War Diary of a Union Woman in the South
WILD TIMES IN MISSISSIPPI
This morning there was a most painful scene. Annie’s father came into Vicksburg, ten miles from here, and learned of our arrival from Mrs. C.’s messenger. He sent out a carriage to bring Annie and Max to town that they might go home with him, and with it came a letter for me from friends on the Jackson Railroad, written many weeks before. They had heard that our village home was under water, and invited us to visit them. The letter had been sent to Annie’s people to forward, and thus had reached us. This decided H., as the place was near New Orleans, to go there and wait the chance of getting into that city. Max, when he heard this from H., lost all self-control and cried like a baby. He stalked about the garden in the most tragic manner, exclaiming:
“Oh! my soul’s brother from youth up is a traitor! A traitor to his country
Then H. got angry and said, “Max, don’t be a fool.”
“Who has done this?” bawled Max. “You felt with the South at first; who has changed you?”
“Of course I feel for the South now, and nobody has changed me but the logic of events, though the twenty-negro law has intensified my opinions. I can’t see why I, who have no slaves, must go to fight for them, while every man who has twenty may stay at home.”
I, also, tried to reason with Max and pour oil on his wound. “Max, what interest has a man like you, without slaves, in a war for slavery? Even if you had them, they would not be your best property. That lies in your country and its resources. Nearly all the world has given up slavery; why can’t the South do the same and end the struggle. It has shown you what the South needs, and if all went to work with united hands the South would soon be the greatest country on earth. You have no right to call H. a traitor; it is we who are the true patriots and lovers of the South.” This had to come, but it has upset us both. H. is deeply attached to Max, and I can’t bear to see a cloud between them. Max, with Annie and Reeney, drove off an hour ago, Annie so glad at the prospect of again seeing her mother that nothing could cloud her day. And so the close companionship of six months, and of dangers, trials, and pleasures shared together, is over.
Oak Ridge, July 26, Saturday.—. It was not till Wednesday that H. could get into Vicksburg, ten miles distant, for a passport, without which we could not go on the cars. We started Thursday morning. I had to ride seven miles on a hard-trotting horse to the nearest station. The day was burning at white heat. When the station was reached my hair was down, my hat on my neck, and my feelings were indescribable.
On the train one seemed to be right in the stream of war, among officers, soldiers, sick men and cripples, adieus, tears, laughter, constant chatter, and, strangest of all, sentinels posted at the locked car-doors demanding passports. There was no train south from Jackson that day, so we put up at the Bowman House. The excitement was indescribable. All the world appeared to be traveling through Jackson. People were besieging the two hotels, offering enormous prices for the privilege of sleeping anywhere under a roof. There were many refugees from New Orleans, among them some acquaintances of mine. The peculiar styles of [women’s] dress necessitated by the exigencies of war gave the crowd a very striking appearance. In single suits I saw sleeves of one color, the waist of another, the skirt of another; scarlet jackets and gray skirts; black waists and blue skirts; black skirts and gray waists; the trimming chiefly gold braid and buttons, to give a military air. The gray and gold uniforms of the officers, glittering between, made up a carnival of color. Every moment we saw strange meetings and partings of people from all over the South. Conditions of time, space, locality, and estate were all loosened; everybody seemed floating he knew not whither, but determined to be jolly, and keep up an excitement. At supper we had tough steak, heavy, dirty-looking bread, Confederate coffee. The coffee was made of either parched rye or corn-meal, or of sweet potatoes cut in small cubes and roasted. This was the favorite. When flavored with “coffee essence,” sweetened with sorghum, and tinctured with chalky milk, it made a curious beverage, which, after tasting, I preferred not to drink. Every one else was drinking it, and an acquaintance said, “Oh, you ‘ll get bravely over that. I used to be a Jewess about pork, but now we just kill a hog and eat it, and kill another and do the same. It ‘s all we have.”
Friday morning we took the down train for the station near my friend’s house. At every station we had to go through the examination of passes, as if in a foreign country.
The conscript camp was at Brookhaven, and every man had been ordered to report there or to be treated as a deserter. At every station I shivered mentally, expecting H. to be dragged off. Brookhaven was also the station for dinner. I choked mine down, feeling the sword hanging over me by a single hair. At sunset we reached our station. The landlady was pouring tea when we took our seats and I expected a treat, but when I tasted it was sassafras tea, the very odor of which sickens me. There was a general surprise when I asked to exchange it for a glass of water; every one was drinking it as if it were nectar. This morning we drove out here.
My friend’s little nest is calm in contrast to the tumult not far off. Yet the trials of war are here too. Having no matches, they keep fire, carefully covering it at night, for Mr. G. has no powder, and cannot flash the gun into combustibles as some do. One day they had to go with the children to the village, and the servant let the fire go out. When they returned at nightfall, wet and hungry, there was neither fire nor food. Mr. G. had to saddle the tired mule and ride three miles for a pan of coals, and blow them, all the way back, to keep them alight. Crockery has gradually been broken and tin-cups rusted out, and a visitor told me they had made tumblers out of clear glass bottles by cutting them smooth with a heated wire, and that they had nothing else to drink from.
Aug. 11.—We cannot get to New Orleans. A special passport must be shown, and we are told that to apply for it would render H. very likely to be conscripted. I begged him not to try; and as we hear that active hostilities have ceased at Vicksburg, he left me this morning to return to his uncle’s and see what the prospects are there. I shall be in misery about conscription till he returns.
Sunday, Sept. (Vicksburg, Washington Hotel.) — H. did not return for three weeks. An epidemic disease broke out in his uncle’s family and two children died. He staid to assist them in their trouble. Tuesday evening he returned for me and we reached Vicksburg yesterday. It was my first sight of the “Gibraltar of the South.” Looking at it from a slight elevation suggests the idea that the fragments left from world-building had tumbled into a confused mass of hills, hollows, hillocks, banks, ditches, and ravines, and that the houses had rained down afterwards. Over all there was dust impossible to conceive. The bombardment has done little injury. People have returned and resumed business. A gentleman asked H. if he knew of a nice girl for sale. I asked if he did not think it impolitic to buy slaves now.
“Oh, not young ones. Old ones might run off when the enemy’s lines approach ours, but with young ones there is no danger.”
We had not been many hours in town before a position was offered to H. which seemed providential. The chief of a certain department was in ill-health and wanted a deputy. It secures him from conscription, requires no oath, and pays a good salary. A mountain seemed lifted off my heart.
Thursday, Sept. 18. (Thanksgiving Day.) —We staid three days at the Washington Hotel; then a friend of H.’s called and told him to come to his house till he could find a home. Boarding-houses have all been broken up, and the army has occupied the few houses that were for rent. To-day H. secured a vacant room for two weeks in the only boardinghouse.
Oak Haven, Oct. 3.—To get a house in V. proved impossible, so we agreed to part for a time till H. could find one. A friend recommended this quiet farm, six miles from [a station on the Jackson Railroad]. On last Saturday H. came with me as far as Jackson and put me on the other train for the station.
On my way hither a lady, whom I judged to be a Confederate “blockade runner,” told me of the tricks resorted to to (sic) get things out of New Orleans, including this: A very large doll was emptied of its bran, filled with quinine, and elaborately dressed. When the owner s trunk was opened, she declared with tears that the doll was for a poor crippled girl, and it was passed.
This farm of Mr. W.’s is kept with about forty negroes. Mr. W., nearly sixty, is the only white man on it. He seems to have been wiser in the beginning than most others, and curtailed his cotton to make room for rye, rice, and corn. There is a large vegetable garden and orchard; he has bought plenty of stock for beef and mutton, and laid in a large supply of sugar. He must also have plenty of ammunition, for a man is kept hunting and supplies the table with delicious wild turkeys and other game. There is abundance of milk and butter, hives for honey, and no end of pigs. Chickens seem to be kept like game in parks, for I never see any, but the hunter shoots them, and eggs are plentiful. We have chicken for breakfast, dinner, and supper, fried, stewed, broiled, and in soup, and there is a family of ten. Luckily I never tire of it. They make starch out of corn-meal by washing the meal repeatedly, pouring off the water and drying the sediment. Truly the uses of corn in the Confederacy are varied. It makes coffee, beer, whisky, starch, cake, bread. The only privations here are the lack of coffee, tea, salt, matches, and good candles. Mr. W. is now having the dirt-floor of his smoke-house dug up and boiling from it the salt that has dripped into it for years. To-day Mrs. W. made tea out of dried blackberry leaves, but no one liked it. The beds, made out of equal parts of cotton and corn-shucks, are the most elastic I ever slept in. The servants are dressed in gray homespun. Hester, the chambermaid, has a gray gown so pretty that I covet one like it. Mrs. W. is now arranging dyes for the thread to be woven into dresses for herself and the girls. Sometimes her hands are a curiosity.
The school at the nearest town is broken up and Mrs. W. says the children are growing up heathens. Mr. W. has offered me a liberal price to give the children lessons in English and French, and I have accepted transiently.
Oct. 28.— It is a month to-day since I came here. I only wish H. could share these benefits — the nourishing food, the pure aromatic air, the sound sleep away from the fevered life of Vicksburg. He sends me all the papers he can get hold of, and we both watch carefully the movements reported lest an army should get between us. The days are full of useful work, and in the lovely afternoons I take long walks with a big dog for company. The girls do not care for walking. In the evening Mr. W. begs me to read aloud all the war news. He is fond of the “Memphis Appeal,” which has moved from town to town so much that they call it the “Moving Appeal.” I sit in a low chair by the fire, as we have no other light to read by. Sometimes traveling soldiers stop here, but that is rare.
Oct. 31.—Mr. W. said last night the farmers felt uneasy about the “Emancipation Proclamation” to take effect in December. The slaves have found it out, though it had been carefully kept from them.
“Do yours know it?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. Finding it to be known elsewhere, I told it to mine with fair warning what to expect if they tried to run away. The hounds are not far off.”
The need of clothing for their armies is worrying them too. I never saw Mrs. W. so excited as on last evening. She said the provost-marshal at the next town had ordered the women to knit so many pairs of socks.
“Just let him try to enforce it and they will cow-bide him. He’ll get none from me. I’ll take care of my own friends without an order from him.”
“Well,” said Mr. W., “if the South is defeated and the slaves set free, the Southern people will all become atheists, for the Bible justifies slavery and says it shall be perpetual.”
“You mean, if the Lord does not agree with you, you ‘11 repudiate him.”
“Well, we’11 feel it ‘s no use to believe in anything.”
At night the large sitting-room makes a striking picture. Mr. W., spare, erect, grayheaded, patriarchal, sits in his big chair by the odorous fire of pine logs and knots roaring up the vast fireplace. His driver brings to him the report of the day’s picking and a basket of snowy cotton for the spinning. The hunter brings in the game. I sit on the other side to read. The great spinning wheels stand at the other end of the room, and Mrs. W. and her black satellites, the elderly women their heads in bright bandanas, are hard at work. Slender and auburn-haired, she steps back and forth out of shadow into shine following the thread with graceful movements. Some card the cotton, some reel it into hanks. Over all the firelight glances, now touching the golden curls of little John toddling about, now the brown heads of the girls stooping over their books, now the shadowy figure of little Jule, the girl whose duty it is to supply the fire with rich pine to keep up the vivid light. If they would only let the child sit down! But that is not allowed, and she gets sleepy and stumbles and knocks her head against the wall and then straightens up again. When that happens often it drives me off. Sometimes while I read the bright room fades and a vision rises of figures clad in gray and blue lying pale and stiff on the blood-sprinkled ground.
Nov. 15.—Yesterday a letter was handed me from H. Grant’s army was moving, he wrote, steadily down the Mississippi Central and might cut the road at Jackson. He has a house and will meet me in Jackson to-morrow.
Nov. 20. (Vicksburg.) — A fair morning for my journey back to Vicksburg. On the train was the gentleman who in New Orleans had told us we should have all the butter we wanted from Texas. On the cars, as elsewhere, the question of food alternated with news of the war.
When we ran into the Jackson station H. was on the platform, and I gladly learned that we could go right on. A runaway negro, an old man, ashy colored from fright and exhaustion, with his hands chained, was being dragged along by a common-looking man. Just as we started out of Jackson the conductor led in a young woman sobbing in a heart-broken manner. Her grief seemed so overpowering, and she was so young and helpless, that every one was interested. Her husband went into the army in the opening of the war, just after their marriage, and she had never heard from him since. After months of weary searching she learned he had been heard of at Jackson, and came full of hope, but found no clue. The sudden breaking down of her hope was terrible. The conductor placed her in care of a gentleman going her way and left her sobbing. At the next station the conductor came to ask her about her baggage. She raised her head to try and answer. “Don’t cry so, you’ll find him yet.” She gave a start, jumped from her seat with arms flung out and eyes staring. “There he is now!” she cried. Her husband stood before her.
The gentleman beside her yielded his seat, and as hand grasped hand a hysterical gurgle gave place to a look like Heaven’s peace. The low murmur of their talk began, and when I looked round at the next station they had bought pies and were eating them together like happy children.
Midway between Jackson and Vicksburg we reached the station near where Annie’s parents were staying. I looked out, and there stood Annie with a little sister on each side of her, brightly smiling at us. Max had written to H., but we had not seen them since our parting. There was only time for a word and the train flashed away.
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