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Ash, _A Year in the South_ [1865; incl. Alabama]

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      Subject: Astor on Ash, _A Year in the South_

      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-CivWar@... (December, 2005)

      Stephen V. Ash. _A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865_. New York:
      Palgrave MacMillan, 2002. ix + 289 pp. Illustrations, maps, notes,
      bibliography, index. $26.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-312-29493-9.

      Reviewed for H-CivWar by Aaron Astor, Department of
      History, Northwestern University.

      Four Seasons of Transformation

      As the calendar turned to 1865, four Southerners faced an uncertain
      future. Louis Hughes, Samuel Agnew, Cornelia McDonald, and John
      Robertson observed, and participated in, the Civil War entering its
      final stages. Hughes, a Deep South slave, McDonald, a Virginia
      Confederate army wife and mother of seven, Robertson, an East Tennessee
      former Confederate soldier, and Agnew, a Mississippi preacher and son of
      a prominent planter, each experienced the dying days of the Confederacy
      with varying degrees of despair, hope, restlessness and serenity. The
      stories of these four Southerners comprise Stephen Ash's _A Year in the
      South_. Ash traces the lives of these "ordinary" Southerners through the
      entirety of 1865, using the changing seasonal motif to examine the
      myriad challenges and opportunities that befell the South in the year
      the Confederacy died. Dividing the chapters into "Winter," "Spring,"
      "Summer," and "Fall and Winter Again," Ash implores the reader to trace
      the tribulations of these four individuals as "they stepped across the
      threshold between the old world and the new" (p. xiv). Each Southerner's
      narrative is compelling in its own right.

      Louis Hughes spent much of the Civil War as a hired slave on the salt
      works along Alabama's Tombigbee River. Though trained as a butler,
      Hughes adapted quite well at the salt works just north of Mobile. He and
      his wife, Matilda, hired as a cook in the works, soon became favorites
      of the state Salt Commissioner, Benjamin Woolsey. Within the local slave
      community Hughes established a significant economic niche by selling
      tobacco plugs. With Woolsey's blessing, Hughes operated his business for
      much of the latter period of the war and made a sizable income. But the
      collapse of Confederate authority in South Alabama brought this "happy
      interlude" to an end (p. 28). Hughes' owner took him and his wife from
      the salt works to Mississippi and trapped them in bondage for months
      after the war's conclusion; in the remote section of northern
      Mississippi where Hughes toiled into the summer months of 1865, no
      Federal troops arrived to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. Though
      his master refused to submit to the new order, Hughes managed to escape
      to Memphis, summon two Union officers, and take them back to Mississippi
      to free the remaining slaves on the plantation. When Hughes and his wife
      returned to Memphis they prepared for a new journey to Cincinnati, where
      Matilda's mother had escaped in 1855. The Hughes family continued on to
      Canada after reconnoitering with Matilda's mother; though many former
      slave-emigres in Canada returned to the United States following the
      war's end, Hughes never felt confident that his freedom would be
      protected in postwar America. He would later return to the United States
      and settle in Milwaukee, but his movement to Canada after the war
      reveals an intriguing counter-migration largely ignored by historians.
      Indeed, his odyssey illustrates two phenomena that historians would do
      well to explore in greater depth: the refusal of many masters in the
      Southern interior to accede to emancipation for months after the war's
      end, and the sizable migration of African Americans to the cities of the
      North and West.

      Whereas Hughes suffered the first half of 1865 in bondage, only to
      fulfill his ambitions of freedom later in the year, Sam Agnew's
      emotional trajectory followed an opposite course. The son of a
      Mississippi planter named Enoch Agnew, Sam served the Tippah County
      community as a minister from the beginning of the war. Exempt from
      Confederate military service because of his occupation, Sam Agnew
      avoided some of the harrowing battlefield experiences of his fellow
      Confederates. Like others in the Confederate interior, Agnew remained
      confidant of the South's military fortunes as late as February 1865. The
      economic strains of war, and the increasingly destructive Federal raids
      into the community, finally destroyed the edifice of plantation life
      that the Agnews had come to take for granted. Not only did the Agnews'
      crops fail in the summer drought of 1865, but the entire workforce
      abandoned the lands they had tilled for decades. Unlike in the remote
      plantation district where Louis Hughes toiled into the summer, Federal
      troops immediately descended upon the Agnews' plantation with orders to
      enforce the Emancipation Proclamation. The Agnew plantation slaves did
      not flee or threaten the Agnew family in any way, but they "simply quit
      working except as it suited them" (p. 82). Like other ex-slaves in
      Mississippi, the Agnew's freedmen and women negotiated sharecropping
      arrangements that galled the sensibilities of planters unaccustomed to
      bargaining with blacks. The ex-slaves worked the Agnew plantation until
      the end of the year and, in a symbolic reminder of the changing times,
      eschewed the customary "Christmas gift" offered by the paternalistic
      household head; by New Year's Day, all of Agnews' former slaves left the
      plantation for places unknown. In many ways, Sam Agnew's story is a
      familiar one, recounted most famously by historian James Roark in his
      book _Masters without Slaves_.[1] But Ash personalizes the sense of
      loss, despair and alienation among the master class with particular
      clarity and emotional resonance.

      In the Upper South the Civil War and its aftermath embroiled the
      population in a different sort of struggle than that in Alabama and
      Mississippi. Rampant guerrilla war and the destruction of civilian life
      by passing armies characterized the Civil War experience in the Upper
      South states of Virginia and Tennessee. Cornelia McDonald's beloved
      Shenandoah Valley served as the "breadbasket of the Confederacy" and,
      for that, suffered a bitterly punitive expedition by Union General
      Philip Sheridan in the fall of 1864. Cornelia McDonald lost her husband,
      Confederate Colonel Angus McDonald, to disease shortly after he was
      released from a military prison in 1864. A widow and mother of seven
      children, Cornelia McDonald endured the downfall of the Confederacy from
      the vantage point of Lexington, Virginia. Her friends in the tightly
      knit college town of Lexington, including the wife of General William
      Pendleton, helped Cornelia survive the difficult winter and spring of
      1865. She eventually took a job as an art teacher and hired her boys out
      to the army quartermaster to chop wood. Though she survived the
      financial hardship borne of war and the loss of her husband, Cornelia's
      spirits dampened considerably with the demise of the Confederacy.
      Cornelia McDonald was a "reluctant Confederate,"siding with the Union
      until the war broke out.[2] But once the war began in earnest she
      adopted the Confederate cause with zeal. In the spring of 1865 the
      Confederate dream died, leaving Lexington an impoverished town hosting a
      stream of refugees, black and white. Cornelia was especially haunted by
      the new social order that liberated the town's slaves and required her
      sons to perform degrading duties as farm laborers in order to survive.
      In many ways, Cornelia McDonald found her voice in protest against the
      imperious Union officer occupying the town. In defiance of Union
      authorities, but always careful to avoid rebuke, she was a "master of
      the cold stare, the condescending voice, the subtle insult" (p. 159).
      Her own family's struggle to survive prevented her from engaging in the
      momentous events of the city beyond the episodic glare of dissent
      against Yankee soldiers. But her reliance upon communal ties, cultivated
      through four years of war and increasing deprivation, nourished her
      spirit as she struggled to survive.

      The most intriguing story in _A Year in the South_ involves the life of
      John Robertson, a Confederate soldier in heavily Unionist East
      Tennessee. For much of the war, the state's Confederate government
      established a considerable foothold in East Tennessee despite the
      region's Unionist majority. As a Confederate East Tennessean, John
      Robertson was a member of a potent, though increasingly endangered
      minority; rampant guerrilla warfare gradually undermined Confederate
      authority in the eastern section of the state. Once the Union army
      established control of the east in late 1863, Confederates like John
      Robertson found themselves on the run. By late 1864 Robertson
      surrendered to Union authorities and took the new oath of loyalty. John
      Robertson tried to end his war in 1864, but ongoing guerrilla and
      counter-guerrilla struggle in East Tennessee continued to ensnare
      Robertson for another year. He turned increasingly to religion, and he
      hoped to settle down with a woman he recently met and start a family.
      But Unionists under the sway of the Radical William Brownlow refused to
      allow former Confederates like Robertson to retreat into the private
      world. In the summer of 1865 Unionists accused him of participating in a
      Confederate raid years earlier and threatened revenge on him. Robertson
      knew that his life was in danger and that he could no longer survive in
      post-war East Tennessee. Robertson then began a journey not unlike that
      of Louis Hughes; he headed north to Indiana and Chicago, and then he
      headed west into Iowa. If the postwar migration of African Americans
      from the South to the old Northwest is a largely understudied phenomena,
      the flight of former Confederates--especially those fleeing local
      Unionists--to the North, garners even less attention from historians.
      The irony of fleeing to the land of the former enemy did not escape John
      Robertson, but for him the war was as distant as the Old South. He was
      ready to move on, even if those around him were not.

      _A Year in the South_ is a meticulously researched and beautifully
      written narrative that weaves together the lives of four intriguing
      individuals with larger, often under appreciated elements of the
      post-Civil War South. The delayed emancipation in many remote regions of
      the South, migration of blacks and whites to the North and West,
      reassertion of community ties in the midst of widespread destruction,
      and the spiritual awakening of Southerners vexed by such a cataclysmic
      loss, all characterized in some way or another the lives of John
      Robertson, Cornelia McDonald, Louis Hughes and Samuel Agnew. If there is
      any shortcoming to this book, it is Ash's refusal to make explicit the
      thematic connections between these four Southerners. Perhaps Ash feels
      that the four mini-biographies alone paint a compelling portrait of
      Southern life in 1865. Certainly Ash offers a "balance of breadth and
      depth" by focusing on the lives of these four "ordinary" individuals (p.
      xiii). But some discussion regarding the overall struggles common to all
      Southerners would have helped place each individual story in the context
      of larger changes in postwar Southern life. Still, even without explicit
      analysis of the common themes across the lives of these four
      biographical subjects, Ash's book succeeds in telling us "how the New
      South came to be" and "what the Old South was" (p. xii).

      Notes

      [1]. James Roark, _Masters Without Slaves_ (New York: Norton, 1977).

      [2]. Daniel Crofts, _Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in
      the Secession Crisis_ (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press,
      1989).


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