Thursday, November 17, 2016

Diary of William Howard Russell: June 16, 1861

I was compelled to send my excuses to Governor Pettus, and remained quietly within the house of my host, entreating him to protect me from visitors and especially my own confreres, that I might secure a few hours even in that ardent heat to write letters to home. Now, there is some self-denial required, if one be at all solicitous of the popularis aura, to offend the susceptibilities of the irritable genus in America. It may make all the difference between millions of people hearing and believing you are a high-toned, whole souled gentleman or a wretched, ignorant and prejudiced John Bull; but, nevertheless, the solid pudding of self-content and the satisfaction of doing one's work are preferable to the praise even of a New York newspaper editor.

When my work was over I walked out and sat in the shade with a gentleman whose talk turned upon the practices of the Mississippi duello. Without the smallest animus, and in the most natural way in the world, he told us tale after tale of blood, and recounted terrible tragedies enacted outside bars of hotels and in the public streets close beside us. The very air seemed to become purple as he spoke, the land around a veritable “Aceldama.” There may, indeed, be security for property, but there is none for the life of its owner in difficulties, who may be shot by a stray bullet from a pistol as he walks up the street.

I learned many valuable facts. I was warned, for example, against the impolicy of trusting to small-bored pistols or to pocket six-shooters in case of a close fight, because suppose you hit your man mortally he may still run in upon you and rip you up with a bowie-knife before he falls dead; whereas if you drive a good heavy bullet into him, or make a hole in him with a “Derringer” ball, he gets faintish and drops at once.

Many illustrations, too, were given of the value of practical lessons of this sort. One particularly struck me. If a gentleman with whom you are engaged in altercation moves his hand towards his breeches pocket, or behind his back, you must smash him or shoot him at once, for he is either going to draw his six-shooter, to pull out a bowie-knife, or to shoot you through the lining of his pocket. The latter practice is considered rather ungentlemanly, but it has somewhat been more honored lately in the observance than in the breach. In fact, the savage practice of walking about with pistols, knives, and poniards, in bar-rooms and gambling-saloons, with passions ungoverned, because there is no law to punish the deeds to which they lead, affords facilities for crime which an uncivilized condition of society leaves too often without punishment, but which must be put down or the country in which it is tolerated will become as barbarous as a jungle inhabited by wild beasts.

Our host gave me an early dinner, at which I met some of the citizens of Jackson, and at six o'clock I proceeded by the train for Memphis. The carriages were, of course, full of soldiers or volunteers, bound for a large camp at a place called Corinth, who made night hideous by their song and cries, stimulated by enormous draughts of whiskey and a proportionate consumption of tobacco, by teeth and by fire. The heat in the carriages added to the discomforts arising from these causes, and from great quantities of biting insects in the sleeping places. The people have all the air and manners of settlers. Altogether the impression produced on my mind was by no means agreeable, and I felt as if I was indeed in the land of Lynch-law and bowie-knives, where the passions of men have not yet been subordinated to the influence of the tribunals of justice. Much of this feeling has no doubt been produced by the tales to which I have been listening around me — most of which have a smack of manslaughter about them.

SOURCE: William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, p. 300-1

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