A Night On The Mississippi by Ross Griffin

published in Putnam’s Magazine of Literature, Science, Art, and National Interests April, 1870

The report, which came well accredited to Fort Pillow, placed the offenders in a slough, on the Arkansas side, at a point five miles above Osceola and twenty miles above Fort Pillow.

Lieutenant Edward Alexander, of the Fifty-Second Indiana Volunteers, commanding the provost-guard, was ordered to proceed at once, with a sufficient detachment from his command, to the designated point, and look after the reported transgressors.

Eight men were soon detailed and supplied with forty rounds of cartridges each, and rations for one day only, as they expected to return that evening.

The men fall in and stand, in four files, ready for the command. They have been selected for their work, and you will look long before you find an equal number finer in appearance, or more soldierly in bearing. They are all young, strong, and brave; and yet are ranked as veterans in the service. The Lieutenant, stepping in front, gives the command, and they move off, marching with steady, measured tramp to the river. Here they quickly embark in a yawl, which, with four well-manned oars, shoots rapidly up the river despite the strong current against it.

The day was warm and cloudy, with a slight mist, and a dense fog, rising from the river, rolled back over its banks, enveloping every thing in gloom. Such days are common to the great river at this season of the year, and in their dreary darkness there is a kind of painful stillness that weighs upon the spirit and fills the heart with dismal forebodings.

 Nothing daunted by their sombre surroundings, the men pull stoutly. They shoot out from under the high bluffs of Fort Pillow; have passed the mouth of Cane Creek, and are well up with Flower Island, that looks down upon them drearily enough, its solitary home and dilapidated fence in front scarcely discernible in the bed of fog. On glides the boat, along the winding thread of the river, through the thick forests that line the banks on either side, and reach out as far as the eye can see. On the Tennessee shore the land is low, and the thrifty young timber, mostly cottonwood, stands so thick that the eye can penetrate but a short distance; while on the Arkansas side a bank, twenty feet high, rises perpendicularly from the water, and the rich soil above is overgrown with mammoth forest-trees that might have withstood the tempests of centuries, and now reach their arms far out and up toward the clouds that gather thick above them. The dark, towering trees, and the clouds hanging ominously high above their heads, seem to stand off as if each were defiant of the other. The wind moaning through the stripped and bare branches gives additional dreariness to the dull, dark day. The river is clear of islands, except an occasional sandbar that rises gradually out of its bosom and swells up to a height of several feet with considerable width, and then stretching away up the river, grows less and breaks off with a sudden jog, or again gradually .disappears under the surface of the water.

The journey is half performed, and the yawl is passing a bar larger than its neighbors, which stretches away, a distance of a mile, to where a thick clump of trees covers its head. This is known to navigators of the river as “Bulletin Tow-Head.” The men pass it coolly, little dreaming of the fate that awaits them there, on their return.

This passed, they come in sight of the village of Osceola, standing out in its little clearing on the western bank. A few scattering houses, mostly of logs, all look dingy and dirty, and it will hardly pass for the capital of Mississippi County, Arkansas, until you find the huge, misshapen loghouse a few rods from the river, and learn that it is the Court-House, and that twenty yards removed stands the jail, built of logs also, but neater, more substantial, and almost as large, as the Court-House.

It is related that, before the war, the denizens of the village and vicinity were wont to collect daily in these public buildings, and play cards and drink whiskey; the aristocratic class always occupying the jail, as the more comfortable.

Our party tarry here but a short time, and reembarking, push off, and pull on up the river. Another long stretch around a long bend, and the designated point is reached. The day was far spent before the Lieutenant had completed his search, and was ready to return. Captain E. D. Leizure, an experienced river-man, joined the Lieutenant’s command on reembarking for the fort.

The men are tired, and the oars swing listlessly over the waters, while the swift current drives the boat rapidly down the river. The gloom of the morning had gradually deepened during the day, and the mist had changed into a steady rain. Osceola is reached and passed. The day is wearing away and growing more and more stormy. The river is very full, and the wind, now blowing a stiff gale, catches the yawl and hastens it forward over the waste of waters. The wind rises still higher, the air grows colder, the rain turns to snow and falls in great white flakes, obscuring the view of the helmsman. Night is coming on. The boat leaps forward with the waves; at this rate two hours will land it at the fort. But the yawl is becoming unmanageable; the wind and waves contend with the men for the mastery. Darkness now adds to the perplexity, as it settles deep and heavy around the struggling oarsmen. The party are still nine miles from the fort; they are wet, tired, and cold—are tossed and driven by the elements and4~emmed in by the night.

What is to be done? It is proposed to abandon the yawl. What then? There is no human habitation for miles around. The party is in the midst of a vast wilderness of waters that extends far out over the marshes and lowlands of the Tennessee side, and away across westward to the dense forests of Arkansas, that give no show of hospitality, but, with dim outline, stand out against the sky, dark, wild, and cheerless.

The darkness thickens; the light, now faded out of the sky, lingers but faintly along the surface of the river. Peering through the gloom, the men trace the outline of a sandbar, near at hand, by its snowy cap, that gleams out a white streak along the middle of the mighty river. The wind, roaring from the thick growth of cottonwood on the Tennessee shore, forces the yawl rapidly toward the bar. The men strain every nerve to clear it, but in vain. The boat strikes the bar far down toward the point, and the waves carry it high upon the land.

There is no use in contending with the elements; the boat is abandoned, and the men set out to walk up the bar, hoping to find on the higher ground driftwood to make a fire. Having gone nearly a quarter of a mile, they come upon the stump and roots of an old tree, half buried in the sand, and around which vegetation had grown up the summer before.

The grass and weeds are gathered, and the roots broken up, as well as the darkness will permit, and an effort is made to kindle a fire. But every thing is saturated with water and refuses to burn. Captain Leizure thinks of his carpet-sack, which contains his underclothing. Immediately this is opened, and one after another the articles taken out, torn in shreds, and the burning match applied; and though some of these burn, they fail to ignite the materials gathered for the fire.

At length, when every means has been exhausted without avail, the men turn back to the boat, as the last hope. To remain on this bleak island over night, without fire, in the cold, which is already severe and rapidly growing more so, would be certain death.

 The boat can only be made available by taking it up and carrying it across the bar, whence the wind and waves will take it to the Arkansas shore. It is quickly carried across the bar, and launched into the water on the other side, which is found too shallow to float it. The Lieutenant sends three men with Captain Leizure to drag the boat out into deep water, where all may embark; but just as the boat is well afloat, a powerful gust of wind strikes it, and shooting out from under the hands of the men, it rushes away into the darkness with the waves. Captain Leizure and one of the men have jumped in and are whirled away from the other two, who are left standing with the oars in their hands. The Captain and his companion resign themselves to their fate, being totally unable to return.

The men in the boat, whirled suddenly off, hear the shouts of their luckless comrades, until the voices are drowned in the noise of the storm; and then they see the flash and hear the report of a discharged musket; it was a signal-gun.

The boat sweeps madly on—where to touch, or when? It is at the mercy of the angry elements; it may be cast on another bar from which there can be no escape, or suddenly capsized, and the men may find a grave at the bottom of the restless river. But in another moment it strikes the shore. The waves dash over it. The water freezes as it falls. The soldier is frozen to his seat, and, benumbed with cold, he refuses to rise. His gun lies frozen into the ice formed on the water in the boat, and there it will remain untouched. The tried and faithful companion of years is now no longer wanted to defend a life too far gone to be held worth the preserving.

With great difficulty Captain Leizure succeeds in arousing his companion, and after long search and effort climbs tip the steep bank with him, and into the woods. And now, if a fire can be kindled they are saved, otherwise they perish. The brave soldier who has faced the cannon, and braved the hardships of nearly three years’ campaigning, sinks under the intense cold, and begs to be let alone to die. But the dauntless Captain works the harder to keep him up. A large log is found, and twigs and chunks of wood are heaped against it for a fire; but they have been wet through, and are now covered with ice. They have only two matches. Their clothes have been thoroughly drenched, and are even frozen stiff. Captain Leizure takes from his breastpocket a large leathern pocketbook, and finds that the papers it contains are dry. They are bonds and notes of the value of many thousands of dollars—no matter how many; it is a question of life or death. The papers are ready for the match. It is struck, but it misses fire. The two lives now depend upon the one remaining match. It is struck, and, God be praised! it burns, the paper catches, then the twigs; the fire is made; the men are saved.

Leaving them by their growing fire, let us glance into the hotel at Fort Pillow. The commander of the garrison has given a supper, and the large dining-hall is filled with happy people; brave officers, respectable citizens, and charming women.

It is the farewell of loyal hearts to the year that gave freedom to the slave—that brought the first real success to our arms —that gave us Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Missionary Ridge—that had brought promise of the rebellion’s overthrow.

The perils and escapes, the achievements and hopes, the rewards and promises of the closing and of the coming year are earnestly and eloquently discussed; and so the old year goes out, carrying with it the blessing of the loyal millions, and the new year steps in.

The party breaks up, and we walk out into the cold, dark night. The thermometer is now seven degrees below zero.

“Captain, have Lieutenant Alexander and his men reported?” asks the Post Commander, Colonel Wolfe, as he draws my arm in his, and we walk away to our quarters.

“Not yet,” is my reply.

“What can have become of them?” he rejoins. “I fear for their safety if they are out this dreadful night.” And well you may, my brave Colonel; for even now, as we walk, where are they?

Left standing on the bar, the boat gone, with no hope, nor even possibility of its returning, the Lieutenant and his men determine to go back up to the higher ground and try once more for a fire. But in this they are doomed to a second failure.

Their matches all exhausted, and the cold winds howling about them, there is but one hope left: that by constant motion they may keep alive till morning comes and brings relief.

A beat is chosen, and there these veteran soldiers pace up and down the space of one hundred yards through the long, dreary hours of that awful night. The snow is already several inches deep and still falling. The constant tramping of the men wears it off the beat. And still they walk wearily on. At eleven o’clock the cold is intense; the snow has ceased to fall, and being caught up by the winds sweeping over the bar, is whirled into great drifts. Every thing is now freezing. Still back and forth, along the beaten path, plod the jaded men.

It is an hour later. One of the men, overcome with fatigue and cold, sinks down in his tracks, and falls to the ground, dead. His comrades go to him, take him up, chafe his limbs, breathe into his nostrils, and strive in every way to recall him to life; but it is in vain; the spirit that animated the fallen body has gone to Him who gave it.

The young Lieutenant, whose bravery had made him conspicuous on the battle-field, then turned to his men, and standing a moment in silence, thinking, doubtless, of the kind mother who dwelt far away to the North, and who might at that very moment be praying, God’s blessing on her dashing boy, addressed his last words to the men entrusted to his command, saying: “Boys, there is no use striving any longer; it is now only about midnight, and one of our number is already frozen to death. We cannot hold out till morning; there is no hope, we must all die.” Then, stepping aside, he drew the cape of his great-coat about his head and laid down. The snow blew over him, but he knew it not; he was asleep. Two others follow his example; their lives depart with the departure of the dying year. The new year comes, and with it the clouds break away, and the North Star shines out.

Guided by its light, the four remaining ones walk up the bar; but scarcely have they set out, when one poor fellow staggers and falls dead, only a few rods from his frozen comrades. The other three are tired, benumbed, disheartened, yet still they follow the star which guides them to life. It leads them over a mile of bleak desert, across a thick slough, and into a thick wood at the head of the island. This shelters them from the cutting wind until morning dawns; and peering out from the Arkansas shore, they descry a house, from which presently issues a man; it is Prior Lea, a well known Union man. They attract his attention, and, crossing to them in a skiff, he takes them to his house. And now, although they have already suffered untold agonies, their sufferings have only begun.

Once in the house, they sink insensible to the floor. The good host and hostess do all they can for the poor fellows, but it avails little. They are far gone; life hangs by a slender thread, which may snap at any moment.

The thermometer is now eight degrees below zero, and every thing without is freezing still. All about Fort Pillow there are signs of life. The smoke is curling in white columns over the low-made chimneys of the little huts called barracks; the guard has been relieved, and the men are coming in from the outposts, benumbed with cold, and in some cases with their fingers and ears frost-bitten; the soldiers dodge in and out of their quarters busied about the morning work; messengers and orderlies hurry rapidly over the snow-crested hills; and yonder, at post headquarters, the color-sergeant commits the flag to the halliards and sends it to its place to the top of the tall staff, and there, high up in the clear sky, in the bright light of the new-born year, “Flash its broad ribbons of lily and rose.”

The men draw close around the fires, and talk of last night’s cold. Frost flies in the air, and great cakes of ice are floating in the river.

Still there are no tidings of the Lieutenant and his men. About noon Captain Leizure and his companion, worn and stupefied, having made their way, from the fire where we last saw them, to a house nearly opposite the fort, cross the river in a skiff and report to the officers. The post-surgeon, Dr. J. W. Martin, is at once summoned, and a party got ready to search for the ill-fated ones who come not back. Captain Leizure, though almost exhausted from the previous night’s exposure, volunteers to go as a guide.

In about two hours the steamer Duke of Argyle heaves in sight, beating her way slowly up against the strong current and running ice. The party board her, and she pushes on up the river. She comes in sight of the fatal bar just as the sun is setting in the red West. She is made fast on the Tennessee shore, and the boats are lowered as the twilight deepens into night. The thermometer is below zero; every thing around is freezing, except the mighty river, whose current sweeps on, bearing on its bosom the masses of ice that gather as they go. The deck-hands refuse to man the boats, until a file of soldiers, with loaded muskets, is brought up to enforce the officer’s commands.

Landed upon the island, and aided by the light of a lantern, they soon discover the tracks of the unfortunate men who had landed there twenty-four hours before.

Hopes are entertained for their safety. We follow the trail, and presently come upon a cartridge-box, half buried in the snow and ice, the belt cut with a knife. Our hearts sink; the fate of one poor man is told. One life must have been despaired of when, with hands too numb to unbuckle the belt, it was cut, and the cartridge-box fell from the body of a soldier in the enemy’s country. With sad hearts we follow up the track. Now we see the well-paced beat, and piled at intervals along it we find the half-covered and frozen bodies of the lost Lieutenant and three of his men. A little further removed to the north, on the crust of ice, lies stretched upon his back another, who has met his last enemy; his face is pale and rigid, and his eyes, wide open, are seemingly fixed upon the stars that twinkle overhead and give back his bright, cold, comfortless look.

Well, we can do no good for these, and the others have shared the same fate, unless a kindlier fortune has taken them out of the cold ere this. To remain longer on this cold, barren spot would be to add to the number of the dead. So the search is abandoned for the night, and we turn for the steamer. But who will steer the boat? the helmsman who brought it over is so overcome by the cold that he cannot guide it back. Who will take his place? “I will,” said Captain Leizure, and stepping aft, took the helm. The boat glides away. It is over a mile to the steamer, and it will take many a stroke to carry us to her. The oars are vigorously plied, and on goes our little boat, Captain Leizure holding her steady on her course.

The running ice must be avoided, and the current taken advantage of; but this is done, for a master-hand is at the helm.

The breath freezes as it escapes the nostrils; the stoutest must yield to the cold if we are out long; but every stroke of the oars brings, us nearer the steamer. Here we are at last. The yawl strikes the bow of the steamer with a jar, and Captain Leizure falls at our feet, insensible. We take him up, lift him on to the deck, and carry him thence into the cabin. The surgeon administers restoratives, applies the proper remedies, and soon he is revived, and the life which had been so nobly given to others is brought back to its possessor.

The next day the search was renewed, and the three living men traced up to Mr. Lea’s, where we have already seen them.

Physicians waited upon them; every care and attention, that could be, was bestowed upon them; amputation, of both feet and hands, was found necessary, and performed on two of them, who, after undergoing inexpressible agonies for a short time, died; while the third, James Hendrixson, after a long and painful illness, recovered, and lived to serve his country yet longer.

The frozen corpses of the Lieutenant and the four men were taken to Fort Pillow, placed in coffins, and sent home. Such were the horrors of one night on the Mississippi.


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