The latest information which I received today is of a nature to hasten my departure for Washington; it can no longer be doubted that a battle between the two armies assembled in the neighborhood of the capital is imminent. The vague hope which from time to time I have entertained of being able to visit Richmond before I finally take up my quarters with the only army from which I can communicate regularly with Europe has now vanished.
At four o'clock in the evening I started by the train on the famous Central Illinois line from Cairo to Chicago.
The carriages were tolerably well filled with soldiers, and in addition to them there were a few unfortunate women, undergoing deportation to some less moral neighborhood. Neither the look, language, nor manners of my fellow-passengers inspired me with an exalted notion of the intelligence, comfort, and respectability of the people which are so much vaunted by Mr. Seward and American journals, and which, though truly attributed, no doubt, to the people of the New England States, cannot be affirmed with equal justice to belong to all the other components of the Union.
As the Southerners say, their negroes are the happiest people on the earth, so the Northerners boast, “We are the most enlightened nation in the world.” The soldiers in the train were intelligent enough to think they ought not to be kept without pay, and free enough to say so. The soldiers abused Cairo roundly, and indeed it is wonderful if the people can live on any food but quinine. However, speculators, looking to its natural advantages as the point where the two great rivers join, bespeak for Cairo a magnificent and prosperous future. The present is not promising.
Leaving the shanties, which face the levees, and some poor wooden houses with a short vista of cross streets partially flooded at right angles to them, the rail suddenly plunges into an unmistakable swamp, where a forest of dead trees wave their ghastly, leafless arms over their buried trunks, like plumes over a hearse — a cheerless, miserable place, sacred to the ague and fever. This occurs close to the cleared space on which the city is to stand, — when it is finished — and the rail, which runs on the top of the embankment or levee, here takes to the trestle, and is borne over the water on the usual timber frame-work.
“Mound City,” which is the first station, is composed of a mere heap of earth, like a ruined brickkiln, which rises to some height and is covered with fine white oaks, beneath which are a few log huts and hovels, giving the place its proud name. Tents were pitched on the mound side, from which wild-looking banditti sort of men, with arms, emerged as the train stopped. “I’ve been pretty well over Europe,” said a meditative voice beside me, “and I've seen the despotic armies of the old world, but I don't think they equal that set of boys.” The question was not worth arguing — the boys were in fact very “weedy,” “splinter-shinned chaps,” as another critic insisted.
There were some settlers in the woods around Mound City, and a jolly-looking, corpulent man, who introduced himself as one of the officers of the land department of the Central Illinois railroad, described them as awful warnings to the emigrants not to stick in the south part of Illinois. It was suggestive to find that a very genuine John Bull, “located,” as they say in the States for many years, had as much aversion to the principles of the abolitionists as if he had been born a Southern planter. Another countryman of this and mine, steward on board the steamer to Cairo, eagerly asked me what I thought of the quarrel, and which side I would back. I declined to say more than I thought the North possessed very great superiority of means if the conflict were to be fought on the same terms. Whereupon my Saxon friend exclaimed, “all the Northern States and all the power of the world can't beat the South; and why? — because the South has got cotton, and cotton is king.”
The Central Illinois officer did not suggest the propriety of purchasing lots, but he did intimate I would be doing service if I informed the world at large, they could get excellent land, at sums varying from ten to twenty-five dollars an acre. In America a man's income is represented by capitalizing all that he is worth, and whereas in England we say a man has so much a year, the Americans, in representing his value, observe that he is worth so many dollars, by which they mean that all he has in the world would realize the amount.
It sounds very well to an Irish tenant farmer, an English cottier, or a cultivator in the Lothians, to hear that he can get land at the rate of from £2 to £5 per acre, to be his forever, liable only to state taxes; but when he comes to see a parallelogram marked upon the map as “good soil, of unfathomable richness,” and finds in effect that he must cut down trees, eradicate stumps, drain off water, build a house, struggle for high-priced labor, and contend with imperfect roads, the want of many things to which he has been accustomed in the old country, the land may not appear to him such a bargain. In the wooded districts he has, indeed a sufficiency of fuel as long as trees and stumps last, but they are, of course, great impediments to tillage. If he goes to the prairie he finds that fuel is scarce and water by no means wholesome.
When we left this swamp and forest, and came out after a run of many miles on the clear lands which abut upon the prairie, large fields of corn lay around us, which bore a peculiarly blighted and harassed look. These fields were suffering from the ravages of an insect called the “army worm,” almost as destructive to corn and crops as the locust-like hordes of North and South, which are vying with each other in laying waste the fields of Virginia. Night was falling as the train rattled out into the wild, flat sea of waving grass, dotted by patch-like Indian corn enclosures; but halts at such places as Jonesburgh and Cobden, enabled us to see that these settlements in Illinois were neither very flourishing nor very civilized.
There is a level modicum of comfort, which may be consistent with the greatest good of the greatest number, but which makes the standard of the highest in point of well-being very low indeed. I own, that to me, it would be more agreeable to see a flourishing community placed on a high level in all that relates to the comfort and social status of all its members than to recognize the old types of European civilization, which place the castle on the hill, surround its outer walls with the mansion of doctor and lawyer, and drive the people into obscure hovels outside. But then one must confess that there are in the castle some elevating tendencies which cannot be found in the uniform level of citizen equality. There are traditions of nobility and noble deeds in the family; there are paintings on the walls; the library is stored with valuable knowledge, and from its precincts are derived the lessons not yet unlearned in Europe, that though man may be equal, the condition of men must vary as the accidents of life or the effects of individual character, called fortune, may determine.
The towns of Jonesburgh and Cobden have their little teapot-looking churches and meeting-houses, their lager-bier saloons, their restaurants, their small libraries, institutes, and reading rooms, and no doubt they have also their political cliques, social distinctions and favoritisms; but it requires, nevertheless, little sagacity to perceive that the highest of the bourgeois who leads the mass at meeting and prayer, has but little to distinguish him from the very lowest member of the same body politic. Cobden, for example, has no less than four drinking saloons, all on the line of rail, and no doubt the highest citizen in the place frequents some one or other of them, and meets there the worst rowdy in the place. Even though they do carry a vote for each adult man, “locations” here would not appear very enviable in the eyes of the most miserable Dorsetshire small farmer ever ferreted out by “S. G. O.”
A considerable number of towns, formed by accretions of small stores and drinking places, called magazines, round the original shed wherein live the station master and his assistants, mark the course of the railway. Some are important enough to possess a bank, which is generally represented by a wooden hut, with a large board nailed in front, bearing the names of the president and cashier, and announcing the success and liberality of the management. The stores are also decorated with large signs, recommending the names of the owners to the attention of the public, and over all of them is to be seen the significant announcement, “Cash for produce.”
At Carbondale there was no coal at all to be found, but several miles farther to the north, at a place called Dugoine, a field of bituminous deposit crops out, which is sold at the pit's mouth for one dollar twenty-five cents, or about 5s. 2d. a ton. Darkness and night fell as I was noting such meagre particulars of the new district as could be learned out of the window of a railway carriage; and finally with a delicious sensation of cool night air creeping in through the windows, the first I had experienced for many a long day, we made ourselves up for repose, and were borne steadily, if not rapidly, through the great prairie, having halted for tea at the comfortable refreshment rooms of Centralia.
There were no physical signs to mark the transition from the land of the Secessionist to Union-loving soil. Until the troops were quartered there, Cairo was for Secession, and Southern Illinois is supposed to be deeply tainted with disaffection to Mr. Lincoln. Placards on which were printed the words, “Vote for Lincoln and Hamlin, for Union and Freedom,” and the old battle-cry of the last election, still cling to the wooden walls of the groceries, often accompanied by bitter words or offensive additions.
One of my friends argues that as slavery is at the base of Secession, it follows that States or portions of States will be disposed to join the Confederates or the Federalists, just as the climate may be favorable or adverse to the growth of slave produce. Thus in the mountainous parts of the Border States of Kentucky and Tennessee, in the north-western part of Virginia, vulgarly called the pan-handle, and in the pine woods of North Carolina, where white men can work at the rosin and naval store manufactories, there is a decided feeling in favor of the Union; in fact, it becomes a matter of isothermal lines. It would be very wrong to judge of the condition of a people from the windows of a railway carriage, but the external aspect of the settlements along the line, far superior to that of slave hamlets, does not equal my expectations. We all know the aspect of a wood in a gentleman's park; which is submitting to the axe, and has been partially cleared, how raw and bleak the stumps look, and how dreary is the naked land not yet turned into arable. Take such a patch, and fancy four or five houses made of pine planks, sometimes not painted, lighted by windows in which there is, or has been, glass, each guarded by a paling around a piece of vegetable garden, a pig house, and poultry box; let one be a grocery, which means a whiskey shop, another the post-office, and a third the store where “cash is given for produce.” Multiply these groups, if you desire a larger settlement, and place a wooden church with a Brobdignag spire and Lilliputian body out in a waste, to be approached only by a causeway of planks; before each grocery let there be a gathering of tall men in sombre clothing, of whom the majority have small newspapers, and all of whom are chewing tobacco; near the stores let there be some light-wheeled carts and ragged horses, around which are knots of unmistakably German women; then see the deep tracks which lead off to similar settlements in the forest or prairie, and you have a notion, if your imagination is strong enough, of one of these civilizing centres which the Americans assert to be the homes of the most cultivated and intelligent communities in the world.
SOURCE: William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, Vol. 1, p. 346-51