Freedom wasnt 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 soldiersin a bewildering blur of liberation and terror unleashed from a distant warravaged 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 Cottinghams house, two stories stacked of hand-hewn logs and chinked with red clay dug at the rivers 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 furiouslystrong enough to spin a small grist millbefore it turned to the west and suddenly plunged into the Cahaba. He named the stream Cottingham 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 terrifyingand ultimately realizedpossibility 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.
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