Jana Beaverson: American Civil War

Written by David Green.

By JEFF PICKELL

To Fayette resident Jana Beaverson, there are some people who “get it,” and some who don’t.

She’s talking about her enthusiasm for all things related to the American Civil War—the politics, the battles, the culture, the machinery, even Civil War-era garb.janathebeave

Jana is among a contingent of Americans who devote much of their free-time to researching and reliving the experiences of those involved in the most violent conflict to occur in the United States.

But it’s not the violence that fascinates her—it’s the inner conflict and social turmoil that Americans faced during the build-up to the war between the states, and the ensuing several decades, that intrigue her.

“It’s about honoring the memory of those who fought for what they believed in, who fought for their homes,” she said.

Jana’s hobby has taken her to the Virginia battlefields at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, to the town of Vicksburg, Miss., which was laid siege by General Ulysses S. Grant for six weeks before its surrender—and, most recently, to Gettysburg, Pa., perhaps the most famous battleground of them all.

It’s enlightening to read about the battles, to learn the history, she says, but what separates a true enthusiast from a curious reader is the desire to come as close to the experiences of the embattled American citizens as possible.

“You can read all the books you want about a battle, but until you actually see the terrain, the houses, the streets, the ground the soldiers walked over—it just brings it all into focus,” she said.

Not convinced yet? Jana suggests taking a dusk tour of Guiney Station, the plantation where confederate General Stonewall Jackson died from pneumonia after being wounded.

Jana remembers the guide leading her tour group through the house, describing how Jackson suffered on his deathbed for eight days. The guide described the general’s slow descent into delirium, and how, in the absence of his aides, his only company was a loudly ticking clock, which still sits in the room.

After entering the chamber, the guide solemnly repeated Jackson’s last words—”Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees”—then fell silent. The clock’s ticking in the quiet, as dark fell, created a racking feeling of loss that Jana had felt few times before.

“There was a three tour Vietnam vet that was in tears that night. We all were,” she said. “It was just...awesome.”

Jana has chased these genuine feelings since she was 12, when she read Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With the Wind.” She doesn’t remember why the book was so mesmerizing during that first read, but with each successive read she’s more impressed with the author’s accuracy, which is important to war enthusiasts.

To many, including Jana, accuracy includes a truthful portrayal of those who fought on the battlefields as well as figures who, for the most part, did not—civilians, African Americans and women, for instance.

BEHIND EVERY GREAT MAN—It’s the civilian experience, rather than the great military campaigns, that Jana enjoys studying the most.

During the first 120 years of Civil War scholarship, most research focused on battles and the men that fought them, says Jana. But in the last 20 years, there have been more books about on the periphery of war life.

Many books focus on the roles women on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line assumed during the war. In the South, the war sparked a trend of female empowerment, Jana said.

“The women in many cases had never drawn their own baths or laundered their own clothes,” she said.

As the crisis dragged on, funds dwindled,  and women worked jobs that made laundry seem easy.

“They ran plantations, farms, munitions factories. They basically did what they had to do to keep their children alive and food on the table,” said Jana.

“There are actually women who disguised themselves as soldiers and served. They didn’t have thorough physical examinations like they do now,” she added.

Women also helped by offering moral support to their husbands of high rank. General Grant, for instance, loved discussing plans with his wife, Julia, and preferred she stay near him whenever she could, Jana said.

HOMESPUN DRESS—About a year ago, Jana leapt from reading about the war and visiting historical sites, to trying her hand at designing era clothes.

With the help of her mother’s sewing skills, she constructed three different dresses, with three different functions, over the past year.

While heavy wool Army uniforms can’t have been comfortable in the summer heat, women didn’t have it much better.

Jana explained that a typical day dress, which women wore in public or when they visited friends, required six undergarments.

Women started by donning a shoulder to knee-length chemise, then lacing a corset over it. Next came pantalettes, similar to long john underwear. After that was a petty coat, then a hoop skirt, then another petty coat, then finally the dress.

Because they were so hard to wash, the goal was to keep the dress as far away from the skin as possible to prevent human odors and fluids from soiling it, Jana said.

It seems like a lot to wear for a summer stroll, but Jana said dresses were made with breathable cotton, so it wasn’t that bad, Jana said, adding that the back and forth motion of the hoop skirt creates a nice fanning effect.

Women on their way to an evening ball had a nit more ventilation. It was considered unfashionable to be seen sleeveless in public before 3 p.m., evening gowns were high-sleeved and low cut—a lot more risqué.

And risky. Hoop skirts were highly flammable, and, this, combined with how unnaturally far away from the body a skirt hangs can spell trouble, said Jana. Candles and lit fireplaces posed the greatest danger.

Adding to the hazard is the fact that other, women, similarly clothed, couldn’t help extinguished a lit hoop skirt.

This is why women wore a third kind of dress—a  camp dress—around the house. These dresses still weren’t casual, but they didn’t include a hoop skirt, so they weren’t as unsafe.

For Jana, learning these small details is part of what makes Civil War enthusiasm so enjoyable. That, and it gives her a social acceptable excuse to wear hoop skirts, something she has always enjoyed.

– July 19, 2006 

Want to know more about some of the less frequently told tales of the Civil War? Don’t know where to get started? Here are a few of Jana’s favorite reads.

• “A Strange and Blighted Land: Gettysburg, the Aftermath of the Battle,” by Gregory A. Coco. The story of Gettysburg didn’t end after the Confederates retreated and the fighting stopped. The bodies of 7,000 soldiers lay rotting in the summer sun, while more than 40,000 wounded—10 times Gettysburg’s population—were in need of treatment. Over the next several months, villagers became acquainted with unimaginable amounts of sickness and death.

• “Hardtack and Coffee: The Unwritten Story of Army Life,” by John D. Billings. Authored by a Union Army veteran and originally published in 1888, “Hardtack and Coffee” is a light-hearted, and often humorous, look at the life of a common foot soldier. The book chronicles how soldiers dealt with the constant menace of fleas, devised ways to make Army chow edible, and endured long days on the march.

• “Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and their Wives,” edited by Carol Bleser and Lesley Gordon. An array of noted historians contribute essays documenting the relationships between 12 prominent Union and Confederate generals and their wives. Among other tidbits, readers will learn of how Mary Anna Jackson implored her husband, Stonewall, to dress more fashionably, and how General “Cump” Sherman couldn’t ever see eye-to-eye with his spouse, Ellen.

• “Mothers of Invention: Women of the Slave-holding South in the American Civil War,” by Drew Gilpin Faust. While their husbands and sons were fighting in the war, the ladies of the Antebellum south found a variety of new responsibilities thrust upon them. Many went from an outrageously pampered life to one where they were forced to toil in the fields, discipline insubordinate slaves, cope with sporadic food shortages—essentially everything they had taken for granted from their husbands, many of whom never returned from the war.

• “Richmond Burning: The Final Days of the Confederate Capital,” by Nelson Lankford. Why, exactly, was Richmond in flames when Union forces arrived there in April 1865? Lankford explores the legend surrounding the blaze, and documents numerous stories and myths that came into being during the last, frantic days of the Confederacy—including Abraham Lincoln’s legendary visit to the residence of General George Pickett.

For a list of the 50 greatest Civil War books of all time, as voted by readers on the internet, visit civilwarinteractive.com.

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