The Antebellum-South (Lori Whitley)

When I think of setting, I'm drawn to Southern Louisiana. My imagination leaps from the legendary French Quarters or the Vieux Carre`, to south along the Mississippi River, to the antebellum era before the Civil War, when cotton and sugar plantations crossed the land in abundance. Majestic homes sit watch over the river banks, and the surrounding grounds have moss-draped trees and bushes trimmed neat. A sea of green grass splashes all the way to the circular drive where carriages arrive all festive and gay, trunks in tow, dragged behind by the footmen. They stay for days. Hoop skirts of the newest fashions were worn and horses whinnied with a stomp of the hoof.

Then my writer's mind peels back the first layer to see what lies beyond, why Nathan didn't see to his wife Cassandra emerging from the carriage, as she peered on with tearful eyes while he moved away to warmly embrace the mistress of the plantation. What secret thoughts did these people have and what secret thoughts did they share?

Before the Civil War one of the greatest differences in the U.S. was slavery in the South. Northern farmers didn't need as much labor as did the Southern farmers because of the crops they grew, grains. the crops Southerners grew were more labor intensive such as cotton, rice, sugar and tobacco. The great majority of slaves were in agriculture, the dominant economic activity in the South. Slave owners constituted the wealthiest class in the nation. The average slave owner was more than five times as wealthy as the average Northerner, and more than ten times as wealthy as the average non-slave holding Southerner. The great majority of white Southern families owned no slaves. The approximately four million slaves in 1860 were owned by about 385,000 individuals, about 72 percent of slave owners owned fewer than 10 slaves, only about 10,000 owned more than 200 slaves.

Slaves could never forget their status as property no matter how well their owners treated them. The relationship between the masters and slaves varied greatly, it ran the compass from compassionate to contemptous. But master and slave never approached equality. Only in the slave quarters were they allowed to be themselves without worry of punishement. Slaves formed communities within the plantation setting, they married, had children and worked hard to keep their families together. The fear of being sold off, always weighed heavy on their minds, never to see one another again. They taught children how to hide feelings to escape punishment and be skeptical of anything a white person said. Men were unable to protect their women if the master of the plantation or his overseer decided they wanted to bed them.

Life wasn't much easier for the women of the South than that of their slaves. When men made the rules and women abided by them. A time when a broken engagement meant scandal for the young girl and her family. One could be disgraced for life and her father's credibility ruined. So therefore, the father's controlled every aspect of their daughter's lives from education, to social events and courtship. After marraige the control transfered to that of her husband. The elite men of the Antebellum-South worked hard to maintain their status and their women's actions directly reflected the status of the their men.

And now almost two hundred years later when I look upon the stately antebellum mansions often abandoned to the ravages of time I see the ghostly apparitions, begging me to tell their stories.


Reese Mobley said...

Great post, Lori. Your descriptions were beautiful. You have a gift for writing them. I can see why you fancy the south!

Penny Rader said...

Wow, that was beautiful, Lori. Thanks for sharing with us. Hope I get to read more of your writing.

Are Nathan and Cassandra from a story you're writing?

lori whitley said...

Thanks Reece and Penny, it was a really fun topic to write. And no Penny Nathan and Cassandra came to me as I wrote the blog. But they could be in a story in the future!

Joan Vincent said...

Your post revived my interest in the South. I used to read a lot of Civil War era stories--I'm going to go check some out. It's a time of such dichotomy--the beauty of the costumes, time, and place with the horror of the slavery supporting it. You have shown what a great setting it is for stories.

Melissa Robbins said...

The Antebellum-South is a character in itself.