You may or may not be aware, but we Americans are in the middle of the Civil War Sesquicentennial now in the year 2013. Beginning in the year 2011 and running through 2015, the National Park Service and the Civil War Trust called for United States museums, parks, and civil war groups to hold an exhibit, a program, a reenactment, or some such event to commemorate the war. Not celebrate it -- commemorate that devastating period when the North and South waged war against each other from 1861 through 1865. The Camden Archives and Museum will honor that request by mounting an exhibit running from September 9, 2013, through January 11, 2014. Because we had no battles here, we will focus on the home front, which was our own “battle” against shortages of food and supplies while we were also tending to the wounded soldiers who arrived on the railroad from the war front. Camden faced quite a challenging time during the war.
This essay will focus on one aspect of Camden’s wartime challenge: the “Soldier’s Rest,” established by the Ladies Aid Association of Camden. With the vast majority of Camden’s men off fighting the war, the ladies of Camden took up their arms in the form of the Ladies Aid Association, founded in June of 1861. This society began their work by gathering the needs of the troops, knitting socks and gloves, making shirts and undergarments, gathering blankets and carpets, and food and supplies of all description for the troops. Regular monthly and semi-monthly articles in the Camden newspapers detail the work of these ladies and where the goods were distributed on the war front. Numerous thank you letters from the commanders of the lucky troops who received supplies also appear in the papers. Much of this work was accomplished at great deprivation of the families at home who also went without proper shoes, and clothing, fire wood, and at times food stuffs. The sacrifice for the brave fighting men was its own reward for the women. They “made do.” The exhibit will explore the ways they struggled to overcome their challenges -- perhaps the largest of which was lack of cash as the war proceeded. Camden merchants had goods and food to sell, but on a cash basis only.
As the war progressed and terrible battle after battle sent wounded and gravely ill southern soldiers back from the front to be tended, the ladies took up a second stage of their wartime work. Camden was a major stop on the South Carolina Railroad and the site of the 1st South Carolina Hospital at Camden, an army hospital located in a large hotel building across King Street on the same side of Broad Street as the Robert Mills Court House. The gravely wounded and ill were sent to the hospital to be tended by army surgeons. Many other soldiers disembarked the train here to travel home for furlough or to recuperate from less serious injuries received on the battlefield. The Ladies Aid Association met their needs by establishing “The Soldiers’ Rest.”
Soldiers’ Rest was located in the 1850 town hall which stood where the building housing 1011 Galleria is today. It was not a hospital. The Rest had a specific purpose as outlined by a contemporary account, “The Rest most gratefully acknowledges … Donations from our country friends in the way of provisions … we have from three to a dozen or more Soldiers at our rest every night -- passing on their way to their homes to the different Districts – and from time to time stopping a few days to recover from their wounds and diseases.” The ladies fed a daily meal to the soldiers, many of whom left after mid-day dinner and went on their way. Some required a longer stay and some medical attention. Some they transported home when they were too disabled to walk. For some they found coffins and buried them. All received the gentle and loving attention and care from the Camden ladies who belonged to the Soldiers’ Rest Committee of the Ladies Aid Society. It was tireless, self-sacrificing work when all the while these same ladies were struggling to feed and clothe their own families at home.
Their care of the Confederacy’s returning soldiers alleviated the very situation outlined in the Camden Daily Journal on September 15, 1864. Entitled “Patriotism at Home Illustrated,” the columnist wrote,
A few items of expense incurred by a wounded soldier on his way home …
Three meals at a hotel ……………. $30.00
Attendance of a servant to do, for I hour, whilst undergoing a severe Surgical operation …………. 10.00
Omnibus fare (being unable to walk as consequence of wound)……………. 12.00 …
Add to this half fare on rail road from Charleston to Columbia …………… 10.00
From the above it may be readily inferred that from the time a disabled soldier reaches his home in Georgia,from Early’s army in the valley, he bleeds most freely.
The “country ladies” from surrounding areas donated to the Camden Soldiers’ Rest, for here their beloved men departed the train to come travel home. Supplies for the Rest came in from Flat Rock, Lancaster, Kershaw and other adjacent locales. This work at Camden touched thousands of lives during the war. In the last days of the war, when the arrival of Union troops under Sherman and Potter was eminent, town council made a wise decision to protect the town hall where the Rest was located by making it a “hospital.” This prevented the hall from being torched as were numerous other Camden buildings during the Union invasion.
As we go through the next few months, this column will feature other aspects of the home front in Camden. Mark your calendar for the upcoming exhibit. As always, the Camden Archives and Museum is free and open to the public. Come see us!