These are the stories of "four people who lived through the most tumultuous year in American history." Each of the four was a diarist/writer, and recorded their piece of the events in 1865, the last year of the Civil War and its chaotic aftermath.
It was enough for me to read that Cornelia McDonald, a Confederate officer's widow struggling to survive in Lexington, Virginia, with seven children, took apart a mattress thread by thread to have it rewoven to make a suit for one of her sons. Now I know what I have oft suspected: no one in the northern part of the Western hemisphere really knows what true poverty is anymore.
Who among us has prayed for rain so that there might be corn enough to survive the winter, or watched helpless, as did Sam Agnew, a planter and preacher in the Deep South, while friends or their children died from impacted bowels or mysterious boils or simple diarrhea? Even mules and horses were so underfed as to stumble, fall, and die from general weakness. We haven't, like John Robertson, had to flee 1,200 miles from home to escape political retribution from vigilantes gone mad in a lawless wilderness.
And that was just the white folks. Equally compelling is the account of Louis Hughes, a slave who had risen to a station of relative security, if the stereotypes are to be believed, of house servant. Butler, carriage driver, trusted servant, his wife the family cook, Hughes had made a niche for himself. But still he tried to escape numerous times before the end of the war. Once when recaptured by army patrols, he was whipped for hours by his rather benign master, who put him in stocks and sat reading the newspaper between beatings. Louis never forgot that the mistress of the house so overworked his wife that his twins babies died of neglect.
Hughes and Robertson were to travel far, and their view of life beyond the south gives the book an extra dimension. Louis was exceptionally courageous and multi-talented, and ended his life in Milwaukee as a nurse, having saved and reunited a large number of his family and being much revered. John would have hated Louis, as he despised all Negroes, and was not sorry to leave behind cities like Knoxville where, increasingly as the war came to an end, former slaves were not only present but "they had forgot to get out of the way of white people." Targeted for reprisals by union loyalists as the war was coming to a close, John was forced to move to Iowa for a time, grappling there with cultural differences among the slick Yankee merchants and Germans with their peculiar language and unwelcoming attitudes. John, who was to become a preacher, was disgusted to note that Yankee folk never asked a stranger to dinner and had but few neighbors of sufficient friendliness to enter the house.
No one believed, where Sam Agnew lived, that the war was really over, or that the government really meant them to let their slaves go. It was a bitter pill. They found, post-war, that it was impossible to get reliable servants and that, astonishingly, the blacks "had a prejudice against whites." Stephen V. Ash, Professor of History at the University of Tennessee and Civil War expert, paints a vivid picture of the former slaves milling about in expectation that the Union militia will pay them reparations for their slave years, while large holdings like that of the Agnews fell into disrepair.
Cornelia, in Lexington, became friends in later life with Robert E. Lee and his wife. Asked to take over as President of the (then) Washington College, Lee rode into town on Traveler one misty afternoon when he wasn't expected, "bowing slightly and doffing his hat to acknowledge the greetings of men and women on the sidewalk." Unlike the majority of his fellow Southerners, Lee urged a dignified acceptance of the losses of war and a willingness to cooperate with the newly reconstituted union. It was a noble sentiment, but 1865 was not a year for idealism.