- Historic Sites
Legend Of The South
A southern woman’s memoir of a by-gone era
June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
There are many ways of looking at the now-vanished plantation society of the pre-Civil War South. One of them is the way of legend—white-pillared plantation, a leisured and courtly life centering in it, charming women and gallant men consciously living up to a tradition which has lingered on as a memory long after the reality has gone.
A small bit of that legend—faithful to the magnolia-and-roses tradition, but embodying an authentic fragment of real human experience—is presented here, in a memoir written years ago by Cornelia Barrett Ligon, who spent her girlhood on Newstead Plantation, near Jackson, Mississippi, and who in 1932, as very aged woman, set down her reminiscences of the old days. From notes she wrote and dictated, her daughter Lucile Ligon Cope of Port Arthur, Texas, has put together the following account of what life on legendary Old South plantation was like, and how the war finally came to the plantation and ended an era.
AMERICAN HERITAGE presents this memoir as an interesting fragment of the legend and the tradition of fabulous Dixie.
When the South seceded from the Union in 1860, I, Cornelia Barren Ligon, was a child of Dixie in my early teens. At the close of the war, in 1865, I was a woman. I had lived a thousand years in five. I can close my eyes and live over the verbal conflicts preceding the firing of the gun at Fort Sumter, which precipitated the war. I can see the battles raging, the dead and dying, and—most terrible of all—the wounded and maimed who lived to die a hundred deaths.
My father, Oliver Barren, died in 1857. He left his family a large estate: plantations, a town house and other real estate in Jackson, Mississippi, Negroes, and gold.
My mother possessed a remarkable amount of executive ability for a southern woman, and when Father died she spent most of her time on the plantation five miles from Jackson which was the hub of the estate. She had well-trained overseers, and things moved on fairly well under her management until the war came.
“Newstead” was the name of our plantation, though frequently it was referred to as the Barrett Plantation, when in 1835 my father brought my mother, Sallie Wallon, home from Newton, Mississippi—a bride fourteen years old.
Newstead was a typical home of the early days. The rooms were large, and wide halls ran four ways. The ceilings were high and the windows reached to the floor. The huge white columns supporting the front gallery stood out like sentinels guarding the entrance. The banquet hall could comfortably accommodate fifty or more guests. Large fireplaces in every room readily took six-foot logs.
To the right of the home there was a guest house of two large rooms. On the left there was an office building, where officials of the plantation transacted their business and kept records. All buildings were painted white, while the window blinds were a dark green. A long, low brick-and-glass greenhouse rambled down near a white picket fence that enclosed the yard. Here the rarest of plants blossomed the year around. The house servants’ quarters were well to the rear of the home, as was the smokehouse, where delicious hams, sausage, and bacon were cured.
Stables and barns were far removed from the dwelling places, and the Negro quarters were quite a piece down a lane which led to the cotton fields. Their quarters were a miniature residential section within themselves.
I had a married sister—Mrs. Perry Wright—whose plantation, Eureka, was several miles from Newstead. My sister Lucy and I attended a private boarding school in Jackson and my brother, Thomas William Hickman Barrett, was a student at Mississippi College at Clinton. Although only fifteen years old, Brother Thomas joined the Mississippi Rifles and was among the first to go into active service. My brother remained in active service—without being wounded—throughout the war. When hostilities started our school in Jackson closed. Then my mother placed Sister Lucy and me in the Central Female Institute at Clinton.
With the call to arms, every southern man volunteered. All of our overseers joined the army, and soon followed the exodus of most of the slaves. With the coming of battles on our own soil, bedlam reigned. In 1863 the Federal Army moved repeatedly across the area between Jackson and Vicksburg and repeatedly visited Newstead.
When my mother would hear of the Federals’ approach she would send to Clinton, which was five miles from the plantation, for Sister Lucy and me. At first she would send one of our fine carriages, drawn by two of the most beautiful horses the South could produce. Later, when all of her fine horses were confiscated by the Yankees, she was compelled to send a little Negro with a wobbly old horse and a mule. I would ride the mule, much to the merriment of my school chums.
Sister Kate was not in good health, and once when news came that a raid was approaching, Mother went to see about her. The Yankees came sooner than was expected. I was left in the care of an old Negro servant, and when I looked out in the front yard and saw a cavalry squadron riding into the beautiful flower beds, I was frightened.