War Diary of a Union Woman in the South
DROWNED OUT AND STARVED OUT
May 9.— A great misfortune has come upon us all. For several days every one has been uneasy about the unusual rise of the Mississippi and about a rumor that the Federal forces had cut levees above to swamp the country. There is a slight levee back of the village, and H. went yesterday to examine it. It looked strong and we hoped for the best. About dawn this morning a strange gurgle woke me. It had a pleasing, lulling effect. I could not fully rouse at first, but curiosity conquered at last, and I called H.
“Listen to that running water; what is it?”
He sprung up, listened a second, and shouted: “Max, get up! The water is on us!” They both rushed off to the lake for the skiff. The levee had not broken. The water was running clean over it and through the garden fence so rapidly that by the time I dressed and got outside Max was paddling the pirogue they had brought in among the pea-vines, gathering all the ripe peas left above the water. We had enjoyed one mess and he vowed we should have another.
H. was busy nailing a raft together while he had a dry place to stand on. Annie and I, with Reeney, had to secure the chickens, and the back piazza was given up to them. By the time a hasty breakfast was eaten the water was in the kitchen. The stove and everything there had to be put up in the dining-room. Aunt Judy and Reeney had likewise to move into the house, their floor also being covered with water. The raft had to be floated to the storehouse and a platform built, on which everything was elevated. At evening we looked round and counted the cost. The garden was utterly gone. Last evening we had walked round the strawberry beds that fringed the whole acre and tasted a few just ripe. The hives were swamped. Many of the chickens were drowned. Sancho had been sent to high ground where he could get grass. In the village every green thing was swept away. Yet we were better off than many others; for this house, being raised, we have escaped the water indoors. It just laves the edge of the galleries.
May 26.— During the past week we have lived somewhat like Venetians, with a boat at front steps and a raft at the back. Sunday H. and I took skiff to church. The clergyman, who is also tutor at a planter’s across the lake, preached to the few who had arrived in skiffs. We shall not try it again, it is so troublesome getting in and out at the court-house steps. The imprisonment is hard to endure. It threatened to make me really ill, so every evening H. lays a thick wrap in the pirogue, I sit on it and we row off to the ridge of dry land running along the lake-shore and branching off to a strip of woods also out of water. Here we disembark and march up and down till dusk. A great deal of the wood got wet and has to be laid out to dry on the galleries, with clothing, and everything that must be dried. One’s own trials are intensified by the worse suffering around that we can do nothing to relieve.
Max has a puppy named after General Price. The gentlemen had both gone up town yesterday in the skiff when Annie and I heard little Price’s despairing cries from under the house, and we got on the raft to find and save him. We wore light morning dresses and slippers, for shoes are becoming precious. Annie donned a Shaker and I a broad hat. We got the raft pushed out to the center of the grounds opposite the house and could see Price clinging to a post; the next move must be to navigate the raft up to the side of the house and reach for Price. It sounds easy; but poke around with our poles as wildly or as scientifically as we might, the raft would not budge. The noonday sun was blazing right overhead and the muddy water running all over slippered feet and dainty dresses. How long we staid praying for rescue, yet wincing already at the laugh that would come with it, I shall never know. It seemed like a day before the welcome boat and the “Ha, ha!” of H. and Max were heard. The confinement tells severely on all the animal life about us. Half the chickens are dead and the other half sick.
The days drag slowly. We have to depend mainly on books to relieve the tedium, for we have no piano; none of us like cards; we are very poor chess-players, and the chess-set is incomplete. When we gather round the one lamp — we dare not light any more — each one exchanges the gems of thought or mirthful ideas he finds. Frequently the gnats and the mosquitoes are so bad we cannot read at all. This evening, till a strong breeze blew them away, they were intolerable. Aunt Judy goes about in a dignified silence, too full for words, only asking two or three times, “W’at I dun tole you fum de fust?” The food is a trial. This evening the snaky candles lighted the glass and silver on the supper-table with a pale gleam and disclosed a frugal supper indeed — tea without milk (for all the cows are gone), honey, and bread. A faint ray twinkled on the water swishing against the house and stretching away into the dark woods. It looked like civilization and barbarism met together. Just as we sat down to it, some one passing in a boat shouted that Confederates and Federals were fighting at Vicksburg.
Monday, June 2.— On last Friday morning, just three weeks from the day the water rose, signs of its falling began. Yesterday the ground appeared, and a hard rain coming down at the same time washed off much of the unwholesome debris. To-day is fine, and we went out without a boat for a long walk.
June 13.— Since the water ran off; we have, of course, been attacked by swamp fever. H. succumbed first, then Annie, Max next, and then I. Luckily, the new Dr. Y. had brought quinine with him, and we took heroic doses. Such fever never burned in my veins before or sapped strength so rapidly, though probably the want of good food was a factor. The two or three other professional men have left. Dr. Y. alone remains. The roads now being dry enough, H. and Max started on horseback, in different directions, to make an exhaustive search for food supplies. H. got back this evening with no supplies.
June 15.— Max got back to-day. He started right off again to cross the lake and interview the planters on that side, for they had not suffered from overflow.
June 16.— Max got back this morning. H. and he were in the parlor talking and examining maps together till dinner-time. When that was over they laid the matter before us. To buy provisions had proved impossible. The planters across the lake had decided to issue rations of corn-meal and pease to the villagers whose men had all gone to war, but they utterly refused to sell anything. “They told me,” said Max, “‘We will not see your family starve, Mr. R.; but with such numbers of slaves and the village poor to feed, we can spare nothing for sale.’” “Well, of course,” said H., “we do not purpose to stay here and live on charity rations. We must leave the place at all hazards. We have studied out every route and made inquiries everywhere we went. We shall have to go down the Mississippi in an open boat as far as Fetler’s Landing (on the eastern bank). There we can cross by land and put the boat into Steele’s Bayou, pass thence to the Yazoo River, from there to Chickasaw Bayou, into McNutt’s Lake, and land near my uncle’s in Warren County.”
June 20.—As soon as our intended departure was announced, we were besieged by requests for all sorts of things wanted in every family— pins, matches, gunpowder, and ink. One of the last cases H. and Max had before the stay-law stopped legal business was the settlement of an estate that included a country store. The heirs had paid in chattels of the store. These had remained packed in the office. The main contents of the cases were hardware; but we found treasure indeed—a keg of powder, a case of matches, a paper of pins, a bottle of ink. Red ink is now made out of pokeberries. Pins are made by capping thorns with sealing-wax, or using them as nature made them. These were articles money could not get for us. We would give our friends a few matches to save for the hour of tribulation. The paper of pins we divided evenly, and filled a bank-box each with the matches. H. filled a tight tin case apiece with powder for Max and himself and sold the rest, as we could not carry any more on such a trip. Those who did not hear of this in time offered fabulous prices afterwards for a single pound. But money has not its old attractions. Our preparations were delayed by Aunt Judy falling sick of swamp fever.
Friday, June 27.—As soon as the cook was up again, we resumed preparations. We put all the clothing in order and had it nicely done up with the last of the soap and starch. “I wonder,” said Annie,” when I shall ever have nicely starched clothes after these? They had no starch in Natchez or Vicksburg when I was there.” We are now furbishing up dresses suitable for such rough summer travel. While we sat at work yesterday the quiet of the clear, calm noon was broken by a low, continuous roar like distant thunder. To-day we are told it was probably cannon at Vicksburg. This is a great distance, I think, to have heard it — over a hundred miles.
H. and Max have bought a large yawl and are busy on the lake bank repairing it and fitting it with lockers. Aunt Judy’s master has been notified when to send for her; a home for the cat Jeff has been engaged; Price is dead, and Sancho sold. Nearly all the furniture is disposed of, except things valued from association, which will be packed in H.’s office and left with some one likely to stay through the war. It is hardest to leave the books.
Tuesday, July 8 —We start to-morrow. Packing the trunks was a problem. Annie and I are allowed one large trunk apiece, the gentlemen a smaller one each, and we a light carpet-sack apiece for toilet articles. I arrived with six trunks and leave with one! We went over everything carefully twice, rejecting, trying to shake off the bonds of custom and get down to primitive needs. At last we made a judicious selection. Everything old or worn was left; everything merely ornamental, except good lace, which was light. Gossamer evening dresses were all left. I calculated on taking two or three books that would bear the most reading if we were again shut up where none could be had, and so, of course, took Shakspere (sic) first. Here I was interrupted to go and pay a farewell visit, and when we returned Max had packed and nailed the cases of books to be left. Chance thus limited my choice to those that happened to be in my room — “Paradise Lost,” the “Arabian Nights,” a volume of Macaulay’s History I was reading, and my prayer-book. To-day the provisions for the trip were cooked: the last of the flour was made into large loaves of bread; a ham and several dozen eggs were boiled; the few chickens that have survived the overflow were fried; the last of the coffee was parched and ground; and the modicum of the tea was well corked up. Our friends across the lake added a jar of butter and two of preserves. H. rode off to X. after dinner to conclude some business there, and I sat down before a table to tie bundles of things to be left. The sunset glowed and faded and the quiet evening came on calm and starry. I sat by the window till evening deepened into night, and as the moon rose I still looked a reluctant farewell to the lovely lake and the grand woods, till the sound of H.’s horse at the gate broke the spell.
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