A Year in the South 1865: The True Story of Four Ordinary People

A Year in the South 1865, written by Stephen V. Ash, was published by First Perennial Press in 2004. It runs to 304 pages and deals with a year in the American south during the final year of the bloody United States Civil War.

This war cost more American lives than any other conflict in the nation’s history and turned families against each other as sides were drawn. Stephen V. Ash, appropriately enough, teaches history at the University of Tennessee and has authored other books on the Civil War, including When the Yankees Came: Conflict and Chaos in the Occupied South.

A Year in the South 1865 covers the twelve month p between January and December of 1865 as the war was winding toward its rather foregone conclusion. Ash has chosen to revisit this story of the fall of Dixie in a personal way, using four citizens of the bellicose Confederate States of America that stood in armed rebellion against the federal government of the United States as narrators.

The year 1865 was chaotic in the United States, seeing the assassination of a great American leader, the end of the armed conflict, the beginning of the period termed Reconstruction and the emancipation of slaves in American States.

Each narrator has a unique vantage from which he views the occurrences related in this work. One of the figures is a former Confederate soldier, one is a slave, wanting his freedom more than anything else, one is a widow, hungry and hopeless and the fourth is a planter and Christian minister whose faith is sorely tried.

By 1865 the handwriting was on the wall. Early in the year North Carolina’s effectiveness as a haven for blockade-runners was broken.  William T. Sherman’s sweep through Georgia, creating a swath of scorched earth as he marched, was repeated in South Carolina, virtually destroying the state. It was blitzkrieg without the air support. It was lightening on the ground and it was devastating in its intensity and frightening in its brutality.

Sherman left nothing behind. Against this backdrop the forces of the Army of the United States Federal Government came closer and closer to Richmond, and all but the deaf and blind understood the fall of Old Dominion was a fait accompli.

Lee evacuated the capital in early April and the end was imminent. Jefferson Davis had made peace overtures to Lincoln early in the year, with demands that the independence of the south be recognized. Lincoln knew the war was all but over and dismissed the peace feeler out of hand.

The Old South is dead and the four protagonists of the Stephen Ash work bear witness to the birth of the New. Ash captivates the reader with vivid tales of triumph and tragedy as the protagonists try to cope in a society whose very fabric is rent and bloodied in the ashes of disheartening defeat. Each of the individuals presented in this book are writers and keep journals of their times.

This is a fascinating look into the lives of four ordinary people who are witness to a microcosmic view of the death throes of an age now long dead and of the nova that produced the New South, which is much the same today as when it first began in that painful birthing period in the year 1865. The subtitle of this book calls 1865 the most tumultuous 12 months in American history. It is not merely hype.

John Robertson was a Confederate soldier, doing his duty as he saw it, though this duty caused him to stand in rebellion against his nation’s government and take arms against that institution. It must be understood today that the American civil war is more than just a difference of ideologies that lead to an armed confrontation.

It is a renunciation of vows and oaths of loyalty to one’s own. It is to turn traitor to the homeland. “If such there breathe, go, mark him well; for him no minstrel raptures swell;…and, doubly dying, [he] shall go down to the vile dust from whence he sprung, unwept, unhonored, and unsung,” wrote Sir Walter Scott in The Lay of the Last Minstrel.

Robertson is the target of vigilantes during the year of 1865, pursued by those with different ideologies. In the course of the year he is to flee over a thousand miles to escape the wrath of those bent on taking revenge on him for his perceived part in the bloody conflict.

The cities of the South are occupied by what amounts to an alien army, while the frontiers of the relatively young republic are less civilized, and the citizens of the wilderness territories are subject to more than a modicum of frontier justice as well as to the dockets of more than a few kangaroo courts.

The politics of this period are such that the victorious north is determined, by hook or crook, to impose its will upon the defeated insurgents in general, and those it can identify as ex-soldiers in particular. Ideally it will achieve its aims at the polling place, but if it can not, it is not adverse to a bit of armed confrontation of its own.

Robertson finds himself the subject of reprisals as union loyalists seek their revenge on those who are available to them and he is forced to flee for his life.

At one point he finds it expedient to move into the north, and comes to rest in a community in Iowa, where he feels like a fish out of water, unable to cope with cultural differences and what he perceives as a cold and calculating veneer spread over the peoples.

Yankee and German immigrant merchants are not as warm as his fellow Southerners. The lack of Southern charm and hospitality is more than he can bear and he ultimately realizes that he cannot stay in such a place.

This same hospitable citizen of a once genteel South hates Negroes with a blind passion and is willing to give his life to see that a form of government that holds some human beings to be chattel will survive and prosper. Ash quotes him as describing some blacks as, “ ‘the greasiest bunch of nig[g]ers I ever saw.’ Just being around them made him sick,” (56).

  When the shoe is on the other foot there is a great lack of understanding as to why man must be so callous in regard to his fellow man. Robertson is shocked to learn that bigotry can be directed toward him. Isn’t he white? Isn’t he a Southerner? Did he not fight to preserve his heritage? He feels forced to flee from is home in Knoxville.

He feels that the Negro is rising above his station and the world, it must seem, has turned upside down. It is ironic that Robertson’s saga, his tale of misery in the aftermath of a war which he violently abetted, is found in the same tome as is found the tale of a former slave whom he considered below him and fit only for servitude. Robertson would not have liked to share the stage with a Negro in all likelihood.

He is stunned that he becomes the second-class citizen in his travels and he has difficulty believing the incredible lack of manners exhibited by northerners. He finds it unacceptable that they do not offer the simple hospitality of a hot meal to visitors and he feels that they are looking down on him. Robertson eventually becomes a preacher, accepting the call to spread the gospel of Christ to his fellow man.

Louis Hughes begins his narrative as a slave who has risen to what is stereotypically considered to be a plum assignment for a man in his position, that of house-slave.

He becomes the family butler eventually. Having a good job as a slave seems similar to the old adage of enjoying a comfortable seat in hell. His is witness to the death of his twin children as his wife is too over-worked to see to their needs and they die of neglect.

He tries to escape, and is recaptured by a military patrol. When he is returned to his rightful owner he is beaten by the kindly old white master, who puts him in stocks to administer the requisite justice, pausing when he tires, to rest and read the newspaper (120).

It is the disparity of view and juxtaposition of these two narrators that adds so much flavor to this history. Hughes seems to be the more sympathetic of the two, and is the more altruistic.

He is called upon to demonstrate his intestinal fortitude and acquits himself well. He manages to save members of his family and proves his ability to learn and expand. He comes to Milwaukee, where he becomes a nurse, doing much good for those in need. Both men travel far and see much. Their sojourns give added dimension to their tales and prevent them from narrating with a frog’s eye concept of life in the post-bellum American South.

Cornelia McDonald is the widow of a Confederate officer. She lives in Lexington, Virginia. Her story is the only one told from a woman’s perspective and it fills in many of the gaps left by the tales related by the male narrators in that she deals more with the domestic issues of her day. She is also witness to the abject hunger and devastating poverty which settled over the south like an all intrusive fog, penetrating to the core of the land, pervasive and all encompassing.

Her bitter struggle to simply find enough food to subsist is a telling point in this work. All too often a history will deal only with the nuts and bolts of the events, relating the politics and mechanizations that occurred in the reconstruction of a defeated and fallen society, overlooking the seemingly insignificant issue of bread.

McDonald’s tale covers this aspect of the bitter year when a once proud and even arrogant people lost everything, falling lower than they believed it possible to fall.

McDonald is left with seven hungry children and struggles daily just to find them enough food to survive. She relates a tale of how she unwove a mattress to recycle the threads into a suit of clothing for one of her sons (36). It is a story reminiscent of the classic scene described by Margaret Mitchell of how Scarlett O’Hara took the velvet drapes from the windows of her once glorious Tara and had the material tailored into a ball gown.

Planter cum preacher, Sam Agnew is the fourth member of this group of narrators of the year 1865 in this southern history. He bears further witness to the hunger and utter destitution left in the wake of the merciless marauding Union army.

He comes bearing tales of the land and people in a way unique to a farmer who has witnessed a period when even heaven seemed to conspire against the south, withholding rain and desiccating the crops, bringing famine and disease (150).

McDonald is perhaps a metaphor for the land, relating how she survived that year of infamy, prospering eventually, and becoming a friend of the revered icon of all that is Southern, General Robert Edward Lee.

She relates rather poignantly how Lee remains the courtly Southern aristocrat in defeat and urges his fellow Southerners to forgive and forget and move on with their lives. She does not mention how this courtly aristocrat, a graduate of West Point, reneged on his solemn oath to the United States and took up arms against it.

She fails to mention that what he and the other Southern officers, who had once been Union officers, had done was treason and could have resulted in their execution.

It seems the least bit fatuous for an historian like Ash to glorify the mien of Southern gentry who were largely responsible, if not for causing the war, then at least for extending it by years with the military expertise they had been taught in a United States military academy. Had they all refused to gainsay their sacred oaths the war might not have been prosecuted for lack of leadership.

Works Cited

Ash, S.V.  A Year in the South 1865: The True Story of Four Ordinary People Who Lived Through the Most Tumultuous Twelve Months in American  History  New York: First Perennial Edition 2004


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