Saturday, October 29, 2016

Diary of William Howard Russell: June 8, 1861

According to promise, the inmates of Mr. Burnside's house proceeded to pay a visit to-day to the plantation of Mr. M’Call, who lives at the other side of the river some ten or twelve miles away. Still the same noiseless plantations, the same oppressive stillness, broken only by the tolling of the bell which summons the slaves to labor, or marks the brief periods of its respite! Whilst waiting for the ferryboat, we visited Dr. Cotmann, who lives in a snug house near the levee, for, hurried as we were, ’twould nevertheless have been a gross breach of etiquette to have passed his doors; and I was not sorry for the opportunity of making the acquaintance of a lady so amiable as his wife, and of seeing a face with tender, pensive eyes, serene brow, and lovely contour, such as Guido or Greuse would have immortalized, and which Miss Cotmann, in the seclusion of that little villa on the banks of the Mississippi, scarcely seemed to know, would have made her a beauty in any capital in Europe.

The Doctor is allowed to rave on about his Union propensities and political power, as Mr. Petigru is permitted to indulge in similar vagaries in Charleston, simply because he is supposed to be helpless. There is, however, at the bottom of the Doctor's opposition to the prevailing political opinion of the neighborhood, a jealousy of acres and slaves, and a sentiment of animosity to the great seigneurs and slave-owners, which actuate him without his being aware of their influence. After a halt of an hour in his house, we crossed in the ferry to Donaldsonville, where, whilst we were waiting for the carriages, we heard a dialogue between some drunken Irishmen and some still more inebriated Spaniards in front of the public-house at hand. The Irishmen were going off to the wars, and were endeavoring in vain to arouse the foreign gentlemen to similar enthusiasm; but, as the latter were resolutely sitting in the gutter, it became necessary to exert eloquence and force to get them on their legs to march to the head-quarters of the Donaldsonville Chasseurs. “For the love of the Virgin and your own soul’s sake, Fernandey, get up and cum along wid us to fight the Yankees.” “Josey, are you going to let us be murdered by a set of damned Protestins and rascally niggers?” “Gomey, my darling, get up; it’s eleven dollars a month, and food and everything found. The boys will mind the fishing for you, and we'll come back as rich as Jews.”

What success attended their appeals I cannot tell, for the carriages came round, and, having crossed a great bayou which runs down into an arm of the Mississippi near the sea, we proceeded on our way to Mr. M’Call’s plantation, which we reached just as the sun was sinking into the clouds of another thunder-storm.

The more one sees of a planter's life the greater is the conviction that its charms come from a particular turn of mind, which is separated by a wide interval from modern ideas in Europe. The planter is a denomadized Arab; — he has fixed himself with horses and slaves in a fertile spot, where he guards his women with Oriental care, exercises patriarchal sway, and is at once fierce, tender, and hospitable. The inner life of his household is exceedingly charming, because one is astonished to find the graces and accomplishments of womanhood displayed in a scene which has a certain sort of savage rudeness about it after all, and where all kinds of incongruous accidents are visible in the service of the table, in the furniture of the house, in its decorations, menials, and surrounding scenery.

It was late in the evening when the party returned to Donaldsonville; and when we arrived at the other side of the bayou there were no carriages, so that we had to walk on foot to the wharf where Mr. Burnside's boats were supposed to be waiting — the negro ferry-man having long since retired to rest. Under any circumstances a march on foot through an unknown track covered with blocks of timber and other impedimenta which represented the road to the ferry, could not be agreeable; but the recent rains had converted the ground into a sea of mud filled with holes, with islands of planks and beams of timber, lighted only by the stars — and then this in dress trousers and light boots!

We plunged, struggled, and splashed till we reached the levee, where boats there were none; and so Mr. Burnside shouted up and down the river, so did Mr. Lee, and so did Mr. Ward and all the others, whilst I sat on a log affecting philosophy and indifference, in spite of tortures from mosquitoes innumerable, and severe bites from insects unknown.

The city and river were buried in darkness; the rush of the stream which is sixty feet deep near the banks, was all that struck upon the ear in the intervals of the cries, “Boat ahoy!” “Ho! Batelier!” and sundry ejaculations of a less regular and decent form. At length a boat did glide out of the darkness, and the man who rowed it stated he had been waiting all the time up the bayou, till by mere accident he came down to the jetty, having given us up for the night. In about half an hour we were across the river, and had per force another interview with Dr. Cotmann, who regaled us with his best in story and in wine till the carriages were ready, and we drove back to Mr. Burnside's, only meeting on the way two mounted horsemen with jingling arms, who were, we were told, the night patrol; — of their duties I could, however, obtain no very definite account.

SOURCE: William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, p. 284-6

No comments: