Point Lookout. The President and Secretary of War to-day (Jan. 2, 1864), commissioned me to go down to Point Lookout, and deliver to Gen. Marston the book of oaths and the accompanying blanks, and explain to him the mode in which they are to be used. Gen. Butler was ordered by telegraph to meet me there and consult as to the manner of carrying out the President's plan for pardoning and enlisting the repentant rebels. I bore a letter for Gen. Butler’s instruction.
I went on board a little tug at the Seventh Street Wharf, and rattled and rustled through the ice to Alexandria where I got on board the Clyde, most palatial of steam tugs, fitted up with a very pretty cabin and berths heated by steam and altogether sybaritic in its appointments.
The day was bitterly cold, and the wind was malignant on the Potomac. I shut myself up in my gorgeous little cabin and scribbled and read and slept all day. The captain thought best to lay to for a while in the night, so we put in at Smith's Creek, and arrived at Point Lookout in the early morning. I went to the head-quarters of the General, accompanied by a young officer who asked my name and got it. I felt little interest in his patronymic, and it is now gone into the oblivion of those ante Agamemnona. It was so cold that nobody was stirring. A furry horse was crouching by the wall. “Hello, Billy! cold! Ain't it?” said my companion. Billy was indignantly silent. We stumbled on over the frozen ground past the long line of cottages that line the beach, built by the crazy proprietor of the land who hoped to make here a great watering-place which would draw the beauty and fashion of the country away from Long Branch, and make Newport a Ranz des Vaches. We came up to a snug-looking frame house which had been the dwelling of the adventurous lunatic. A tall young man, with enormous blonde moustache and a general up-too-early air about him, hove in sight, and my guide and friend introduced me. “Yes, I have heard of you, Mr. Hale. I got a despatch from the General saying you would be here. When did you arrive, Mr. Kay? Rather cold weather! Any ice on the river, Mr. Day?” All this in a voice like a rumbling of distant thunder, measured and severe, and with a manner of preternatural solemnity. “The General will soon be up, Mr. Hayes.” My mild insinuation as to my cognomen having brought him that near to my christening at last.
He disappeared, and coming back beckoned me out. I followed him across a little entry into a room opposite. There stood in the attitude in which, if Comfort ever were deified, the statues should be posed, — parted coat-tails, — a broad plenilunar base exposed to the grateful warmth of the pine-wood fire, — a hearty Yankee gentleman, clean-shaven, — sunny and rosy, — to whom I was presented, and who said laconically, “Sit there!” pointing to a warm seat by a well-spread breakfast table. I had an appetite engendered by a day and night of river air, and I ate breakfast till the intelligent contraband, who served us, caught the infection and plied me with pork-steaks till hunger cried quarter. The General told a good yarn on a contraband soldier who complained of a white man abusing him: — “I doesn't objeck to de pussonal cuffin, but he must speck de unicorn.”
The General's flock are a queer lot. Dirty, ragged, yet jolly. Most of them are still rebellious, but many are tired and ready to quit, while some are actuated by a fierce desire to get out of the prison, and by going into our army, avenge the wrongs of their forced service in the rebel ranks.
They are great traders. A stray onion, — a lucky treasure-trove of a piece of coal, — is a capital for extensive operations in Confederate trash. They sell and gamble away their names with utter recklessness. They have the easy carelessness of a about their patronymics. They sell their names when drawn for a detail to work, a great prize in the monotonous life of every day. A small-pox patient sells his place on the sick-list to a friend who thinks the path to Dixie easier from the hospital than the camp. The traffic in names on the morning of Gen. Butler’s detail of 500 for exchange was as lively as Wall Street on days when Taurus climbs the Zenith, or the “Coal Hole” when gold is tumbling ten per cent. an hour.
They live in a 30-acre lot fenced around by themselves. They put up the fence with great glee, saying, “they would fence out the d----d Yankees and keep respectable.”
Rather a pleasant place, on a pleasant day, is Point Lookout. To-day it was dreary and cold. I could not but think of the winter life of the sanguine lunatic who built the little village intended for the summer home of beauty and chivalry, and destined for the malodorous abode and the unfragrant belongings of a great hospital in busy war-times.
My little boat got frightened at the blow that freshened in the evening, and I sent her up to snooze the night away in Smith's Creek.
In the dusk of the evening Gen. Butler came clattering into the room where Marston and I were sitting, followed by a couple of aides. We had some hasty talk about business: — he told me how he was administering the oath at Norfolk; how popular it was growing; children cried for it; how he hated the Jews; how heavily he laid his hand on them; — “A nation that the Lord had been trying to make something of for three thousand years, and had so far utterly failed.” “King John knew how to deal with them — fried them in swine's fat.”
After drinking cider we went down to the Hudson City, the General's flagship. His wife, niece and excessively pretty daughter; tall, statuesque and fair, and named, by a happy prophecy of the blonde beauty of her maturity, Blanche, were there at tea. I sent my little web-footed sulky word to get home as she could, and sailed with the Butler’s for Baltimore.
At night, after the ladies had gone off to bed — they all said retired, but I suppose it meant the same thing in the end, — we began to talk about some queer matters. Butler had some odd stories about physical sympathies; he talked also about the Hebrew jurisprudence and showed a singular acquaintance with biblical studies; his occasional references to anatomy and physiology evidently surprised the surgeon, to whom he respectfully deferred from time to time. He talked till it grew late and we dispersed to bed. I slept on the guards: a pleasant bed-room, but chilly; and listened till I slept, to the cold and shuddering roar of the water under the wheels.
At Baltimore we took a special car and came home. I sat with the General all the way and talked with him about many matters; Richmond and its long immunity. He says he can take an army within thirty miles of Richmond without any trouble; from that point the enemy can either be forced to fight in the open field south of the city; or submit to be starved into surrender.
He was very severe on McClellan for his action about the New Orleans expedition. He says that before the expedition was resolved on, by the President, McClellan said it would require 50,000 men; after it was resolved on, he said 5,000 would be enough. He said he did not like to attack McC. Nil nisi bonum, etc. But he might have to exploit that matter sometime.
I told him of the night of October 21.
He gave me some very dramatic incidents of his recent action in Fortress Monroe, smoking out adventurers and confidence men, testing his detectives, and matters of that sort. He makes more business in that sleepy, little Department than anyone would have dreamed was in it.
SOURCES: Clara B. Hay, Letters of John Hay and Extracts from Diary, Volume 1, p. 146-52; for the entire diary entry see Tyler Dennett, Editor, Lincoln and the Civil War in the Diaries and Letter of John Hay, p. 148-51.