Saturday, January 28, 2017

Diary of William Howard Russell: June 18, 1861

On looking out of my cabin window this morning I found the steamer fast along-side a small wharf, above which rose, to the height of 150 feet, at an angle of forty-five degrees, the rugged bluff already mentioned. The wharf was covered with commissariat stores and ammunition. Three heavy guns, which some men were endeavoring to sling to rude bullock-carts, in a manner defiant of all the laws of gravitation, seemed likely to go slap into the water at every moment; but of the many great strapping fellows who were lounging about, not one gave a hand to the working party. A dusty track wound up the hill to the brow, and there disappeared; and at the height of fifty feet or so above the level of the river two earthworks had been rudely erected in an ineffective position. The volunteers who were lounging about the edge of the stream were dressed in different ways, and had no uniform.

Already the heat of the sun compelled me to seek the shade; and a number of the soldiers, laboring under the same infatuation as that which induces little boys to disport themselves in the Thames at Waterloo Bridge, under the notion that they are washing themselves, were swimming about in a backwater of the great river, regardless of cat-fish, mud, and fever.

General Pillow proceeded on shore after breakfast, and we mounted the coarse cart-horse chargers which were in waiting at the jetty to receive us. It is scarcely worth while to transcribe from my diary a description of the works which I sent over at the time to England. Certainly, a more extraordinary maze could not be conceived, even in the dreams of a sick engineer — a number of mad beavers might possibly construct such dams. They were so ingeniously made as to prevent the troops engaged in their defence from resisting the enemy's attacks, or getting away from them when the assailants had got inside — most difficult and troublesome to defend, and still more difficult for the defenders to leave, the latter perhaps being their chief merit.

The General ordered some practice to be made with round shot down the river. An old forty-two pound carronade was loaded with some difficulty, and pointed at a tree about 1700 yards — which I was told, however, was not less than 2500 yards — distant. The General and his staff took their posts on the parapet to leeward, and I ventured to say, “I think, General, the smoke will prevent your seeing the shot.” To which the General replied, “No, sir,” in a tone which indicated, “I beg you to understand I have been wounded in Mexico, and know all about this kind of thing.” “Fire!” The string was pulled, and out of the touch-hole popped a piece of metal with a little chirrup. “Darn these friction tubes! I prefer the linstock and match,” quoth one of the staff, sotto voce, “but General Pillow will have us use friction tubes made at Memphis, that ar’n’t worth a cuss.” Tube No. 2, however, did explode, but where the ball went no one could say, as the smoke drifted right into our eyes.

The General then moved to the other side of the gun, which was fired a third time, the shot falling short in good line, but without any ricochet. Gun No. 3 was next fired. Off went the ball down the river, but off went the gun, too, and with a frantic leap it jumped, carriage and all, clean off the platform. Nor was it at all wonderful, for the poor old-fashioned chamber carronade had been loaded with a charge and a solid shot heavy enough to make it burst with indignation. Most of us felt relieved when the firing was over, and, for my own part, I would much rather have been close to the target than to the battery.

Slowly winding for some distance up the steep road in a blazing sun, we proceeded through the tents which are scattered in small groups, for health's sake, fifteen and twenty together, on the wooded plateau above the river. The tents are of the small ridge-pole pattern, six men to each, many of whom, from their exposure to the sun, whilst working in these trenches, and from the badness of the water, had already been laid up with illness. As a proof of General Pillow's energy, it is only fair to say he is constructing, on the very summit of the plateau, large cisterns, which will be filled with water from the river by steam power.

The volunteers were mostly engaged at drill in distinct companies, but by order of the General some 700 or 800 of them were formed into line for inspection. Many of these men were in their shirt sleeves, and the awkwardness with which they handled their arms showed that, however good they might be as shots, they were bad hands at manual platoon exercise; but such great strapping fellows, that, as I walked down the ranks there were few whose shoulders were not above the level of my head, excepting here and there a weedy old man or a growing lad: They were armed with old pattern percussion muskets, no two clad alike, many very badly shod, few with knapsacks, but all provided with a tin water-flask and a blanket. These men have been only five weeks enrolled, and were called out by the State of Tennessee, in anticipation of the vote of secession.

I could get no exact details as to the supply of food, but from the Quartermaster-General I heard that each man had from ¾ lb. to 1¼ lb. of meat, and a sufficiency of bread, sugar, coffee, and rice daily; however, these military Olivers “asked for more.” Neither whiskey nor tobacco was served out to them, which to such heavy consumers of both, must prove one source of dissatisfaction. The officers were plain, farmerly planters, merchants, lawyers, and the like — energetic, determined men, but utterly ignorant of the most rudimentary parts of military science. It is this want of knowledge on the part of the officer which renders it so difficult to arrive at a tolerable condition of discipline among volunteers, as the privates are quite well aware they know as much of soldiering as the great majority of their officers.

Having gone down the lines of these motley companies, the General addressed them in a harangue in which he expatiated on their patriotism, on their courage, and the atrocity of the enemy, in an odd farrago of military and political subjects. But the only matter which appeared to interest them much was the announcement that they would be released from work in another day or so, and that negroes would be sent to perform all that was required. This announcement was received with the words, “Bully for us!” and “That's good.” And when General Pillow wound up a florid peroration by assuring them, “When the hour of danger comes I will be with you,” the effect was by no means equal to his expectations. The men did not seem to care much whether General Pillow was with them or not at that eventful moment; and, indeed, all dusty as he was in his plain clothes he did not look very imposing, or give one an idea that he would contribute much to the means of resistance. However, one of the officers called out, “Boys, three cheers for General Pillow.”

What they may do in the North I know not, but certainly the Southern soldiers cannot cheer, and what passes muster for that jubilant sound is a shrill ringing scream with a touch of the Indian war-whoop in it. As these cries ended, a stentorian voice shouted out, “Who cares for General Pillow?” No one answered; whence I inferred the General would not be very popular until the niggers were actually at work in the trenches.

We returned to the steamer, headed up stream, and proceeded onwards for more than an hour, to another landing, protected by a battery, where we disembarked, the General being received by a guard dressed in uniform, who turned out with some appearance of soldierly smartness. On my remarking the difference to the General, he told me the corps encamped at this point was composed of gentlemen planters, and farmers. They had all clad themselves, and consisted of some of the best families in the State of Tennessee.

As we walked down the gangway to the shore, the band on the upper deck struck up, out of compliment to the English element in the party, the unaccustomed strains of “God save the Queen!” and I am not quite sure that the loyalty which induced me to stand in the sun, with uncovered head, till the musicians were good enough to desist, was appreciated. Certainly a gentleman, who asked me why I did so, looked very incredulous, and said “That he could understand it if it had been in a church; but that he would not broil his skull in the sun, not if General Washington was standing just before him.” The General gave orders to exercise the battery at this point, and a working party was told off to firing drill. ’Twas fully six minutes between the giving of the orders and the first gun being ready.

On the word “fire” being given, the gunner pulled the lanyard, but the tube did not explode; a second tube was inserted, but a strong jerk pulled it out without exploding; a third time one of the General's fuses was applied, which gave way to the pull, and was broken in two; a fourth time was more successful — the gun exploded, and the shot fell short and under the mark — in fact, nothing could be worse than the artillery practice which I saw here, and a fleet of vessels coming down the river might, in the present state of the garrisons, escape unhurt.

There are no disparts, tangents, or elevating screws to the gun, which are laid by eye and wooden chocks. I could see no shells in the battery, but was told there were some in the magazine.

Altogether, though Randolph's Point and Fort Pillow afford strong positions, in the present state of the service, and equipment of guns and works, gunboats could run past them without serious loss, and, as the river falls, the fire of the batteries will be even less effective.

On returning to the boats the band struck up “The Marseillaise” and “Dixie's Land.” There are two explanations of the word Dixie — one is that it is the general term for the Slave States, which are, of course, south of Mason and Dixon's line; another, that a planter named Dixie, died long ago, to the intense grief of his animated property. Whether they were ill-treated after he died, and thus had reason to regret his loss, or that they had merely a longing in the abstract after Heaven, no fact known to me can determine; but certain it is that they long much after Dixie, in the land to which his spirit was supposed by them to have departed, and console themselves in their sorrow by clamorous wishes to follow their master, where probably the revered spirit would be much surprised to find himself in their company. The song is the work of the negro melodists of New York.

In the afternoon we returned to Memphis. Here I was obliged to cut short my Southern tour, though I would willingly have stayed, to have seen the most remarkable social and political changes the world has probably ever witnessed. The necessity of my position obliged me to return northwards — unless I could write, there was no use in my being on the spot at all. By this time the Federal fleets have succeeded in closing the ports, if not effectually, so far as to render the carriage of letters precarious, and the route must be at best devious and uncertain.

Mr. Jefferson Davis was, I was assured, prepared to give me every facility at Richmond to enable me to know and to see all that was most interesting in the military and political action of the New Confederacy; but of what use could this knowledge be if I could not communicate it to the journal I served?

I had left the North when it was suffering from a political paralysis, and was in a state of coma in which it appeared conscious of the coming convulsion but unable to avert it. The sole sign of life in the body corporate was some feeble twitching of the limbs at Washington, when the district militia were called out, whilst Mr. Seward descanted on the merits of the Inaugural, and believed that the anger of the South was a short madness, which would be cured by a mild application of philosophical essays.

The politicians, who were urging in the most forcible manner the complete vindication of the rights of the Union, were engaged, when I left them arguing, that the Union had no rights at all as opposed to those of the States. Men who had heard with nods of approval of the ordinance of secession passed by State after State were now shrieking out, “Slay the traitors!”

The printed rags which had been deriding the President as the great “rail-splitter,” and his Cabinet as a collection of ignoble fanatics, were now heading the popular rush, and calling out to the country to support Mr. Lincoln and his Ministry, and were menacing with .war the foreign States which dared to stand neutral in the quarrel. The declaration of Lord John Russell that the Southern Confederacy should have limited belligerent rights had at first created a thrill of exultation in the South, because the politicians believed that in this concession was contained the principle of recognition; while it had stung to fury the people of the North, to whom it seemed the first warning of the coming disunion.

Much, therefore, as I desired to go to Richmond, where I was urged to repair by many considerations, and by the earnest appeals of those around me, I felt it would be impossible, notwithstanding the interest attached to the proceedings there, to perform my duties in a place cut off from all communication with the outer world; and so I decided to proceed to Chicago, and thence to Washington, where the Federals had assembled a large army, with the purpose of marching upon Richmond, in obedience to the cry of nearly every journal of influence in the Northern cities.

My resolution was mainly formed in consequence of the intelligence which was communicated to me at Memphis, and I told General Pillow that I would continue my journey to Cairo, in order to get within the Federal lines. As the river was blockaded, the only means of doing so was to proceed by rail to Columbus, and thence to take a steamer to the Federal position; and so, whilst the General was continuing his inspection, I rode to the telegraph office, in one of the camps, to order my luggage to be prepared for departure as soon as I arrived, and thence went on board the steamer, where I sat down in the cabin to write my last despatch from Dixie.

So far I had certainly no reason to agree with Mr. Seward in thinking this rebellion was the result of a localized energetic action on the part of a fierce minority in the seceding States, and that there was in each a large, if inert, mass opposed to secession, which would rally round the Stars and Stripes the instant they were displayed in their sight. On the contrary, I met everywhere with but one feeling, with exceptions which proved its unanimity and its force. To a man the people went with their States, and had but one battle cry, “States’ rights, and death to those who make war against them!”

Day after day I had seen this feeling intensified by the accounts which came from the North of a fixed determination to maintain the war; and day after day I am bound to add, fine impression on my mind was strengthened that “States’ rights” meant protection to slavery, extension of slave territory, and free-trade in slave produce with the outer world; nor was it any argument against the conclusion that the popular passion gave vent to the most vehement outcries against Yankees, abolitionists, German mercenaries, and modern invasion. I was fully satisfied in my mind also that the population of the South, who had taken up arms, were so convinced of the righteousness of their cause, and so competent to vindicate it, that they would fight with the utmost energy and valor in its defence and successful establishment.

The saloon in which I was sitting afforded abundant evidence of the vigor with which the South are entering upon the contest. Men of every variety and condition of life had taken up arms against the cursed Yankee and the Black Republican — there was not a man there who would not have given his life for the rare pleasure of striking Mr. Lincoln's head off his shoulders, and yet to a cold European the scene was almost ludicrous.

Along the covered deck lay tall Tennesseans, asleep, whose plumed felt hats were generally the only indications of their martial calling, for few indeed had any other signs of uniform, except the rare volunteers, who wore stripes of red and yellow cloth on their trousers, or leaden buttons, and discolored worsted braid and facings on their jackets. The afterpart of the saloon deck was appropriated to General Pillow, his staff, and officers. The approach to it was guarded by a sentry, a tall, good-looking young fellow in a gray flannel shirt, gray trousers, fastened with a belt and a brass buckle, inscribed U. S., which came from some plundered Federal arsenal, and a black wide-awake hat, decorated with a green plume. His Enfield rifle lay beside him on the deck, and, with great interest expressed on his face, he leant forward in his rocking-chair to watch the varying features of a party squatted on the floor, who were employed in the national game of “Euchre.” As he raised his eyes to examine the condition of the cigar he was smoking, he caught sight of me, and by the simple expedient of holding his leg across my chest, and calling out, "Hallo! where are you going to?" brought me to a standstill — whilst his captain who was one of the happy euchreists, exclaimed, “Now, Sam, you let nobody go in there.”

I was obliged to explain who I was, whereupon the sentry started to his feet, and said, “Oh! indeed, you are Russell that's been in that war with the Rooshians. Well, I'm very much pleased to know you. I shall be off sentry in a few minutes; I'll just ask you to tell me something about that fighting.” He held out his hand, and shook mine warmly as he spoke. There was not the smallest intention to offend in his manner; but, sitting down again, he nodded to the captain, and said, “It's all right; it's Pillow's friend — that's Russell of the London ‘Times.’” The game of euchre was continued — and indeed it had been perhaps all night — for my last recollection on looking out of my cabin was of a number of people playing cards on the floor and on the tables all down the saloon, and of shouts of “Eu-kerr!” “Ten dollars, you don't!” “I'll lay twenty on this!” and so on; and with breakfast the sport seemed to be fully revived.

There would have been much more animation in the game, no doubt, had the bar on board the Ingomar been opened; but the intelligent gentleman who presided inside had been restricted by General Pillow in his avocations; and when numerous thirsty souls from the camps came on board, with dry tongues and husky voices, and asked for “mint-juleps,” brandy smashes,” or “whiskey cocktails,” he seemed to take a saturnine pleasure by saying, “The General won't allow no spirit on board, but I can give you a nice drink of Pillow's own iced Mississippi water,” an announcement which generally caused infinite disgust and some unhandsome wishes respecting the General's future happiness.

By and by, a number of sick men were brought down on litters, and placed here and there along the deck. As there was a considerable misunderstanding between the civilian and military doctors, it appeared to be understood that the best way of arranging it was not to attend to the sick at all, and unfortunate men suffering from fever and dysentery were left to roll and groan, and lie on their stretchers, without a soul to help them. I had a medicine chest on board, and I ventured to use the lessons of my experience in such matters, administered my quinine, James's Powder, calomel, and opium, secundum meam artem, and nothing could be more grateful than the poor fellows were for the smallest mark of attention. “Stranger, remember, if I die,” gasped one great fellow, attenuated to a skeleton by dysentery, “That I am Robert Tallon, of Tishimingo county, and that I died for States' rights; see, now, they put that in the papers, won't you? Robert Tallon died for States’ rights,” and so he turned round on his blanket.

Presently the General came on board, and the Ingomar proceeded on her way back to Memphis. General Clarke, to whom I mentioned the great neglect from which the soldiers were suffering, told me he was afraid the men had no medical attendance in camp. All the doctors, in fact, wanted to fight, and as they were educated men, and generally connected with respectable families, or had political influence in the State, they aspired to be colonels at the very least, and to wield the sword instead of the scalpel.

Next to the medical department, the commissariat and transport were most deficient; but by constant courts-martial, stoppages of .pay, and severe sentences, he hoped these evils would be eventually somewhat mitigated. As one who had received a regular military education, General Clarke was probably shocked by volunteer irregularities; and in such matters as guard-mounting, reliefs, patrols, and picket duties, he declared they were enough to break one's heart; but I was astonished to hear from him that the Germans were by far the worst of the five thousand troops under his command, of whom they formed more than a fifth.

Whilst we were conversing, the captain of the steamer invited us to come up into his cabin on the upper deck; and as railway conductors, steamboat captains, bar-keepers, hotel clerks, and telegraph officers are among the natural aristocracy of the land, we could not disobey the invitation, which led to the consumption of some of the captain’s private stores, and many warm professions of political faith.

The captain told me it was rough work aboard sometimes, with “sports” and chaps of that kind; but “God bless you!” said he, “the river now is not what it used to be a few years ago, when we'd have three or four difficulties of an afternoon, and maybe now and then a regular free fight all up and down the decks, that would last a couple of hours, so that when we came to a town we would have to send for all the doctors twenty miles round, and maybe some of them would die in spite of that. It was the rowdies used to get these fights up; but we've put them pretty well down. The citizens have hunted thom out, and they's gone away west” “Well, then, captain, one's life was not very safe on board sometimes.” “Safe! Lord bless you!” said the captain; “if you did not meddle, just as safe as you are now, if the boiler don't collapse. You must, in course, know how to handle your weepins, and be pretty spry in taking your own part.” “Ho, you Bill!” to his colored servant, “open that clothes-press.” “Now, here,” he continued, “is how I travel; so that I am always easy in my mind in case of trouble on board.” Putting his hand under the pillow of the bed close beside him, he pulled out a formidable looking double-barrelled pistol at half-cock, with the caps upon it. “That's as purty a pistol as Derringer ever made. I've got the brace of them — here's the other;” and with that he whipped out pistol No. 2, in an equal state of forwardness, from a little shelf over his bed; and then going over to the clothes-press, he said, “Here's a real old Kentuck, one of the old sort, as light on the trigger as gossamer, and sure as deeth. Why, law bless me, a child would cut a turkey's head off with it at a hundred yards.” This was a huge lump of iron, about five feet long with a small hole bored down the centre, fitted in a coarse German-fashioned stock. “But,” continued he, “this is my main dependence; here is a regular beauty, a first-rate, with ball or buckshot, or whatever you like — made in London. I gave two hundred dollars for it; and it is so short and handy, and straight shooting, I'd just as soon part with my life as let it go to anybody;” and, with a glow of pride in his face, the captain handed round again a very short double-barrelled gun, of some eleven or twelve bore, with back-action locks, and an audacious “Joseph Manton, London,” stamped on the plate. The manner of the man was perfectly simple and bonรข fide; very much as if Inspector Podger were revealing to a simpleton the mode by which the London police managed refractory characters in the station-house.

From such matters as these I was diverted by the more serious subject of the attitude taken by England in this quarrel. The concession of belligerent rights was, I found, misunderstood, and was considered as an admission that the Southern States had established their independence before they had done more than declare their intention to fight for it.

It is not within my power to determine whether the North is as unfair to Great Britain as the South; but I fear the history of the people, and the tendency of their institutions, are adverse to any hope of fair-play and justice to the old country. And yet it is the only power in Europe for the good opinion of which they really seem to care. Let any French, Austrian, or Russian journal write what it pleases of the United States, it is received with indifferent criticism or callous head-shaking. But let a London paper speak, and the whole American press is delighted or furious.

The political sentiment quite overrides all other feelings; and it is the only symptom statesmen should care about, as it guides the policy of the country. If a man can put faith in the influence for peace of common interests, of common origin, common intentions, with the spectacle of this incipient war before his eyes, he must be incapable of appreciating the consequences which follow from man being an animal. A war between England and the United States would be unnatural; but it would not be nearly so unnatural now as it was when it was actually waged in 1776 between people who were barely separated from each other by a single generation; or in 1812-14, when the foreign immigration had done comparatively little to dilute the Anglo-Saxon blood. The Norman of Hampshire and Sussex did not care much for the ties of consanguinity and race when he followed his lord in fee to ravage Guienne or Brittany.

The general result of my intercourse with Americans is to produce the notion that they consider Great Britain in a state of corruption and decay, and eagerly seek to exalt France at her expense. Their language is the sole link between England and the United States, and it only binds the England of 1770 to the American of 1860.

There is scarcely an American on either side of Mason, and Dixon's line who does not religiously believe that the colonies, alone and single-handed, encountered the whole undivided force of Great Britain in the Revolution, and defeated it. I mean, of course, the vast mass of the people; and I do not think there is an orator or a writer who would venture to tell them the truth on the subject. Again, they firmly believe that their petty frigate engagements established as complete a naval ascendency over Great Britain as the latter obtained by her great encounters with the fleets of France and Spain. Their reverses, defeats and headlong routs in the first war, their reverses in the second, are covered over by a huge Buncombe plaster, made up of Bunker's Hill, Plattsburg, Baltimore, and New Orleans.

Their delusions are increased and solidified by the extraordinary text-books of so-called history, and by the feasts and festivals and celebrations of their every-day political life, in all of which we pass through imaginary Caudine Forks; and they entertain towards the old country at best very much the feeling which a high-spirited young man would feel towards the guardian who, when he had come of age, and was free from all control, sought to restrain the passions of his early life.
Now I could not refuse to believe that in New Orleans, Montgomery, Mobile, Jackson, and Memphis there is a reckless and violent condition of society, unfavorable to civilization, and but little hopeful for the future. The most absolute and despotic rule, under which a man's life and property are safe, is better than the largest measure of democratic freedom, which deprives the freeman of any security for either. The state of legal protection for the most serious interests of man, considered as a civilized and social creature, which prevails in America, could not be tolerated for an instant, and would generate a revolution in the worst governed country in Europe. I would much sooner, as the accidental victim of a generally disorganized police, be plundered by a chance diligence robber in Mexico, or have a fair fight with a Greek Klepht, suffer from Italian banditti, or be garrotted by a London ticket-of-leave man, than be bowie-knived or revolvered in consequence of a political or personal difference with a man, who is certain not in the least degree to suffer from an accidental success in his argument.

On our return to the hotel I dined with the General and his staff at the public table, where there was a large assemblage of military men, Southern ladies, their families, and contractors. This latter race has risen up as if by magic, to meet the wants of the new Confederacy; and it is significant to measure the amount of the dependence on Northern manufacturers by the advertisements in the Southern journals, indicating the creation of new branches of workmanship, mechanical science, and manufacturing skill.

Hitherto they have been dependent on the North for the very necessaries of their industrial life. These States were so intent on gathering in money for their produce, expending it luxuriously, and paying it out for Northern labor, that they found themselves suddenly in the condition of a child brought up by hand, whose nurse and mother have left it on the steps of the poor-house. But they have certainly essayed to remedy the evil and are endeavoring to make steam-engines, gunpowder, lamps, clothes, boots, railway carriages, steel springs, glass, and all the smaller articles for which even Southern households find a necessity.

The peculiar character of this contest develops itself in a manner almost incomprehensible to a stranger who has been accustomed to regard the United States as a nation. Here is General Pillow, for example, in the State of Tennessee, commanding the forces of the State, which, in effect, belongs to the Southern Confederacy; but he tells me that he cannot venture to move across a certain geographical line, dividing Tennessee from Kentucky, because the State of Kentucky, in the exercise of its sovereign powers and rights, which the Southern States are bound specially to respect, in virtue of their championship of States' rights, has, like the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, declared it will be neutral in the struggle; and Beriah Magoffin, Governor of the aforesaid State, has warned off Federal and Confederate troops from his territory.

General Pillow is particularly indignant with the cowardice of the well-known Secessionists of Kentucky; but I think he is rather more annoyed by the accumulation of Federal troops at Cairo, and their recent expedition to Columbus on the Kentucky shore, a little below them, where they seized a Confederate flag.

SOURCE: William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, p. 309-21

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