Southern Reconstruction in America


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From Old to New

An Old South was slowly disappearing as a New South was gaining life by 1865. This is evident in many situations but four southern people, all from different backgrounds, show this process. Cornelia McDonald, Louis Hughes, Samuel Agnew and John Robertson all were affected by this terrible event and their lives altered to accommodate to the direction the south was headed. Although there was change, many citizens hung onto their old way of reasoning not wanting to let go of what they were familiar with before and during the war.
The north and south lived relatively different lifestyles before the war. These differences caused tension between them. After Lincoln’s election in 1860 the fear and anxiety within the southern elite rose and succession occurred. The states of the Deep South formed a government and were referred to as the Confederacy led by Jefferson Davis. The south held many key aspects of life close to their heart for which they fought the war. It was important to fight with honor and protect the family name along with fulfilling their role as a paternalist. The white and African American people were also aware of the class distinctions and hierarchy that was in place throughout society. Slavery was the place of the African Americans and white citizens were supreme. Lastly, the south was not an industrial empire but rural and agricultural. The slave labor helped this thrive and brought content to the white people of the south. Within these categories is where the changes and continuity are held after the Civil War.
Cornelia McDonald’s life was changed drastically because of the war. Cornelia led the life of a wealthy elite lady of the southern culture. She did not have to work but was used as a symbol of her husband’s wealth. After the war began her husband left to defend his honor and the cause while she was left to care for the family. She was forced from her home and became a war refugee. Now she had to do work she never had to do before. She had to do the chores her slaves had to do. While doing these chores she also had to keep her class distinction. It was important to her that she did not lose her place in society.

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She did a very good job using her resources to keep her family clothed and fed. She was not prepared for what the Civil War brought to her family. She had help from people in her community to help her keep her lady-like appearance, especially people like the shoemaker. He let her take shoes for her children with the promise that she would pay him back. People in his position could have been hoping that the elite whites would rise up again and gain control of society, which in a since they did. In the book "A Year in the South 1865" the author Stephen Ash points out how early in the winter Cornelia was feeling the pressure of her situation, "Cornelia’s own situation as the winter began was undeniably grim, but she did not see it as hopeless. She had her older children to lean on she had her own considerable resources of strength and talent. Beyond that, she had a circle of friends and benefactors in Lexington who were rallying around her now in her time of need." She kept pushing not for herself but for her children. She did not want to hurt her family honor. Her life style for the time being is changing but her place in the elite society will not change as long as she keeps pushing. She has more persistence than she has change. A paternalist as a husband she now does not have but her sons can take the place of him and be her protector as they had been by working all day and not receiving the chance of going to school. This does not change how she looks at herself and her family’s lives. Many women in 1865 are going through the same difficulties as Cornelia McDonald because so many lost their husbands, fathers, sons, and brothers to fighting and dying for the Confederacy. Her hatred towards the Yankees did not change. She still resented them because she still supported the Confederate cause because of her social status and rank of her husband in the army. Cornelia is proof that the Civil War presented material change to some of the southern elite but she also demonstrates how they were not willing to give up on the social distinctions and feeling for the cause of the war.
People that were extremely affected by the war and would definitely believe that they were leaving the Old South and moving into an era called the New South would be the slaves like Louis Hughes. His whole life all he knew about life was what was given to him on the plantation and at the salt factory. He didn’t know how to live a freedman’s life until the summer of 1865 when slaves in the south were declared free. Many slave owners at the time did not want to believe that their reign over the African Americans were over and continued to work them in the fields and plantations. This was true for Louis’s master. The only way for many of these slaves to gain their freedom was escaping from their masters. Louis had failed at this in the past but the dedication to his wife and young child pushed Louis to succeed. As concluded by Barbara Fields, Louis had to free himself. His feet freed him. Slaves knew that if they stayed on the plantation and waited for help to arrive they would be there for a long time. A conversation with one of his friends, George, concluded his willingness to leave, "I mean that now, today, is the time to make a start." Louis knew it was time to make a run for it. Louis brought back help from a couple of Union officers to free his family and other willing slaves on the plantation. This was a huge step for Louis Hughes who never had been given the opportunity to make his own decisions and live his own life. As Louis and his family reunite with loved ones and make a life for themselves it is evident that the year 1865 was a pivotal point in a slaves life and meant to them that the south was changing. They may still not have all the rights and privileges as the white citizens but they had help from the federal government to provide a decent life for themselves. The racial feelings of whites against blacks do not change and will not for a hundred more years but now black people can start making a life for themselves. Unfortunately white supremacy was still alive.
The emancipation of slaves also greatly affected the plantation and farm owners who bought and worked them. Family’s like the Agnew’s experienced the rise and fall of slavery and were distraught over the extreme change in attitude of the slave class. They started acting like employees instead of the their traditional attitudes as slaves. This did not go over well with the slave owning class. They had to begin doing work in the fields and taking care of the household chores. Sam Agnew and his family were changed by this all. It also effected the poor white class that were at a equal standing as slaves now, both searching for the jobs that the elite were unwilling to perform. The class distinction lines were now blurred a little and slavery was coming to an end. The Agnew’s tried hanging onto their slaves as long as they were able and willing enough to. Soon the law was pressuring slave owners to pay their workers. Many of their slaves moved about finding the best wage and benefits that were offered to them. This was an example of the type of change the south was experiencing. The idea of slavery and blacks being of lower class were still in many people minds but it soon would be ended forever.
Then there were people like John Robertson. He did not particularly care for black people but he did not own any slaves. His life was not altered by the emancipations of slaves but by the ending of the war. After his allegiance to the Union many protesters were out to kill him. He moved a lot trying to keep a distance from people like that. He became very godly and pursued teaching and ministry in Iowa. His life was not greatly affected and does not prove much evidence of the south moving into a new era.
Like all of these southern citizens described in Stephan Ash’s book "A Year in the South 1865" people were having to change their lives to accommodate the new rules and regulations set by Lincoln and his Republican government. Slowly peace was restored and leaders elected back into office. Things would now be different for those people who lived in the south. Their traditional way of living was changed by the freeing of the slaves but the elite were still the elite and the poor still the poor. Their honor culture and paternalist views stayed the same but the way they produced their crops, paid their workers, and lived their lives would show the progression into the New South.


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