THE SLOW POISON

I

THE WEDDING

Fruits of Freedom

Freedom wasn't yet three years old when the wedding day came. Henry Cottinham and Mary Bishop had been chattel slaves until the momentous final days of the Civil War, as nameless in the eyes of the law as cows in the field. All their lives, they could no more have obtained a marriage license than purchased a horse, a wagon, or a train ticket to freedom in the North. Then a final furious sweep of Union soldiers—in a bewildering blur of liberation and terror unleashed from a distant war—ravaged the Cahaba River valley.

Henry was suddenly a man. Mary was a woman, a slave girl no more. Here they stood, bride and groom, before John Wesley Starr, the coarse old preacher who a blink of an eye before had spent his Sundays teaching white people that slavery was the manifestation of a human order ordained by God, and preaching to black people that theirs was a glorified place among the chickens and the pigs.

To most people along the Cahaba River, January 1868 hardly seemed an auspicious time to marry. It was raw, cold, and hungry. In every direction from the Cottingham Loop, the simple dirt road alongside which lived three generations of former slaves and their former owners, the land and its horizons were muted and bitter. The valley, the undulating hills of Bibb County, even the bridges and fords across the hundred-yard-wide Cahaba sweeping down from the last foothills of the Appalachians and into the flat fertile plains to the south, were still wrecked from the savage cavalry raids of Union Gen. James H. Wilson. Just two springs earlier, in April 1865, his horsemen had descended on Alabama in billowing swarms. The enfeebled southern army defending the state scattered before his advance. Even the great Confederate cavalry genius Nathan Bedford Forrest, his regiments eviscerated by four years of war, was swept aside with impunity. Wilson crushed the last functioning industrial complex of the Confederacy and left Alabama in a state of complete chaos. Not three years later, the valley remained a twisted ruin. Fallow fields. Burned barns. Machinery rusting at the bottoms of wells. Horses and mules dead or lost. The people, black and white, braced for a hard, anxious winter.

From the front porch of Elisha Cottingham's house, two stories stacked of hand-hewn logs and chinked with red clay dug at the river's edge, the old man looked out on his portion of that barren vista. The land had long ago lost nearly all resemblance to the massive exuberance of the frontier forest he stumbled upon fifty years earlier. Now, only the boundaries and contours remained of its carefully tended bounty of the last years before the war.

He had picked this place for the angle of the land. It unfolded from the house in one long sheet of soil, falling gradually away from his rough-planked front steps. For nearly five hundred yards, the slope descended smoothly toward the deep river, layered when Elisha first arrived with a foot of fertile humus. On the east and south, the great field was hemmed in by a gushing creek, boiling up over turtle-shell shapes of limestone protruding from the banks, growing deeper and wider, falling faster and more furiously—strong enough to spin a small grist mill—before it turned to the west and suddenly plunged into the Cahaba. He named the stream Cotting-ham Creek. An abounding sense of possibility exuded from the place Elisha had chosen, land on which he intuitively knew a resourceful man could make his own indelible mark.

Yet in the aftermath of the war Elisha Cottingham, like countless other southern whites in 1868, must have felt some dread sense of an atomized future. They knew that the perils of coming times constituted a far greater jeopardy than the war just lost. A society they had engineered from wilderness had been defeated and humiliated; the human livestock on which they had relied for generations now threatened to rule in their place. In the logical spectrum of possibilities for what might yet follow, Elisha had to consider the terrifying—and ultimately realized—possibility that all human effort invested at the confluence of Cottingham Creek and the Cahaba River would be erased. The alacrity that infused their achievement was lost. More than a century later, the last Cottingham would be gone. No trace of the big house, the slave cabins, or a waterwheel would survive. None of the fields hacked from the forest remained at plow. Only the creek and sun-bleached gravestones clustered atop the hill still bore the Cottingham name.

Elisha had arrived at the banks of the Cahaba, barely a man himself, in an Alabama territory that was still untamed. It was 1817, and Elisha and his three brothers faced a dense wilderness governed by the uncertainties of Indian territory and the vagaries of an American nation debating the precepts of eminent domain that would ultimately expand its borders from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.1 Alabama would not be a state for two more years.

Elisha's brother Charles soon decamped to the newly founded county seat of Centreville, where in short order shallow-draft riverboats would land and a trading center would be established.2 Another brother, William, moved farther south. But Elisha and his younger sibling, John, stayed in the wilderness on the Cahaba. In the four decades before the Civil War, they staked out land, brought in wives, cleared the lush woodlands, sired bountiful families, and planted season upon season of cotton. The engines of their enterprises were black slaves. In the early years, they imported them to Alabama and later bred more themselves—including Henry—from the African stock they bought at auction or from peripatetic slave peddlers who arrived unbidden in springtime with traces of ragged, shackled black men and women, carrying signs advertising "Negroes for Sale." Manning farms strung along a looping wagon road, the brothers and their slaves cleared the land, raised cabins, and built the church where they would pray. Harnessing their black labor to the rich black land, the Cottingham brothers became prosperous and comfortable.

Some neighbors called the Cottingham section of the county Pratt's Ferry, for the man who lived on the other side of the Cahaba and poled a raft across the water for a few pennies a ride. But the Cottinghams, Godfearing people who gathered a congregation of Methodists in the wilderness almost as soon as they had felled the first timber, adopted for their homestead a name marking the work not of man but of the Almighty. Where the clear cold creek gurgled into the Cahaba, a massive bulge of limestone rose from the water, imposing itself over a wide, sweeping curve in the river. To the Cottinghams, this place was Riverbend.

The Cottinghams demanded a harsh life of labor from their bondsmen. Otherwise, what point was there to the tremendous investment required of owning slaves. Yet, especially in contrast to the industrial slavery that would eventually bud nearby, life on the Cottingham plantation reflected the biblical understanding that cruelty to any creature was a sin—that black slaves, even if not quite men, were at least thinly made in the image of God.

Set among more than twenty barns and other farm buildings, Henry and the rest of the slaves lived in crude but warm cabins built of rough-hewn logs chinked with mud. Heat came from rock fireplaces with chimneys made of sticks and mud. Elisha recorded the ownership of thirteen slaves in 1860, including four men in their twenties and thirties and six other male teenagers. A single twenty-year-old female lived among the slaves, along with two young boys and a seven-year-old girl.3

Given the traditions of isolated rural farms, Elisha's grandson Oliver, raised there on the Cottingham farm, would have been a lifelong playmate of the slave boy nearly his same age, named Henry4 When Elisha Cotting-ham's daughter Rebecca married a neighbor, Benjamin Battle, in 1852, Elisha presented to her as a wedding gift the slave girl who likely had been her companion and servant. "In consideration of the natural love and affection which I bear to my daughter," Elisha wrote, I give her "a certain negro girl named Frances, about 14 years old."5

Those slaves who died on the Cottingham place were buried with neat ceremony in plots marked by rough unlabeled stones just a few feet from where Elisha himself would be laid to rest in 1870—clearly acknowledged as members in some manner of a larger human family recognized by the master. Indeed, Elisha buried his slaves nearer to him by far than he did Rev. Starr, the man who ministered to all of the souls on the Cottingham place. The Starr family plot, with its evangelical inscriptions and sad roster of infant dead, was set down the hill and toward the road, even more vulnerable to the creeping oblivion of time.

Long generations hence, descendants of slaves from the plantation still recounted a vague legend of the generosity of a Cottingham master— giving permission to marry to a favored mulatto named Green. That slave, who would remain at Elisha's side past emancipation and until the old master's death, would become the namesake of Henry and Mary's youngest son.

But even as Elisha had allowed a strain of tenderness to co-reside with the brutally circumscribed lives of his slaves, he never lost sight of their fundamental definition—as cattle. They were creatures bought or bred for the production of wealth. Even as he deeded to daughter Rebecca the slave Frances, Elisha was careful to enumerate in the document the recognition that he was giving up not just one slave girl, but a whole line of future stock who might have brought him cash or labor. Along with Frances, Elisha was careful to specify, his newlywed daughter received all "future increase of the girl."6

The marriage of Henry, now twenty years old, and Mary, one year his junior, in 1868 was the first among Cottingham people, black or white, in two seasons. Another slave, Albert, had wed, and left for good in the middle of the first picking time after the destruction of the war—amid the chaos and uncertainty when no one could be sure slavery had truly ended.7 Albert didn't wait to find out.

Now, two years later, the coming marriage surely warmed Elisha at some level. But as Henry prepared to take a wife and become a man of this peculiar new era, everything the old white man had forged—everything on which that gift to his daughter twenty years before had been predicated— hung in the fragile limbo of a transformed social order. Whatever satisfaction the filial ties gave the white master at the wedding of his former bondsman would have been tempered by the poverty and grief that had overwhelmed him.

Most of Elisha's slaves remained nearby. Some still worked his property, for wages or a share of the cotton crop. But the end of the war had left the white Cottinghams at a point of near desolation. The hard winter threatened to bring them to their knees.

As Henry and Mary's wedding approached in 1868, whites across the South strained to accept the apparently inevitable ignominies descending from the war. The loss of fortunes, the war's blood and sorrow, the humiliation of Union soldiers encamped in their towns, all these things whites had come to bear. They would bear them a little longer, at least until the instant threats of hunger and military force receded.

But these abominations paled against the specter that former slaves, with their huge mathematical majorities in Louisiana, Mississippi, southern Alabama, south Georgia, and South Carolina, would soon vote and rule governments and perhaps take their masters’ lands. This vision was a horror almost beyond contemplation. It poisoned the air for Elisha and other white landowners with prospects for even greater disaster.

In the last days of fighting, the U.S. Congress had created the Freed-men's Bureau to aid the South's emancipated slaves.8 New laws gave the agency the power to divide land confiscated by the federal government and to have "not more than forty acres of such land …assigned" to freedmen and black war refugees for a period of three years. Afterward, the law said former slaves would be allowed to purchase the property to hold forever. President Andrew Johnson rescinded the provision a few months later, but emancipated slaves across the South remained convinced that northern soldiers still garrisoned across the region would eventually parcel out to them all or part of the land on which they had long toiled.

The threat that Elisha's former slaves would come to own his plantation—that he and his family would be landless, stripped of possessions and outnumbered by the very creatures he had bred and raised—was palpable.

The last desperate rallying calls of the Confederacy had been exhortations that a Union victory meant the political and economic subjugation of whites to their black slaves. In one of the final acts of the Confederate Congress, rebel legislators asserted that defeat would result in "the confiscation of the estates, which would be given to their former bondsmen."9

Already, forty thousand former slaves had been given title by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman to 400,000 acres of rich plantation land in South Carolina early in 1865. It was unclear whether blacks would be able to retain any of the property, but rumor flared anew among blacks across the South the next year at Christmastime—the end of the annual crop season—that plantation land everywhere would soon be distributed among them. The U.S. Congress debated such a plan openly in 1867, as it drew up the statutes to govern Reconstruction in the southern states. And again as harvest time ended that year, word whipped through the countryside that blacks would soon have land. At one point the following year, in 1868, during a period of intense speculation among freed slaves that land was soon to be provided to them, many blacks purchased boundary markers to be prepared for the marking off of their forty-acre tracts.10

Forty miles to the west of the Cottingham farm, in Greene County, hundreds of former slaves filed suit against white landowners in 1868 demanding that the former slave masters be compelled to pay wages earned during the prior season's work. Whites responded by burning down the courthouse, and with it all 1,800 lawsuits filed by the freedmen.11

Despite Bibb County's remote location, far from any of the most famous military campaigns, the Civil War had not been a distant event. In the early months of fighting, Alabama industrialists realized that the market for iron sufficient for armaments would become lucrative in the South. In 1860 only Tredegar Iron Works, a vast industrial enterprise in Richmond, Virginia, driven by more than 450 slaves and nearly as many free laborers, could produce battle-ready cannon for the South. The Confederate government, almost from the moment of its creation, set out to spur additional capacity to make arms, particularly in Alabama, where a nascent iron and coal industry was already emerging and little fighting was likely to occur. During the war, a dozen or more new iron furnaces were put into blast in Alabama;12 by 1864, the state was pumping out four times more iron than any other southern state.

Across Alabama, individual property holders—slaveholders specifically— were aggressively encouraged to attempt primitive industrial efforts to support the Confederate war effort. The rebel government offered generous inducements to entrepreneurs and large slave owners to devote their resources to the South's industrial needs. With much of the major plantation areas of Mississippi under constant federal harassment, thousands of slaves there were without work. Slave owners willing to transport their black workers to the new mining regions of Alabama and dig coal could avoid conscription into the southern armies.

After seeing their homes and stockpiles of cotton burned, W H. and Lewis Thompson, brothers from Hinds County, Mississippi, and the owners of large numbers of slaves, moved to Bibb County midway through the war to mine the Cahaba coalfields for the Confederacy. They opened the Lower Thompson mine, and later another relative and his slaves arrived to dig another mine. The coal was hauled eleven miles to Ashby and then shipped to Selma. The mining was crude, using picks and hand-pulled carts. The slaves drained water from the shafts by carrying buckets up to the surface.13

A neighbor of the Cottinghams, local farmer Oliver Frost, regularly took his slaves to a cave on Six Mile Creek to mine saltpeter—a critical ingredient for gunpowder—for the Confederate army, often remaining there for weeks at a time. The Fancher family, on a farm three miles north of the crossroads community called Six Mile, regularly hauled limestone from a quarry on their property to a Bibb County furnace during the war.14

The centerpiece of the Alabama military enterprises was a massive and heavily fortified arsenal, naval foundry, ironworks, and gunpowder mill located in the city of Selma. To produce its weapons and metal plating for use on ironclad ships critical to the Confederacy's limited naval operations, the Selma works relied on enormous amounts of coal and iron ore mined and forged in nearby Shelby and Bibb counties.15 Alabama iron was particularly well suited to use in the revolutionary new development of fortifying battle ships with steel plates. Iron forged at Alabama's Cane Creek Furnace, in Calhoun County, had been utilized for a portion of the armor used to convert the hull of the captured USS Merrimac into the CSS Virginia, the southern entrant in the famous March 8, 1862, battle of ironclads.16 The Confederacy was hungry for as much of the material as it could get.

Of particular strategic value were ironworks established by local investors in 1862 in the village of Brierfield. Nine miles from the Cotting-ham place, the Brierfield Iron Works produced the plates that adorned the Confederate vessel CSS Tennessee, which during the battle of Mobile Bay on August 5, 1864, withstood the barrage of seventeen Union vessels without a single shot penetrating her hull.17 Bibb County iron quickly became a coveted material.

As the war escalated, maintaining production required an ever increasing number of slaves. Agents from major factories, Brierfield Iron, and the Shelby Iron Works, scoured the countryside to buy or lease African Americans. Foundries routinely commissioned labor agents to prowl across the southern states in search of available slaves. In 1863, the Confederate government purchased the Brierfield operation for $600,000, so that it could directly control its output. The purchase encompassed "its property of all kinds whatsoever," including thousands of acres of land and a catalogue of dozens of wagons, wheelbarrows, coal sleds, axes, and blacksmith tools. On the list of livestock were seventy mules, forty-one oxen, and nine black men: "John Anderson, aged about 35, Dennis, about 38, George, about 30, Charles, about 47, Perry, about 40, Curry about 17, Matthew, about 35, Mose, about 18, and Esquire, about 30 years."18

The Confederate government began construction of a second furnace at the site shortly after acquiring the property. All of its output went to the Selma Arsenal, fifty miles by railroad to the south, where the iron was used for armor and for naval guns, including the state-of-the-art eleven-inch Brooke rifled cannon, with a capacity of firing a 230-pound shell more than two thousand yards.19

By the standards of the antebellum South, the Brierfield Iron Works was a spectacle of industrial wonder. The adjacent village held church in a schoolhouse surrounded by the tenements and small housing for three hundred workers. Two massive brick blast furnaces, each forty feet high, belched a thick brew of smoke and gases at the top and a torrent of liquefied iron at the base. Nearby was a rolling mill where the molten iron was formed into crude one-hundred-pound "pigs" for shipment to Selma, and loaded onto a railroad line extended into the factory yard. One hundred yards away sat a kiln for firing limestone, ten tons of which was fed each day into the furnaces. Beyond the kiln was a quarry for the endless task of repairing the stone furnaces, a sawmill, and then seven thousand acres of forest from which fuel for the constantly burning fires was cut.20

The nine slaves owned by the ironworks were an anomaly. Few industrial enterprises wanted to actually purchase slaves. They were too expensive at acquisition, and too costly and difficult to maintain. Too unpredictable as to when they might become uncooperative, or die. Far preferable to the slave-era industrialist was to lease the slave chattel owned by other men.

In 1864, however, few such workers could be found anymore. Instead, the Confederate officer commanding the Brierfield iron production operation, Maj. William Richardson Hunt, rented two hundred slaves to perform the grueling tasks necessary to continue equipping the rebel army.21Late in the war, as the need for the area's coal and iron capacity grew dire, the Confederate government began to forcibly impress the slaves held by whites in the county. A son of Rev. Starr's—a doctor and also a resident of the Cottingham Loop—became the government's agent for seizing slaves.22 There is no surviving record of which black men were pressed into service. But by war's end, Scipio Cottingham, the sixty-three-year-old slave who had shared the farm longest with master Elisha, had come to identify himself as a foundry man. Almost certainly, he had been among those rented to the Brierfield furnace and compelled to help arm the troops fighting to preserve his enslavement.

As the war years progressed, ever larger numbers of local men from near the Cottingham farm left for battle duty. Two of Elisha's sons fought for the Confederacy. Moses and James, both husbands and fathers, each saw gruesome action, personal injury, and capture by the Union. Elisha's grandson Oliver, too young to fight with the troops, joined the Home Guard, the ragtag platoons of old men and teenagers whose job was to patrol the roads for deserters, fleeing slaves, and Union scouts.

In the beginning, large crowds gathered at the stores in the crossroads settlement of Six Mile to send them off, and groups of women worked together to sew the uniforms they wore. Soldiers on the move through the area were a regular sight, crossing the Cahaba on the ferry near the mouth of Cottingham Creek, and traversing the main road from there toward the rail towns to the east.23

Confederate soldiers camped often on the Cottingham farm, stretching out in the big field near the river, foraging from the plantation's supplies and food, exchanging spent horses for fresh ones. At one point late in the war, an entire regiment set camp in the field, erecting tents and lighting cooking fires.24

The appearance of Confederate soldiers must have been an extraordinary event in the lives of the black members of the Cottingham clan. The war years were a conflicted period of confused roles for slaves. They were the subjects of the Union army's war of liberation, and the victims of the South's economic system. Yet at the same time, slaves were also servants and protectors of their white masters. In the woods near the Cottingham home, slaves guarded the horses and possessions of their white owners, hidden there to avoid raids of northern soldiers. Some slaves took the opportunity to flee, but most stayed at their posts until true liberation came in the spring of 1865.

The foundry and arsenal at Selma and the simple mines and furnaces around the Cottingham farm that supplied it with raw materials had taken on outsized importance as the war dragged on. The Alabama manufacturing network became the backbone of the Confederacy's ability to make arms,25 as the Tredegar factories were depleted of raw materials and skilled workers and menaced by the advancing armies of Ulysses S. Grant. Preservation of the Alabama enterprises was a key element of a last-ditch plan by Jefferson Davis, the southern president, to retreat with whatever was left of the Confederate military into the Deep South and continue the war.26

For more than a year, Union forces in southern Tennessee and northern Alabama massed for an anticipated order to obliterate any continued capacity of a rump Confederate government to make arms. Small groups of horse soldiers made regular probing raids, against minimal southern resistance. In April of 1864, Alabama's governor wired Confederate Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, commander of rebel forces in Alabama and Mississippi, imploring him to send additional troops. "The enemy's forces …are fortifying their position with their cavalry raiding over the country…. It is certain that the forces will work way South and destroy the valuable works in Central Alabama…. Can nothing be done?"27

Finally in March 1865, a mass of 13,500 Union cavalrymen swept down from the Tennessee border, in one of the North's penultimate death blows to the rebellion. Commanded by Gen. James H. Wilson, the Union army, well drilled and amply armed, split into three huge raiding parties, each assigned to destroy key elements of Alabama's industrial infrastructure. Moving unchallenged for days, the federal troops burned or wrecked iron forges, mills, and massive stockpiles of cotton and coal at Red Mountain, Irondale, and Helena, north of Bibb County. On the morning of March 30, Union soldiers slogged down the rain-drenched roads into Columbiana, destroying the machinery of the Shelby Iron Works, shoving its equipment into local wells and streams, and freeing the slaves critical to its operations.

Against nearly hopeless odds, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former slave dealer who had become the South's most storied horseman, met the blue advance at a point south of the town of Montevallo. Skirmishing along Mahan Creek, just miles from the Cottingham farm, Forrest's disorganized command could only harass Wilson's advance. Northern troops took the Brierfield furnace on March 31, and left it a ruin.

Outmanned and outfought, with flooding creeks blocking his maneuvers, Forrest, himself slashed by a saber in savage fighting on April 1, retreated for a final stand at Selma. The next day, Wilson's troops charged the fortified industrial complex in Selma, and routed Forrest's remaining four thousand men. The Confederate general slipped away with an escort of one hundred soldiers, massacring as he made his escape most of a contingent of twenty-five sleeping Union scouts he stumbled upon in a field.

Federal forces captured nearly three thousand of Forrest's men, along with more than sixty pieces of field cannon, scores of heavy artillery guns, nine factories, five major iron forges, three foundries, twenty locomotives, immense quantities of military supplies, and 35,000 bales of cotton. The arsenal, factory shops, and foundries at Selma were systematically destroyed. Perhaps most shocking to local whites, before moving on to attack Georgia, Wilson's officers quickly raised a one-thousand-man regiment of black troops, placed under the command of the Third Ohio Cavalry28

With the remaining Confederate armies commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee and Gen. Joseph E. Johnston unable to unite, Jefferson Davis's hope to continue the rebellion as a guerrilla struggle collapsed. Cut off from his remaining troops, his Alabama munitions system destroyed, deprived of the last regions of relative security in the South, he attempted to flee to Texas or Mexico. Under hot pursuit by detachments of General Wilson's troops, he was captured by Union forces in Georgia weeks later. The war came finally to its end.

Alabama had suffered losses totaling $500 million—a sum beyond comprehension in 1865. The total value of farm property was reduced during the war from $250 million to less than $98 million, including the loss of slaves. All banks in the state had collapsed. Agricultural production levels would not match that of 1860 for another forty years.29

But the final days of the war proved to be only the beginning of a more inexorable and anarchic struggle. A vicious white insurgency against the Union occupation and the specter of black citizenship began to take shape, presaged by the conduct of Home Guard patrols like the one Oliver Cottingham had joined. The patrols, uncoordinated and increasingly contemptuous of any authority during the war, had come to be known more as bandits and thugs than defenders of the Confederacy. After four years of conscriptions verging on kidnappings, violence perpetrated against critics of rebellion, and ruthless seizures of supplies and property, the Home Guard was in many places as despised as the Yankee troops. But in the aftermath of a sudden—and in much of the South, unanticipated—surrender, no clear central authority existed in the domestic affairs of places too small or remote to warrant a detachment of northern troops. In the Deep South, that meant nearly everyplace outside state capitals and economic centers.

The result, in the two years preceding Henry and Mary's wedding, was a spreading wave of internecine violence and thievery by returning Confederate soldiers, particularly against those southerners who had doubted the war. Deserters, who had been far more numerous than southern mythology acknowledged, began settling old scores. The increasing lawlessness of the postwar years was, rather than a wave of crime by freed slaves as so often claimed, largely perpetrated against whites by other whites.

The Cottingham farm sat in the middle of this unrest. One gang of deserters in Bibb County, made up of men believed to have abandoned the armies of both the North and the South, called themselves the Uglies, and marauded through the countryside during the war, robbing farms and threatening Confederate supporters. Another gang inhabited the Yellow Leaf swamp on the border with adjoining Chilton County. A paramilitary band of men near the town of Montevallo, calling itself Blackwell's Cavalrymen, hunted the countryside for Confederate deserters before the southern surrender and continued as an outlaw gang after the war. The group eventually murdered a total of seventeen local men. White lawlessness was so rampant in Shelby County that less than a year before Henry and Mary's wedding, Union military officials in the Alabama capital threatened to send troops into the area to restore peace.30

Chilton County had been a hotbed of such guerrilla activity throughout the war and emerged as a refuge for Confederate deserters and southerners who remained loyal to the Union. A local plantation owner, Capt. James Cobb, who had been sent home from duty with the southern army due to poor health, was assigned the task of breaking up the gangs of deserters. The effort spawned vendettas that would outlast the war. On June 3, 1865, nearly two months after the surrender, Cobb was seized by a group of thirty whites and hanged from a tree on his property. Afterward, they ransacked his home, killing or stealing his livestock. The former Confederate officer was accused of having named seven of the mob's members as deserters. The Blackwell group subsequently captured the seven and summarily executed them.31

Of the handful of Union soldiers sent to Bibb County to oversee a nominal local court system during the first two years after the war, one was killed on a Centreville street corner by a Confederate veteran wielding an axe handle.32 Two agents of the Freedmen's Bureau were assigned to the area in January and February of 1866. The men, named Beard and Higgen-botham, were promptly whipped by local whites and driven from the county. Not long after, rumor spread that two former slaves named Tom Johnson and Rube Russell had been seen around the county sporting fine clothes paid for by Freedmen's Bureau agents. The emancipated slaves planned to "live like white folks and marry white wives," according to a newspaper account. Johnson was promptly hanged from a tree on Market Street. A few mornings later, passersby found Russell dangling dead, in a tree not far from the scene of the earlier lynching.33

Yet even as southern whites like those in Bibb County made their rejection of the new order so apparent, no alternative was clear either. The loss of slaves left white farm families such as the Cottinghams, and even more so those on expansive plantations with scores or hundreds of slaves, not just financially but intellectually bereft. The slaves were the true experts in the tasks of cotton production on most farms; in many cases it was slaves who directed the gangs of other slaves in their daily work. Slavery had been introduced into the southern colonies in the 1600s with the argument that whites, operating alone, were incapable of large-scale cotton production. The concepts of sharecropping and farm tenancy hadn't yet evolved. The notion that their farms could be operated in some manner other than with groups of black laborers compelled by a landowner or his overseer to work as many as twenty hours a day was antithetical to most whites.

Moreover, the sudden willingness of millions of black laborers to insolently demand cash wages and other requirements to secure their labor was an almost otherworldly experience for whites such as Elisha Cottingham. Former slaves were suddenly mobile too, seeking new lodging away from the farms of their slave lives and attempting to put white farmers into competition with one another for their work.

In the absence of any means to supply freed slaves with land, the Freed-men's Bureau and northern military commanders stationed in the South encouraged blacks to enter into labor contracts with whites. The results were written agreements between whites and black farmhands filled with provisions aimed at restoring the subjugated state of African Americans. One agent of the Freedmen's Bureau wrote that whites were unable to fathom that work "could be accomplished without some prodigious binding and obligating of the hireling to the employer."34

Some white plantation owners attempted to coerce their former slaves into signing "lifetime contracts" to work on the farms. In one South Carolina case in 1865, when four freedmen refused such agreements, two were killed and a third, a woman, was tortured.35More common were year-to-year contracts that obligated black workers to remain throughout a planting and harvest season to receive their full pay, and under which they agreed to extraordinarily onerous limitations on personal freedom that echoed slave laws in effect before emancipation. They agreed not to leave the landowner's property without a written pass, not to own firearms, to obey all commands of the farmer or his overseer, to speak in a servile manner, and in the event of a violation of the rules to accept whatever punishment the farmer deemed appropriate—often the lash.36 Most of the early contracts adopted in the South in 1865 and 1866 were dissolved by commanders of the occupying Union troops. But they framed a strategy that southern whites would return to again and again.

When Elisha's sons arrived home from the war, they found only the barest gleanings of the earlier time with which to restart their lives. The thriving farmland world of their boyhoods no longer existed. After four years of steadily inflated Confederate scrip, now entirely worthless, the value of a man's land and tools, even of a bale of cotton, was nearly unknowable. Elisha's property was worth the substantial sum of nearly $20,000 before the war. The great bulk of that was invested in his slaves, and now they were his no more. The Cottinghams had not even the cash to buy cotton seed and corn, much less the labor of the former slaves they had so recently owned.

In February 1868, Elisha, perhaps sensing his own mortality more acutely in the postwar chaos, began dividing much of the plantation among his four sons, John, James, Moses, and Harry37 At the same time, his daughter, Rebecca Battle, bought two hundred acres of the property for $600.38

Later that month, Moses Cottingham borrowed $120 from a cotton buyer in the town of Randolph, an outpost in the other end of the county on the edge of the wide-open cotton lands of southern Alabama. For collateral, Moses promised two five-hundred-pound bales of cotton at the end of the season.39 From another man, he borrowed $120, securing that note with one six-year-old mule and a ten-year-old horse.40 The following January, 1869, Moses borrowed again, mortgaging for $150 his ever older horse and three other mules. The crop that fall wouldn't be enough to pay off the loan, and Moses couldn't clear his debt until 1871.41

A sense of paralysis was pervasive among whites. Elias Bishop, a prosperous farmer with a spread of several hundred acres under plow in another rich bend of the Cahaba downstream from the Cottinghams, was in similar straits. In the fall of 1869, Bishop, South Carolina-born and another of the county's earliest settlers, borrowed a little more than $50 against one hundred bushels of corn and mortgaged a portion of his land for $37.60. He never paid it back.42 The next summer, wife Sarah Bishop borrowed $150 against two bales of cotton from John C. Henry, the cotton buyer at Randolph who had become the county's de facto banker and financier. She settled the debt after the harvest of 1870, but immediately had to assume another loan.43

The Bishops, like Elisha and his family, were devout Wesleyan Methodists.44 Along with their slaves, the Bishops had attended the Mount Zion church near their farm in the south end of the county, where the family lived in a house overflowing with daughters.45 The Bishops and Cottinghams, white and black, would have known each other well through the close-knit circles of the Methodist circuit. John Wesley Starr, as a circuit-riding clergyman, was a regular feature before both congregations. Elias Bishop had accumulated an even more impressive collection of slaves than Elisha, with ten black men and three black females old enough to work in the fields at the beginning of the war. A half dozen young children rounded out the slave quarters. On the day of emancipation in 1863, the Bishop slave girl named Mary, who five years later would become Henry Cottinham's wife, was fourteen.46

In the wake of the war, one episode in the lives of white Cottinghams became the defining anecdote of the family's suffering and resurrection. Elisha's son Moses, who had migrated to Bienville Parish, Louisiana, a few years before secession, lost his land and the life of his wife, and had been forced to send his children on a harrowing journey through the battle zones of Mississippi with only a slave and a geriatric preacher to protect them. The saga resonated through generations of white Cottinghams and blacks descended from their slaves.

After Moses enlisted in January 1862, his pregnant wife, Nancy Katherine, grew ill and then died during childbirth. Moses returned home from the front to bury Nancy and make arrangements for their six surviving children. Elisha Cottingham sent a Baptist minister to Louisiana to bring his grandchildren back to Alabama for the duration of the war. With the southern railroad system already in shambles and most trains impressed into military service, the preacher and one of Moses’ two slaves, Joe, set out in an ox-drawn wagon. "That was the hardest trial I had ever had to go through, to leave my little children to be carried off to Alabama," Moses recounted to descendants years later.47

For three weeks, the odd expedition inched across the war-disrupted South. The preacher and the old African American, a scramble of children foraging for turnips and cornmeal, the oldest daughter, Cirrenia, still a child herself, feeding two-month-old Johnny, the infant whose birth had killed their mother, with a gruel of baked sweet potatoes. In November 1862, the ragged band arrived at Elisha Cottingham's farm on the Cahaba River. The fate of Moses, still at war, was unknown. "We never knew whether he was dead or alive till one day, after the war was over, we saw him coming," Cirrenia later wrote. Moses started over, resettling on nearby land along Copperas Creek, marrying the daughter of another former slaveholding family and begetting another seven children.

The losses suffered by Moses and the slow rescue of his family in the heat of war could have been a parable for how white southerners perceived the destruction of the South they had known. Physical and financial devastation, death and grief, followed by a transforming struggle to survive and rebuild. But the story also underscored the terrifying vulnerability whites like the Cottinghams discovered in being forced to place the fate and future of Moses’ family in the hands of a descendant of Africa. After the war, as the Cottingham slaves brazenly asserted their independence, the journey of Joe and the children across the South came to symbolize a reliance on blacks that southern whites could never again allow. Regardless of their intertwined pasts, the rehabilitation of the South by whites would not just purposefully exclude blacks. As time passed and opportunity permitted, former slaves would be compelled to perform the rebuilding of the South as well— in a system of labor hardly distinguishable in its brutality and coercion from the old slavery that preceded it.

If one looked out from Elisha's porch in December 1868, across the crop rows and down past the creek, the only green in a nearly colorless winter landscape was in the short scruffy needles of twisted cedars he had planted long ago, along the wagon drive from the road to the house. The slave cabins, nearly two dozen of them, were mostly empty now. Even Scipio, the old man slave who had worked Elisha's farm nearly as long as the white master himself, was gone down the road. Already, weather and uselessness were doing the shacks in.

Crisp brown leaves heaped at the feet of a line of high pines and bare hickories that framed the boundaries of the main field between the river and the house. The walls of yellow limestone rising up abruptly from the eastern bank of the Cahaba looked pale and gray.

The big field, long devoid of its hardwood forest, was striped with lifeless rows of cotton stalks and corn husks standing against the low, sharp-angled rays of winter sun. In every direction, thousands of bedraggled slips of lint still clung to broken cotton bolls—wisps of that portion of the harvest that time and weather and, in Elisha's mind, the obstinancy of "his Negroes" had conspired to leave behind. All winter long they would hang there, limp and wet, layering the dead fields with a hazy whisper of white and goading Elisha Cottingham in their waste.

How differently lay the land for Henry Cottinham and Mary Bishop. They had been reared on farms within a night's walk of the plain country church where now they would marry, and the hills and fields and forests fanning out from the Cahaba eastward along Six Mile Road had been the width and range of life to these two slaves. Contrasted against that circumscribed existence, the extraordinary events in the aftermath of emancipation—no matter the deprivation or arduousness—must have been bathed in a glow of wonder and astonishment.

It was slaves who had created the Cottingham plantation and civilized the Cahaba valley and all of rugged central Alabama. Bibb County was a place where there were no flat places. A freshly cleared tract of forest ground displayed a roiling surface of earth, a scene more like swells pitching in a rolling sea than fields beckoning the plow. It was the first generation of slaves, like Scipio, who hacked and burned the woods, sawing down the great virgin forests, digging out and dragging away the stumps and stones left behind, breaking by plow for the first time the rich, root-infested soil, smoothing and shaping the land for seed. For the generations of slaves that followed, it was the traces of a mule-drawn plow that de-marked the boundaries of hour upon hour spent restraining the iron blade from plunging down hillsides or struggling to drive it up the impossible inclines that followed.

As well as Scipio and the black families that surrounded him had come to know the shape and contours of the Cottingham farm, never, until well into the years of war, had they even imagined the possibility that they could someday own the land, grow their own harvests, perhaps even control the government. Now, all those things, or some luminous variant of them, seemed not just possible but perhaps inevitable.

Whatever bitterness Elisha Cottingham carried on the day of Henry and Mary's wedding must have been more than surpassed by the joy of the plantation's oldest former slave, Scipio, the grandfather of Henry. Almost seventy years old yet as robust as a man a third his age, Scip, as he was called, had witnessed near unearthly transformations of the world as he knew it. He had been born in Africa, then wrenched as a child into the frontier of an America only faintly removed from its eighteenth-century colonial origins. Through decades spent clearing forest and planting virgin fields, he watched as the unclaimed Indian land on which he found himself evolved into a yet even more foreign place. In the early years of the Cottingham farm, Cherokee and Creek Indians still controlled the western bank of the Cahaba's sister stream, the Coosa River. Choctaw territory extended to within fifty miles of the plantation.48 Steadily as the years passed, the natives of Alabama receded, and the frontier outposts swelled into settlements and then little, aspiration-filled towns. As the Civil War years approached, the Cottingham plantation fell finally into a steady rhythm of stability and cotton-driven prosperity.

Whether the child who came to be a Cottingham slave called Scipio knew the specific place of his origins, who his parents were, what African people they were a part of, how they came to be compelled across the Atlantic and into slavery—what his native name had been—all was lost.

The erasure of his history was completed by the moniker placed on him by white captors. Scipio was a classic slave name, one of a catalogue of cynical, almost sneering, designations rooted in the white South's popular fetish for the mythology of the classic cultures. It came from the name of a second-century general who governed Rome as Scipio Africanus. For the Roman Scipio, this was a tribute to his victory over Hannibal in the year 201, extending Roman control over Carthage and all of northern Africa. His reign had also seen the brutal suppression of the first great Roman slave revolt, in which on one occasion more than twenty thousand rebelling slaves were crucified. The context of such a name might have been lost on an African slave barred from learning Western history, but to educated whites the mocking irony would have been obvious.49

Scipio at least knew that he had been born in Africa, unlike nearly every other slave that entered the Cottingham farm, and that he believed the year of his birth was 1802. Perhaps he came directly to Cottingham from an Atlantic slave ship. Possibly he was first enslaved in Virginia or North Carolina, and then resold to the Deep South in the great domestic slave trading boom of the early nineteenth century. Shipping manifests at the port of New Orleans contain an entry for a teenage slave boy named Scipio arriving from a plantation in Virginia in 1821. Whatever his origins, Scip would hold defiantly until the end of his life to his identity as an Africa-born black man.50

Even bound into the agony of a quotidian life of forced labor, Scip must have conversely thrilled to the rise of the bountiful tribe of men and women who sprang from his Atlantic passage. The white people who brought him here had purchased other slaves, particularly in his boyhood, and housed them in the quarter of log-and-mud cabins down the hill from Elisha's house. But since Scip had grown to manhood, it was he who had sired slave after slave. First came George in 1825 (who would become the father of Henry) and Jeff in 1828. Then, in 1830, arrived Green, whose likely namesake, born more than fifty years later, would be delivered to Slope No. 12 mine in 1908.

They were all sturdy boys, and as much as any man might expect in a hard life. But in the final years before the Civil War, Scip surprised any of the other freed slaves who might have thought old age was setting upon him. He took up with Charity, a teenage girl almost forty years his junior. Whether the union was coerced or by choice, it was consummated in slavery and continued in a sweet freedom. Charity would stay with Scip until the end of his long life, deep into the years of emancipation, and for nearly twenty years bear to him sons and daughters with the regularity of cotton bolls and swollen spring streams.

Years before emancipation, Scip had seen the first signs of the epochal transformation about to infuse his world. Exotic new enterprises began to appear in the former frontier of Bibb County. On creeks surrounding the Cottingham farm, small forges were built in the 1830s, early precursors to the massive steel and iron industry that would come to dominate Alabama by the end of the century. In 1850, at a location a few miles from the Cot-tinghams’, a massive boiler-driven sawmill began operation, pumping from the still virgin forests a fantastic stream of sawn planks and timbers. More ominously, Bibb Steam Mill Company also introduced to the county the ruthless form of industrial slavery that would become so important as the Civil War loomed.

The mill acquired twenty-seven male African Americans, nearly all strapping young men, and kept them packed into just six small barracks on its property. The Cottingham slave cabins would have seemed luxurious in contrast.51

The founders of Bibb Steam, entrepreneurs named William S. Philips, John W. Lopsky Archibald P. McCurdy and Virgil H. Gardner, invested a total of $24,000 to purchase 1,160 acres of timbered land and erect a steam-powered sawmill to cut lumber and grind corn and flour. 52 In addition to the two dozen slaves, Bibb Steam most likely leased a larger number of slaves from nearby farms during its busiest periods of work.

The significance of those evolutions wouldn't have been lost on a slave such as Scipio. By the end of the 1850s, a vigorous practice of slave leasing was already a fixture of southern life. Farm production was by its nature an inefficient cycle of labor, with intense periods of work in the early spring planting season and then idleness during the months of "laid-by" time in the summer, and then another great burst of harvest activity in the fall and early winter, followed finally by more months of frigid inactivity. Slave owners were keen to maximize the return on their most valuable assets, and as new opportunities for renting out the labor of their slaves arose, the most clever of slave masters quickly responded.

Given all that had changed in Bibb County in the years leading up to the southern rebellion, it would have been no surprise to the old slave that he found himself during the war in the service of the Confederacy, making iron for cannons and rebel ships in the ironworks at Brierfield.

Perhaps it was a comfort to Scip that joining him at Brierfield was the pastor who had been for so long a part of life at the Cottingham plantation. After thirty years of itinerancy among scattered churches, Rev. Starr was posted in 1864 to the Bibb Iron Works, a gesture on the part of the Methodist circuit to allow the old preacher to finish out his days at a congregation close to the home he cherished on Cottingham Loop.

Starr was the archetypal backwoods Methodist. He had completed hardly any formal schooling. Indeed, Starr was so profoundly uneducated that when as a man barely twenty years old he first began to preach at little churches not far from his south Georgia birthplace, even his friends doubted privately that he could ever carry off a career as a professional minister. But Methodism was a young and evangelical sect in the 1830s. The rough Alabama countryside, and especially the masses of still heretical slaves who made up much of its population, was a major target for missionary work.

The life of a Methodist circuit rider, traveling in a grinding, repetitive loop from one settlement chapel to another, was an entrepreneurial task of establishing churches and converting the unwashed. A vigorous iconoclast such as Starr could overcome academic ignorance with a fundamentalist fervor for the Bible and a resounding voice from the pulpit. Starr had done that, winning postings at a string of small Methodist congregations across Georgia and then Alabama. 53

Through the years, he had been formally assigned to nearly twenty different congregations in the circuits orbiting the Bibb County seat of Cen-treville. Along with each of those churches had come responsibility for still more gatherings of the faithful who worshipped in the homes of scattered landowners or in remote rustic settlement chapels. That duty had delivered Starr to the home of Elisha Cottingham, and eventually the preacher bought a small piece of Cottingham land to which he hoped someday to retire.

The people of Riverbend, free whites and black slaves, had met for services on Elisha's plantation for so long that in minutes of the meetings of the Methodist circuit, the congregation was known simply as "Cottingham's." After nearly twenty years, its members raised a spare one-room church in the 1840s on the adjacent land of Elisha's brother, John Cottingham. Built on immense timber joists, resting on pillars of limestone rock, it would stand against the wind and shifting times for nearly a century and a half. The builders dubbed it Wesley Chapel.54

Starr preached there many times, and as age and dropsy slowed his step, it was to this corner of Bibb County that he was drawn to rest. One of the preacher's sons, Lucius E. Starr, grown and ready to raise a family of his own, became a physician and made a name for himself in the county seat. The Cottinghams were good to Rev. Starr and his wife, Hannah, and after a lifetime of near constant motion it must have been a relief to him in 1860 to buy land right beside the family that had treated them so well.55 The Starr home was within walking distance of the spare country chapel and the Cottingham family cemetery, where Starr already hoped to be buried. They called the farmhouse the "preacher's sanctum."

By the final months of the war, the old firebrand knew well life's most bitter stings. His namesake son, also a Methodist minister, died in an epidemic of yellow fever a few years before secession. One of his youngest, Wilbur Fisk, another likely playmate of the slave Henry and Elisha's grandson Oliver, became a sergeant in the Alabama 29th Infantry before seeing his unit decimated in savage fighting across north Georgia. He died soon after during the long defense of Atlanta in 1864.

As an unschooled man, Starr, in his day, had a particular appeal for the raw country folk that predominated the rutted back roads of the South. That translated as well into an affinity for slaves. As a young pastor on the circuits of Georgia, Starr was praised for his ministrations to the souls of black folks as he galloped among the plantations and camp meetings of south Alabama.56 So it was fitting that the final church appointment of his long career, where he would wait out the end of the war, was to the ironworks at Brierfield where slavery was being practiced in its most raw and brutalizing form. There, Scip and the preacher Starr toiled at their respective tasks, until General Wilson's army descended.

A few months after the surrender of the Confederacy, the U.S. government sold the wrecked ironworks at Brierfield to the man who during the war had been responsible for arming the entire southern military, Josiah Gorgas, the architect of the slave-driven Alabama wartime industrial complex. Gorgas, a Pennsylvania native who married the daughter of a former Alabama governor, had become a committed Confederate, rising to the rank of general by war's end. After the surrender, he worked tirelessly to return the furnaces to full use and profitability.

But the ravaged state of Alabama that surrounded him made that plan nearly impossible. The cost of paying market rate wages to black men such as Scip who had worked as slaves during the war totaled a bankrupting $200 per day. Those black laborers Gorgas could pay and keep on hand were repeatedly harassed by marauding bands of Ku Klux Klan members. Gorgas, like Elisha Cottingham and so many other whites bewildered by both the ramifications of black emancipation and the continuing venality of renegade whites, was disconsolate. The South they first dreamed of making an independent republic grounded in slavery—and then dreamed of rebuilding as a rival to the North—appeared irretrievably broken. "What an end to our great hopes!" he wrote in his diary. "Is it possible that we were wrong?"57

Scip Cottinham, having learned the skills of a foundry worker during the war, must in his own way also have been baffled by the extraordinary turn of events that left him a free man in the twilight of his life.

Neither he nor Henry would likely have known what to say to so strange and moot a white man's question as the one posed by Gorgas to his diary. But they would have had no doubt as to whether Gorgas and the Cottingham brothers, and the hundreds of thousands of other southern men who had taken up arms during the war, had been wrong.

Before Union troops arrived in Bibb County, the night hours had permitted Henry his one limited taste of freedom within the confines of chattel life. It was after sundown that the slaves of Riverbend and other farms could slip quietly through the forests to see and court one another.

Now freedom had turned darkness into light. Henry young and strong at the very moment of the rebirth of his people, no longer had to wait for the passage of the sun into the horizon. His feet could carry him flying down the dusty track to the Bishop place, in plain daylight for all to see, past old Elisha's cabins, past the store at Six Mile, past the broken iron furnace at Brierfield, to Mary.

For Henry and Mary, freedom was a tangible thing, and January was a fine time for a wedding. Both raised on the banks of the Cahaba, they were as attuned to the seasonal swells of the river and the deep soil on its edges as the great stretches of spidery white lilies that crowded its shoals each spring and retreated into its depths every winter.

Picking last fall's crop of cotton in the valley had gone on until nearly Christmas. In another two months, it would be time to begin knocking down the brittle cotton stalks left from last year, harnessing the mules and plows, and breaking the crusted soil for a new crop. Planting season came hard on the heels of that, and before long it would be summer, when mule hooves and plow blades and bare black feet, slavery or no slavery, would march between the furrows, without rest, for nearly every hour of every day. So that January, bitter as was its wind, arrived for them sweet and restful.

Like Henry and Mary all of Alabama, and the South—indeed at one level all of the United States—was setting up housekeeping in the winter of 1868. Redefined by war, grief, deprivation, death, and emancipation, America was faced with the challenge of repairing and reordering a collective household.

Some of the old slaves said they too weren't sure what "freedom" really was. Henry likely couldn't explain it either, but he had to know. This wedding day was emancipation. It was the license from the courthouse and big leather-bound book that listed his marriage right beside those of the children of the old master. It was his name on the piece of paper, "Henry Cot-tinham." No more was he one of the "Cottingham niggers."

To Henry Cottinham and Mary Bishop there could be no better time to marry They marched the few steps to the house of Rev. Starr, down to the Cottingham chapel around the curve, and took their vows as free citizens.58 Henry Cottinham was a man, with a name, spelled just the way he had always said it. Freedom was an open field, a strong wife, and time to make his mark. Mary's "increase," like the product of all their labor, would be theirs—not Elisha Cottingham's. Henry would plant his seed, in soil he knew and in Mary his wife. In a few years, they would have a son named Green. Henry would raise up the offspring of the land and of his blood.

Surely, that was freedom.

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