Unhappiness Abroad - Civil War Refugees

Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled their homes during the Civil War. They included Confederate sympathizers in Union-occupied territory, African Americans fleeing captivity and deprivation in the South, and others displaced by the war. In Alexandria, two-thirds of the residents left town to escape military occupation.

Page updated on Jun 14, 2021 at 3:12 PM

Unhappiness Abroad - Civil War Refugees

Hundreds of thousands of refugees fled their homes during the Civil War. They included Confederate sympathizers in Union-occupied territory, African Americans fleeing captivity and deprivation in the South, and others displaced by the war. In Alexandria, two-thirds of the residents left town to escape military occupation.

Refugee Camp

Fear, uncertainty and deprivation was the lot of Civil War refugees. Forced to abandon their homes as occupying forces approached, civilians fled with limited household goods and only modest amounts of clothing and personal items. When they returned, they were greeted with destroyed crops, ransacked homes and beleaguered communities.

Called a "nation of nomads," 175,000 to 200,000 Confederate sympathizers were on the move during the war, the most in U.S. history. Midway through the war, a Mobile, Alabama editor estimated that 400,000 persons were refugees. In Alexandria, VA, two-thirds of the population left town, afraid of the uncertainties of military occupation. Other Alexandrians were expelled for refusing to take the "Oath of Loyalty". Wealthier families chose to "refugee" in England, France and Canada for the duration of the war, but for most, their options were limited.

"I am here on exile. On the night of the eighth, Papa learned that the wives of all Rebel officers in Kentucky were to be sent South in the most disagreeable way and to land God knows where. He begged me to start the next day for Canada, knowing that to go South at this season would be certain death to me and trembling at the thought of my being in the hands of our fiendish foe." 

Issa Desha Breckinridge
July 30, 1864
Queen's Hotel, Toronto, Canada

Civilians were unprepared for the war's intensity and duration. The overwhelming number left of their own choice when enemy invasion was imminent and when fear of what the occupying forces would do to them and their property was at its height. Every type of conveyance, public and private, was used to escape. Most tried to stay within Confederate territory, but it was not unusual to be uprooted four or five times in their search for a place to stay.

Sarah Morgan 

Sarah Morgan

 "My heart feels often as if it would break with longing for home." 

Mrs. D.P. Porter to her husband
Nov. 18, 1863

Diarist Sarah Morgan described the mayhem of the flight from Baton Rouge. Overloaded refugee wagons clogged the roadways and overburdened animals added to the confusion:

"Three miles from town we began to overtake the fugitives. Hundreds of women and children were walking along, some bareheaded and in all costumes. Little girls of twelve and fourteen were wandering on alone. I called to one I knew and asked her where her mother was; she didn't know; she would walk on until she found out...it was a heart-rending scene. Women searching for their babies along the road, where they had been lost; others sitting in the dust crying and wringing their hands." 

Sarah Morgan
May 28, 1862
Baton Rouge, LA

In their rush to escape, refugees sometime made poor decisions in choosing what to take and where they would go. Their lack of preparation or financial means created burdens on relatives and whole communities. Cities offered employment, police protection, safety in numbers, the opportunity for socializing and a variety of living arrangements. However, congestion in the cities - especially in railroad communities - became a problem in urban areas:

"...And now when Richmond is crowded to excess and it is impossible to get comfortable even decent lodgings at any price - we are to be turned out of doors. No one will be willing to take us when told that I expect to be confined in a month or two." 

Betty Herndon Maury
February 17, 1863

Anne Frobel, of Wilton Hill, describes the scene in Alexandria, Virginia on Sunday, May 22, 1861:

"...we rode to town again, to see and hear all we could about it. When we got in sight of the Orange depot we both exclaimed, 'What on earth is the matter what is going on?' Such a dense crowd thronged the streets, carriages filled with people, wagons, carts, drays, wheelbarrows all packed mountain high with baggage of every sort, men, women and children streaming along to the cars, most of the women crying, almost every face we saw we recognized, and all looking as forlorn and wretched as if going to execution. 

"I believe every body from both town and country that could possibly get away left at this time, and for the first time it dawned upon me that it was something more than pastime, and O what a feeling of loneliness and utter despair came over us when we thought of every friend and acquaintance gone." 

And in Fredericksburg, Virginia, the same scene played out:

"The streets have been filled with waggons (sic) and drays and men and women in carriages and buggies leaving the town. But all have gone now and the streets are deserted." 

Betty Herndon Maury
April 18, 1862

Refugees' Household Goods in Wagons

Families fled, taking household goods in every conveyance.

Refugees Taking Household Goods in Wagons

Refugees in rural areas had plainer, but more abundant food than in urban areas. Farmers were reluctant to bring their crops to town if their wagons and contents would be stolen.

Pressures from the economic problems led to conflicts between groups. Attitudes changed from sympathy to indifference to disgust and apathy as food, shelter and jobs became more scarce. The Richmond Examiner described refugees as "vultures preying on the community." The publication initially supported benevolence, but its editorial policy changed during the course of the war, also contributing to dissension among groups.

Conflicts between refugees and local citizens occurred in part due to the attitudes of the refugees, thrust in an unfamiliar role. Refugees came into the community carrying their valuable jewelry and silver, giving the impression that they were more affluent than the locals. They tended to set themselves apart from the locals, giving off a superior attitude. Some refugees were tactless as well, not concealing their disdain for what they perceived as the inferior background, dress and manners of the locals. Most refugees found their acceptance in a new community was determined by their own attitude.

"I reached Petersburg in the autumn (1863) and wandered about for days seeking refuge in some household. Many of my old friends had left town. Strangers and refugees has rented the houses of some of these, while others were filled with the homeless among their own kindred. There was no room anywhere for me and my small purse was growing so slender that I became anxious. Finally my brother-in-law offered me an overseers' house on one of his quarters. When I drove out to the little house, I found it hardly better than a hovel." 

Sara Rice Pryor

Sarah Pryor was living near Petersburg during the bombardment, her hearing damaged from the noise of the shells and explosions. She suffered near starvation and resorted to pawning family heirlooms and clothing for basic necessities.

"Petersburg was already virtually in a state of siege. Not a tithe of food needed for its army of refugees could be brought to the city. Our highway, the river, was filled with Federal gunboats. The markets had long been closed." 

Sara Rice Pryor

Becoming a refugee tested the endurance, faith and courage of the people. Now preoccupied with finding the basic necessities of life, the displacement led to depression, especially among those not gainfully employed. Monotony and boredom were major sources of homesickness. Those who had always been landowners became tenants for the first time, enduring high rents, crowding, frayed tempers, and lack of privacy. In return, landowners were upset because their properties were destroyed as a natural consequence of extreme overuse. 

Mary Boykin Chestnut

Mary Boykin Chesnut

Mary Boykin Chesnut

"There are two classes of vociferous suffers in this community: (1) those who say 'If people would only pay me what they owe me!' (2) 'If people would only let me alone. I cannot pay them. I could stand it if I had anything to pay debts.' Now we belong to both classes. Heavens! What people owe us and will not or cannot pay would settle all of our debts ten times over and leave us in easy circumstances. But they will not pay. How can they?" 

Mary Chesnut
March 5, 1865

"...God knows when and where we shall ever see our possessions there again. Will left his business, furniture and everything to come here and be with his people on the right side." 

Betty Herndon Maury
June 3, 1861

Other everyday inconveniences made life unhappy for refugees. It was difficult to receive mail and news from others when they were constantly on the move. Children's schooling was interrupted and the new students were subjected to taunts and teasing because of their unfamiliar manners and speech. Women were preoccupied with feeding their children and if they couldn't, the children were often sent away to distant relatives in safer locales. Special occasions, especially Christmas, were very difficult without the family gathering around its own hearth.

"It is also Lent - quite convenient, for we have nothing to eat. So we fast and pray..." 

Mary Chesnut
March 5, 1865

Official policies of the two governments were also detrimental to refugees. The Confederacy made no provisions for widows of soldiers, and even stopped the pay of captured men. The strategy of depopulation on the part of the Union, and "requisition of property" also created involuntary movements. Among the most distressing policies was the banishment of Confederate officer's wives from their homes and communities. Banishment was used widely along the Mississippi River corridor in St. Louis, Nashville and Memphis.

Elizabeth Merriweather

Elizabeth Meriwether

Elizabeth Meriwether  

Elizabeth Meriwether was banished in October 1862, when she was given 24-hour notice that she must leave Memphis. She had children ages three and five and was pregnant with a third. Her appeal to Gen. William T. Sherman was denied.

"I seemed all of a sudden to realize the desolateness of my position, alone in the world with two children, driven from pillar to post, my husband off in the army, I knew not where - surely it was a pitiable situation. I became filled with self-pity and cried as if my heart would break." 

Elizabeth Avery Merriwether
October 1862

Forced on the road, she delivered her third child in a stranger's house on Christmas night, 1862. At first, she attempted to follow her husband's unit, but eventually ended up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She resorted to stealing corn for food for her children, selling clothing and even sneaking back into Memphis on a dangerous mission to pay taxes so her property would not be sold at auction.

"The women and children were ordered to leave town. What a strain on our nerves. To run to the river bottom and leave our homes to the mercy of the Yankees and then what! Oh! Where could we go?" 

Virginia McCollum Stinson

Alexandrian Judith McGuire kept a record of her family's experience as refugees from 1861 to 1865. In 1867, her account was published and told of how private citizens were uprooted from their homes and communities, and forced into the civilian workforce to obtain meager sources of support.

"There is more unhappiness abroad among our people than I have ever seen before. Sometimes I wish I could sleep until it is over - a selfish wish enough; but it is hard to witness so much sorrow which you cannot alleviate." 

Judith McGuire
July 15, 1863

Virginia Theological Seminary

Virginia Theological Seminary

Virginia Theological Seminary, Alexandria, VA 

Judith McGuire was married to John P. McGuire, an Episcopalian minister and the founder of the Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, where he taught until the beginning of the Civil War. He was elected to the state secession committee and voted for separation from the union. Forced to flee on May 24, 1861, the day Alexandria was occupied by Union forces, Judith McGuire and family began their odyssey of taking refuge with various family members across the state. With great regret and sadness, she wrote of her fears for their property in Alexandria.

"There is no probability of our getting home and if we cannot go, what then? What will become of our furniture, and all of our comforts, books, pictures, etc. But these things are too sad to dwell on." 

Judith McGuire

"With my mind's eye I look first into one room and then another, with all the associations of the past; the old family bible, the family pictures, the library containing the collection of forty years, and so many things which seemed a part of ourselves. What will become of them? Who are now using or abusing them?" 

Judith McGuire
September 12, 1861

With the weak wartime economy and loss of her husband's pastoral salary, it became necessary for both of them to find work. Employment was scarce as hundreds of displaced persons vied for the same few positions. What modest income was earned went to pay exorbitant rents and inflated prices for every day staples. John McGuire found a post as a postal clerk, then eventually became a hospital chaplain. Judith McGuire received an appointment to the Commissary Department. The couple moved several times during their stay in Richmond, seeking affordable housing. Despite her hardships, Judith McGuire knew her situation was better than most. They never went hungry and did not lack for influential friends or basic necessities as did lower classes without jobs.

"...The number of refugees increases fearfully as our army falls back; for though many persons, still surrounded by all the comforts of home ask why they do not stay and protect their property, my only answer is, 'How can they?' In many instances defenseless women and children are left without means of subsistence; their crops destroyed; their business suspended; their servants gone; their horses and other stock taken off; their homes liable at any hour of the day and night to be entered and desecrated by a lawless soldiery. How can they remain without even the present means of support, and nothing in prospect..." 

Judith McGuire
July 15, 1863

Prominent families were not immune from the hardships of war. Gen. Robert E. Lee's wife, Mary Custis Lee was forced to abandon Arlington, her family home turned into a Federal cemetery.

"Aunt Maria has been very kind in offering us an asylum there and taking care of all of our things...Custis astonishes me with his calmness; with a possibility of having his early and beautiful home destroyed, the present necessity of abandoning it, he never indulges in invectives or a word of reflection for the cruel course of the Administration. He leaves that for his momma and sisters." 

Mary Custis Lee
Letter to her husband

Davis Children

Davis Family

Davis Family

In preparation of the fall of the Confederacy, Varina Davis, wife of CSA President Jefferson Davis, sold clothing jewelry, silver, china and other possessions, then made arrangements to convert the proceeds from Confederate dollars to gold. In late March, 1865, Mrs. Davis and their children took a long trip by railroad and other conveyances into North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. Jefferson David fled Richmond on April 2, 1865. Varina Davis was captured with her husband at Irwinville, GA in early May, 1965. She was detained as a prisoner in Savannah until she was permitted to join him at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Davis was never brought to trial, and refused to request a pardon or the restoration of his citizenship. The couple lived apart for long periods of time, with Varina living in Europe and in Memphis, Tennessee.

African American families flee Culpeper, Virginia

African American families flee Culpeper, Virginia

African American Refugees

This photograph of the Davis children was taken while in exile in Toronto, Canada, 1866-1867. From left to right: Jefferson, Jr., Maggie, Winnie, and William Howell.  

People of color faced especially harsh refugee conditions. Native Americans were divided in their loyalties to the Union and were forced to leave their territories in the east after two 1861 battles. Cherokees, Creeks and Seminoles fled to Kansas, leaving property and camp equipment behind. It was bitterly cold; the army surgeon reported that more than a hundred frozen limbs had to be amputated. The Native Americans lacked food, clothing and medicine and many slept on bare ground or in small improvised shelters. The nearby stream was choked with carcasses of dead horses. Government red tape and transportation difficulties slowed Union efforts to give aid to the tribes.

Circumstances for African Americans were similarly bleak, as indicated in this letter.

Cumberland Gap, November 29, 1864
Hon. E.M. Stanton
Secretary of War 

A large number of colored women and children have accumulated at Camp Nelson. Many of them are wives and children of our colored soldiers. There will be much suffering among them this winter, unless shelters are built and rations issued to them. For the sake of humanity, I hope you will issue the proper order in this case as soon as possible. 

S. G. Burbridge
Brevet Major-General

The Bureau of Refugees, Freedman and Abandoned Lands, often referred to as the Freedman's Bureau, was established by the War Department on March 3, 1865. It supervised relief and educational activities relating to refugees, including issuing rations clothing and medicine, and assumed custody of confiscated lands or property. During the Reconstruction period (1865-1872) the Bureau provided practical aid to more than four million newly freed black Americans in their transition from slavery to freedom. Considered the first federal welfare agency, the Bureau built hospitals and gave medical care to more than a million freedmen. More than 21 million rations were distributed to impoverished blacks and whites. More than 1,000 black schools and colleges were established. Obtaining basic civil rights was not as successful, as African Americans made small gains in the court system. President Andrew Johnson's restoration of abandoned lands to pardoned white Southerners and the refusal of Congress to consider any form of land redistribution meant that many blacks were forced into oppressive sharecropper arrangements after the war.

In conclusion, vast numbers of refugees experienced deprivation and heartbreak during the war. Although their individual circumstances varied, all of them regretted the loss of home and a way of life. 

"How little did I dream when I last wrote you that my next letter would be written so far away from our dear old home, yet here we are in this miserable country feeling very grateful and happy at our escape from the horrid wretches who are now doubtless enjoying themselves in that same old house." 

"...you can guess how sad it made me feel to say goodbye to all the things dear to me. As I rode through the yard as I was leaving Dixie, I felt as if I were saying goodbye again to you." 

Mary Williams Pugh
November 9, 1862

Sources for Text and Illustrations: 

  • "Confederate Refugees", Mary Elizabeth Massey. Civil War Times Illustrated, Historical Times, Inc. Gettysburg, November, 1971.
  • Gragg, Rod. The Civil War Quiz and Factbook, Promontory Press, NY, 1985.
  • Jones, Katharine M. Heroines of Dixie, Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., Indianapolis, 1955.
  • McGuire, Judith W. Diary of a Southern Refugee During the War by a Lady of Virginia, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1995.
  • Meriwether, Elizabeth Avery. Recollections of 92 Years, 1824-1916, EPM Publications, McLean, VA, 1994.
  • Sullivan, Walter. The War that Women Lived, J.S. Sanders and Co., Nashville, 1995
  • "The Life of an Average Refugee", Mary Elizabeth Massey. Civil War Times Illustrated, Historical Times, Inc., Gettysburg. May 1964
  • Ward, Geoffrey C. with Burns, Ric and Burns, Ken. The Civil War, an Illustrated History, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, 1990.
  • Wiley, Bell Irvin. Confederate Women, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1975.
  • Woodard, C. Vann, ed. Mary Chesnut's Civil War, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1981.
  • The Camp Nelson Civil War Site 
  • United States Colored Troops at Camp Nelson, Kentucky 

Another Great Civil War Resource 

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