Civil War History: “A Year in the South” by Ash


A few events in the United States history had as much impact as the American Civil War. During the war which was, in part, in part, fueled by the debate over the future of slavery, people faced many hardships. After this pivotal moment in history, the United States saw dramatic changes, which were experienced firsthand by people of different origins and ethnic backgrounds. The book “A Year in the South: 1865” by Stephen Ash provides an intriguing insight into the lives of four ordinary individuals, John, Cornelia, Louis, and Samuel, all of whom had to adjust to a new reality after the Civil War was over. While these four people had vastly different opportunities, their abilities determined their readiness to adjust to the end of the war.

Character of Lou

The book describes the pivotal point of the United States history from the position of a slave, a single mother, a minister, and a former Confederate soldier. Slavery is an alien concept to the modern citizens of the United States of America. However, before the American Civil War, slavery was recognized as a legal institution that was behind the economic growth of the colonies and provided the foundation for the economic dominance of the United States.

Louis Hughes was a mulatto slave who worked in the house of the owner of a large manufacturing operation. Lou was a highly skilled slave who learned how to do a great number of things while working for his master: “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” (Ash 25). Lou is described by the author as smart and resolute, and the author emphasizes the fact that Lou was determined to become free if he could help it.

The reasons behind his determination were nearly unbearable circumstances in the household. During the war, Lou tried to escape numerous times but was always brought back. Nonetheless, even when Lou’s master brought him and other slaves into a remote area to avoid their seizure by the troops, Lou was still determined to become free. His circumstances made him intelligent: he had no choice but to adapt and become smart to have at least some chance to become free.

You even made a sizable income by selling tobacco plugs and saved the money. Lou escaped the plantation, summed two Union officers, and with their help, freed the rest of the slaves on the plantation. Eventually, together with his wife and her mother, Lou moved to Canada until the war was over. When he felt that his freedom would no longer be endangered, he would return to the United States and settle in Milwaukee. The nursing skills Lou learned during his slavery years allowed him to make a living after the war was over: he ended working as a nurse.

Character of Sam

Samuel Agnew was a son of a plantation owner living in Mississippi. As a man of God, from the beginning of the war, Sam occupied the position of a minister in Tippah County. The position of a minister allowed Sam to escape enlistment in the Confederate army and continue his life on the plantation, where all of the hard work was performed by slaves. Sam took his daily routine for granted and like many at the time, was unaware of the misfortunes of the Confederate army almost until the war was over.

Finally, the economic hardships and the appearance of the Federal troops in the Tippah County brought an abrupt end to the routine that Sam grew fond of. The Union forces immediately enforced the Emancipation Proclamation on his family’s plantation, thereby declaring all of their slaves free. While their slaves did not take violent action against their masters, their new legal status meant that there was no one to work on the plantation: the slaves “simply quit working except as it suited them” (Ash 82). Sam’s family had no choice but to bargain with newly freed slaves so that they worked on the plantation, which was galling for the family of planters who became masters without slaves. Eventually, all of the freed blacks left the plantation.

Sam’s family was heavily dependent upon slave labor. Among the four characters, the character of Sam was the less prepared for what happened after the war. The sense of loss and despair after the slaves abandoned the plantation was experienced by many plantation owners at the time. The end of the war made Sam’s privileged position obsolete, and now he had to bargain with blacks to save his family’s business.

Character of Cornelia

Cornelia McDonald is the only major female character in the book and provides an insight into the life of women during the Civil War. She was the widow of a Confederate soldier living in Lexington, Virginia. The life of her husband was taken by his failing health in 1864, shortly after he was released from a Union prison.

Cornelia was an intelligent woman: growing in a well-off family, she had access to many books and showed interest in everything that happened around her. The author notes that “she proved to be a capable manager and a woman of great strength of will” (Ash 165). The war proved that Cornelia was a true survivor. As a mother of seven children, before her husband’s death, she heavily depended on his salary for survival.

When her husband died, Cornelia struggled to sustain herself and her family, but always found a way out. She knew how to weave and wove clothes for her children out of an old mattress. She reached out to her friends, who helped her survive the winter and spring of 1865. Cornelia had to perform degrading duties to survive as well as provide for her family. With no husband to rely on, she had to provide for herself and her children and was solely responsible for their survival.

After the war was over, Cornelia was a different woman, an empowered one. She questioned her way of life and found her voice in her sharp position against Union soldiers. She was “a master of the cold stare, the condescending voice, the subtle insult” (Ash 159). She managed to become the sole provider for her family which was unthinkable for women at the time. The character of Cornelia is one of the first examples of a strong woman liberated by the hardships of war. Her abilities allowed her not only to survive the war but also to find peace with the new, changed reality. Her ties with her friends, which were further developed during the war, allowed her spirit to keep on going during the years of poverty and deprivation.

Character of John

Even after the war was over and slaves were freed, the issue of racial prejudice was still an acute one. For many white people, the new reality was too difficult to comprehend, and some tried to enforce slavery even after it was abolished. Some white people despised former slaves and were disappointed by the new reality. One of these people was John Robertson. John was a skilled young farmer, who did a lot of reading of history books and the bible.

When the war started, John left his home to enlist in a confederate army, but after a few weeks left the army, only to find himself among the guardsmen when the war reached his community. When the guardsmen joined the Confederate army, John fought bravely in several sharp skirmishes and left the forces after he developed pneumonia. In East Tennessee, their family suffered abuse from the local unionists, and eventually, John was forced to take an oath of loyalty to the Union.

Despite this fact, throughout the rest of the war, he suffered frequent harassment from the unionists for the raids he had participated in as a confederate. In 1865, after unionists threatened to kill John as revenge for his Confederate involvement, fearing for his life he made a decision to leave East Tennessee and headed north. His physical journey was accompanied by a spiritual one: he grew weary of war and harassment and decided to start a quest for spiritual perfection.

Although John decided to devote his life to God, he could not accept the new status of blacks. His family background and the continuous harassment from the unionists likely made him despise not only the unionists but also the cause they were fighting for.

Abraham Lincoln shifted the focus of the war from the slaveholders to the institution of slavery itself. The Emancipation Proclamation showed an unprecedented recognition of the need to integrate the black population with the white community. John’s background made him unable to accept the new reality where blacks were considered free people. He despised blacks and had to leave Knoxvillewhen the presence of blacks, and the pressure on him to conform to the new reality increased.

The Cultural Context

To better understand the atmosphere that existed in the U.S. at the time in question, it is also important to take a closer look at the cultural differences between the North and the South which emerged before that. One of these major differences was related to the fact that the northern and the western states had become rather urban and industrialized (Murrin et al. 488), whereas the climate of the South made it an ideal place for agricultural activities, especially for growing crops such as cotton or tobacco. The urbanization and industrialization of the northern states made the institute of slavery less important in the North than in the South.

Some of the other results of these differences were the distinctions in the most frequently pursued careers, and, therefore, differences in the levels of education, the political views, and so on. The people of the North were more likely to become medics, teachers, or to do business, and more often supported Republicans (Murrin et al. 462), whereas the residents of the South attended school less, and were more probable to become farmers or soldiers.

As a consequence of this, domestic lives and family values also were different. There were many representatives of the middle class in the North (Murrin et al. 512), whereas the South was more acutely divided into the rich and the poor. The women in the northern states tended to work in the industry, whereas southern females more often had to care about their households, and/or to oversee the slaves working in the house. The prevalence of the army professions in the South also resulted in the greater need for women to run the house. Because of these factors, the traditional family values were stronger in the South.


In the year 1865, the United States saw the culmination of events that affected the course of its history. It is important to understand the cultural context of the time to better comprehend what caused the Civil War and how the values which are now associated with America were spread from the North to the South as a result of the conflict. This is one of the reasons why the book by Stephen Ash, a beautifully written narrative that allows the reader to experience what it was like to live during these turbulent times, is of great significance.

While the book tells the story of the Civil War and its consequences, it is also very personal and relatable because the author focuses on ordinary people and their lives during the end of the war and the beginning of the reconstruction. The book touches upon many important aspects of war, often overlooked by historians, such as the emancipation of women, the consequences ex-Confederate soldiers suffered in heavily unionist areas, and the migration of blacks and whites. There is no doubt that the end of the war had a great influence on their daily lives, and their skills and knowledge determined who would adjust to the new reality and who would not.

Works Cited

Ash, Stephen. A Year in the South: 1865. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. Print.

Murrin, John M., Pekka Hämäläinen, Paul E. Johnson, Denver Brunsman, James M. McPherson, Alice Fahs, Gary Gerstle, Emily S. Rosenberg, and Norman L. Rosenberg. Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People. Boston, MA: Cengage Learning, 2016. Google Books. Web.

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