Apr 30, 2020 in Literature

A Year in the South

Civil War entailed significant changes in American society. Union victory resulted in the abolition of racial slavery. Therefore, many black people received the long-awaited freedom. The book A Year in the South by Stephen Ash focuses on the events that occurred during 1865 and reveals their influence on the Southerners’ life. This period marked the end of the war and paved the way to peace and reconstruction. Cornelia McDonald, Samuel Agnew, John Robertson, and Louis Hughes are ordinary people who live in the South. Everyone experiences hardships since the end of the Civil War considerably changed the Southerner’s daily lives. Different backgrounds influence John’s, Louis’, Cornelia’s, and Samuel’s ability to adaptation.

Louis Hughes was a mulatto slave, who was sold into bondage at the age of eleven. Edmund McGehee, a Mississippi planter, bought Louis and gave him to his wife as a Christmas present. Lou was an intelligent and skilled person with strong desire to gain freedom. He tried to escape three times, but the Confederate troops returned him to captivity. When the Civil War began, McGehee moved with his slaves to Alabama. Lou quickly adapted to the salt works. These works had their economy based on 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”. He started selling tobacco plugs within the local black laborers’ community. Due to Lou’s skills and his close relationship with Commissioner Woolsey and Superintendent Brooks, he was highly respected at the works.

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A malaria epidemic entailed labor shortage at the salt works. Sickness and death spread rapidly. When a typhoid epidemic emerged, Lou began his nursing practice. Since Hughes’ owner McGehee was a physician, he trained Lou to assist him. “Patiently Boss taught Lou how to identify all the potions by sight and smell, and how to prepare each one and measure out the proper dosage”. Hughes learned what medicinal herbs grew in the South and often gathered them. Thus, he obtained basic medicinal knowledge.

Lou and his wife Matilda were happy at the salt works. Hughes had a job, profitable business, and privileges. However, the married couple understood that they remained slaves and strove to become free. In March, the Union army approached the state salt works. Therefore, Lou and Matilda were sent back to McGehee’s plantation.

Hughes worked hard in the fields. “For Lou and the other field hands, this meant rising before daylight and heading for the fields without breakfast”. In summer, despite the Emancipation Proclamation, McGehee did not allow his slaves to leave the plantation. It induced Lou to escape. Hughes’ savings helped him achieve his goal and become a freedman. Thus, Lou’s skills and experience were helpful in adapting to the difficult circumstances during the last months of the Civil War.

John Robertson was “a former Confederate soldier who had taken the oath of allegiance to the United States to get out of prison”. At the age of eighteen, he clearly understood that he strove for spiritual fulfillment. Initially, John stayed at the farm of his uncle and aunt in east Tennessee. He considered himself a sinner, and this thought oppressed him. John received an invitation from John Brown, a minister, to attend the schoolhouse where a revival was in progress. Robertson prayed hard and eventually reached the sense of transformation. He wanted to serve neither in the Confederate army nor in the Union army. However, he hoped for the victory of the Confederate States of America. It was his secret desire.

John hated black people. When their number rapidly increased in Knoxville due to the Emancipation Proclamation, Robertson moved to the Blue Springs. He settled at Uncle Allen’s farm and attended a revival at Blue Springs Church. “When the revival ended, he met with the minister in charge and was formally accepted as a member of the Methodist church”. Robertson was preoccupied with the thoughts regarding his future. He knew that he tried to escape not only from his sinful past, but also from the war. Finally, he decided to devote his life to God and become a minister. John considered that his good education would enable him to prepare for this position properly.

Since Uncle Allen’s farm was far from the town, it helped to reinforce the sense of isolation, which was rewarding for John. He spent much time reading in his bedroom. Moreover, he met Tennie, who had the same political views, and fell in love with her. “Increasingly, there were reports of violence in the region: threats, beatings, even killings”. The former Confederate soldiers mostly suffered from such cruelties. The Lincolnites attempted to kill Robertson as well. John realized that he was in grave danger. Therefore, he moved to Iowa. Thus, Robertson’s background was an obstacle on his way to a successful adaptation to the end of the Civil War and prevented his marriage with the beloved.

Cornelia McDonald lived in prosperity. Her husband was a rich officer in the Confederate army. However, in 1865, Cornelia’s life significantly changed. “The death of her husband and the loss of her home had brought her to the verge of poverty and despair”. Thus, she became a widow and a war refugee.

Cornelia moved to Lexington with her seven children. Her house had been built approximately seventy years before. It was hard to heat, since it had many windows and an insufficient number of fireplaces. Nonetheless, Cornelia did not regard her situation as hopeless. She could rely on the help of her older children. Moreover, Cornelia was generous and made friends easily. William McElwee and his wife, Ann Pendletons with her daughters, and Thomas Deaver supported Cornelia during this difficult time. One of her acquaintances “who knew of Cornelia’s skill with pencil and sketchbook told her of some young ladies in town who were willing to pay for drawing lessons”. This acquaintance also found two other young women who wanted French lessons. Overall, Cornelia received fifty dollars a week for her teaching activities.

The biggest difficulties for Cornelia were clothing and feeding her family. Friends helped her to cope with these issues. Whereas Cornelia had slaves earlier, she did not know how to perform household work. Therefore, she hired a black woman to do the cooking. Despite this fact, there was a large amount of other work, such as emptying chamber pots, sweeping, laundry, and ironing, which required much time. Thus, Cornelia could not walk in the countryside and read, which hitherto was an important part of her daily life. Although she was busy and tired during the winter, she strictly kept the long-established family traditions.

Cornelia’s financial situation worsened. Lack of money and friends’ support entailed emotional suffering. Her children could not receive education since private academies were expensive. Cornelia tried to teach them, but then housework took all her time. Children were also busy helping their mother. Thus, the end of the war destroyed Cornelia’s carefree life. She did not possess necessary skills that would allow her to adapt successfully to new circumstances.

Samuel Agnew was a thirty-one-year old minister in Mississippi. His father, Enoch, was a planter and enthusiastic supporter of the Confederate army. During Yankee alarms, Sam was hiding in the wood with his father. Agnew’s mother and wife stayed at home since Yankee soldiers did not threaten women and children. Once the danger had passed, they returned. Sam heard that the Confederate army suffered serious losses. He was interested in the course of events during the war. In winter, Sam spent most of his time indoor. Moreover, he engaged in gardening. “He was trying to raise opium poppies”. Since narcotics were in demand, Sam attempted to sell them and earn money for provisions.

Agnew accepted the victory of the Union, but he still was for the confederacy. The Emancipation Proclamation demanded to free the slaves. Sam announced his slaves that they became freedmen, but they did not leave the plantation. They continued to perform the necessary work. However, the freedmen did it less efficiently. Sam started performing unaccustomed work at the plantation. By the New Year’s Day, the former slaves left Agnew’s possession. Thus, Sam was unable to adjust to the end of the war. He could not perform the household work that resulted in livestock death. His family’s property gradually declined.

In conclusion, all Southerners experienced hardships in 1865. They had to adjust to the new difficult circumstances. The different backgrounds affected the process of adaptation. Stephen Ash in the book A Year in the South describes how four persons adapt to the end of the war. Despite significant changes in their life, Lou and John possess the appropriate skills that allowed them to adapt successfully. Cornelia and Sam, in their turn, found it difficult to cope with their problems. They lived in prosperity, and the slaves perform all the work. Therefore, Cornelia and Sam did not develop proper skills that would be helpful in adapting to the end of the war. Thus, they failed to adapt successfully and faced emotional and financial instability.


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