Chapter One: “A Year in the South: 1865, The True Story of Four Ordinary People Who Lived Through the Most Tumultuous Twelve Months in American History” by Stephen Ash

This is what I would pen if asked to write a sentence as to why this book should be read.

” Stephen Ash writes a tight, insightful narrative that allows the reader to feel the brown and gray of a landscape that has been destroyed by war.”

The south comes alive in war-ravaged weariness as the Civil War continues on January 1, 1865.  Lincoln has been elected for a second term ‘up North’, many Confederate soldiers are leaving the ranks and heading  back home,  shortages abound,  and a general fatigue is felt by all.

A Year in the South: 1865, The True Story of Four Ordinary People Who Lived Through the Most Tumultuous Twelve Months in American History by Stephen Ash takes a look into the lives of four ordinary people living in various parts of the south as 1865 begins.  While the four lives that are examined represent what many in the South experienced, the lives in the book are also very personal and unique.  There is no way not to feel for them. 

A slave determined to gain freedom, a widow battling poverty and despair, a man of God grappling with spiritual and worldly troubles, and a former Confederate soldier seeking a new life.  There is no way not to be drawn to each of the main characters, and feel their unease about what awaits them. 

This is a one of those books where the reader, I think, needs to stop and be reminded that we know how history turns out.   The real people in this book do not.  That may seem obvious, but often I think when we read history we not appreciate that essential ingredient to the story.

Cornelia McDonald did not have that luxury of knowing her future with seven children and the rats in the house she moved to in Lexington, Virginia after the Union soldiers took over her hometown.   Her husband had died in 1864. 

Louis Hughes, a slave, had no way of knowing how much further he could be taken by his owners into the deep confederacy so to be sure he would not to be freed by Union troops.  

John Robertson, a young man, can not know how his desire for higher ideals will play out in the rough and tumble days of the death of the Confederacy.  He is torn by a religous conversion, but also filled with strong views and emotions that makes him perhaps the most complicated of the four stories in the book.

Samuel Agnew, a minister, and a man who did not have to fight in the war, is very much interested in the news.  Sitting at his window and writing in detail about the conflict, he watches for anyone who passes his place and engages them in conversation about the fate of his world.

So we have the 20/20 hindsight view of history.  The four real people in Stephen Ash’s book did not. 

The year 1865 was pivotal in so many ways, and Ash lets us know how it felt from a southern point of view.  As the historian notes few Americans can relate to these stories.  That is even more reason to pick the book up and step back in time.T

The book deals with four personal stories yet captures the epic nature of the Civil War.  Great research and writing make this book a gem.

Chapter One

Louis Hughes

South Alabamians sometimes call it simply the bigbee. It is a short name for a long river that rolls lazily, with many twists and turns, southward from the heart of the state to Mobile on the Gulf coast. In early 1865 the Tombigbee was high and busy with steamboats. They chugged up and down the river between Deinopohs and Mobile, stopping at landings here and there to load or unload. Bales of cotton and piles of Osnaburg sacks crowded the decks of many of the hosts. The sacks held the more precious cargo: they were filled with salt.

Many of the sacks were marked “Alabama.” These were loaded aboard as a stop on the east bank of the river in Clarke County, some sixty miles north of Mobile. A road led inland from the landing there, and a short distance up that road lay the Alabama state saltworks. It was a sprawling little settlement centered around a large wooden building with a veranda. This building was the headquarters, in which Louis Hughes lived and worked.

Lou, as he was used to being called, had stepped easily into his new situation when he came to the works in 1863. A well-trained butler was a prized and useful servant, and thus Lou was immediately singled out from the other leased slaves and set to work in that role. He did a good job and became a favorite of the state salt commissioner, Benjamin Wooleey, whose office was in the headquarters. Moulds, Lou’s wife, was pus to work as a cook. She, too, woo the comnaissiooer’s approval; her bread and rolls, he said, were as good as any he had ever tasted. Woolsey, a lawyer and planter by profession, had at one none offered to buy Lou and Mafilda for three thousand dollars, but Boss had turned him down.

Boss was dead now, of course. January 1, 1865, was the first anniversary of his death. His sudden passing had shocked has family and slaves but suited in no immediate changes for Lou and Matilda. They and the other MeGehee slaves stayed on at the saltworks by order of Madam, Boss’s widow, who remained at her father’s plantation in Mississippi.

There were many slaves at the works in early 1865, perhaps 200 or more. Their muscle and swear and skills powered an extensive manufacturing operation. It was a scene of almost constant activity, for there were all sorts of tasks to be done and the Confederacy’s salt famine generated a sense of urgency. Slave men slid most of the heavy labor — boring wells, rending pumps and furnaces, chopping and hauling wood, making bricks, building levee sacking and weighing and loading the salt. The slave women cooked and did laundry and other chores with the help of the older children. Whites did the other jobs: among the two dozen or so employed at the works, besides the salt commissioner, were a superintendent, a clerk, a bookkeeper, a commissary manager, a doctor, a wagon master, two steam-engine operators, several artisans, and a number of overseers.

The saltworks was not just a manufacturing operation but a community, and a largely self-sustaining one. All the people who worked there lived on the site. Most of the slaves resided in barracks or cabins that were space ready along a sneer. The whites had separate residences or took rooms up stairs at the headquarters. Like any respectable Southern village, the works had a smithy, a cooperage, a a shoemaking shop, a carpentry shop, a sawmill, gristmill, and a cemetery. It also boasted a hospital, a commissary, a sac making shop, a storehouse, and at least one kitchen. The works produced no gram or meat (these were purchased from outside sources), but it had a a dairy and a seven-acre vegetable garden that helped feed the whole community.

Like any village, too, the works had its own economy, an informal system of borrowing and bartering, swapping and selling. Slaves as well as whites engaged in this casual commerce and Lou Hughes was one of those clever enough to make money from it. The story he tells about this in his memoir illustrates one of the curious things about the Old South: how the rigid laws and protocols of slavery and race relations were sometimes ignored in the intimacy of communal life.

As Lou tells it, one day in the early part of 1865 he approached the superintendent of the works, N. S. Brooks, about getting some tobacco. He had a hundred dollars he had borrowed from three other slaves; they had earned it doing extra chores at the works in their free time. Lou wanted this tobacco not to smoke but to resell. Brooks liked Lou and was happy to do him a favor, so he took the money and dispatched an order by boat to a merchant in Mobile. Four days later a package containing thirty-six plugs of tobacco arrived. Brooks turned it over to Lou, who, after finishing his morning duties at headquarters, set out to peddle the plugs among the black laborers at the works. Within an hour he had sold every plug at five dollars apiece, for a profit of eighty dollars. Later, as Lou was serving the noon meal in the headquarters’ dining room, Brooks asked him how he had done with the tobacco.

“I did very well,” Lou replied. “[T]he only trouble was I did not, have enough.”

Brooks questioned him a little more, then drew out pencil and paper at did some figuring. His own salary was a meager $150 a month in rapidly depreciating Confederate money. After the meal, while Lou was clearing the table, Brooks came in from the veransla where he had been smoking with the clerk and made a proposition: he would order all the tobacco Lou could sell if Lou would split the profit with him fifty-fifty. Lou agreed.


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