June 1956 | Volume 7, Issue 4
A southern woman’s memoir of a by-gone era
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.
On seeing me, the captain rode up to our front steps with a civil greeting. I told him how sorry my mother would be about the destruction of her flowers and asked him to spare what was left of them. He immediately gave orders and the soldiers rode into the walks and driveways. Then the captain dismounted and came to where I was standing on the gallery. He asked me many questions in a gentlemanly manner. I was shy and reticent and he saw that I did not know the answers. Finally he asked me to give him something to read and I gave him a little Bible. He then gave orders to his men and they rode away without any further destruction.
But later on in the day other cavalry appeared, over-flowing both yard and a thirty-acre lawn which the house faced. Everywhere I looked I could see Yankee soldiers. Of course our yard and lawn were ruined. They did not attempt to enter the house, and in the meantime Mother returned— walking. She had left in a carriage, but some Yankees took it away from her before she reached home.
This cavalry was on somewhat of a reconnoitering expedition and after surveying the entire plantation moved on, much to our relief.
When the drive to capture Vicksbnrg was beginning, my brother Thomas and a number of his close friends and relatives were in Withers’ regiment of artillery. They frequently paid us short visits, to be wined and dined in true southern style. Always we would invite our school girl friends to be on hand. My cousin, Jennie Walton, and my chum, Mollie Brock, were with me a great deal of the time. Mollie’s brother, Glover Brock, was in the same regiment with my brother and we girls looked forward to their appearance at any time, day or night.
One morning we awoke to find the Yankees on one side of the Jackson-and-Clinton road and our forces on the other, with Newstead practically in the center of the battlefield, facing the Southerners. The battle commenced at dawn. Minié balls whizzed overhead. Bands were playing on both sides, only to have their notes drowned out by the boom of the cannons. One minute there would be Yankees in our yard and the next there would be Confederates. Then both would clash before our eyes—bayonets to bayonets.
Mollie’s brother rode up to see how we were getting along, and we brought him a drink of water. Before he finished drinking it, a band of Yankee soldiers came into the yard. He had to surrender or run. He chose to run and the last we saw of him he was leaning far over the side of his horse, going at full speed with the enemy in close pursuit, shooting as they went. My chum and I were distressed and wept bitterly. We were greatly relieved several days later when a message came telling us of his safety.
This battle lasted two days and at noon of the second day, when both of the forces were closing in, we received orders to evacuate the house. We were given military escort to a deep gully about a quarter of a mile from the house. Our refuge was shaded by an immense oak tree. En route to the gully, we heard cannon balls tear through the trees, snipping off leaves and twigs. Minié balls whizzed by, missing us by inches. There was a feeling of awe that pervaded the scene. Brother Tom was assigned as one of our escorts.
The Confederate forces had a cannon stationed in our yard—they had moved up that close by the second day. As we passed out the gate en route to the gully, I saw that they were getting ready to fire that cannon and I wanted to see it done. I slowed down a pace, looking over my shoulder, and not only saw it fired but took particular note of the young fellow who fired it. Furthermore the cannoneer saw me. I have carried a mental picture through the years of that sweet, daring smile that he threw me a mere second before the boom of his cannon rent the air.
Uncle Jerry, one of our servants, brought us water to drink throughout the day, risking his life each trip he made. Of course we had nothing to eat. No one thought of food. By six o’clock that evening the armies had moved on toward Clinton and we returned to the house only to find it, as well as the guest house and office building, converted into a hospital. There were over a hundred wounded Confederates and a large number of Yankees.
Among the mortally wounded was a very young Yankee. He was placed on our front gallery to die. As I passed by him, he beckoned me to come closer and I bent over him to hear what he said. He asked me to write a letter to his sweetheart, to whom he was engaged to marry. I wrote just as he dictated, telling how he loved her and wanted her to remain true to him, and that they would meet in the Great Beyond. He asked me to send her the plain gold ring which he took from his finger and requested that I cut a lock of his hair and send that also. The scene was pathetic and tears rolled down my cheeks as I did what he requested. We made the boy as comfortable as possible, but he died that night.
I asked the young lady to please reply on receipt of my message so that I would be sure she received it, but it was six months before I heard from her. In her letter she expressed profound gratitude to me for what I had done.
With Newstead converted into a hospital, my mother rose to the occasion wonderfully. She set aside one of the large rooms in the house for us girls, and we were not allowed to come out except on special occasions.
While confined to our room, we girls made bandages and rolled them for the army surgeons to use on the wounded. On the third day, after the battle had moved on and the dead bodies had been cleared from the premises, my friends and I, in company with a surgeon, were allowed to carry supper to the wounded soldiers. The Yankees were profuse in their expressions of gratitude for the treatment they were receiving. On the fourth day the wounded had all been taken to Jackson, where hospital accommodations could be had. Jackson was now known as the “Town of Chimneys,” because in taking it General Sherman saw to it that most of the homes were burned, and tall brick chimneys rose into the air to mark the sites once occupied by houses.
Uncle Jerry and Aunt Melissie, their two almost grown children, a son and daughter, and three little orphans were all the Negroes left on the place when the Federal army moved on. After the departure of the wounded, we all went to take a look at the battlefield. Some of the dead were scarcely covered. It was a gruesome sight. Uncle Jerry brought a spade and went over the field covering those exposed. He had to dig trenches and re-bury a large number of the corpses.
At one time during the Federal army’s presence in our vicinity, General Ulysses S. Grant and staff moved in and took possession of our entire plantation. General Grant established his headquarters in the front rooms of the house. He ordered that my mother be issued rations from day to day, according to the number that she had to feed. This was a bitter pill for my mother to swallow—now we were virtually prisoners in our own home.
Our Negroes huddled close to us in wide-eyed fright and joined us in amazement at seeing the Yankee boys cook and wash dishes. For two weeks General Grant and his army ruled supreme over Newstead, living on the fat of the land. His men drilled every day. It looked as if the whole face of the earth was covered with blue soldiers. The ground was mashed to a pulp—not a blade of grass was visible. When they left they gave my mother rations enough to last three days. After that we had to “root hog or die.”
After General Grant had moved on toward Vicksburg, my mother received a message from our neighbor, Colonel H. O. Dixon, a veteran of the Mexican War, too old to join the Confederates. The message stated that he and his wife, also quite old, were under arrest at the headquarters which the General had established farther up the line and near Clinton. He asked that my mother lend them what assistance she could.
Our plantation had been swept clean of horses, mules, and vehicles, but my mother set out afoot to go to the rescue of her friends. She had won the respect of General Grant during his stay at Newstead and hoped that she might have some influence in behalf of the Dixons.
It was a walk of several miles to the new headquarters, but my mother was rewarded with an immediate interview with the old couple. They said that when the Yankees entered their home to plunder, Mrs. Dixon rushed to the piano and began to play “Dixie.” The Colonel took down his flag of the South and marched up and down the room, waving it. This was too much for the men in blue. They set fire to the house, threw the piano outdoors and split it into kindling wood. They arrested the old couple, threatening to send them north to prison.
Upon request, my mother was granted an audience with General Grant. She told him of the valiant service Colonel Dixon had rendered the country during the war with Mexico and pointed out their age and infirmities. The General shook his head and started to walk off as a signal of dismissal of the subject, but my mother grabbed his coat tail and refused to let go until her request had been granted.
General Grant had a sense of humor. With a chuckle he said, “Take the old couple. I’ll hold you responsible for them.” Then he called a mounted guard to escort the three back to Newstead. We cared for Colonel and Mrs. Dixon until arrangements could be made for them to return to what was left of their own plantation.
The confiscation of our animals and food by the enemy was to be expected. It had, up to this time, been done under the supervision of army officers—my mother being treated with the utmost deference. However, after General Grant moved on toward Vicksburg, a lawless element began coming in behind the army to plunder and steal. One would have to see a raid of this kind to form a just conception of it. They would draw the water out of the cisterns and cut the ponds to drain them, with the hope of finding hidden treasures. A great many of the people of the South would take this means of hiding their gems and gold, only to lose them to the plunderers.
During one of these raids Sister Lucy, who was an ardent Rebel, defiantly waved a Confederate flag in the face of the soldiers and sang “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” which greatly incensed the men, and one of the leaders warned my mother to send her away before she was arrested. The next day Lucy was sent to South Carolina where she would be safe, for the time, with relatives.
If it had not been for Uncle Jerry and Aunt Melissie I do not know what would have become of us. It was like magic the way they made food appear. With the abandonment of crops, all effort was turned to growing food for our table. The woods close by still held wild life. Uncle Jerry was good at trapping and he somehow managed to keep a gun. We learned to like possum and sweet potatoes.
One morning Uncle Jerry came home leading a limping horse. “Where on earth did you get that animal?” exclaimed my mother.
“Wal, Miss Sallie,” he drawled, “one o’ dem bluebellied Yanks wuz ‘bout ter shoot hit an’ I sez, sez I, better save dat bullit—you mought need hit. Den I lowed I’d nok ‘im in de haid. Stead o’ doin’ dat, I hid ‘im down in de swamp.”
The horse’s leg was broken, but Uncle Jerry had done a good job of splinting it. Within a month that horse could walk with only a slight limp. It was a fine, beautiful beast and was the only one we had for use around the place for several years. Uncle Jerry named him “Happenwell De Good Lord Provides For De Needy” and called him “Happenwell” for short.
For the full four years of the conflict Newstead was more or less the social center for the young gallants--friends of our friends, my brother’s associates, and our relatives gathered here in large numbers. Once my brother sent us word to prepare a “feast and frolic,” that he was coming in company with General Stephen D. Lee and a number of his soldiers. We had a quantity of food prepared, thanks to Uncle Jerry and Aunt Melissie. There were even salads, cakes, and puddings. We did not know when the guests would arrive, so we had the banquet table spread but kept the food stacked in a large cupboard.
A number of my girl friends had arrived for the occasion and we girls and Mother were in the front part of the house watching for the boys when from the dining room came the “clang, clang” of the dinner bell. We rushed down the hall to see what it was all about. We found a dining room full of Yankee soldiers. The food was on the table and they were about to sit down to eat.
Mother, with quiet dignity, stepped to the door and said, “Gentlemen, if any of you die after eating that food, I want those who survive to distinctly remember —I did not invite you to eat it.” Those soldiers looked sick. Some deliberately walked out, but a few tasted sparingly of the food, then left as quickly as they had come. Just what their mission had been, my mother never knew.
There was sufficient food left for our guests, and when they did arrive, near midnight, we had a most delightful time. However I was doomed to a bit of disappointment. On these visits from my brother and his friends, I hoped that among them would be the young cannoneer whose dashing smile had become an indelible reflection on my memory.
Modesty forbade my mentioning my desire to meet this young man. However I was greatly flattered on being informed that night of the fact that that selfsame cannon had been named “The Cornelia Barrett” in my honor.
“The Cornelia Barrett” was attached to Company A, 1st Mississippi Artillery, Withers’ regiment, and Buxton Townes Ligon was the cannoneer. I made a beautiful silk Confederate flag and presented it to the officer in charge of the regiment.
It was almost a year before my fondest hopes were gratified. Buxton Townes Ligon, in the meantime, was promoted to lieutenant. We were having an impromptu open house when in he walked, wearing his new uniform. He was as handsome as a picture, and although he had grown a mustache and goatee since he had fired the cannon in the yard at our home, I recognized him at once and our first evening together was delightful. He told me that the night following the episode of the cannon, he slept on our front porch and dreamed of me all through the night.
Words fail me in my attempt to describe the awful confusion which existed during the last stages of the war when bands of stragglers began coming to Newstead. They came in large numbers to rob and loot, leaving things bare and desolate. At times our soldiers, if anywhere in the vicinity, would hear about it and rush to our rescue. Captain William Montgomery, a very dear friend of the family’s, on several occasions brought his scouts to drive them away as well as to protect us from bodily harm.
During one of the most desperate raids on Newstead there was a Yankee Captain Lloyd who displayed considerable interest in me. One evening, when the servants had gone to their quarters and my mother and I were alone in the big house, Captain Lloyd rode up, dismounted, and hitched his horse at the gate. When we saw what he had done, we trembled with fear—we were at the mercy of that Yankee captain.
However, our fears were soon dissipated. Captain Lloyd bowed gallantly and informed my mother that he had come to protect us—stragglers were beginning to plunder without authority from military headquarters. He was exceedingly pleasant and cultured. As the evening grew cool Captain Lloyd kindled a fire for us.
Sure enough, it was not long before three drunken soldiers blustered in, cursing terribly. Captain Lloyd ordered them to leave. They refused until he drew two big army pistols and told them that he had orders from headquarters to protect that home, and that if he was compelled to shoot, he would shoot to kill. Reluctantly these soldiers left.
As the evening advanced our confidence in Captain Lloyd grew. I stayed up quite late and entertained him —played the piano and sang, and we talked a great deal about our southern life. He asked if he might correspond with me, and I wrote my name and address in his notebook, but thought nothing of it.
When the war ceased, Captain Lloyd wrote me from St. Louis and asked me to address my answer to Kansas City. Next I heard from him from San Francisco. In this letter he enclosed his photograph. My answer was to thank him for the courtesy. Then followed a beautiful love letter, in which he addressed me. I had no alternative but to answer that I was “too patriotic to fall in love with a gentleman from the North.” But I added that I would always “cherish his friendship.” He never wrote again. I’ve aways been thankful that he allowed me to keep his picture.
The surrender of the South was a bitter pill to swallow, but it was good to have the war over. The coming home of the boys, even in defeat, brought occasions of great joy. Newstead once more became the center of social activities. Everyone tried to make the best of the situation. My brother brought home his friends, both old and young, and with them came “Captain” Ligon.
During the last battle at Vicksburg, shortly before the surrender, Lieutenant Ligon, while in action, saw his commanding officer shot off his horse. Just previous to that Lieutenant Ligon’s mount had been killed under him. It happened in the twinkle of an eye—the daring young officer, seeing the soldiers wavering and falling back at the loss of their captain, mounted the riderless horse, took command, and effectively beat back the enemy for that day. A commission as captain was offered him, but the war was practically over. However the title was his from that day on and stories of his daring feat spread rapidly.
Courtships were brief right after the war. I looked forward with great pleasure to every meeting with Captain Ligon. Once we were entertaining with a quadrille at Newstead and Captain Ligon was a guest. He chose me for his partner, not once but many times throughout the evening. The day following he asked my mother for my hand in marriage. Of course Uncle Jerry and Aunt Melissie had to be consulted. The old Negro mammy wiped tears from her eyes with her big homespun apron, but Uncle Jerry came right out with a piece of his mind. “Cap’n Ligon,” he said, “I’se done rais’ dis here child. She ain’t fully growed yit. Soon I be daid an’ gone. Ifen yo’ don’t treat ‘er right, I’se gwinter come back an’ hant yo’ ‘til yo’ dyin’ day.”