Why Do Southerners Eat Black-Eyed Peas on New Year’s?

It was the winter of 1864 when the devil went down to Georgia. William Tecumseh Sherman issued special field order no. 120 which commanded his soldiers to forage liberally. The 60,000 man army would forcefully live off the people of the South; foragers rode off in all directions looking for loot. According to Sherman’s own estimates, his armies seized over 5,000 horses, 4,000 mules and 13,000 head of cattle, while confiscating 9.5 million pounds of corn and 10.5 million pounds of livestock fodder.

Unfortunately, there was much more involved than an entire army stealing food from homesteads. A scorched earth policy existed to ensure military, as well as, industrial targets, infrastructure and civilian property were destroyed to disrupt the Confederacy’s economy, transportation networks and ability to wage war. Sherman decided that the time had come to widen the pain with what he called the hard hand of war to include Southern civilians. In the same way he later targeted Indian villages- Southern towns, cities and homesteads were laid waste. The horses, cows, pigs and chickens were stolen while Southerners found their homesteads, barns and fields completely devastated and burned to the ground.

Originally planted for livestock, northerners considered black-eyed peas, often called field or cow peas, as not fit for human consumption.  Since the Union Army already stole all the livestock, there was no need to take the time nor trouble to destroy the animal food. As Sherman’s troops stole or laid waste to all other crops, luck had it that complete fields of black-eyed peas were left standing. The little black-eyed pea soon became a crucial staple for Southerners to survive.

So this is how the Southern Tradition began. Every New Year’s Eve our people still eat a healthy dose of black-eyed peas for good luck…and to always remember.

6 comments

  1. I recently checked a book out of the local library called When Sherman Came: Southern Women and the ‘Great March’ by Katherine M Jones, it’s a collection of letters, diary entries and memoirs from women who lived in Sherman’s path. All of the stories are consistent, they tell of looting more than food, houses were brazenly ransacked for any valuables. Many women sewed belts they could wear under their dresses to hide coins and smaller valuables while larger things were buried or hidden in the slaves quarters thinking the federals wouldn’t loot them. They were wrong. Federal soldiers looted the slaves as quickly as their owners and used their bayonets to stab the ground to find anything buried. All food was taken and what wasn’t used was dumped on the ground, any extra livestock beyond what the army needed was killed and left to rot. Then they burned houses, schools, government buildings and even churches. I recommend the book. William Gilmore Simms also wrote an account of the sacking of Columbia, SC; I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my list.

    I’ve eaten black eyed peas and greens every New Years as far back as I can remember. I was always told the greens were cash and the peas change!

  2. Those first hand accounts by those who witnessed our ancestor’s experiences during the war are quite enlightening indeed. So too are some of the accounts of the Union officers themselves as they wrote to superiors- such as those in the official records.