Year in the South: Four Lives in 1865by Stephen V. Ash
A Year in the South is about four ordinary people in an extraordinary time. They lived in the South during 1865 -- a year that saw war, disunion, and slavery give way to peace, reconstruction, and emancipation. One was a slave determined to gain freedom, one a widow battling poverty and despair, one a man of God and planter’s son grappling with spiritual and worldly troubles, and one a former Confederate soldier seeking a new life. Between January and December 1865 they witnessed, from very different vantage points, the death of the Old South and the birth of the New South. Civil War historian Stephen V. Ash reconstructs their daily lives, their fears and hopes, and their frustrations and triumphs in vivid detail, telling a dramatic story of real people in a time of great upheaval and offering a fresh perspective on a pivotal moment in history.
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A Year in the SouthFour Lives in 1865
By Stephen V. Ash
Palgrave MacMillanCopyright © 2002 Stephen V. Ash
All right reserved.
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 outfrom 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.
Excerpted from A Year in the South by Stephen V. Ash Copyright © 2002 by Stephen V. Ash. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Stephen V. Ash is Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee. He is the author of several books on the Civil War, including When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South, 1861-1865.
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