War Diary of a Union Woman in the South
FRIGHTS AND PERILS IN STEELE’S BAYOU
Wednesday, July 16. (Under a tree on the bank of Steele’s Bayou.) — Early this morning our boat was taken out of the Mississippi and put on Mr. Fetler’s ox-cart. After breakfast we followed on foot. The walk in the woods was so delightful that all were disappointed when a silvery gleam through the trees showed the bayou sweeping along, full to the banks, with dense forest trees almost meeting over it. The boat was launched, calked, and reloaded, and we were off again. Towards noon the sound of distant cannon began to echo around, probably from Vicksburg again. About the same time we began to encounter rafts. To get around them required us to push through brush so thick that we had to lie down in the boat. The banks were steep and the land on each side a bog. About one o’clock we reached this clear space with dry shelving banks and disembarked to eat lunch. To our surprise a neatly dressed woman came tripping down the declivity bringing a basket. She said she lived above and had seen our boat. Her husband was in the army, and we were the first white people she had talked to for a long while. She offered some corn-meal pound- cake and beer, and as she climbed back told us to “look out for the rapids.” H. is putting the boat in order for our start and says she is waving good-bye from the bluff above.
Thursday, July 17. (On a raft in Steele’s Bayou.) — Yesterday we went on nicely awhile and at afternoon came to a strange region of rafts, extending about three miles, on which persons were living. Many saluted us, saying they had run away from Vicksburg at the first attempt of the fleet to shell it. On one of these rafts, about twelve feet square, (more likely twelve yards – G. W. C.) bagging had been hung up to form three sides of a tent. A bed was in one corner, and on a low chair, with her provisions in jars and boxes grouped round her, sat an old woman feeding a lot of chickens.
Having moonlight, we had intended to travel till late. But about ten o’clock, the boat beginning to go with great speed, H., who was steering, called to Max:
“Don’t row so fast; we may run against something.”
“I ‘m hardly pulling at all.”
“Then we ‘re in what she called the rapids!” The stream seemed indeed to slope down- ward, and in a minute a dark line was visible ahead. Max tried to turn, but could not, and in a second more we dashed against this immense raft, only saved from breaking up by the men’s quickness. We got out upon it and ate supper. Then, as the boat was leaking and the current swinging it against the raft, H. and Max thought it safer to watch all night, but told us to go to sleep. It was a strange spot to sleep in — a raft in the middle of a boiling stream, with a wilderness stretching on either side. The moon made ghostly shadows and showed H., sitting still as a ghost, in the stern of the boat, while mingled with the gurgle of the water round the raft beneath was the boom of cannon in the air, solemnly breaking the silence of night. It drizzled now and then, and the mosquitoes swarmed over us. My fan and umbrella had been knocked overboard, so I had no weapon against them. Fatigue, however, overcomes everything, and I contrived to sleep.
H. roused us at dawn. Reeney found lightwood enough on the raft to make a good fire for coffee, which never tasted better. Then all hands assisted in unloading; a rope was fastened to the boat, Max got in, H. held the rope on the raft, and, by much pulling and pushing, it was forced through a narrow passage to the farther side. Here it had to be calked, and while that was being done we improvised a dressing-room in the shadow of our big trunks. During the trip I had to keep the time, therefore properly to secure belt and watch was always an anxious part of my toilet. The boat is now repacked, and while Annie and Reeney are washing cups I have scribbled, wishing much that mine were the hand of an artist.
Friday morn, July 18. (House of Colonel K., on Yazoo River.) — After leaving the raft yesterday all went well till noon, when we came to a narrow place where an immense tree lay clear across the stream. It seemed the insurmountable obstacle at last. We sat despairing what to do, when a man appeared beside us in a pirogue. So sudden, so silent was his arrival that we were thrilled with surprise. He said if we had a hatchet he could help us. His fairy bark floated in among the branches like a bubble, and he soon chopped a path for us, and was delighted to get some matches in return. He said the cannon we heard yesterday were in an engagement with the ram Arkansas, which ran out of the Yazoo that morning. We did not stop for dinner to-day, but ate a hasty lunch in the boat, after which nothing but a small piece of bread was left. About two we reached the forks, one of which ran to the Yazoo, the other to the Old River. Max said the right fork was our road; H. said the left, that there was an error in Max’s map; but Max steered into the right fork. After pulling about three miles he admitted his mistake and turned back; but I shall never forget Old River. It was the vision of a drowned world, an illimitable waste of dead waters, stretching into a great, silent, desolate forest. Just as we turned into the right way, down came the rain so hard and fast we had to stop on the bank. It defied trees or umbrellas and nearly took away the breath. The boat began to fill, and all five of us had to bail as fast as possible for the half-hour the sheet of water was pouring down. As it abated a cold breeze sprung up that, striking our wet clothes, chilled us to the bone. All were shivering and blue— no, I was green. Before leaving Mr. Fetler’s Wednesday morning I had donned a dark-green calico. I wiped my face with a handkerchief out of my pocket, and face and hands were all dyed a deep green. When Annie turned round and looked at me she screamed and I realized how I looked; but she was not much better, for of all dejected things wet feathers are the worst, and the plumes in her hat were painful.
About five we reached Colonel K.’s house, right where Steele’s Bayou empties into the Yazoo. We had both to be fairly dragged out of the boat, so cramped and weighted were we by wet skirts. The family were absent, and the house was headquarters for a squad of Confederate cavalry, which was also absent. The old colored housekeeper received us kindly and lighted fires in our rooms to dry the clothing. My trunk had got cracked on top, and all the clothing to be got at was wet. H. had dropped his in the river while lifting it out, and his clothes were wet. A spoonful of brandy apiece was left in the little flask, and I felt that mine saved me from being ill. Warm blankets and the brandy revived us, and by supper-time we got into some dry clothes.
Just then the squad of cavalry returned; they were only a dozen, but they made much uproar, being in great excitement. Some of them were known to Max and H., who learned from them that a gunboat was coming to shell them out of this house. Then ensued a clatter such as twelve men surely never made before — rattling about the halls and galleries in heavy boots and spurs, feeding horses, calling for supper, clanking swords, buckling and unbuckling belts and pistols. At last supper was dispatched, and they mounted and were gone like the wind. We had a quiet supper and good night’s rest in spite of the expected shells, and did not wake till ten to-day to realize we were not killed. About eleven breakfast was furnished. Now we are waiting till the rest of our things are dried to start on our last day of travel by water.
Sunday, July 20.—A little way down the Yazoo on Friday we ran into McNutt’s Lake, thence into Chickasaw Bayou, and at dark landed at Mrs. C.’s farm, the nearest neighbors of H.’s uncle. The house was full of Confederate sick, friends from Vicksburg, and while we ate supper all present poured out the story of the shelling and all that was to be done at Vicksburg. Then our stuff was taken from the boat, and we finally abandoned the stanch little craft that had carried us for over one hundred and twenty-five miles in a trip occupying nine days. The luggage in a wagon, and ourselves packed in a buggy, were driven for four or five miles, over the roughest road I ever traveled, to the farm of Mr. B., H.’s uncle, where we arrived at midnight and hastened to hide in bed the utter exhaustion of mind and body. Yesterday we were too tired to think, or to do anything but eat peaches.
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