The cold winds of January blew mournfully through the DeSoto County seat of Hernando in January of 1866, across the smoldering embers of war and bloodshed.
The nation and the people of Mississippi and DeSoto County were still recovering from a bitter Civil War that left thousands dead, and survivors sporting artificial limbs and eye patches as they tried to piece their shattered lives back together.
Their stories can be found in the archive collection of newspapers from that period which are now in the care of the DeSoto County Chancery Clerk’s Office. They can only be viewed by permission. The DeSoto County Museum has plans to digitalize these precious old newspapers for a wider audience with the establishment of a special archive at the museum.
Newspaper editor William S. Slade was one of thousands of soldiers who returned home to find burned and ransacked barns, livestock stolen and crops destroyed after the war.
The conditions of life in January of 1866, following the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s forces at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia the previous spring, were harsh for most Southerners and Northerners alike, but particularly for the vanquished South.
William Slade was the son of a printer, Joseph Slade, a Yankee, who hailed from New Hampshire, but the elder Slade did not stand in the way of his son joining the ranks of the Confederacy.
William Slade served in Company K of the 9th Mississippi Infantry. It seems that William Slade had picket duty one day and a Yankee ball got him. He suffered a paralyzed leg and was crippled for life. Yet, the young returning soldier’s hands were not crippled. He could still write and operate a press.
William S. Slade carried on the mantle of operating the only major county newspaper at the time, continuing in the tradition of Colonel Felix LaBauve and John Lavins who had begun publishing a newspaper called The Phenix, forerunner to this newspaper, back in 1839, just three years after DeSoto County was established by an act of the Mississippi Legislature.
In 1876, Slade founded the Hernando Free Press. It merged with the Senatobia Times and soon became The Press and Times.
In 1889, Slade changed the name of the newspaper to The DeSoto Times. Slade was a talented writer and penned a poignant poem in honor of several children he lost to yellow fever and other childhood diseases of the day.
Only a few months after returning from the rigors of war, a much younger Slade mourned their loss in a poem published in The People’s Press:
“Boatman, boatman! My brain is wild — as wild as the rainy seas; My poor little child, my sweet little child, is a corpse upon my knees.
No holy choir to sing so low — no priest to kneel in prayer — no tired woman to help me sew a cap for his golden hair … His grace the same, the same His power, demanding our love and trust,
Whether He makes of the dust a flower,
Or change the flower to dust.”
William Slade is one of many “characters” I have had the pleasure of portraying during the annual Springhill Cemetery Candlelight Tour on All Hallows Eve. His voice still speaks after all these passing years, mourning loss and celebrating life in all its mystery and wonder.
I, for one, am so glad that William Slade picked up his pen and put his words on paper. This old newspaper editor shows that humanity is not that much different than it was 130 years ago.
People still love, they still grieve, and deep in their hearts, they still have hope despite the chill winds that blow through their lives.
ROBERT LEE LONG is Curator of the DeSoto County Museum in Hernando.