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  • Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

    Women Bandits
    Hijack Cotton
    in Civil War Texas

    by Mike Cox
    Mike Cox

    None of the truly decisive battles of the Civil War took place in Texas, but in other ways the bloody conflict between the North and South had a major impact on the state.

    Looking back on his childhood experiences in Texas during the war, J.D. Cooley remembered in the mid-1930s how the rebellion affected the supply of food and beverage on the home front.

    “With father gone,” he recalled, “mother couldn’t do much at raising vegetables, so we lived mostly on bread, wild meat, and potatoes.”

    Not only were tens of thousands of able-bodied Texas men off fighting for the South, the North had blockaded all Confederate ports. Blockade runners willing to risk being fired on by Union warships managed to get some supplies in to the Southern states, but the South experienced wartime shortages worse than anything later seen in the two world wars.

    Cooley’s family had a wood-burning stove and his mother had to make do with only a frying pan, an iron pot and a coffee pot.

    “And what do you suppose they used for coffee?” he asked.

    The answer is parched wheat, bran, okra and corn. Cooley said corn made the best coffee. Unfortunately for any Civil War-era Texan with a caffeine habit, none of those coffee substitutes contained the chemical that gives coffee its meaning for most people.

    Ready-made clothing and even cloth for sewing became as scarce as real coffee. The only reliable way to get cloth was to spin it yourself, Cooley said.

    Women took cotton or wool that had been carded into bats and spun them into thread that would be wound onto a broach.

    “Mother used to ‘spin a broach’ nearly every night after supper before she went to bed,” Cooley remembered. “This thread was fed into a loom, where it was woven into cloth. The loom was worked by the hands and feet. After the cloth was made, the garmets were cut out and sewed by hand.”

    The only other issue was how to color the cloth. Bark from oak trees or walnut hulls could be boiled to dye things dark, with various berries used to produce brighter colors.

    “In spite of our difficulties at dressing up,” Cooley concluded, “when we stepped out in our rough shoes, I in my new jeans and my sisters in their bright linsey dresses, our mother thought it would be hard to improve on us.

    Some Texas mothers resorted to even greater extremes in providing for their families.

    When federal forces fought their way through Louisiana with the goal of invading Texas, Confederate officials tried to get as much cotton as they could out of Arkansas, Louisiana and East Texas to keep it from falling into Union hands. Long wagon trains wagons moved the important crop – which essentially amounted to the basis of the South’s economic system – to some place safe.

    According to Cooley, much of the cotton ended up in Dallas. Teamsters unloaded the cotton outside of town about where Fair Park is now located.

    By this point in the war, 1863, many Texans had gone from being merely inconvenienced by the war to a state of pure desperation. Some had been reduced to wearing only rags, including Cooley’s family. That’s when Cooley’s mother decided to take bold action.

    “My mother headed a group of women that stopped one of the teamsters in the train of cotton wagons,” he said. “Pretending to have guns, they told him to put up his hands.”

    The teamster opted to give the women the benefit of the doubt and put up his hands.

    “The women rolled off a bale of cotton, tore it open right there and divided it up amongst themselves,” Cooley continued. “Mother soon had some homespun going on the loom, and before long mother and my sisters had new dresses.”

    Mixing what remained of the new cotton with wool, Cooley’s mother also made him a new pair of jeans.

    Her family once again suitably clothed, Mrs. Cooley gave up her short-lived career as an outlaw.


    © Mike Cox - March 7, 2013 column
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