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A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865 Essay

Prompt: How did the different backgrounds of John, Cornelia, Lou, and Samuel affect their abilities to adjust to the end of the war? How did the end of the war affect their daily lives? Explain, making sure to support your answer with evidence and quotes from the text.

A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865

The background of an individual allows the individual to adapt to new circumstances no matter how radical the change may be. It is very apparent that in the book, A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865, that people whether they were black or white suffered different hardships, however their background was what enabled them to succeed or fail after the war. There were four people which this book was focused upon: Louis Hughes, who was an educated slave in the Deep South, in Tombigbee, Alabama; Cornelia McDonald, who was the wife of a Confederate soldier, and the mother of 7 children in Lexington, Virginia; Samuel Agnew, who was a priest exempted from military service due to his position in the church, in Tippah County, Mississippi, and John Robertson, who was an ex-confederate soldier looking to settle down and live a religious life accepting defeat as a Confederate soldier, in East Tennessee. Although the backgrounds of each of these individuals were different, their skills gained from their background is what led them to be able to adapt or fail to adapt to the end of the war.

Louis Hughes was an educated slave who was taught many skills by his master whom he refers to as boss, and skills he learned from various jobs but not limited to nursing, working in the fields, and working the salt works. Louis Hughes was very highly skilled for a slave. “Nursing was only one of many skills Lou acquired in the McGehee household. He could drive a carriage, cultivate an ornamental garden, and even operate a sewing machine, not to mention serve expertly as butler and body servant.” (Ash 25) This shows how well rounded Lou was as a slave and as an individual. Lou was also of an entrepreneurial mindset and is shown when he was in the salt works, where he borrowed money from the other slaves and bought tobacco plugs to sell. Having discerned that the area could only produce salt, he was highly successful and procured a fifty dollar profit from the sales which granted attention from N.S. Brooks.

Brooks then obtained five hundred plugs for Lou to sell in which he made a huge profit from. Lou had noticed that “it was all rebel money” but was sharp enough and “bought up all the silver” he could get his hands on. (Ash 21) This lead to believe that Lou would buy something that will retain its value if the confederacy were to lose or win. That way he could keep his assets safe. As soon as the first sign of invasion was near Madam had sent for all her slaves. Lou had been sent out to the fields for the remainder of the time of the invasion was upon arrival, even though there was hardly a presence in the remote area he was in. During the time he was working in the field he remembered how his master had shown two sides of his master. On one side, his master had been seen as a benevolent and would go out and cure people.

On the other hand, there was one where he was seen as temperamental and aggressive. Lou has held much resentment towards this side, and recalls a time where Boss gave him a whipping. This made Lou’s yearning for freedom even greater than it was before. Eventually in the summer, Lou and another slave named George had decided to escape, not knowing that the war had ended and they were granter freedom. The two unknowing freedmen then made their way to Memphis, mostly by foot with fear that they might be caught and sent back. The last bit, after they felt more secure was by train, Lou had purchased using his earnings from the plugs. There they were turned down by the official in charge, found that the war had ended in the Union victory and traveled back Senatobia.

On their way there, with a rented wagon and two bottles of whiskey presumably bought with the silver that Lou had obtained by selling plugs, ran into two union soldiers. He bartered to have the Union soldiers go to Madam’s house to announce the confederate defeat in exchange for a whisky bottle. The union soldiers did exactly that. After doing so the freedmen and their wives along with other freedmen headed to Memphis, escorted some of the way by the same soldiers. There they made a living, or idled about enjoying their new freedom.

However, Lou and his company had decided to go to Cincinnati to see if they could find Matilda’s mother which eventually they did. Lou was able adapt and succeed in almost any job he was given due to his background of working with similar jobs he had held before. Lou was able to adapt in such a way to where it is believed he was successful after the war in the terms of the new freedom he had attained. Lou was able to supersede adversity of the changing political and economic crisis of the south after the war.

Samuel Agnew was a priest in Tippah County, Mississippi. His family were avid supporters of the Confederate cause, running and hiding at the alarm of Yankee invasion. Sam was exempted from the war because he was a minister, although accosted he was a few times under the presumption that he was avoiding the draft. He had heard of the devastation that the confederate soldiers had endured, and kept a keen interest in news about the war, and the policies that the Confederacy was putting in his free time. He tried to cultivate opium and tobacco, as a hobby and to sell to make money to use to buy provisions. In times of heavy depression, and where prices kept going up and money and supply were scarce. Even though the war was over and Sam had accepted that fact he still had a strong sense of confederacy patriotism which came from his family holding a small plantation, and using slave hands to tend to it. His father, “Enoch had listed the value of his plantation as $23,500,” which he Union via President Johnson had declared that along with the generals and officials of the Confederacy, any citizen with more than twenty thousand dollars in assets.

“That provision was clearly aimed at the planters, a class whom Johnson despised and whom he blamed for the breakup of the Union. This was something the Agnews would have to reckon with”. (Ash 145) This was one of the hardships that could not be avoided by Sam as to see that living with his father and his small plantation would be greatly affected by this. Eventually, Sam had to gather the slaves and announce that they were freedmen, however none of them left immediately, they stayed and did only the necessary work, but did not work as efficiently as they did when they were slaves. Sam dictates that the freedmen were “‘doing as they please: they go off in daylight on their own business and are not giving their master’s concerns any attention.’

As a consequence, Sam found himself taking on unaccustomed chores around the plantation: making a new rope for the well bucket, gathering and cleaning the loose bits of cotton scattered around the floor of the gin house.” (Ash 151) This shows that even though he had little practice cultivating, he was ill prepared for the jobs that he had his slaves at the time do. Sam could not adapt to the end of the war. He had no experience in the work that the slaves did thus was struggling to meet ends meet, which is also displayed in their dying livestock. Later on he would hire the freedmen to work in the fields and pay them to do so. Disgusted at the level he was at negotiating with what used to be his family’s property.

Eventually this disdain, and losing assets would leave him with no freedmen come New Year’s Day of the following year after the war. This would leave his family in ruins and unable to cope with the post war times ahead. Thus Sam Agnew was not prepared for the end of the war economically, and with the lack of skills seeing as how they were ruined with no workers or livestock that would help them with the plantation that his father had owned. Sam after having lost everything had failed to change with the ending of the war and the new policies of the United States and had suffered economically.

John Robertson was a young ex-confederate soldier whom after being captured in the war and forced to surrender to get out of prison, was looking for a religious revival and to have a normal life. He planned to become a minister as he professed to Tennie, and “John was an old hand” at raising “wheat during the years John was growing up in Greene County.” (Ash 172) Showing he had some skills to go upon and would have self-sufficiency. Even though he had surrendered and allowed to go back home he remains bitter and still harbors hate towards the union after the confederate loss. As soon as the Unionist established dominance in East Tennessee, he realized that he hated the native unionist more than the Unionist that came from other states. This is mainly due to the fact that he was a Confederate from Tennessee and saw the native unionists as traitors.

This played a giant role in making his daily life really difficult especially in the church due to governor Brownlow, who had resented all of the confederates that imprisoned him. Later on, John would pay the price for his war acts. The Lincolnites “were determined to kill him, there was nothing he could do to stop them—nothing, that is, except go where they could not find him. Through the waning days of August, he agonized over his plight. By September, he had decided he must leave.” (Ash 180) This shows that John’s past would dictate how he would live his future and that he would have to evade the Unionists that were looking for revenge for his past sins, thus pressured him to leave Tennessee and retreat to Springfield. He settled down and immersed himself in education and religion. Although he had settled there with an uncle he was determined to go back, thus John’s background is preventing him from having a successfully way to cope with the end of the war emotionally due to his inability to see his love, Tennie.

Cornelia McDonald was the wife of a wealthy confederate army officer. Cornelia had relied heavily on her husband’s salary thus when she died everything went downhill very fast. She had no basic house skills except for sewing and mending clothes. She lacked basic skill so she “had to hire someone to do the cooking for the same reason she had to pay for carding, spinning, and weaving: as a well-bred woman who had always had money and slaves, she had never learned those skills because she never had to perform those chores.” (Ash 38) This will play into account when the war comes around as those are necessities and will affect and drain the money from Cornelia in the latter half of the year.

She would have to pay someone else for these essential skills. As for the skill she did have was to tutor for painting and foreign languages, these seem more of a luxury than a necessity as will be seen in at the end of the book. She is barely able to support herself and her family after her husband dies and the meager earning she gets goes to food and not enough is left over rent and she engrossed in debt and eventually becomes ruined financially. Cornelia is struggling emotionally as well and claims to see her “‘noble sons, little daughter, and pretty little boys dragged down so low.’” (Ash 158) This was one of her greater struggles as she could not believe that just a few years ago they were so prosperous and now doing jobs that were so “beneath them”. This is just a clear indicator that she was not able to adapt to the circumstances of a changing political climate and her lack of ability to adapt is shown very clearly financially and emotionally.

All in all most of the Southerners had a tough time coping with the end of the war because of their inability, and lack of essential self-sustaining skills. Lou and John were the only ones to see progress in their life although not in significant amount but they were better off than those of the rich white plantation and slave owners. The reason was their ability to cope with hardships way before the end of the war and these times of hardships helped them transition into the post war era, whereas Cornelia and Sam were ruined, because they lived a life where they had enough money to sustain themselves, and did not need to worry about the skills until it was too late. The background of each of the southerner, and their essential skills or lack thereof have left them in in the state they were in either with stability or instability financially, or emotionally.

Ash, Stephen V. A Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865. New York City: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

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