Feeding the Hungry: The Soldiers’ Lunch House of Jackson, Mississippi

Thousands of Mississippians served in the Confederate army from 1861 – 1865, and one very important source of support for these soldiers were the civilians at home. In particular, the ladies of Mississippi went to great lengths to make sure their menfolk had sufficient clothes, food, and medicine during the war.

Many military aid societies were formed during the Civil War by Mississippi women, but unfortunately documentation on the work done by these organizations is hard to come by. One such group that I have been able to document fairly well is the Ladies Military Aid Society of Jackson.

The Ladies Military Aid Society of Jackson was formed in 1861, and the earliest mention of them  I have found is an article from The Weekly Mississippian, September 4, 1861, in which the Aid Society of Jackson praised a group of ladies from Rankin County who made 142 garments for soldiers serving in the field.

In October 1861, the “colored people” of Jackson gave a ball at Concert Hall, with the

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Notice in The Weekly Mississippian, October 30, 1861, concerning the upcoming benefit ball in Jackson.

proceeds of the benefit to go to the Ladies Military Aid Society. The Weekly Mississippian noted in its October 30 issue that the ball “Was got up on a grand scale, invitations being responded to from Canton, Brandon, Clinton and other places. The price of admission was $1.50, and the Hall being filled to repletion with the ‘beauty and chivalry’ of our colored population, a considerable sum was cleared for the benefit of the Ladies Aid Society, or rather for the benefit of our volunteers.”

One of the guiding lights behind Ladies Military Aid Society was Isabelle “Belle” Knapp, the wife of Cyrus S. Knapp, a prominent Jackson dentist. Belle Knapp was vice-president of the Society, and her name is mentioned prominently in the newspaper articles and letters I have been able to find that document the work of the group.

In early 1862 the Ladies Aid Society took on the project of making uniforms for soldiers.

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Requisition for Jeans wool given to the Ladies Military Aid Society by the State of Mississippi (Fold3.com)

In February 1862, George A. Langford, Commissary Officer for the State of Mississippi, gave the group 898 1/2 yards of Jeans wool “to be made up in coats and pants for the use of our Miss. volunteers.” The bundle was signed for by “”Mrs. C.S. Knapp, Vice-President, Military Aid Society, Jackson, Miss.” (Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms 1861 – 1865, File of C.S. Knapp, accessed on Fold3.com, July 24, 2017). On March 5, 1862, Langford authorized a second donation to the society, giving them “2 bunches of knitting yarn.” Once again the supplies were signed for by “Mrs. C.S. Knapp.” (Confederate Papers Relating to Citizens or Business Firms 1861 – 1865, File of C.S. Knapp, accessed on Fold3.com, July 24, 2017).

In addition to making clothing for Mississippians, the society also extended their aid to Confederate soldiers from other states who were stationed in Mississippi. The February 7, 1863, edition of The Daily Southern Crisis had an article praising the Ladies Military Aid Society stating: “It will be seen that the ladies of Jackson have not been unmindful of the comfort of the Missourians, who, far from friends, and strangers in a strange land, are battling for the cause of truth and right.” The ladies had turns over to the Missourians 94 pairs of socks, and with them this letter, which was published in the article from The Daily Southern Crisis:

Captain Vankirk, A.Q.M. – Dear Sir: The Ladies Military Aid Society of Jackson, send you, for the use of your brave comrades, ninety four pairs of socks. We regret that we have so few, but hope they may be acceptable, and worn by your self-sacrificing soldiers, who have left friends and home to defend our beautiful valley. Ask them to accept them as a token of the great admiration which the daughters of Mississippi feel for the followers of the noble hero of the war, Sterling Price. Very truely the soldiers’ friend, Mrs. C.S. Knapp, Vice President M.A.S.

By the time 1863 rolled around, the Ladies Military Aid Society was ready to put into effect a plan to aid even more soldiers. On February 8, 1863, the group opened a “Soldiers Lunch House” in Jackson that both fed and quartered soldiers who were passing through the state’s capital city. In the March 9, 1863, edition of The Daily Southern Crisis, published a report by Belle Knapp detailing the work of the Lunch House in February 1863:

The soldier’s lunch house established by the Military Aid Society of Jackson, and supported by contributions from all parts of the State, has succeeded far beyond our expectations. Our expenses from the 8th to the 28th of February, were $325.25; amount of money contributed during that time $364; five hundred and ninety-five soldiers have been fed, and six hundred and sixty-nine lodged.

To operate such an expensive enterprise as the Soldier’s Lunch House, the Ladies Military Aid Society of Jackson enlisted the help of other aid societies from all over the state of Mississippi. In the March 25, 1863, edition of the Memphis Daily Appeal, Belle Knapp published the following letter, thanking the ladies of Natchez for their support of the Lunch House:

A Card of Thanks.

Mrs. L.C.W. Brown:

DEAR MADAM: Your letter, with one thousand dollars, contributed by the ladies of Natchez for the support of the Soldiers’ lunch house, was handed me this morning by Mr. Howe. Allow me, in behalf of the brave soldiers whose sufferings they nobly wish to alleviate, to thank the patriotic ladies of Natchez for their very liberal donation.

The Soldiers’ lunch house in this place was opened on the 8th of February last, and fed during that month 595 soldiers, and lodged 669. We have succeeded far beyond our expectations, and have the gratification of knowing that our streets are no longer crowded with hungry soldiers. The grateful soldiers bless the ladies of Mississippi, and go forth with fresh courage and renewed strength to meet our foes. Let me, in conclusion, assure them that the money shall be used as directed.

Yours, very respectfully,

MRS. C.S. KNAPP

Vice-President M.A.S.

Jackson, Miss., March 24, 1863

On April 22, 1863, The Memphis Daily Appeal published an article about the Lunch House, giving a detailed description of the work done by the facility:

Among the many efforts of the ladies of the South to contribute to the comfort of their brave defenders in the field, few, perhaps, have been more successful in accomplishing their original purpose than the enterprise of establishing a lunch house for the passing soldier at Jackson.

The association has quietly pursued its generous work, until after contributing to the comfort of thousands from every state in the Confederacy, it has become an institution favorably known in every corps that has had individual members detained in our city. Modestly pursuing the purpose of their organization the leading spirits in the good work have gone on with great energy and perseverance, until they have placed at the disposal of the soldier a home. True, it is plain and simple, still it is a retreat that has proven a benefit to thousands who would otherwise have suffered.

In this praiseworthy movement we are pleased to learn a number of ladies from all parts of the state have participated, and all of these can rest assured that every day their enterprise is filling its mission of relieving the distressed and toil-worn soldiers whose blessings upon the kindness and thoughtfulness of women are constantly ascending.

The Memphis Daily Appeal, February 11, 1863
Advertisement placed in the Memphis Daily Appeal, February 11, 1863, by Belle Knapp, seeking a cook for the Soldier’s Lunch House.

The monthly report recently published shows that the hearts of the noble women of the state are enlisted in the work they have undertaken. The institution, to the honor of its supporters be it said, is not a local one, any more than are the benefits it confers confined to the soldier from any particular locality. And so far as the latter is concerned we know a soldier of the Confederacy is always welcome.

We commend to the ladies at other important points in the state the example furnished by [the] ladies engaged in this work. There are [other] places where a few vigilant workers can accomplish the same beneficial results we have witnessed here. At Meridian, Grenada, Vicksburg, and elsewhere, we have seen our soldiery suffer, when they might, by similar efforts, have been relieved. Let the women reflect and act – the men will aid and assist. The burden will not fall upon the weaker sex alone.

We refer to the lunch house at Jackson, fully appreciating the good that has been accomplished by its establishment. And, because we believe it is accomplishing so much, we bespeak for the ladies connected with it every assistance that the charitable can possibly afford them. Of course its continued success depends upon the liberality of the public, and to this we would appeal. No matter how small the contribution, or what its nature, if of any value whatever, prudent managers will turn it to account. Nothing can come amiss. We hope the public will continue to respond to the call of the ladies, as heretofore, in order that there may be no intermission in their good works.

As the spring 1863 campaigning season started, thousands of Confederate soldiers passed through Jackson, and many of those soldiers found a hearty meal and a clean place to sleep at the Lunch House. In her report on the operations of the facility for March 1863, Belle Knapp reported:

We have fed in this month two thousand one-hundred and seventy-six (2176) travelling soldiers. Lodged one thousand three hundred and ten, (1310) and cooked government rations to be carried away, for seven hundred and eighty-three men (783). Whole amount of contributions two thousand and two dollars and a half ($2002.50) Expenses, six hundred and seventy dollars ($679)…Persons contributing provisions will please send them to the Soldiers’ Lunch House, where they will be received and receipted for by our very gentlemanly superintendent, Dr. John A. Bevill. (The Memphis Daily Appeal, April 1, 1863)

The Soldier’s Lunch House was doing a booming business, and it might have continued to expand in size and scope if not for the vagaries of war. Union General Ulysses S. Grant began his 1863 campaign against Vicksburg on May 1, landing at Bruinsburg and defeating the Confederate force under Confederate general John Bowen at the Battle of Port Gibson. The Union army advanced inland, and on May 14, 1863, the Federals took Jackson when the Confederates retreated from the city after offering only token resistance.

On May 15 the Union forces occupying Jackson began the systematic destruction of the city’s military infrastructure, and the Soldier’s Lunch House was probably a victim of the wanton burning that would give Jackson its nickname – “Chimneyville.” I say probably, because I have not been able to determine the exact location of the lunch house. The only clue to its location is found in the small ad from The Memphis Daily Appeal when the Ladies Aid Society was seeking a cook for the facility. It advised any potential job seekers to apply “at the depot.” This makes sense, as it would have been logical to place the Lunch House in close proximity to the railroad depot used by hundreds of soldiers each day. The only problem is that there were two railroad depots in Jackson – one for the New Orleans, Jackson, and Great Northern railroad, and the other for The Southern Railroad of Mississippi.

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Wartime map of Jackson, Mississippi, showing the depots of the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern Railroad (top left) and The Southern Railroad of Mississippi (center right)

The railroad depots were specifically targeted by the Federals for destruction, and The American Citizen of May 22, 1863, noted: “But on the next (Friday) morning destruction on the grandest scale commenced by orders. The railroad tracks were utterly demolished for between two and three miles in all directions, including Pearl river bridge, and the depot buildings and platforms burnt.”

Harper's Weekly, June 30, 1863
Burning of the Confederate House Hotel by the Union Army  (Harper’s Weekly, June 30, 1863). The Confederate House was in close proximity to the depot of the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern railroad.

Given that the Soldier’s Lunch House was near one of the depots, and both were targeted for destruction, it is very likely the building did not survive the war. In any case, I cannot find any evidence that the Ladies Aid Society of Jackson was able to continue their activities after May 1863. It was not until the war ended that the ladies of Jackson were able to continue their benevolent activities. In The Daily Clarion, May 2, 1867, I found the following in an article headlined in bold with the title “To the Ladies of Mississippi:”

The Ladies of Jackson appeal to their sisters throughout the State, in behalf of the destitute – and they know the appeal will not be made in vain. Information is received, almost every day that great destitution prevails in different parts of the state. We cannot shut our ears to the cry for bread; and feel that prompt and efficient efforts should at once be made to afford relief…The Ladies of Jackson, feeling the necessity of organized and associated action, have formed here the ‘State Benevolent Society…’ Our whole people have suffered greatly in every  way during the past five years; but the burden has fallen much heavier on some than others…The true mission of woman is mercy and charity. In relieving sorrow – in feeding the hungry, and clothing the naked – she always follows the instincts of her nature…We ask for money and provisions. Let those who cannot give much give little; but let every one give something, however small. The occasion is urgent. Let not the cry for bread be made to any one in vain.

The article ended with a list of ladies in Jackson who could be contacted for more

Belle Knapp Grave
Grave of Belle Knapp in the Bolton City Cemetery (Findagrave.com)

information – the second name on the list was “Mrs. C.S. Knapp.” In the course of my research for this article, I was pleased to find that Belle Knapp in her later years moved to my hometown of Bolton, Mississippi. She died on October 17, 1916, and is buried in the Bolton city cemetery – the very same cemetery where my parents and grandparents are buried. Over the years I have visited the Bolton Cemetery many times, and I have certainly passed by the grave of Belle Knapp without paying it any mind whatever. I wonder how many other interesting stories are connected to the individuals buried in this one small Mississippi cemetery? Probably more than I could ever conceive.

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Independence Day in Natchez, 1867

In post-Civil War Mississippi, no group had more reason to celebrate the 4th of July than the state’s African American population. The following article concerning the celebration of the 4th of July in Natchez was published by The Weekly Democrat (Natchez), July 8, 1867:

The 4th of July

At an early hour of the 4th, the streets of the city, the roads leading from the country, the ferry-boat, and all avenues of approach, were thronged with freedmen and freedwomen, coming to Natchez to participate in the celebration of the day and the picnic at the grounds of Mrs. Nutt, about two miles from the city. The Magenta, which arrived Wednesday, brought down some four hundred persons from the plantations above.

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Civil War Era photograph of Natchez Under-the hill (Gandy Collection, Mss 3778, Louisiana State University)

At about ten o’clock the procession was formed, consisting of the Union Leagues, and negroes from the surrounding country, nearly all decorated with ribbons, and many carrying flags, moved up Main street, from Broadway, in an orderly and quiet manner. There were in the line about twenty-five hundred males, a few of the marshals being white persons. The side-walks were thronged, and it would not be an exaggeration to state that there were at least 8000 persons on the streets, and in the procession. Two or three national flags, displayed on the streets, were saluted as the procession passed them.

Having marched up Main street to Pine, the crowd passed out on the Woodville road, to the picnic grounds. A thunder shower came up about this time, in considerable fury, and temporarily checked the proceedings. As soon, however, as the sky became clear, the festivities were resumed. It is estimated that there were not less than nine thousand people on the picnic grounds during the day. A stand had been erected for the speakers, and it was expected that Capt. L.W. Perce would deliver the oration of the day; but that gentleman was absent on important business.

The principal speech was made by ——- Langston, colored, from Ohio. We heard his speech highly commended for its good sense and moderation. Upon the subject of lands, now so interesting to negroes, the speaker’s remarks were particularly sensible and explicit. He told his hearers that they ought to have land; yes, God intended that all should have land who labored; but they were to get it by the proceeds of honest toil and economy, and by these alone; then God would prosper them and enable them to enjoy the land and its products. They should put away from them the delusive hope of obtaining land by any other means. They should work faithfully and steadily, and be frugal, and then would they be able to buy much land, and command the respect of the community in which they lived.

[Editor’s Note: The newspaper did not give the first name of the speaker, but with a

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John Mercer Langston (Library of Congress)

little research I was able to determine that it was John Mercer Langston, an African-American lawyer from Ohio. The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer (Wheeling, West Virginia) noted in its June 4, 1867, edition: “J.W. Langston, an able colored lawyer of Ohio, has also left for an extended speaking tour at the South.“]

As far as we could learn, nothing occurred during the day to mar the good order and enjoyment of the occasion, except the adverse weather. About five o’clock the skies rapidly darkened, and the accumulation of black clouds in the west, indicated a rain at short notice. This put an end to the picnic, and the roads were soon alive with thousands of people scampering home, in a great hurry to avoid being drenched. Many of them, however, were caught in a most furious rain, and thoroughly soaked.

We are glad to be able to say that the entire proceedings were marked by good order, quiet and sobriety. We have never seen a celebration so numerously attended and more yet quiet and well-behaved than this was. We neither saw nor heard of the slightest disturbance of any kind throughout the day and night.