We reached Petersburgh at 3 A.M., and had to get out and traverse this town in carts, after which we had to lie down in the road until some other cars were opened. We left Petersburgh at 5 A.M. and arrived at Richmond at 7 A.M., having taken forty-one hours coming from Charleston. The railroad between Petersburgh and Richmond is protected by extensive field-works, and the woods have been cut down to give range. An irruption of the enemy in this direction has evidently been contemplated; and we met a brigade of infantry half-way between Petersburgh and Richmond on its way to garrison the latter place, as the Yankees are reported to be menacing in that neighbourhood.
The scenery near Richmond is very pretty, and rather English-looking. The view of the James River from the railway bridge is quite beautiful, though the water is rather low at present. The weather was extremely hot and oppressive, and, for the first time since I left Havana, I really suffered from the heat.
At 10 A.M. I called on General Cooper, Adjutant-General to the Confederate forces, and senior general in the army. He is brother-in-law to Mr Mason, the Southern Commissioner in London. I then called upon Mr Benjamin, the Secretary of State, who made an appointment with me to meet him at his house at 7 P.M. The public offices are handsome stone buildings, and seemed to be well arranged for business. I found at least as much difficulty in gaining access to the great men as there would be in European countries; but when once admitted, I was treated with the greatest courtesy. The anterooms were crowded with people patiently waiting for an audience.
The streets of Richmond are named and numbered in a most puzzling manner, and the greater part of the houses are not numbered at all It is the most hilly city I have seen in America, and its population is unnaturally swollen since the commencement of the war. The fact of there being abundance of ice appeared to me an immense luxury, as I had never seen any before in the South; but it seems that the winters are quite severe in Northern Virginia.
I was sorry to hear in the highest quarters the gloomiest forebodings with regard to the fate of Vicksburg. This fortress is in fact given up, and all now despair of General Johnston's being able to effect anything towards its relief.
I kept my appointment with Mr Benjamin at 7 o'clock. He is a stout dapper little man, evidently of Hebrew extraction, and of undoubted talent. He is a Louisianian, and was senator for that state in the old United States Congress, and I believe he is accounted a very clever lawyer and a brilliant orator. He told me that he had filled the onerous post of Secretary of War during the first seven months of the Secession, and I can easily believe that he found it no sinecure. We conversed for a long time about the origin of secession, which he indignantly denied was brought about, as the Yankees assert, by the interested machinations of individuals. He declared that, for the last ten years, the Southern statesmen had openly stated in Congress what would take place; but the Northerners never would believe they were in earnest, and had often replied by the taunt, “The South was so bound to, and dependent on, the North, that she couldn't be kicked out of the Union.”
He said that the Southern armies had always been immensely outnumbered in all their battles, and that until recently General Lee could never muster more than 60,000 effective men. He confessed that the Southern forces consisted altogether of about 350,000 to 400,000 men; and when I asked him where they all were, he replied that, on account of the enormous tract of country to be defended, and the immense advantages the enemy possessed by his facilities for sea and river transportation, the South was obliged to keep large bodies of men unemployed, and at great distances from each other, awaiting the sudden invasions or raids to which they were continually exposed. Besides which, the Northern troops, which numbered (he supposed) 600,000 men, having had as yet but little defensive warfare, could all be employed for aggressive purposes.
He asserted that England has still, and always had had it, in her power to terminate the war by recognition, and by making a commercial treaty with the South; and he denied that the Yankees really would dare to go to war with Great Britain for doing so, however much they might swagger about it: he said that recognition would not increase the Yankee hatred of England, for this, whether just or unjust, was already as intense as it could possibly be. I then alluded to the supposed ease with which they could overrun Canada, and to the temptation which its unprotected towns must offer to the large numbers of Irish and German mercenaries in the Northern armies. He answered, “They probably could not do that so easily as some people suppose, and they know perfectly well that you could deprive them of California (a far more serious loss) with much greater ease.” This consideration, together with the certainty of an entire blockade of their ports, the total destruction of their trade, and an invasion on a large scale by the Southern troops, in reality prevents the possibility of their declaring war upon England at the present time, any more than they did at the period of their great national humiliation in the Mason-Slidell affair.
Mr Benjamin told me that his property had lately been confiscated in New Orleans, and that his two sisters had been turned, neck and crop, into the streets there, with only one trunk, which they had been forced to carry themselves. Every one was afraid to give them shelter, except an Englishwoman, who protected them until they could be got out of the city.
Talking of the just admiration which the English newspapers accorded to Stonewall Jackson, he expressed, however, his astonishment that they should have praised so highly his strategic skill in outmanoeuvring Pope at Manassas, and Hooker at Chancellorsville, totally ignoring that in both cases the movements were planned and ordered by General Lee, for whom (Mr Benjamin said) Jackson had the most “childlike reverence.”
Mr Benjamin complained of Mr Russell of the “Times” for holding him up to fame as a “gambler” — a story which he understood Mr Russell had learnt from Mr Charles Sumner at Washington. But even supposing that this was really the case, Mr Benjamin was of opinion that such a revelation of his private life was in extremely bad taste, after Mr Russell had partaken of his (Mr Benjamin's) hospitality at Mongomery.
He said the Confederates were more amused than annoyed at the term “rebel,” which was so constantly applied to them; but he only wished mildly to remark, that in order to be a “rebel,” a person must rebel against some one who has a right to govern him; and he thought it would be very difficult to discover such a right as existing in the Northern over the Southern States.
In order to prepare a treaty of peace, he said, "It would only be necessary to write on a blank sheet of paper the words ‘self-government.’ Let the Yankees accord that, and they might fill up the paper in any manner they chose. We don't want any State that doesn't want us; but we only wish that each State should decide fairly upon its own destiny. All we are struggling for is to be let alone.”
At 8 P.M. Mr Benjamin walked with me to the President's dwelling, which is a private house at the other end of the town. I had tea there, and uncommonly good tea too — the first I had tasted in the Confederacy. Mrs Davis was unfortunately unwell and unable to see me.
Mr Jefferson Davis struck me as looking older than I expected. He is only fifty-six, but his face is emaciated, and much wrinkled. He is nearly six feet high, but is extremely thin, and stoops a little. His features are good, especially his eye, which is very bright, and full of life and humour. I was afterwards told he had lost, the sight of his left eye from a recent illness. He wore a linen coat and grey trousers, and he looked what he evidently is, a well-bred gentleman. Nothing can exceed the charm of his manner, which is simple, easy, and most fascinating. He conversed with me for a long time, and agreed with Benjamin that the Yankees did not really intend to go to war with England if she recognised the South; and he said that, when the inevitable smash came — and that separation was an accomplished fact — the State of Maine would probably try to join Canada, as most of the intelligent people in that state have a horror of being “under the thumb of Massachusetts.” He added, that Maine was inhabited by a hardy, thrifty, seafaring population, with different ideas to the people in the other New England states.
When I spoke to him of the wretched scenes I had witnessed in his own State (Mississippi), and of the miserable, almost desperate, situation in which I had found so many unfortunate women, who had been left behind by their male relations; and when I alluded in admiration to the quiet, calm, uncomplaining manner in which they bore their sufferings and their grief, he said, with much feeling, that he always considered silent despair the most painful description of misery to witness, in the same way that he thought mute insanity was the most awful form of madness.
He spoke to me of Grenfell, who, he said, seemed to be serving the Confederacy in a disinterested and loyal manner. He had heard much of his gallantry and good services, and he was very sorry when I told him of Grenfell's quarrel with the civil power.
He confirmed the truth of my remark, that a Confederate general is either considered an Admirable Crichton by the soldiers, or else abused as everything bad; and he added, the misfortune was, that it is absolutely necessary, in order to insure success, that a general must obtain and preserve this popularity and influence with his men, who were, however, generally very willing to accord their confidence to any officer deserving of it.
With regard to the black-flag-and-no-quarter agitation, he said people would talk a great deal, and even go into action determined to give no quarter; “but,” he added, “I have yet to hear of Confederate soldiers putting men to death who have thrown down their arms and held up their hands.”
He told me that Lord Russell confessed that the impartial carrying out of the neutrality laws had pressed hard upon the South; and Mr Davis asserted that the pressure might have been equalised, and yet retained its impartiality, if Great Britain, instead of closing her ports, had opened them to the prizes of both parties; but I answered that perhaps this might be over-doing it a little on the other side.
When I took my leave about 9 o'clock, the President asked me to call upon him again. I don't think it is possible for any one to have an interview with him without going away most favourably impressed by his agreeable, unassuming manners, and by the charm of his conversation. Whilst walking home, Mr Benjamin told me that Mr Davis's military instincts still predominate, and that his eager wish was to have joined the army instead of being elected President.
During my travels, many people have remarked to me that Jefferson Davis seems in a peculiar manner adapted for his office. His military education at West Point rendered him intimately acquainted with the higher officers of the army; and his post of Secretary of War under the old Government brought officers of all ranks under his immediate personal knowledge and supervision. No man could have formed a more accurate estimate of their respective merits. This is one of the reasons which gave the Confederates such an immense start in the way of generals; for having formed his opinion with regard to appointing an officer, Mr Davis is always most determined to carry out his intention in spite of every obstacle. His services in the Mexican war gave him the prestige of a brave man and a good soldier. His services as a statesman pointed him out as the only man who, by his unflinching determination and administrative talent, was able to control the popular will. People speak of any misfortune happening to him as an irreparable evil too dreadful to contemplate.
Before we reached the Spottswood Hotel, we met ——, to whom Mr Benjamin introduced me. They discussed the great topic of the day — viz., the recapture of Winchester by General Ewell, the news of which had just arrived, and they both expressed their regret that General Milroy should have escaped. It appears that this Yankee commander, for his alleged crimes, had been put hors de la loi by the Confederates in the same manner as General Butler. —— said to me, “We hope he may not be taken alive; but if he is, we will not shrink from the responsibility of putting him to death.”
SOURCE: Sir Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, Three Months in the Southern States: April-June, 1863, p. 208-18