Alfriend, Edward M. "Social Life in
Richmond During the War." Cosmopolitan (Dec. 1891), pp. 229-233.
Page 380 Southern
Historical Society Papers.
[From the Cosmopolitan, December, 1891.]
SOCIAL LIFE IN RICHMOND DURING THE WAR.
BY EDWARD M. ALFRIEND.
For many months after the beginning of the war between the States Richmond was an
extremely gay, bright, and happy city. Except that its streets were filled with
handsomely-attired officers and that troops constantly passed through it, there was
nothing to indicate the horrors or sorrows of war, or the fearful deprivations that
subsequently befell it. As the war progressed its miseries tightened their bloody grasp
upon the city, happiness was nearly destroyed, and the hearts of the people were made to
During the time of McClellan's investment of Richmond, and the seven days' fighting
between Lee's army and his own, every cannon that was fired could be heard in every home
in Richmond, and as every home had its son or sons at the front in Lee's army, it can be
easily understood how great was the anguish of every mother's heart in the Confederate
capital. These mothers had cheerfully given their sons to the southern cause,
illustrating, as they sent them forth to battle, the heroism of the Spartan mother, who,
when she gave her son his shield, told him to return with or on it.
HAPPY PHASES TO SOCIAL LIFE.
And yet, during the entire war, Richmond had happy phases to its social life.
Entertainments were given very freely and very liberally the first year of the war, and at
them wine and suppers were generously furnished, but as the war progressed all this was of
necessity given up, and we had instead what were called "starvation parties."
The young ladies of the city, accompanied by their male escorts (generally Confederate
officers on leave) would assemble at a fashionable residence that before the war had been
the abode of wealth, and have music and plenty of dancing, but not a morsel of food or a
drop of drink was seen. And this form of entertainment became the popular and universal
one in Richmond. Of course no food or wine was served simply because the host could not
get it, or could
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not afford it. And at these starvation parties the young people of Richmond and the young
army officers assembled and danced as brightly and as happily as though a supper worthy of
Lucullus awaited them.
The ladies were simply dressed, many of them without jewelry, because the women of the
South had given their jewelry to the Confederate cause. Often on the occasion of these
starvation parties some young southern girl would appear in an old gown belonging to her
mother or grand-mother, or possibly a still more remote ancestor, and the effect of the
antique garment was very peculiar; but no matter what was worn, no matter how peculiarly
any one might be attired, no matter how bad the music, no matter how limited the host's or
hostess's ability to entertain, everybody laughed, danced, and was happy, although the
reports of the cannon often boomed in their ears, and all deprivation, all deficiencies
were looked on as a sacrifice to the southern cause.
THE DRESS OF A GRANDMOTHER.
I remember going to starvation party during the war with a Miss M., a sister of Amelie
Rives's mother. She wore a dress belonging to her great-grandmother or grandmother, and
she looked regally handsome in it. She was a young lady of rare beauty, and as
thoroughbred in every feature of her face or pose and line of her body as a reindeer, and
with this old dress on she looked as though the portrait of some ancestor had stepped out
of its frame.
Such spectacles were very common at our starvation parties. On one occasion I attended a
starvation party at the residence of Mr. John Enders, an old an honored citizen of
Richmond, and, of course, there was no supper. Among those present was Willie Allan, the
second son of the gentleman, Mr. John Allan, who adopted Edgar Allan Poe, and gave him his
middle name. About one o'clock in the morning he came to one other gentleman and myself,
and asked us to go to his home just across the street, saying he thought he could give us
some supper. Of course, we eagerly accepted his invitation and accompanied him to his
house. He brought out a half dozen cold mutton chops and some bread, and we had what was
to us a royal supper. I spent the night at the Allan home, and slept in the same room with
Willie Allan. The next morning there was a tap on the door, and I heard the mother's
gentle voice calling: "Willie, Willie." He answered, "Yes, mother; what is
it?" And she replied:
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"Did you eat the mutton chops last night?" He answered, "Yes," when
she said: "Well, then, we haven't any breakfast."
The condition of the Allan household was that of all Richmond. Sometimes the contrasts
that occurred in these social gayeties in Richmond were frightful, ghastly. A brilliant,
handsome, happy, joyous young officer, full of hope and promise, would dance with a lovely
girl, return to his command; a few days would elapse, another starvation party would
occur; the officer would be missed, he would be asked for, and the reply came,
"Killed in battle;" and frequently the same girls with whom he had danced a few
nights before would attend his funeral from one of the churches of Richmond. Can life have
any more terrible antithesis than this?
A Georgia lady was once remonstrating with General Sherman against the conduct of some of
his men, when she said: "General, this is barbarity," and General Sherman, who
was famous for his pregnant epigrams, replied: "Madam, war is barbarity." And so
On one occasion when I was attending a starvation party in Richmond the dancing was at its
height and everybody was bright and happy, when the hostess, who was a widow, was suddenly
called out of the room. A hush fell on everything, the dancing stopped, and every one
became sad, all having a premonition in those troublous times that something fearful had
happened. We were soon told that her son had been killed late that evening in a skirmish
in front of Richmond, a few miles from his home.
Wounded and sick men and officers were constantly brought into the homes of the people of
Richmond to be taken care of, and every home had in it a sick or wounded Confederate
soldier. From the association thus brought about many a love affair occurred and many a
marriage resulted. I know of several wives and mothers in the South who lost their hearts
and won their soldier husbands in this way, so this phase of life during the war near
Richmond was prolific of romance.
GENERAL LEE KISSED THE GIRLS.
General Robert E. Lee would often leave the front, come into Richmond, and attend these
starvation parties, and on such occasions he was not only the cynosure of all eyes, but
the young ladies
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all crowded around him, and he kissed every one of them. This was esteemed his privilege,
and he seemed to enjoy the exercise of it. On such occasions he was thoroughly urbane, but
always the dignified patrician soldier in his bearing.
Private theatricals were also a form of amusements during the war. I saw several of them.
The finest I witnessed, however, was a performance of Sheridan's comedy, the Rivals, in
which that brilliant lady, Mrs. Senator Clay, of Alabama, played Mrs. Malaprop. Her
rendition of the part was one of the best I ever saw, rivalling that of any professional.
The audience was very brilliant, the President of the Confederacy, Mr. Davis, Judah P.
Benjamin, and others of equal distinction being present.
Mrs. Davis is a woman of great intellectual powers and a social queen, and at these
entertainments she was very charming. Mr. Davis was always simple, unpretentious, and
thoroughly cordial in his manner. To those who saw him on these occasions it was
impossible to associate his gentle, pleasing manner with the stern decision with which he
was then directing his side of the greatest war of modern times. The world has greatly
misunderstood Mr. Davis and in no way more than in personal traits of his character. My
brother, the late Frank H. Alfriend, was Mr. Davis's biographer, and through him and
through personal intercourse with Mr. Davis, I knew him well. In all his social, domestic,
and family relations he was the gentlest, the noblest, the tenderest of men. As a father
and husband he was almost peerless, for his domestic life was the highest conceivable.
LEADERS IN SOCIAL LIFE.
Mr. Davis, at the Executive Mansion, held weekly receptions, to which the public were
admitted. These continued until nearly the end of the war. The occasions were not
especially marked, but Mr. and Mrs. Davis were always delightful hosts.
Conspicuous figures in the social life of Richmond during the war were the accomplished
and learned Judah P. Benjamin: the silver-tounged orator, William L. Yancey, of Alabama;
the profound logician and great constitutional lawyer, Ben. Hill, of Georgia; the able,
eloquent, and benevolent Alexander H. Stephens, also of Georgia; the voluble but able
Henry S. Foote, of Mississippi; the polished William Porcher Miles, of South Carolina;
ex-President John Tyler, of Virginia; the present Senator Vest, of Missouri, and the
proximity of the army to Richmond rendered it possible for General Jeb Stuart,
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A. P. Hill, John Bankhead Magruder, Joseph E. Johnston, and other officers of distinction
to contribute their contingent to its brilliant intellectual life during that sanguinary
BENJAMIN, STEPHENS, YANCEY AND HILL.
I have never known a man socially more fascinating that Judah P. Benjamin. He was in his
attainments a veritable Admiral Crichton, and I think, excepting G. P. R. James, the most
brilliant, fascinating conversationalist I have ever known. He was a great social lion in
Richmond during the war, and always shone most brilliantly whenever occasion gave him the
opportunity. Mr. Benjamin loved a good dinner, a good glass of wine, and revelled in the
delights of fine Havana cigars. Indeed, even while Richmond was in a state of siege he was
never without them.
That great and good man, Alexander H. Stephens, of Georgia, in consequence of his feeble
health, mingled little in the social life of Richmond. He went out only among a few
friends, but his tender, loving, benevolent heart was constantly doing good offices among
the sick and wounded Confederate soldiers. His tall, frail figure frequently wended its
way through the streets of Richmond with packages of such little delicacies under his arm
as he could procure, and when thus seen the remark was always made: "There goes Mr.
Stephens to a hospital."
William L. Yancey, of Alabama, was also very quiet in his tastes, but mingled a good deal
in the social life of the Confederate capitol. He possessed a finely developed head, with a
broad, almost massive, forehead. His eyes were a large and lustrous blue, and his manner
very gentle and exquisitely refined. His voice was as sweet in some of its notes as a
strain of music from a lute, and would swell when speaking to the deep, rich tones of a
church organ. Mr. Yancey was an extreme southern man, and was always viewed by the North
as a "fire-eater" of the most violent type, but to those who saw him socially he
was the gentlest of men, the most considerate, courteous, well-bred of gentlemen--was the
embodiment of the highest type of southern chivalry.
Ben. Hill, of Georgia, was very fond of society, and went out a great deal. His nature was
pre-eminently companionable, kindly and tender. In his social life he was kind,
unpretentious, most fascinating intellectually, fond of a good joke, and possessed a most
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JOHN WISE AND HIS BIG CLOTHES.
The spectacle presented at the social gatherings, particularly the starvation parties, was
picturesque in the extreme. The ladies often took down the damask and other curtains and
made dresses of them. My friend, the Hon. John S. Wise, formerly of Virginia, now of New
York, tells the following story of himself: He was serving in front of Richmond and was
invited to come into the city to attend a starvation party. Having no coat of his own fit
to wear, he borrowed one from a brother officer nearly twice his height. The sleeves of
this coat covered his hands entirely, the skirt came below his knees several inches, and
the two buttons in the back were down on his legs. So attired, Captain Wise went to the
party. His first partner in the dance was a young lady of Richmond belonging to one of its
best families. She was attired in the dress of her great-grandmother, and a part of this
dress was a stomacher very aggressive in its proportions. Captain Wise relates with
exquisite humor that in the midst of the dance he found himself in front of a mirror, and
that the sight presented by himself and his partner was so ridiculous that he burst out
laughing; and his partner turned and looked at him angrily, left his side, and never spoke
to him again.
CONTRASTS THAT WERE PRETTY.
The varied and sometimes handsome uniforms of the Confederate officers commingling with
each other and contrasting with the simple, pretty, sometimes antiquated dresses of the
ladies, made pictures that were beautiful in their contrasts of color and of tone. An
artist would have found in these scenes infinite opportunity for his pencil or brush,
I am sure that this phase of social life in Richmond during the war is without parallel in
the world's history. The army officers, of course, had only their uniforms, and the women
wore whatever they could get to wear.
In the last year of the war, particularly the last few months, the pinch of deprivation,
especially as to food, became fearful. There were many families in Richmond that were in
well nigh a starving condition. I know of some that lived for days on pea soup and bread.
Confederate money was almost valueless. Its purchasing power had so depreciated that it
used to be said it took a basketful
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to go to market. Of course, the people had very few greenbacks, and very little gold or
silver. The city was invested by two armies, Grant's and Lee's, and its railroad
communications constantly destroyed by the Union cavalry. Supplies of food were very
scarce and enormously costly; a barrel of flour cost several hundred dollars in
Confederate money, and just before the fall of the Confederacy I paid $500 for a pair of
heavy boots. The suffering of this period was dreadful, and when Richmond capitulated many
of its people were in an almost starving condition. Indeed, there was little food outside,
and the Southern troops were but little better off.
LOYALTY OF THE SLAVES.
But in April, 1865, the Confederacy ceased to exist; it passed into history, and Richmond
was occupied by the Northern army. Many of its people were without food and without
money--I mean money of the United States. It was at this period that the colored people of
Richmond, slaves up to the time the war ended, but now no longer bondsmen, showed their
loyalty and love for their former masters and mistresses. They, of course, had access to
the commissary of the United States, and many, very many, of these former negro slaves,
went to the United States commissary, obtained food seemingly for themselves, and took it
in basketfuls to their former owners, who were without food or money. I do not recall any
record in the world's history nobler than this--indeed, equal to it.
These are memories of a dead past, and thank God! we now live under the old flag and in a
happy, reunited country, which the South loves with a patriotic devotion unsurpassed by
the North itself.