One of my favorite stories I have uncovered over the past 25 years of researching and writing has to do with the lowly pea. I used the story in both my first book, a history of the 37th North Carolina Troops, and in General Lee's Immortals, my history of the Branch-Lane brigade. The person who told the story was Pvt. David Dugger, Company E. He was from the mountains of western North Carolina. Being shelled by the Federals was a new experience for the Confederate soldiers below New Bern, where in March 1862, this story takes place. Dugger and another private had been sent to the rear to cook food for the men manning the front lines.
On the return [to the company] we had about a half dozen camp kettles full of peas. The kettles were strung on a pole, with George [Lawrance] at one end and I at the other. We had to go through a pine grove, and while going through there, we heard our first bomb shells, and we did not know what they were, and there we stood looking and wondering what on earth they could be as they went whizzing through the air. Presently one cut the top out of a pine, and then we found out what they were and forthwith proceeded to hug the earth without getting our arms around it. As soon as the sound of the shell died away we gathered our pole and started to the Fort. When we got there we had peas all over us, so that we could hardly be told from the peas. (Watauga Democrat June 18, 1891)
Recently, I re-read Berry Benson's Civil War Book. This is one of those volumes I read decades ago, and I had forgotten that Benson had his own pea story. Benson's story comes at the end of the war. He's experienced "bomb shells" a plenty, but was captured, held prisoner, escaped, and just seen a good deal of the war. Benson and his comrades have evacuated the entrenchments around Petersburg, and are on their way to Appomattox Court House.
As I ran up the low hill, the shells bursting all around, I came upon a camp fire abandoned by its maker, and upon it sat boiling a pot full of peas. The fear of getting killed was strong, I admit, but hunger was a match for it. I saw Lieut. Hasell running by and called to him to come quick. Running the barrel of my gun through the handle of the pot, I gave him the butt, took the muzzle myself, and off we went amidst the crackling of the shells, bearing to a place of safety our pot of peas. But alas for human endeavor! When we finally reached a place where we could stop, we found the peas but half done, so turned the pot over to Owens to cook while we went on to the picket line with the Sharpshooters. When i next saw the pot... there was not a pea left to tell the tale." (197)
We here at Confederate History Headquarters had a discussion about what type of pea this might be. Several soldiers mention cow peas in their correspondence. These differ from the garden pea in that the cow pea could be dried more readily. According to seed catalogs, a cow pea is also known as black-eyed pea, southern pea, yardlong bean, catjang, and crowder peas. There are several varieties of this staple food, which is more like a bean than a pea. The cow pea grows in "sandy soil" with low rainfall. Soldiers seemed to eat them by the bucket full any occasion they could get. Looking at Francis P. Porcher's Resources of the Southern Fields and Forest (1863), Porcher writes that "Great use is made of the varieties of the pea on the plantations... as articles of food for men and animals. The species called the cow-pea is most in use." (194) As I work on the Feeding the Army of Northern Virginia project, peas and cow peas are mentioned frequently. Only once, in the reminisces of Col. William Poague, has someone mentioned black-eyed peas. (150). It could be that different areas had different names for the same pea. Certainly, none of the black-eyed pea-eaters I know (myself included) use the name cow peas.
So the next time you set down to a meal with cow peas (or black-eyed peas), remember for a moment David Dugger and Barry Benson, and all the other Confederate soldiers who ate these peas! Happy New Year!