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A Year in the South

Some people may think that the background has no importance when the war begins. However, this opinion is false, since the background gives each person a possibility to adjust to different conditions in the most severe times or to fail to adapt to them. In his novel A Year in the South, Stephen Ash focuses on the lives of four people of different skin colors and origins, who overcame many difficulties and either managed to gain success or suffer a defeat after the war. These four people were: Louis Hughes – an educated slave, Cornelia McDonald – a wealthy woman and a wife of a Confederate soldier, John Robertson – an ex-confederate soldier, and Samuel Agnew – a priest and a landowner. All these people had different skills and abilities, and their backgrounds and the end of the war influenced them in a different ways too, helping them either successfully adapt to the life after the war or fail to adjust to new conditions.

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Cornelia McDonald

Cornelia McDonald was not able to adjust herself to the end of the war because of her wealthy background and lack of skills to perform some household tasks. Cornelia was a wealthy white woman, a spouse of a Confederate army officer. Since she used to live in good conditions, the death of her husband was a great tragedy for her. In early childhood, Cornelia developed such skills as “reading, writing, drawing, and painting,” and thus, she became a well-educated young woman. These qualities allowed her to marry successfully and have a happy family before the war. However, when the war began, Cornelia had to manage the household “that included six slaves and a hired servant” alone. After her husband’s death, Mrs. McDonald faced poverty that became a new way of life to which she had to adjust. Due to her noble background, the woman was unable to do the cooking, and “for the same reason she had to pay for carding, spinning and weaving: as a well-bred woman who had always had money and slaves, she had never learned those skills because she never had to perform those chores”. It affected her ability to accommodate to the end of the war, since the fact that she could not do everything by herself exhausted the family budget.

The end of the war became a time for Cornelia’s emotional and financial crisis which negatively affected her daily life. Some of the skills she had, such as painting or knowledge of the foreign languages were rather a luxury than a necessity. Instead of trying to learn something new or, at least, managing to cope with the domestic chores, Cornelia worked as a tutor, yet the money she earned was barely enough to support her family. Thus, she got into debts and finally faced financial ruin. Moreover, the woman struggled emotionally, because she was afraid to see her “noble sons, little daughter, and pretty little boys dragged down so low”. Therefore, her adaptation to the end of the wartime was unsuccessful.

Louis Hughes

Louis Hughes abilities and background helped him successfully adjust to the end of the war. He was a slave who lived in the Deep South. The man was well-educated, and he gained most of his skills from his master. One of his favorite skills was nursing: “When he was called on to act as a night nurse for a sick slave at the saltworks, he did so gladly”. Besides, Hughes could “drive a carriage, cultivate an ornamental garden, and even operate a sewing machine, not to mention serve expertly as butler and body servant”. All these features show that Lou’s background helped him adjust to the culmination of the war. In addition, Louis was a perfect entrepreneur. For example, while being in the county that specialized on salt production, he realized that this place could produce only salt and nothing more. Thus, the other black men lent him some money, and he purchased tobacco plug. In such a way, he sold tobacco and earned big profits. Such success attracted his master Brooks, who did not want to free Louis even after the war had ended.

The fact that the war was over affected Louis’ daily life positively, as he attained freedom and was ready to adapt to his new life despite the fact that he had been a black slave before. Together with his friend George he decided to escape, because they did not know that the war ended and they were free. On their way to Memphis, Louis and George faced some difficulties, but they successfully overcame them due to the Louis’ background. The man was inventive and enterprising, and all his skills helped him find a new place for living and enjoy freedom. Moreover, even when Lou decided to find his wife’s mother, he succeeded in it owing to his ability to adapt to any situation.

John Robertson

John Robertson could not adjust to the end of the war because of his Confederate background and political views. He was an ex-confederate soldier who was caught and had to surrender to gain freedom. After he had left the prison, John tried to find refuge in religion. He continued teaching in Iowa and planned to become a minister when being with Tennie. Since the man came from Greene County, his background helped him raise wheat as he did it before when he lived with his parents. These skills were necessary for John to survive and stay self-sufficient. However, his hatred towards the unionists did not allow him to live safely. His Confederate background posed risks to his daily life when the Unionists established their dominance in East Tennessee. Robertson believed that native Unionists were traitors, and his hatred became the reason for his further actions.

The end of the war affected John’s life negatively, because he was forced to hide from the Unions due to his connections with Confederacy. Once, the Lincolnites “were determined to kill him,” and his only way out was to run away (Ash 180). Ash writes, “[in] August, he agonized over his plight. By September, he had decided he must leave”. Therefore, John’s past did not allow him to live a happy life with his beloved Tennie, and he had to escape in order to evade the Unionists who wanted to take revenge on all Confederates, including John. Robertson settled in Springfield and continued his teaching career and religious development. However, his inability to be with Tennie led to depression and unhappy life, although the man had married another woman and had seven children with her.

Samuel Agnew

Samuel Agnew’s background prevented him from adjusting to new conditions, because he still had a sense of confederate patriotism. He was the fourth character of Ash’s book. He was a priest, whose family owned a plantation in Tippah County. Sam was a minister, so that is why he did not participate in the war. The end of the war was the beginning of Agnew’s despair and alienation because of the emancipation of slaves and inability of the masters to work on the plantations themselves. His family had many slaves, and when the war ended, they could not believe that they would lose everything. Thus, the main difficulty the Agnew’s family faced was the emancipation of slaves.

Sam was the one who had to announce that his slaves became freedmen. He observed that they began to work less and did not give “their master’s concerns any attention”. As a result, Agnew had to do some chores on the agricultural estate, such as, for example, “making a new rope for the well bucket, gathering and cleaning the loose bits of cotton scattered around the floor of the gin house”. All these tasks were difficult for Agnew, since he was not prepared to them owing to his background. Hence, Samuel could not accommodate to the end of the war, struggling to perform the tasks his slaves used to do. Moreover, his inability to accept such changes and treat the slaves as free men led to failure. After the war had ended, no slaves came to the family of Agnew on the New Year’s Day. The family was unable to manage all their plantations and was left in ruins. Therefore, the end of the war affected Sam’s daily life negatively, since he was not prepared to such changes in economic terms.


It is evident that the end of the 1865 became a tough time for the most of Southerners despite their background and skin color. Louis Hughes and John Robertson suffered less than wealthy Cornelia McDonald and Samuel Agnew. The main reason for their progress was the ability to quickly adjust to new conditions and use their skills and knowledge in everyday life. At the same time, Robertson could not return to his beloved woman because of his Confederate background, although this fact did not ruin his life completely. On the contrary, Cornelia and Sam were of wealthy origin, and the end of the war became the end of their prosperity. They used to have slaves who did everything for them, so when the slaves gained freedom, Sam and Cornelia who obviously lacked certain skills could not succeed. In summary, the background of each of the character as well as their skills or the lack of them influenced their daily lives after the end of the war and resulted in either success or failure.

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