Saturday, September 17, 2016

Diary of William Howard Russell: June 2, 1861

My good friend the Consul was up early to see me off; and we drove together to the steamer J. L. Cotten. The people were going to mass as we passed through the streets; and it was pitiable to see the children dressed out as Zouaves, with tin swords and all sorts of pseudo-military tomfoolery; streets crowded with military companies; bands playing on all sides.

Before we left the door a poor black sailor came up to entreat Mr. Mure's interference. He had been sent by Mr. Magee, the Consul at Mobile, by land to New Orleans, in the hope that Mr. Mure would be able to procure him a free passage to some British port. He had served in the Royal Navy, and had received a wound in the Russian war. The moment he arrived in New Orleans he had been seized by the police. On his stating that he was a free-born British subject, the authorities ordered him to be taken to Mr. Mure; he could not be allowed to go at liberty on account of his color; the laws of the State forbade such dangerous experiments on the feelings of the slave population; and if the Consul did not provide for him, he would be arrested and kept in prison, if no worse fate befell him. He was suffering from the effect of his wound, and was evidently in ill health. Mr. Mure gave him a letter to the Sailors' Hospital, and some relief out of his own pocket. The police came as far as the door with him, and remained outside to arrest him if the Consul did not afford him protection and provide for him, so that he should not be seen at large in the streets of the city. The other day a New Orleans privateer captured three northern brigs, on board which were ten free negroes. The captain handed them over to the Recorder, who applied to the Confederate States Marshal to take charge of them. The Marshal refused to receive them, whereupon the Recorder, as a magistrate and a good citizen, decided on keeping them in jail, as it would be a bad and dangerous policy to let them loose upon the community.

I cannot help feeling that the position taken by England in reference to the question of her colored subjects is humiliating and degrading. People who live in London may esteem this question a light matter; but it has not only been inconsistent with the national honor; it has so degraded us in the opinion of Americans themselves, that they are encouraged to indulge in an insolent tone and in violent acts towards us, which will some day leave Great Britain no alternative but an appeal to arms. Free colored persons are liable to seizure by the police, and to imprisonment, and may be sold into servitude under certain circumstances.

On arriving at the steamer, I found a considerable party of citizens assembled to see off their friends. Governor Roman's son apologized to me for his inability to accompany me up the river, as he was going to the drill of his company of volunteers. Several other gentlemen were in uniform; and when we had passed the houses of the city, I observed companies and troops of horse exercising on both sides of the banks. On board were Mr. Burnside, a very extensive proprietor, and Mr. Forstall, agent to Messrs. Baring, who claims descent from an Irish family near Rochestown, though he speaks our vernacular with difficulty, and is much more French than British. He is considered one of the ablest financiers and economists in the United States, and is certainly very ingenious, and well crammed with facts and figures.

The aspect of New Orleans from the river is marred by the very poor houses lining the quays on the levee. Wide streets open on long vistas bordered by the most paltry little domiciles; and the great conceptions of those who planned them, notwithstanding the prosperity of the city, have not been realised.

As we were now floating nine feet higher than the level of the streets, we could look down upon a sea of flat roofs, and low wooden houses, painted white, pierced by the domes and spires of churches and public buildings. Grass was growing in many of these streets. At the other side of the river there is a smaller city of shingle-roofed houses, with a background of low timber.

The steamer stopped continually at various points along the levee, discharging commissariat stores, parcels, and passengers; and after a time glided up into the open country, which spread beneath us for several miles at each side of the banks, with a continuous background of forest. All this part of the river is called the Coast, and the country adjacent is remarkable for its fertility. The sugar plantations are bounded by lines drawn at right angles to the banks of the river, and extending through the forest. The villas of the proprietors are thickly planted in the midst of the green fields, with the usual porticoes, pillars, verandas, and green blinds; and in the vicinity of each are rows of whitewashed huts, which are the slave quarters. These fields, level as a billiard table, are of the brightest green with crops of maize and sugar.

But few persons were visible; not a boat was to be seen; and in the course of sixty-two miles we met only two steamers. No shelving banks, no pebbly shoals, no rocky margins mark the course or diversify the outline of the Mississippi. The dead, uniform line of the levee compresses it at each side, and the turbid waters flow without let in a current of uniform breadth between the monotonous banks. The gables and summit of one house resemble those of another; and but for the enormous scale of river and banks, and the black faces of the few negroes visible, a passenger might think he was on board a Dutch “treckshuyt.” In fact, the Mississippi is a huge trench-like canal draining a continent.

At half past three P. M. the steamer ran alongside the levee at the right bank, and discharged me at “Cahabanooze,” in the Indian tongue, or “The ducks' sleeping-place,” together with an English merchant of New Orleans, M. La Ville Beaufevre, son-in-law of Governor Roman, and his wife. The Governor was waiting to receive us in the levee, and led the way through a gate in the paling which separated his ground from the roadside, towards the house, a substantial, square, two-storied mansion, with a veranda all round it, embosomed amid venerable trees, and surrounded by magnolias. By way of explaining the proximity of his house to the river, M. Roman told me that a considerable portion of the garden, in front had a short time ago been carried off by the Mississippi; nor is he at all sure the house itself will not share the same fate; I hope sincerely it may not. My quarters were in a detached house, complete in itself, containing four bedrooms, library, and sitting-room, close to the mansion, and surrounded, like it, by fine trees.

After we had sat for some time in the shade of the finest group, M. Roman, or, as he is called, the Governor — once a captain always a captain — asked me whether I would like to visit the slave quarters. I assented, and the Governor led the way to a high paling at the back of the house, inside which the scraping of fiddles was audible. As we passed the back of the mansion some young women flitted past in snow-white dresses, crinolines, pink sashes, and gaudily colored handkerchiefs on their heads, who were, the Governor told me, the domestic servants going off to a dance at the sugar-house; he lets his slaves dance every Sunday. The American planter, who are not Catholics, although they do not make the slaves work on Sunday except there is something to do, rarely grant them the indulgence of a dance, but a few permit them some hours of relaxation on each Saturday afternoon.

We entered, by a wicket-gate, a square enclosure, lined with negro huts, built of wood, something like those which came from Malta to the Crimea in the early part of the campaign. They are not furnished with windows — a wooden slide or grating admits all the air a negro desires. There is a partition dividing the hut into two departments, one of which is used as the sleeping-room, and contains a truckle bedstead and a mattress stuffed with cotton wool, or the hair-like fibres of dried Spanish moss. The wardrobes of the inmates hang from nails or pegs driven into the wall. The other room is furnished with a dresser, on which are arranged a few articles of crockery and kitchen utensils. Sometimes there is a table in addition to the plain wooden chairs, more or less dilapidated, constituting the furniture — a hearth, in connection with a brick chimney outside the cottage, in which, hot as the day may be, some embers are sure to be found burning. The ground round the huts was covered with litter and dust, heaps of old shoes, fragments of clothing and feathers, amidst which pigs and poultry were recreating. Curs of low degree scampered in and out of the shade, or around two huge dogs, chiens de garde, which are let loose at night to guard the precincts; belly deep, in a pool of stagnant water, thirty or forty mules were swinking in the sun and enjoying their day of rest.

The huts of the negroes engaged in the house are separated from those of the slaves devoted to field labor out of doors by a wooden paling. I looked into several of the houses, but somehow or other felt a repugnance, I dare say unjustifiable, to examine the penetralia, although invited — indeed, urged, to do so by the Governor. It was not that I expected to come upon anything dreadful, but I could not divest myself of some regard for the feelings of the poor creatures, slaves though they were, who stood by, shy, courtesying, and silent, as I broke in upon their family circle, felt their beds, and turned over their clothing. What right had I to do so?

Swarms of flies, tin cooking utensils attracting them by remnants of molasses, crockery, broken and old, on the dressers, more or less old clothes on the wall, these varied over and over again, were found in all the huts , not a sign of ornament or decoration was visible; not the most tawdry print, image of Virgin or Saviour; not a prayer-book or printed volume. The slaves are not encouraged, or indeed permitted to read, and some communities of slave-owners punish heavily those attempting to instruct them.

All the slaves seemed respectful to their master; dressed in their best, they courtesied, and came up to shake hands with him and with me. Among them were some very old men and women, the canker-worms of the estate, who were dozing away into eternity, mindful only of hominy, and pig, and molasses. Two negro fiddlers were working their bows with energy in front of one of the huts, and a crowd of little children were listening to the music, together with a few grown-up persons of color, some of them from the adjoining plantations. The children are generally dressed in a little sack of coarse calico, which answers all reasonable purposes, even if it be not very clean.

It might be an interesting subject of inquiry to the natural philosophers who follow crinology to determine why it is that the hair of the infant negro, or child, up to six or seven years of age, is generally a fine red russet, or even gamboge color, and gradually darkens into dull ebon. These little bodies were mostly large-stomached, well fed, and not less happy than free born-children, although much more valuable — for if once they get over juvenile dangers, and advance toward nine or ten years of age, they rise in value to £100 or more, even in times when the market is low and money is scarce.

The women were not very well-favored; one yellow girl, with fair hair and light eyes, whose child was quite white, excepted; the men were disguised in such strangely-cut clothes, their hats and shoes and coats so wonderfully made, that one could not tell what their figures were like. On all faces there was a gravity which must be the index to serene contentment and perfect comfort; for those who ought to know best declare they are the happiest race in the world.

It struck me more and more, however, as I examined the expression of the faces of the slaves, that deep dejection is the prevailing, if not universal, characteristic of the race. Here there were abundant evidences that they were well treated; they had good clothing of its kind, food, and a master who wittingly could do them no injustice, as he is, I am sure, incapable of it. Still, they all looked sad, and ever the old woman who boasted that she had held her old owner in her arms when he was an infant, did not smile cheerfully, as the nurse at home would have done, at the sight of her ancient charge.

The negroes rear domestic birds of all kinds, and sell eggs and poultry to their masters. The money is spent in purchasing tobacco, molasses, clothes, and flour; whiskey, their great delight, they must not have. Some seventy or eighty hands were quartered in this part of the estate.

Before leaving the enclosure I was taken to the hospital, which was in charge of an old negress. The naked rooms contained several flock beds on rough stands, and five patients, three of whom were women. They sat listlessly on the beds, looking out into space; no books to amuse them, no conversation — nothing but their own dull thoughts, if they had any. They were suffering from pneumonia and swellings of the glands of the neck; one man had fever. Their medical attendant visits them regularly, and each plantation has a practitioner, who is engaged by the term for his services. If the growth of sugar-cane, cotton, and corn, be the great end of man's mission on earth, and if all masters were like Governor Roman, slavery might be defended as a natural and innocuous institution. Sugar and cotton are, assuredly, two great agencies in this latter world. The older one got on well enough without them.

The scraping of the fiddles attracted us to the sugar-house, where the juice of the cane is expressed, boiled, granulated, and prepared for the refinery, a large brick building, with a factory-looking chimney. In a space of the floor unoccupied by machinery some fifteen women and as many men were assembled, and four couples were dancing a kind of Irish jig to the music of the negro musicians — a double shuffle in a thumping ecstasy, with loose elbows, pendulous paws, angulated knees, heads thrown back, and backs arched inwards — a glazed eye, intense solemnity of mien.

At this time of year there is no work done in the sugarhouse, but when the crushing and boiling are going on, the labor is intensely trying, and the hands work in gangs night and day; and, if the heat of the fires be superadded to the temperature in September, it may be conceded that nothing but “involuntary servitude” could go through the toil and suffering required to produce sugar.

In the afternoon the Governor's son came in from the company which he commands: his men are of the best families in the country — planters and the like. We sauntered about the gardens, diminished, as I have said, by a freak of the river. The French Creoles love gardens; the Anglo-Saxons hereabout do not much affect them, and cultivate their crops up to the very doorway.

It was curious to observe so far away from France so many traces of the life of the old seigneur — the early meals, in which supper took the place of dinner — frugal simplicity — and yet a refinement of manner, kindliness and courtesy not to be exceeded.

In the evening several officers of M. Alfred Roman's company and neighboring planters dropped in, and we sat out, in the twilight, under the trees in the veranda, illuminated by the flashing fireflies, and talking politics. I was struck by the profound silence which reigned all around us, except a low rushing sound, like that made by the wind blowing over cornfields, which came from the mighty river before us. Nothing else was audible but the sound of our own voices and the distant bark of a dog. After the steamer which bore us had passed on, I do not believe a single boat floated up or down the stream, and but one solitary planter, in his gig or buggy traversed the road, which lay between the garden palings and the bank of the great river.

Our friends were all Creoles — that is, natives of Louisiana — of French or Spanish descent. They are kinder and better masters, according to universal repute, than native Americans or Scotch; but the New England Yankee is reputed to be the severest of all slave owners. All these gentlemen to a man are resolute that England must get their cotton or perish. She will take it, therefore, by force; but as the South is determined never to let a Yankee vessel carry any of its produce, a question has been raised by Monsieur Baroche, who is at present looking around him in New Orleans, which causes some difficulty to the astute and statistical Mr. Forstall. The French economist has calculated that if the Yankee vessels be excluded from the carrying trade, the commercial marine of France and England together will be quite inadequate to carry Southern produce to Europe.

But Southern faith is indomitable. With their faithful negroes to raise their corn, sugar, and cotton, whilst their young men are at the wars; with France and England to pour gold into their lap with which to purchase all they need in the contest, they believe they can beat all the powers of the Northern world in arms. Illimitable fields, tilled by multitudinous negroes, open on their sight, and they behold the empires of Europe, with their manufactures, their industry, and their wealth, prostrate at the base of their throne, crying out, “Cotton! More cotton! That is all we ask!”

Mr. Forstall maintains the South can raise an enormous revenue by a small direct taxation; whilst the North, deprived of Southern resources, will refuse to pay taxes at all, and will accumulate enormous debts, inevitably leading to its financial ruin. He, like every Southern man I have as yet met, expresses unbounded confidence in Mr. Jefferson Davis. I am asked invariably, as the second question from a stranger, “Have you seen our President, sir? don't you think him a very able man?” This unanimity in the estimate of his character, and universal confidence in the head of the State, will prove of incalculable value in a civil war.

SOURCE: William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, p. 252-60

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