Hiram Parks Bell: Conditions of the Southern People at the Close of the War
The following is Chapter 15 from Hiram Parks Bell’s Men and Things, published 1907:
“There were three things which enabled unprincipled, ambitious demagogues, North and South, to madden the American people and create conditions that made Civil War possible, if not inevitable. They were the conflict in Kansas, the assault of Brooks upon Sumner in the Senate, and John Brown’s raid upon Harper’s Ferry. These facts appealed to passion, with a force that overcame the resistance of reason and patriotism. The deplorable assassination of Lincoln inflamed the victors into a frenzy of fury, put into the presidency the prince of ambitious demagogues, in whom neither party had the slightest confidence, and for whom neither had any respect, and thus entailed upon the vanquished the heritage of reconstruction. Had Lincoln survived, all the probabilities are, and all the indications show, that the States would have been allowed to readjust their relations to the Union, through their own voluntary civil action, without intervention of military despotism. And the butchery of Mrs. Surratt and Wirtz would not have disgraced the pages of American history. The Union would have been really restored and become stronger than ever before in the affections of the American people.
“Reconstruction was inaugurated and guided by a cyclone of malignant hate, upon a people who had bravely fought for their convictions until overwhelmed by resources and numbers. When the end came, their poverty was pitiable, their anguish pathetic, and their helplessness remediless, when this monstrous policy of despotism was imposed upon them. They were cut off from the world by the blockade on one side and by an army of immense numbers on the other. The boys and men between the ages of 17 and 50 were in the field. The four years of horrible war had absolutely exhausted all their resources of men and means. The glorious chivalry of the Confederacy filled unmarked graves---from the Susquehanna to the Rio Grande. Fields, orchards, and gardens had been trampled down. Dwellings had been abandoned or burned, towns and cities sacked and consumed, people shot down and their homes ‘prowled.’ Churches and cemeteries had been desecrated and robbed. The people were practically without food and clothing, and absolutely destitute of money; schools were suspended, and services at the churches nearly so. The whole land was a scene of decadence, ashes, and ruins; and every home filled with hearts breaking and bleeding with the agony of grief for dead loved ones. A few grey-headed men and matrons, many widows, some youths and children, and the maimed, shattered remnant of the world’s bravest army, were left. Virtue, intelligence, and patriotism were proscribed by law; and enfranchised, ignorant, illiterate, thieving negroes were set to make organic laws---constitutions for the government of a people with the blood of Revolutionary sires flowing through their veins. The martyrdom continued in most of the Confederate States for seven years.
“‘Surely there is some chosen curse, some secret thunder, in the stores of Heaven, red with uncommon wrath, to blast the wretch who owes his greatness to his country’s ruin.’ At the commencement of the war, planting was largely abandoned. It was a sort of social entertainment to cut and make neat uniforms for the boys and pack and ship them boxes of dainty viands. As the war progressed, the withdrawal of the labor of the field reduced the production of supplies. The tax in kind claimed a large share for the support of the army; and the question of support soon began to be a serious one for the non-producers---the women and children at home. It became impossible to obtain coffee; parched meal, corn, and rye were substituted. When the supply of clothing was exhausted, the good women resorted to the old-time spinning wheel and loom---both homemade. The State managed to distribute among the people a small number of pairs of cotton cards; and the land became vocal with rasping, crashing cards, the hum of wheels, and the banging rattle of loom. Homemade apparel, dyed with maple and sweetgum bark, ivy leaves, and the bark off walnut roots, constituted the wardrobe. It is surprising with what artistic skill the dear, good women mingled these colors into a ‘thing of beauty,’ and therefore, ‘a joy forever.’ They met necessities by improvising expedients. They exhibited resources of invention that entitles them to a lofty niche in the temple of genius.
“It made but little difference that Confederate money constantly depreciated, because there was nothing to buy or sell. What little trading was done was on credit; but the price agreed on was on the basis of value of Confederate currency. The last purchase I made before the surrender was a bushel of salt, for which I paid $1,000.00. There was much indebtedness contracted before the war, existing at its close. At my suggestion a public mass meeting of the people of Forsyth County was held, which unanimously adopted a resolution asking creditors and debtors to settle by compromise, the indebtedness, upon reasonable terms. Many of them did so. The people of Georgia, in the Convention of October, 1865, passed an ordinance authorizing the courts and juries to adjust the equities between the parties to Confederate contracts, upon the basis of the value of the money and the value of the thing for which it was promised, as compared with gold, or par money. This was a happy solution of a perplexing problem.
“The more enterprising class of the recently emancipated, ignorant, free negroes united with Yankee ‘Carpetbaggers,’ Confederate, boom-proof refugees, and conscript ‘dodgers,’ joined Congress, led by Steven Sumner, Butler and their partisan followers in the work of reconstruction. Another class of negroes, as soon as they were enabled to procure the desired outfit of a brass watch-chain, a cane, umbrella, eye-glasses, Prince Albert coat, standing collar and plug hat, joined the ministry. They engaged in soliciting contributions to build imaginary churches. The cash they thus obtained, which was not inconsiderable, never materialized into tangible buildings. The remaining class of the colored people, and by far the largest, entered with vigorous energy upon their favorite pursuits of running rabbits, burning rails, stealing chickens, attending frolics and funerals and reporting to the ‘Freedman’s Bureau’ complaints of contracts which they themselves had violated. They generally secured redress from this august tribunal, by imposing upon the employer a punishment for the negro’s violation of his contract.
“The true and faithful men, women, and children, with broken-down army horses and mules, and such implements as they could improvise, went to work impelled by necessity and inspired by hope. Many a brave Confederate, with one arm or a wooden peg leg, followed the plow in cheerful toil, to support the wife and children of his love. They nobly requited this devotion by generous aid in the field, and the faithful performance of the wifely domestic duties of the household. Rigid frugality, unremitting industry, and the blessings of the great God, who notes the sparrow’s fall and feeds the young ravens when they cry, rewarded their heroic efforts with signal success.
“There was a saving factor in the preservation of order and the prevention of lawlessness in the institution and organization of the ‘Ku Klux Klan’---the report of the Congressional committee to the contrary, notwithstanding. It was the old patrol system of slavery times; with the addition of fantastic dress and hobgoblin masks, intended to restrain base negroes from crime and lawlessness by appealing to their superstitious fears. It acted like a charm. I never heard of a case of outrage perpetrated by the Klan, except through the report of the Congressional committee, based upon the testimony of men of the type of Titus Oates and Dangerfield, the vile emissaries of reconstruction, who would incite the black race to crime against the white.
“The mind that conceived the Klan was genius. He understood precisely the nature and weakness of the negro; and he discovered the means of making that weakness, instead of the instrument of crime, the element of safety to both races. It met an emergency of the gravest character with a remedy of the most absolute success. The triumphant defense finds expression in the legal maxim: ‘Salus populi, suprema est lex.’ Constant, patient, hopeful toil; with remunerative prices for the South’s great staple, and the blessing of Divine Providence, the influx of capital and the immigration of sterling, energetic businessmen from the Northern and Northwestern States have within the brief space of four decades transformed the South from a plain of ashes and ruins, into a garden of bounty and beauty.
“The promise and possibilities of the future have no horizon. All this was accomplished by a people, who, like Job, were ‘chosen in the furnace of affliction.’ It is something to have lived in the age of such a people. It is more to have been a part of such a people.
“It is due to the colored people to put on record (which I do with great pleasure) their fidelity and devotion to their masters, their families and their interests during the war. They were reliable, faithful, and true until contact with the Federal army inspired them with treacherous hostility. Some---a few---have remained faithful to the attachment and friendships of their former relations---through all the vicissitudes that followed their changed condition. An aged slave of the brother of Jefferson Davis, who lived in Florida, was accustomed to send to the ex-President and his family at ‘Beauvoir’ choice fruits from his garden and orchard. And when the venerable old man heard that the President was dangerously sick---through great difficulties---he made his way to New Orleans to grasp, one more time, the hand of his friend and his idol. He reached the city the day after the death; and found the room, containing the remains, closed to visitors. Mrs. Davis admitted him to the death chamber. The humble African standing looking upon the dead resident, with his aged, dim eyes streaming with the torrents of grief, and heart heaving with agony, presents a scene of anguish so deep and love so pure that I drop the curtain and let God and angels only look upon this ‘sanctum sanctorum’ of devotion and love.
“When Sherman’s army reached Kennesaw, I found it necessary to fall back in imitation of the Fabian policy of General Joseph E. Johnston; and refugeed from Cumming to Jefferson in July, 1864. Being a member of the Confederate Congress was supposed to be sufficient cause for my arrest and imprisonment, if not execution. The day after I left a squadron of Yankee cavalry made its appearance in town for that purpose; but after plundering the citizens, shooting at some boys and capturing a few horses, retired without accomplishing their high and patriotic purpose. I remained in Jefferson until October, 1865. When I left, I turned over my house, garden, and orchard to a homeless shoemaker, to occupy, free of rent until called for. In October I came over to notify him that I had arranged to return and wanted the house. To my amazement, he said he did not see how he could leave. He made various pretended excuses for not vacating, all of which I promptly removed or answered. At last he said flatly that he would not leave, that the property was given him by the Yankees and was his. This exhausted the argument or reduced it to the argumentum ad hominem. It is scarcely necessary to add that he speedily found it eminently convenient to retire from the place.
“It is strange how calamitous times develop the opposite phases of human character. While angels of mercy in human form are helping the stricken and suffering in the Johnstown and Galveston floods, incarnate fiends are cutting off the fingers of dead women to rob them of jewelry. This tenant at will would requite a favor with robbery. There is no form of conscience to which these degenerates can be remitted. The final assize alone can settle with them. From the surrender in April, 1865, to the close of the year, I did not have a penny in money in this world. My two former slaves, Adam, and Jane, his wife, remained with us during the year and aided us in moving back home. I supplied them with an outfit of household furniture; and each of them a neat, substantial suit of clothes (for which I went in debt); and furnished them a wagon and team to move to their chosen home. Adam soon became prominent in religion and politics. About two years thereafter he came into my office---the shreds of the suit I had given him dripping with water and his teeth chattering with cold, to employ me to defend him for stealing meat. After all, emancipation is not an unmixed blessing!
“From January, 1866 to the last of December, 1873, I was engaged in practicing law in ten counties in ‘Blue Ridge’ and adjoining circuits, with occasional cases in other counties and in the Supreme Court. During the course of my practice I have appeared in about sixty cases of murder, generally for the defense. I have had three clients executed, for one of them was assigned with Colonel C.D. Phillips, by the court. Among these clients were three women, two of them white, and one colored. But one white woman has been hanged in Georgia since I came to the bar. I never heard of but one other, a good record for the ‘Empire State of the South.’ These seven years were immediately succeeding the surrender and during the reconstruction period. The courts in the mountain counties were full of cases growing out of the war. This litigation was characterized by bitter and fierce passion. It is due to the bar to say that the lawyers did much to allay personal hostility and restore fraternity among the people. A circuit practice, among rural people, was delightful to me. It is a fine school in which to study human nature. The ludicrous, the humorous and pathetic, all pass in kaleidoscopic panorama before the court.”