Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Diary of William Howard Russell: Friday, June 14, 1861

Last night with my good host from his plantation to the great two-storied steamer General Quitman, at Natchez. She was crowded with planters, soldiers and their families, and as the lights shone out of her windows, looked like a walled castle blazing from double lines of embrasures.

The Mississippi is assuredly the most uninteresting river in the world, and I can only describe it hereabout by referring to the account of its appearance which I have already given — not a particle of romance, in spite of oratorical patriots and prophets, can ever shine from its depths, sacred to cat and buffalo fish, or vivify its turbid waters.

Before noon we were in sight of Vicksburg, which is situated on a high bank or bluff on the left bank of the river, about 400 miles above New Orleans and some 120 miles from Natchez.

Mr. MacMeekan, the proprietor of the "Washington," declares himself to have been the pioneer of hotels in the far west; but he has now built himself this huge caravansary, and rests from his wanderings. We entered the dining saloon, and found the tables closely packed with a numerous company of every condition in life, from generals and planters down to soldiers in the uniform of privates. At the end of the room there was a long table on which the joints and dishes were brought hot from the kitchen to be carved by the negro waiters, male and female, and as each was brought in the proprietor, standing in the centre of the room, shouted out with a loud voice, "Now, then, here is a splendid goose! ladies and gentlemen, don't neglect the goose and apple-sauce! Here's a piece of beef that I can recommend! upon my honor you will never regret taking a slice of the beef. Oyster-pie! oyster-pie! never was better oyster-pie seen in Vicksburg. Run about, boys, and take orders. Ladies and gentlemen, just look at that turkey! who's for turkey?" — and so on, wiping the perspiration from his forehead and combating with the flies.

Altogether it was a semi-barbarous scene, but the host was active and attentive; and after all, his recommendations were very much like those which it was the habit of the taverners in old London to call out in the streets to the passers-by when the joints were ready. The little negroes who ran about to take orders were smart, but now and then came into violent collision, and were cuffed incontinently. One mild-looking little fellow stood by my chair and appeared so sad that I asked him "Are you happy, my boy?" He looked quite frightened. "Why don't you answer me?" "I'se afeered, sir; I can't tell that to Massa." "Is not your master kind to you?" "Massa very kind man, sir; very good man when he is not angry with me," and his eyes filled with tears to the brim.

The war fever is rife in Vicksburg, and the Irish and German laborers, to the extent of several hundreds, have all gone off to the war.

When dinner was over, the mayor and several gentlemen of the city were good enough to request that I would attend a meeting at a room in the railway-station, where some of the inhabitants of the town had assembled. Accordingly I went to the terminus and found a room filled with gentlemen. Large china bowls, blocks of ice, bottles of wine and spirits, and boxes of cigars were on the table, and all the materials for a symposium.

The company discussed recent events, some of which I learned for the first time. Dislike was expressed to the course of the authorities in demanding negro labor for the fortifications along the river, and uneasiness was expressed respecting a negro plot in Arkansas; but the most interesting matter was Judge Taney's protest against the legality of the President's course in suspending the writ of habeas corpus in the case of Merriman. The lawyers who were present at this meeting were delighted with his argument, which insists that Congress alone can suspend the writ, and that the President cannot legally do so.

The news of the defeat of an expedition from Fortress Monroe against a Confederate post at Great Bethel, has caused great rejoicing. The accounts show that there was the grossest mismanagement on the part of the Federal officers. The Northern papers particularly regret the loss of Major Winthrop, aide-de-camp to General Butler, a writer of promise. At four o'clock, P. M., I bade the company farewell, and the train started for Jackson. The line runs through a poor clay country, cut up with gulleys and watercourses made by violent rain.

There were a number of volunteer soldiers in the train; and their presence no doubt attracted the girls and women who waved flags and cheered for Jeff Davis and States' Rights. Well, as I travel on through such scenes, with a fine critical nose in the air, I ask myself, "Is any Englishman better than these publicans and sinners in regard to this question of slavery?" It was not on moral or religious grounds that our ancestors abolished serfdom. And if to-morrow our good farmers, deprived of mowers, reapers, ploughmen, hedgers and ditchers, were to find substitutes in certain people of a dark skin assigned to their use by Act of Parliament, I fear they would be almost as ingenious as the Rev. Dr. Seabury in discovering arguments physiological, ethnological, and biblical, for the retention of their property. And an evil day would it be for them if they were so tempted; for assuredly, without any derogation to the intellect of the Southern men, it may be said that a large proportion of the population is in a state of very great moral degradation compared with civilized Anglo-Saxon communities.

The man is more natural, and more reckless; he has more of the qualities of the Arab than are to be reconciled with civilization; and it is only among the upper classes that the influences of the aristocratic condition which is generated by the subjection of masses of men to their fellow-man are to be found.

At six o'clock, the train stopped in the country at a railway crossing by the side of a large platform. On the right was a common, bounded by a few detached wooden houses, separated by palings from each other, and surrounded by rows of trees. In front of the station were two long wooden sheds, which, as the signboard indicates, were exchanges or drinking saloons; and beyond these again were visible some rudimentary streets of straggling houses, above which rose three pretentious spires and domes, resolved into insignificance by nearer approach. This was Jackson.

Our host was at the station in his carriage, and drove us to his residence, which consisted of some detached houses shaded by trees in a small enclosure, and bounded by a kitchen garden. He was one of the men who had been filled with the afflatus of 1848, and joined the Young Ireland party before it had seriously committed itself to an unfortunate outbreak; and when all hope of success had vanished, he sought, like many others of his countrymen, a shelter under the stars and stripes, which, like most of the Irish settled in the Southern States, he was now bent on tearing asunder. He has the honor of being mayor of Jackson, and of enjoying a competitive examination with his medical rivals for the honor of attending the citizens.

In the evening I walked out with him to the adjacent city, which has no title to the name, except as being the State capital. The mushroom growth of these States, using that phrase merely as to their rapid development, raises hamlets in a small space to the dignity of cities. It is in such outlying expansion of the great republic that the influence of the foreign emigration is most forcibly displayed. It would be curious to inquire, for example, how many men there are in the city of Jackson exercising mechanical arts or engaged in small commerce, in skilled or manual labor, who are really Americans in the proper sense of the word. I was struck by the names over the doors of the shops, which were German, Irish, Italian, French, and by foreign tongues and accents in the streets ; but, on the other hand, it is the native-born American who obtains the highest political stations and arrogates to himself the largest share of governmental emoluments.

Jackson proper consists of strings of wooden houses, with white porticoes and pillars a world too wide for their shrunk rooms, and various religious and other public edifices, of the hydrocephalic order of architecture, where vulgar cupola and exaggerated steeple tower above little bodies far too feeble to support them. There are of course a monster hotel and blazing bar-rooms — the former celebrated as the scene of many a serious difficulty, out of some of which the participators never escaped alive. The streets consist of rows of houses such as I have seen at Macon, Montgomery, and Baton Rouge; and as we walked towards the capital or State-house there were many more invitations "to take a drink" addressed to my friend and me than we were able to comply with. Our steps were bent to the State-house, which is a pile of stone, with open colonnades, and an air of importance at a distance which a nearer examination of its dilapidated condition does not confirm. Mr. Pettus, the Governor of the State of Mississippi, was in the Capitol; and on sending in our cards, we were introduced to his room, which certainly was of more than republican simplicity. The apartment was surrounded with some common glass cases, containing papers and old volumes of books; the furniture, a table or desk, and a few chairs and a ragged carpet; the glass in the windows cracked and broken; the walls and ceiling discolored by mildew.

The Governor is a silent man, of abrupt speech, but easy of access; and, indeed, whilst we were speaking, strangers and soldiers walked in and out of his room, looked around them, and acted in all respects as if they were in a public-house, except in ordering drinks. This grim, tall, angular man seemed to me such a development of public institutions in the South as Mr. Seward was in a higher phase in the North. For years he hunted deer and trapped in the forest of the far west, and lived in a Natty Bumpo or David Crocket state of life; and he was not ashamed of the fact when taunted with it during his election contest, but very rightly made the most of his independence and his hard work.

The pecuniary honors of his position are not very great as Governor of the enormous State of Mississippi. He has simply an income of £800 a year and a house provided for his use; he is not only quite contented with what he has but believes that the society in which he lives is the highest development of civilized life, notwithstanding the fact that there are more outrages on the person in his State, nay, more murders perpetrated in the very capital, than were known in the worst days of mediaeval Venice or Florence; — indeed, as a citizen said to me, "Well, I think our average in Jackson is a murder a month;" but he used a milder name for the crime.

The Governor conversed on the aspect of affairs, and evinced that wonderful confidence in his own people which, whether it arises from ignorance of the power of the North, or a conviction of greater resources, is to me so remarkable. "Well, sir," said he, dropping a portentous plug of tobacco just outside the spittoon, with the air of a man who wished to show he could have hit the centre if he liked, "England is no doubt a great country, and has got fleets and the like of that, and may have a good deal to do in Europe; but the sovereign State of Mississippi can do a great deal better without England than England can do without her." Having some slight recollection of Mississippi repudiation, in which Mr. Jefferson Davis was so actively engaged, I thought it possible that the Governor might be right; and after a time his Excellency shook me by the hand, and I left, much wondering within myself what manner of men they must be in the State of Mississippi when Mr. Pettus is their chosen Governor; and yet, after all, he is honest and fierce; and perhaps he is so far qualified as well as any other man to be Governor of the State. There are newspapers, electric telegraphs, and railways; there are many educated families, even much good society, I am told, in the State; but the larger masses of the people struck me as being in a condition not much elevated from that of the original backwoodsman. On my return to the Doctor's house I found some letters which had been forwarded to me from New Orleans had gone astray, and I was obliged, therefore, to make arrangements for my departure on the following evening.

SOURCE: William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, p. 295-300

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