Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Diary of William Howard Russell: May 6, 1861

I forgot to say that yesterday before dinner I drove out with some gentlemen and the ladies of the family of Mr. George N. Sanders, once United States consul at Liverpool, now a doubtful man here, seeking some office from the Government, and accused by a portion of the press of being a Confederate spy — Porcus de grege epicuri — but a learned pig withal, and weatherwise, and mindful of the signs of the times, catching straws and whisking them upwards to detect the currents. Well, in this great moment I am bound to say there was much talk of ice. The North owns the frozen climates; but it was hoped that Great Britain, to whom belongs the North Pole, might force the blockade and send aid.

The environs of Montgomery are agreeable — well-wooded, undulating, villas abounding, public gardens, and a large negro and mulatto suburb. It is not usual, as far as I can judge, to see women riding on horseback in the South, but on the road here we encountered several.

After breakfast I walked down with Senator Wigfall to the capitol of Montgomery — one of the true Athenian Yankeeized structures of this novo-classic land, erected on a site worthy of a better fate and edifice. By an open cistern, on our way, I came on a gentleman engaged in disposing of some living ebony carvings to a small circle, who had more curiosity than cash, for they did not at all respond to the energetic appeals of the auctioneer.

The sight was a bad preparation for an introduction to the legislative assembly of a Confederacy which rests on the Institution as the corner-stone of the social and political arch which maintains it. But there they were, the legislators or conspirators, in a large room provided with benches and seats, and listening to such a sermon as a Balfour of Burley might have preached to his Covenanters — resolute and massive heads, and large frames — such men as must have a faith to inspire them. And that is so. Assaulted by reason, by logic, argument, philanthropy, progress directed against his peculiar institutions, the Southerner at last is driven to a fanaticism—a sacred faith which is above all reason or logical attack in the propriety, righteousness, and divinity of slavery.

The chaplain, a venerable old man, loudly invoked curses on the heads of the enemy, and blessings on the arms and councils of the New State. When he was done, Mr. Howell Cobb, a fat, double-chinned, mellow-eyed man, rapped with his hammer on the desk before the chair on which he sat as speaker of the assembly, and the house proceeded to business. I could fancy that, in all but garments, they were like the men who first conceived the great rebellion which led to the independence of this wonderful country — so earnest, so grave, so sober, and so vindictive — at least; so embittered against the power which they consider tyrannical and insulting.

The word "liberty" was used repeatedly in the short time allotted to the public transaction of business and the reading of documents; the Congress was anxious to get to its work, and Mr. Howell Cobb again thumped his desk and announced that the house was going into “secret session,” which intimated that all persons who were not members should leave. I was introduced to what is called the floor of the house, and had a delegate's chair, and of course I moved away with the others, and with the disappointed ladies and men from the galleries; but one of the members, Mr. Rhett, I believe, said jokingly: “I think you ought to retain your seat. If the ‘Times’ will support the South, we'll accept you as a delegate.” I replied that I was afraid I could. not act as a delegate to a Congress of Slave States. And, indeed, I had been much affected at the slave auction held just outside the hotel, on the steps of the public fountain, which I had witnessed on my way to the capitol. The auctioneer, who was an ill-favored, dissipated-looking rascal, had his “article “ beside him, on, not in, a deal packing-case — a stout young negro badly dressed and ill-shod, who stood with all his goods fastened in a small bundle in his hand, looking out at the small and listless gathering of men, who, whittling and chewing, had moved out from the shady side of the street as they saw the man put up. The chattel character of slavery in the States renders it most repulsive. What a pity the nigger is not polypoid — so that he could be cut up in junks, and each junk should reproduce itself.

A man in a cart, some volunteers in coarse uniforms, a few Irish laborers in a long van, and four or five men in the usual black coat, satin waistcoat, and black hat, constituted the audience, whom the auctioneer addressed volubly: “A prime field hand! Just look at him — good-natered, well-tempered; no marks, nary sign of bad about him! En-i-ne hunthered — only nine hun-ther-ed and fifty dol'rs for 'em! Why, it's quite rad-aklous! Nine hundred and fifty dol'rs! I can't raly
That's good. Thank you, sir. Twenty-five bid — nine huntherd and seventy-five dol'rs for this most useful hand. The price rose to one thousand dollars, at which the useful hand was knocked down to one of the black hats near me. The auctioneer and the negro and his buyer all walked off together to settle the transaction, and the crowd moved away.

“That nigger went cheap,” said one of them to a companion, as he walked towards the shade. “Yes, Sirr! Niggers is cheap now — that's a fact.” I must admit that I felt myself indulging in a sort of reflection whether it would not be nice to own a man as absolutely as one might possess a horse — to hold him subject to my will and pleasure, as if he were a brute beast without the power of kicking or biting — to make him work for me — to hold his fate in my hands: but the thought was for a moment. It was followed by disgust.

I have seen slave markets in the East, where the traditions of the race, the condition of family and social relations divest slavery of the most odious characteristics which pertain to it in the States if but the use of the English tongue in such a transaction, and the idea of its taking place among a civilized Christian people, produced in me a feeling of inexpressible loathing and indignation. Yesterday I was much struck by the intelligence, activity, and desire to please of a good-looking colored waiter, who seemed so light-hearted and light colored I could not imagine he was a slave. So one of our party, who was an American, asked him: “What are you, boy — a free nigger?” Of course he knew that in Alabama it was most unlikely he could reply in the affirmative. The young man's smile died away from his lips, a flush of blood embrowned the face for a moment, and he answered in a sad, low tone: “No, sir! I b'long to Massa Jackson,” and left the room at once. As I stood at an upper window of the capitol, and looked on the wide expanse of richly-wooded, well-cultivated land which sweeps round the hill-side away to the horizon, I could not help thinking of the misery and cruelty which must have been borne in tilling the land and raising the houses and streets of the dominant race before whom one nationality of colored people has perished within the memory of man. The misery and cruelty of the system are established by the advertisements for runaway negroes, and by the description of the stigmata on their persons — whippings and brandings, scars and cuts — though these, indeed, are less frequent here than in the border States.

On my return, the Hon. W. M. Browne, Assistant-Secretary of State, came to visit me — a cadet of an Irish family, who came to America some years ago, and having lost his money in land speculations, turned his pen to good account as a journalist, and gained Mr. Buchanan's patronage and support as a newspaper editor in, Washington. There he became intimate with the Southern gentlemen, with whom he naturally associated in preference to the Northern members; and when they went out, he walked over alongwith them. He told me the Government had already received numerous — I think he said 400 — letters from ship-owners applying for letters of marque and reprisal. Many of these applications were from merchants in Boston, and other maritime cities in the New England States. He further stated that the President was determined to take the whole control of the army, and the appointments to command in all ranks of officers into his own hands.

There is now no possible chance of preserving the peace or of averting the horrors of war from these great and prosperous communities. Thy Southern people, right or wrong, are bent on independence and on separation, and they will fight to the last for their object.

The press is fanning the flame on both sides: it would be difficult to say whether it or the telegraphs circulate lies most largely; but that as the papers print the telegrams they must have the palm. The Southerners are told there is a reign of terror in New York — that the 7th New York Regiment has been captured by the Baltimore people — that Abe Lincoln is always drunk — that General Lee has seized Arlington Heights, and is bombarding Washington. The New York people are regaled with similar stories from the South. The coincidence between the date of the skirmish at Lexington and of the attack on the 6th Massachusetts Regiment at Baltimore is not so remarkable as the fact, that the first man who was killed at the latter place, 86 years ago, was a direct descendant of the first of the colonists who was killed by the royal soldiery. Baltimore may do the same for the South which Lexington did for all the Colonies. Head-shaving, forcible deportations, tarring and feathering are recommended and adopted as specifics to produce conversion from erroneous opinions. The President of the United States has called into service of the Federal Government 42,000 volunteers, and increased the regular army by 22,000 men, and the navy by 18,000 men. If the South secede, they ought certainly to take over with them some Yankee hotel keepers. This “Exchange” is in a frightful state — nothing but noise, dirt, drinking, wrangling

SOURCE: William Howard Russell, My Diary North and South, p. 167-71

No comments: