Thursday, July 14, 2016

Diary of William Howard Russell: May 20, 1861

I left Mobile in the steamer Florida for New Orleans this morning at eight o'clock. She was crowded with passengers, in uniform. In my cabin was a notice of the rules and regulations of the steamer. No. 6 was as follows: “All slave servants must be cleared at the Custom House. Passengers having slaves will please report as soon as they come on board.”

A few miles from Mobile the steamer, turning to the right, entered one of the narrow channels which perforate the whole of the coast, called “Grant's Pass.” An ingenious person has rendered it navigable by an artificial cut; but as he was not an universal philanthropist, and possibly may have come from north of the Tweed, he further erected a series of barriers, which can only be cleared by means of a little pepper-castor iron lighthouse; and he charges toll on all passing vessels. A small island at the pass, just above water-level, about twenty yards broad and one hundred and fifty yards long, was being fortified. Some of our military friends landed here ; and it required a good deal of patriotism to look cheerfully at the prospect of remaining cooped up among the mosquitoes in a box, on this miserable sand-bank, which a shell would suffice to blow into atoms.

Having passed this channel, our steamer proceeded up a kind of internal sea, formed by the shore, on the right hand and on the left, by a chain almost uninterrupted of reefs covered with sand, and exceedingly narrow, so that the surf of the ocean rollers at the other side could be seen through the foliage of the pine-trees which line them. On our right the endless pines closed up the land view of the horizon; the beach was pierced by creeks without number, called bayous; and it was curious to watch the white sails of the little schooners gliding in and out among the trees along the green meadows that seemed to stretch as an impassable barrier to their exit. Immense troops of pelicans flapped over the sea, dropping incessantly on the fish which abounded in the inner water; and long rows of the same birds stood digesting their plentiful meals on the white beach by the ocean foam.

There was some anxiety in the passengers' minds, as it was reported that the United States cruisers had been seen inside, and that they had even burned the batteries on Ship Island. We saw nothing of a character more formidable than coasting craft and a return steamer from New Orleans till we approached the entrance to Pontchartrain, when a large schooner, which sailed like a witch and was crammed with men, attracted our attention. Through the glass I could make out two guns on her deck, and quite reason enough for any well-filled merchantman sailing under the Stars and Stripes to avoid her close companionship.

The approach to New Orleans is indicated by large hamlets and scattered towns along the seashore, hid in the piney woods, which offer a retreat to the merchants and their families from the fervid heat of the unwholesome city in summer time. As seen from the sea, these sanitary settlements have a picturesque effect, and an air of charming freshness and lightness. There are detached villas of every variety of architecture in which timber can be constructed, painted in the brightest hues — greens, and blues, and rose tints — each embowered in magnolias and rhododendrons. From every garden a very long and slender pier, terminated by a bathing-box, stretches into the shallow sea; and the general aspect of these houses, with the light domes and spires of churches rising above the lines of white railings set in the dark green of the pines, is light and novel. To each of these cities there is a jetty, at two of which we touched, and landed newspapers, received or discharged a few bales of goods, and were off again.

Of the little crowd assembled on each, the majority were blacks — the whites, almost without exception, in uniform, and armed. A near approach did not induce me to think that any agencies less powerful than epidemics and summer-heats could render Pascagoula, Passchristian, Mississippi City, and the rest of these settlements very eligible residences for people of an active turn of mind.

The livelong day my fellow-passengers never ceased talking politics, except when they were eating and drinking, because the horrible chewing and spitting are not at all incompatible with the maintenance of active discussion. The fiercest of them all was a thin, fiery-eyed little woman, who at dinner expressed a fervid desire for bits of “Old Abe” — his ear, his hair; but whether for the purpose of eating or as curious relics, she did not enlighten the company.

After dinner there was some slight difficulty among the military gentlemen, though whether of a political or personal character, I could not determine; but it was much aggravated by the appearance of a six-shooter on the scene, which, to my no small perturbation, was presented in a right line with my berth, out of the window of which I was looking at the combatants. I am happy to say the immediate delivery of the fire was averted by an amicable arrangement that the disputants should meet at the St. Charles Hotel at twelve o'clock on the second day after their arrival, in order to fix time, place, and conditions of a more orthodox and regular encounter.

At night the steamer entered a dismal canal, through a swamp which is infamous as the most mosquito haunted place along the infested shore; the mouths of the Mississippi themselves being quite innocent, compared to the entrance of Lake Pontchartrain. When I woke up at daylight, I found the vessel lying alongside a wharf with a railway train alongside, which is to take us to the city of New Orleans, six miles distant.

A village of restaurants or “restaurants,” as they are called here, and of bathing boxes has grown up around the terminus; all the names of the owners, the notices and sign-boards being French. Outside the settlement the railroad passes through a swamp, like an Indian jungle, through which the over-flowings of the Mississippi creep in black currents. The spires of New Orleans rise above the underwood and semi-tropical vegetation of this swamp. Nearer to the city lies a marshy plain, in which flocks of cattle, up to the belly in the soft earth are floundering among the clumps of vegetation. The nearer approach to New Orleans by rail lies through a suburb of exceedingly broad lanes, lined on each side by rows of miserable mean one-storied houses, inhabited, if I am to judge from the specimens I saw, by a miserable and sickly population.

A great number of the men and women had evident traces of negro blood in their veins, and of the purer blooded whites many had the peculiar look of the fishy-fleshy population of the Levantine towns, and all were pale and lean. The railway terminus is marked by a dirty, barrack-like shed in the city. Selecting one of the numerous tumble-down hackney carriages which crowded the street outside the station, I directed the man to drive me to the house of Mr. Mure, the British consul, who had been kind enough to invite me as his guest for the period of my stay in New Orleans.

The streets are badly paved, as those of most of the American cities, if not all that I have ever been in, but in other respects they are more worthy of a great city than are those of New York There is an air thoroughly French about the people — cafes, restaurants, billiard-rooms abound, with oyster and lager-bier saloons interspersed. The shops are all magazines; the people in the streets are speaking French, particularly the negroes, who are going out shopping with their masters and mistresses, exceedingly well dressed, noisy, and not unhappy looking. The extent of the drive gave an imposing idea of the size of New Orleans — the richness of some of the shops, the vehicles in the streets, and the multitude of well-dressed people on the pavements, an impression of its wealth and the comfort of the inhabitants, The Confederate flag was flying from the public buildings and from many private houses. Military companies paraded through the streets, and a large proportion of men were in uniform.

In the day I drove through the city, delivered letters of introduction, paid visits, and examined the shops and the public places; but there is such a whirl of secession and politics surrounding one it is impossible to discern much of the outer world.

Whatever may be the number of the Unionists or of the non-secessionists, a pressure too potent to be resisted has been directed by the popular party against the friends of the federal government. The agent of Brown Brothers, of Liverpool and New York, has closed their office and is going away in consequence of the intimidation of the mob, or as the phrase is here, the “excitement of the citizens,” on hearing of the subscription made by the firm to the New York fund, after Sumter had been fired upon. Their agent in Mobile has been compelled to adopt the same course. Other houses follow their example, but as most business transactions are over for the season, the mercantile community hope the contest will be ended before the next season, by the recognition of Southern Independence.

The streets are full of Turcos, Zouaves, Chasseurs; walls are covered with placards of volunteer companies; there are Pickwick rifles, La Fayette/Beauregard, MacMahon guards, Irish, German, Italian and Spanish and native volunteers, among whom the Meagher rifles, indignant with the gentleman from whom they took their name, because of his adhesion to the North, are going to rebaptize themselves and to seek glory under one more auspicious. In fact, New Orleans looks like a suburb of the camp at Chalons. Tailors are busy night and day making uniforms. I went into a shop with the consul for some shirts — the mistress and all her seamstresses were busy preparing flags as hard as the sewing-machine could stitch them, and could attend to no business for the present. The Irish population, finding themselves unable to migrate northwards, and being without work, have rushed to arms with enthusiasm to support Southern institutions, and Mr. John Mitchell and Mr. Meagher stand opposed to each other in hostile camps.

SOURCE: William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, p. 227-31

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