Friday, April 3, 2015

Book: A Year in the Life of the South 1865

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I've long been fascinated by the the years immediately following the Civil War and how it impacted the lives of my West Tennessee ancestors.

In just a few days, on April 9, 2015, it will have been 150 years since Lee surrendered the Confederate Army to Grant at the Appomattox Court House. In commemorating the end of the Civil War and the upcoming anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, there has been much written about the war, the horror that was slavery and the events surrounding Lincoln's death.

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"President Lincoln is Dead: The New York Herald Reports the Assassination"

The museum where I get to work every day, the Newseum, is marking the anniversary with an amazing exhibit of a collection of New York Herald special editions from April 15, 1865. If you get to Washington before Jan. 10, 2016, you really need to check it out.

Slavery is certainly a topic with implications to my personal genealogy. Looking at my four primary lines: Williams, Lovelace, Castellaw and Brantley, I know all four families migrated to Haywood County, Tennessee from Bertie County, North Carolina in the early 1830s with their slaves along to help them carve out farms in this previously-unsettled land. When the Civil War began, all four families were still neighbors and farming the same land using slave labor.

Because the known details on my lines are available on, I've even been contacted a couple of times by individuals who are likely descendants of the slaves of my ancestors.

Close family ties to such a horrible institution frequently makes me wonder what they were thinking at the time.

Until someone in my family unearths a hidden chest containing a Civil War diary no one knew about, I'll have to make do with what others in the area were thinking at the time. 

During a recent 15-hour plane ride, I finally had time to read one book I've had on my list for a while, A Year in the South, 1865: The True Story of Four Ordinary People Who Lived Through the Most Tumultuous Twelve Months in American History.

Written by Stephen V. Ash, Professor Emeritus of the Department of History at the University of Tennessee, the book was originally published back in 2004. I purchased it based on the title alone so was pleasantly surprised to discover it did include quite a bit about West Tennessee.

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Cover image from "A Year in the South, 1865"

The "four ordinary people" referenced in the title all left behind diaries and journals that Ash used to explore the implications slavery and the war on his subject's lives.

Stories in the the book are from a formerly well-off Confederate widow who is reduced to living a life of extreme poverty for herself and her seven children, an enterprising slave who teaches himself to read and launches numerous business endeavors when not attempting to escape, a farmer dealing with issues of faith and a young soldier struggling with the world changing around him.

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Memphis river front at the time of the Civil War, from
Harper's Weekly, July 5, 1862
From A Year in the South, 1865

Especially relevant to my interests were the frequent references to my hometown of Memphis. One in particular took place shortly after the end of the war. Former slave Louis Hughes escaped the plantation on which he lived and headed to Memphis to seek help rescuing other former slaves who were still being held against their will.
"It was almost sunset when the car pulled into Memphis. Lou looked around in wonder. The city had grown and changed so much in the three years since he had left that it was hardly recognizable. Black people were everywhere, for the city had become a mecca for fugitives from the plantations of northern Mississippi, western Tennessee, and eastern Arkansas. Lou saw some he knew, earlier escapees from Panola or Bolivar. Like him, they were slaves no longer...Memphis has drawn not only hordes of blacks but also white refugees in great numbers, not to mention Yankee soldiers and citizens. The city was now home to 40,000 people, maybe 60,000--nobody knew for sure." (pg. 130)
The book is divided into seasons and offers insight into the subject's lives both before, during and after the Civil War.

While the oppression and cruelty they all experience (and in some cases, attempt to justify) is clearly evident, there are also glimpses of hope, compassion and seeds being planted for significant cultural changes ahead.

If you're at all interested in the southern experience of the Civil War, I highly recommend you purchase this book and add it to your collection.

For more blog entries, visit my Blog Home Page or to check out the genealogy research about my specific family lines, go to my Haywood County Line Genealogy Website.

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