Mississippi: The Past That Has Not Died

PrintPrintEmailEmailBoth of the pictures shown, here—the ruined ante-bellum plantation, the defiant young Confederates under their battle flag—speak volumes about the turbulent state of Mississippi, for both are a little fraudulent. Windsor plantation was built only in 1861, when the state was new-rich in cotton; Mississippi was opened up too late to have a true “Old South” tradition. The young men are students at “Ole Miss,” jeering at the idea of allowing a lone Negro named James Meredith to enter this seat of learning in 1962. How did Mississippi get this way? How did it happen, as her present governor says, that “we helped build our own doghouse”? Some significant historical answers to these questions are given in the following pages by Walter Lord, author of an excellent hour-by-hour account of the Aleredith case, The Past That Would Not Die , published this month by Harper & Row.

Splinters flew in every direction as the Union troops hacked away at the chairs and tables of Edward McGehee, a wealthy cotton planter in Wilkinson County, Mississippi. It was October 5, 1864, and Colonel E. D. Osband’s men were simply acting on the philosophy expressed by General Sherman when he told a group of protesting Mississippians, “It is our duty to destroy, not build up; therefore do not look to us to help you.”

Soon the work was done, the house in flames, and Edward McGehee left contemplating his only remaining possession—a gracefully caned grand piano. It was no comfort to Mr. McGehee, once the owner of hundreds of Negro slaves, that these deeds were done by a company of stern, efficient Negro soldiers.

Ruin upon ruin, the destruction continued for six more gruelling months of war. By the end, Mississippi seemed but a forest of chimneys. The whole town of Okolona could be bought for $5,000. There was not a fence left within miles of Corinth, not a clock running in Natchez. The capital, Jackson, was in ashes—the Confederate Hotel as complete a wreck as the cause it honored.

The first visitors from the North were stunned. Approaching old Charles Langworthy’s home near Aberdeen, a man from Chicago recalled spending two pleasant weeks there back in 1855. Greeting the owner, the visitor quickly asked after Mr. Langworthy’s five boys and two girls.

“Where is John, your oldest son?”

“Killed at Shiloh.”

“Where is William?”

“Died of smallpox in the Army.”

“And the other boys?”

“All were killed.…”

The Langworthy daughters came forward, dripping with mourning. Not only were their brothers gone; both also had lost their husbands in the service.

The incident was all too typical. Mississippi had sent 78,000 into the fight; only 28,000 came back. Whole companies were wiped out—the Vicksburg Cadets marched off 123 strong; only six returned. One legacy of this sacrifice was 10,000 orphans.

Nor were those who returned always able to play their full part. Surgery was not one of the happier aspects of the Civil War. Empty sleeves flapped everywhere. At a town meeting in Aberdeen a visitor noticed that one hundred of the three hundred men present had lost either an arm or a leg. It is not surprising that in the first year after the war Mississippi spent one fifth of its entire revenue for artificial limbs.

Painfully, the people of the state struggled to live again. Nearly everyone was wiped out. The greatest source of wealth—436,ooo slaves worth over 218 million dollars—had vanished with Emancipation. The farm animals that meant so much to a rural people had been carried off—one out of every three mules gone. Most of the cotton was confiscated as Confederate property; any that escaped was mercilessly taxed by Washington. Land values crashed—on December 13, 1865, alone, the Vicksburg Herald advertised forty-eight plantations for sale or lease. After five years of war Mississippi tumbled from the nation’s fifth state in per capita wealth to the very bottom of the list.

“My children, I am a ruined man,” Thomas Dabney told his daughters one evening in November, 1866. In happier days Mr. Dabney had endorsed some notes. At the time there seemed little danger—the risk was good and Dabney was the wealthy owner of Burleigh, a fabulous plantation near the town of Raymond. But now times had changed, and the sheriff was downstairs.

Ultimately, Burleigh was auctioned off, and Dabney managed to buy it back only by consigning his cotton crop for years to come. Meanwhile, the family had nothing—even the “loyal” Negro servants had vanished. As the once pampered Dabney girls faced the novel prospect of housework, it looked like a major victory for General Sherman's perhaps apocryphal boast that he would force every southern woman to the washtub.

But this time the General had met his match. “He shall never bring my daughters to the washtub,” Dabney thundered. “I’ll do the washing myself!” And he did. Dabney was now seventy years old, but for the next two years he scrubbed away, grimly satisfied that here at least he was foiling the hated Yankee.