I found this book because I was interested in an ancestor. It’s not about my ancestor and contains no reference to him, but it gave me insights in what he might have experienced in what was likely the most significant year of his life.
The year 1865 was a year of phenomenal upheaval in the states that comprised the Confederacy. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses S. Grant in early April. By the end of the month, all other Confederate forces had surrendered. The region was economically devastated – inflation had already been destroying the value of Confederate money, and now Confederate government bonds (and debts owed) were worthless.
More significantly, the social structure, already changing because of the demands of the war, teetered into collapse. Railroads had been destroyed in war, and roads, never a priority in the pre-war South, had been left to deteriorate. The old society, with larger planters at the top, was swept away. The labor force, largely composed of slaves, had already been melting toward Union lines. Hunger stalked many areas. Law and order was breaking down, with groups of Confederate deserters, people left homeless, and people with old scores to settle roaming the countryside. Livestock, often critical to plant and harvest, had been confiscated by both Confederate government agents and invading Union troops. And after the surrender of Confederate armies, soldiers had to make their way home across a scarred and devastated landscape.
This is the context for a fascinating account of the year 1865 by historian Stephen Ash. Published in 2004, A Year in the South 1865 details the lives of four people in different parts of the South, how they lived, what they experienced, and how they survived. Each of the four kept detailed journals of their experiences and lives before, during, and after the Civil War, and Ash uses those journals and extensive research about the history of the regions where they lived to create a remarkable account.
Louis Hughes was a slave for a plantation owner in northern Mississippi. He occupied a privileged place in the slave hierarchy – the butler at the big house. Late in the war, he and his wife Matilda, the family cook, were “leased” to the Alabama Salt Works some 65 miles north of Mobile. Salt had become the most prized commodity in the South, with the Union blockade having stopped the usual imports. Salt was desperately needed, and the state of Alabama had organized one of the most industrialized operations in North America. He didn’t work in mining operations; his skills were such that he was moved immediately into administration.
Cornelia McDonald was a widow. Her husband Angus, a Confederate officer, had died in late 1864 outside of Richmond. They had lived in Winchester, Virginia, in the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley. But the valley was repeatedly attacked, looted, and devastated by Union troops, and before her husband’s death, Cornelia had moved herself and seven children to Lexington, in the southwest part of the state and away from the main theaters of the war. There she found herself, once the mistress of a plantation, having to live almost hand to mouth and dependent upon the charity of friends and strangers.
John Robertson was a young man from eastern Tennessee, who joined Confederate forces even though his region of the state was strongly pro-Union. He was captured after battel and imprisoned, and released after taking the loyalty oath to the Union. He returned to eastern Tennessee, where received the call to become a minister. But he had also been part of a Confederate group that hunted and terrorized Union sympathizers, and there were former victims looking for payback. That year, he would find himself moving with family members to Iowa.
And Samuel Agnew was a minister who lived with his wife on his father’s plantation in Panola County, Mississippi, some 60 or so miles south of Memphis. His accounts of the year (he wrote journals all of his life, and at his death there were some 45 volumes in all) are filled with rumors of Yankee troop incursions, increasing problems with the slaves working the fields, his Sunday worship services at neighboring farms, and trying to hold family and faith together as conditions in their local society deteriorated.
They were four ordinary people, but Ash’s narrative treatment of their lives provides more insight into what was happening in the South than any number of biographies of more famous people. He has a knack for telling an engaging story, and follows each of the four through the seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall of 1865 to illustrate their lives, their fears, and their hopes. After reading the accounts of each, the reader is glad that Ash includes an epilogue that explains what happened to each of the four after 1865 – and they all lived into the first decade of the 20th century.
Ash is professor emeritus of American history at the University of Tennessee. He received a B.S. in education degree from Gettysburg College and his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in American history from the University of Tennessee. He is the author of numerous books about the history of the Civil War period, including Middle Tennessee Society Transformed, 1860-1870: War and Peace in the Upper South (1988); Secessionists and Other Scoundrels: Selections from Parson Brownlow's Book (1999); When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861-1865 (1999); Firebrand of Liberty: The Story of Two Black Regiments That Changed the Course of the Civil War (2008); The Black Experience in the Civil War South (2010); and A Massacre in Memphis: The Race Riot That Shook the Nation One Year After the Civil War (2013).
A Year in the South 1865 is a wonderful story of four ordinary people who lived in an extraordinary time. My own ancestor, another ordinary person in an extraordinary time, was a messenger boy in the Civil War on the Confederate side. When the war ended, he had to make his way home to Brookhaven, Mississippi. And when he arrived, he found his family gone. He was able to track them down and find them in east Texas.
He would have likely recognized the stories in A Year in the South 1865.
Top photograph: Lexington, Virginia, circa 1865. This scene would have been everyday familiar to Cornelia McDonald.