cattle ranches.

With Jefferson County soon to be blockaded at Sabine Pass, the county residents were soon cut off from all imports of dry goods, hardware, and many foodstuffs. Farming suffered too, for very quickly most families had no male resident more than 14 years old.

Everything was quickly in short supply, and households either created many substitutes or did without. Clothing, hardware, and utensils on hand in 1861 had to last for the remainder of the war.

Corn and peanuts were parched and ground as a substitute for coffee. Boiled sassafras roots became a substitute for tea. Ink was made from the purple juice of mulberries, and writing paper was often the wallpaper removed from walls.

Soap was homemade too, using lye, ashes removed from the fireplace, and tallow from slaughtered animals. Glue was made by boiling cow horns and cattle hoofs. Needles were sometimes made out of fish bones, and fishhooks were fashioned from square nails.

Some farmers at Sabine Pass began growing indigo, from which a dark blue or purple dye could be made. Bowls and spoons were oftentimes whittled from wood. Shoe soles were either made from rawhide or wood, and homemade leather was made, using tannic acid made from boiled oak bark. Many “home remedies” for diseases were created during those years when patent medicines and physicians were scarce.

All spinning wheels were in daily use, spinning yarn from ginned cotton or wool, and the yarn was used in handlooms for making cloth. Yarn was also used to repair seines, because fish and ducks were the staple diet of civilians and soldiers at Sabine Pass.

The Civil War era also created the first welfare rolls in Jefferson County. By 1865, half of the families in Jefferson County, the dependents of Confederate soldiers, were being furnished a weekly ration of beef and corn meal, the latter ground by Remley’s grist mill at Port Neches. These facts are confirmed by several volumes still in the courthouse.

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