Wednesday, March 18, 2020

“A Blockaded Family” by Parthenia Hague

Parthenia Hague was a young woman living with her family near Columbus, Georgia, at the start of the Civil War. She was hired by a plantation owner near Eufaula, Alabama, to be a teacher for his daughters. Except for a couple of trips home to visit family, she spent the war years in southern Alabama.

The area of Eufaula was left physically untouched until the very end of the war – no nearby battles, no raids by federal troops, no forces of occupation. But the war increasingly left its mark on the plantation and the family. Daily life began to change. Certain common, everyday items became increasingly rare. Ingenuity replaced what had previously been taken for granted.

Twenty-three years after the end of the war, Hague published A Blockaded Family: Life in Southern Alabama During the Civil War. It’s remarkable in that, rather than focus on the events of the war, the work instead describes daily life on a plantation, a life that was changing and one that would soon be swept away forever. 

The account can often seem almost tedious, such as the in-depth descriptions of how the women of the family had to “make do” to sew their clothes. And while it’s easy for a modern reader to become impatient with all of the details of sewing, one slowly realizes that, in its own way, this was the daily reality women experienced while husbands, sons, and brothers were away in the army. 

Because of the Union blockade, coffee becomes prohibitively expensive and then completely unavailable. The alternative – the closest thing that tasted like coffee – was okra. Salt, used to season meat like pork, was recycled. On the rare occasions when new cloth was available, every scrap was used for something. And everyone worked, even the teacher, because everyone had to.

Only toward the end of the account, as Hague reaches the end of her story, does the war directly intrude. And that’s because federal troops are coming closer. Rumors sweep the area; valuable are buried and hidden and prize horses are taken off to the swamp. As it turns out, the Union army forces took another road, bypassing the plantation where Hague was living. Those plantations and farms in the army’s way did not fare well.

A Blockaded Family is something of a rose-colored glasses account; the accounts of the family’s slaves suggest all were happy and content, with a few even given to playful pranks that the family loved. Still, the story does offer a view of “the war back home,” and how women and children improvised with intelligence to “make do.”

Photograph: A plantation home in Alabama.

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