To whatever period of life my days may be prolonged, I do not think that I shall ever forget Cairo. I do not mean Grand Cairo, which is also memorable in its way, and a place not to be forgotten, but Cairo in the State of Illinois, which by native Americans is always called Caaro. An idea is prevalent in the States — and I think I have heard the same broached in England — that a popular British author had Cairo, State of Illinois, in his eye when, under the name of Eden, he depicted a chosen, happy spot on the Mississippi River, and told us how certain English immigrants fixed themselves in that locality, and there made light of those little ills of life which are incident to humanity even in the garden of the valley of the Mississippi. But I doubt whether that author ever visited Cairo in midwinter, and I am sure that he never visited Cairo when Cairo was the seat of an American army. Had he done so, his love of truth would have forbidden him to presume that even Mark Tapley could have enjoyed himself in such an Eden.
I had no wish myself to go to Cairo, having heard it but indifferently spoken of by all men; but my friend with whom I was traveling was peremptory in the matter. He had heard of gun-boats and mortar-boats, of forts built upon the river, of Columbiads, Dahlgrens, and Parrotts, of all the pomps and circumstance of glorious war, and entertained an idea that Cairo was the nucleus or pivot of all really strategetic movements in this terrible national struggle. Under such circumstances I was as it were forced to go to Cairo, and bore myself, under the circumstances, as much like Mark Tapley as my nature would permit. I was not jolly while I was there certainly, but I did not absolutely break down and perish in its mud.
Cairo is the southern terminus of the Illinois Central Railway. There is but one daily arrival there, namely, at half-past four in the morning; and but one dispatch, which is at half-past three in the morning. Everything is thus done to assist that view of life which Mark Tapley took when he resolved to ascertain under what possible worst circumstances of existence he could still maintain his jovial character. Why anybody should ever arrive at Cairo at half-past four A.M., I cannot understand. The departure at any hour is easy of comprehension. The place is situated exactly at the point at which the Ohio and the Mississippi meet, and is, I should say — merely guessing on the matter — some ten or twelve feet lower than the winter level of the two rivers. This gives it naturally a depressed appearance, which must have much aided Mark Tapley in his endeavors. Who were the founders of Cairo I have never ascertained. They are probably buried fathoms deep in the mud, and their names will no doubt remain a mystery to the latest ages. They were brought thither, I presume, by the apparent water privileges of the place; but the water privileges have been too much for them, and by the excess of their powers have succeeded in drowning all the capital of the early Cairovians, and in throwing a wet blanket of thick, moist, glutinous dirt over all their energies.
The free State of Illinois runs down far south between the slave States of Kentucky to the east, and of Missouri to the west, and is the most southern point of the continuous free-soil territory of the Northern States. This point of it is a part of a district called Egypt, which is as fertile as the old country from whence it has borrowed a name; but it suffers under those afflictions which are common to all newly-settled lands which owe their fertility to the vicinity of great rivers. Fever and ague universally prevail. Men and women grow up with their lantern faces like specters. The children are prematurely old; and the earth, which is so fruitful, is hideous in its fertility. Cairo and its immediate neighborhood must, I suppose, have been subject to yearly inundation before it was “settled up.” At present it is guarded on the shores of each river by high mud banks, built so as to protect the point of land. These are called the levees, and do perform their duty by keeping out the body of the waters. The shore between the banks is, I believe, never above breast-deep with the inundation; and from the circumstances of the place, and the soft, half-liquid nature of the soil, this inundation generally takes the shape of mud instead of water.
Here, at the very point, has been built a town. Whether the town existed during Mr. Tapley’s time I have not been able to learn. At the period of my visit it was falling quickly into ruin; indeed, I think I may pronounce it to have been on its last legs. At that moment a galvanic motion had been pumped into it by the war movements of General Halleck; but the true bearings of the town, as a town, were not less plainly to be read on that account. Every street was absolutely impassable from mud. I mean that in walking down the middle of any street in Cairo, a moderately-framed man would soon stick fast, and not be able to move. The houses are generally built at considerable intervals, and rarely face each other; and along one side of each street a plank boarding was laid, on which the mud had accumulated only up to one’s ankles. I walked all over Cairo with big boots, and with my trowsers tucked up to my knees; but at the crossings I found considerable danger, and occasionally had my doubts as to the possibility of progress. I was alone in my work, and saw no one else making any such attempt. But few only were moving about, and they moved in wretched carts, each drawn by two miserable, floundering horses. These carts were always empty, but were presumed to be engaged in some way on military service. No faces looked out at the windows of the houses, no forms stood in the doorways. A few shops were open, but only in the drinking-shops did I see customers. In these, silent, muddy men were sitting, not with drink before them, as men sit with us, but with the cud within their jaws, ruminating. Their drinking is always done on foot. They stand silent at a bar, with two small glasses before them. Out of one they swallow the whisky, and from the other they take a gulp of water, as though to rinse their mouths. After that, they again sit down and ruminate. It was thus that men enjoyed themselves at Cairo.
I cannot tell what was the existing population of Cairo. I asked one resident; but he only shook his head and said that the place was about “played out.” And a miserable play it must have been. I tried to walk round the point on the levees, but I found that the mud was so deep and slippery on that which protected the town from the Mississippi that I could not move on it. On the other, which forms the bank of the Ohio, the railway runs, and here was gathered all the life and movement of the place. But the life was galvanic in its nature, created by a war galvanism of which the shocks were almost neutralized by mud.
As Cairo is of all towns in America the most desolate, so is its hotel the most forlorn and wretched. Not that it lacked custom. It was so full that no room was to be had on our first entry from the railway cars at five A.M., and we were reduced to the necessity of washing our hands and faces in the public wash-room. When I entered it the barber and his assistants were asleep there, and four or five citizens from the railway were busy at the basins. There is a fixed resolution in these places that you shall be drenched with dirt and drowned in abominations, which is overpowering to a mind less strong than Mark Tapley’s. The filth is paraded and made to go as far as possible. The stranger is spared none of the elements of nastiness. I remember how an old woman once stood over me in my youth, forcing me to swallow the gritty dregs of her terrible medicine cup. The treatment I received in the hotel at Cairo reminded me of that old woman. In that room I did not dare to brush my teeth lest I should give offense; and I saw at once that I was regarded with suspicion when I used my own comb instead of that provided for the public.
At length we got a room, one room for the two. I had become so depressed in spirits that I did not dare to object to this arrangement. My friend could not complain much, even to me, feeling that these miseries had been produced by his own obstinacy. “It is a new phase of life,” he said. That at any rate was true. If nothing more be necessary for pleasurable excitement than a new phase of life, I would recommend all who require pleasurable excitement to go to Cairo. They will certainly find a new phase of life. But do not let them remain too long, or they may find something beyond a new phase of life. Within a week of that time my friend was taking quinine, looking hollow about the eyes, and whispering to me of fever and ague. To say that there was nothing eatable or drinkable in that hotel, would be to tell that which will be understood without telling. My friend, however, was a cautious man, carrying with him comfortable tin pots, hermetically sealed, from Fortnum & Mason’s; and on the second day of our sojourn we were invited by two officers to join their dinner at a Cairo eating-house. We plowed our way gallantly through the mud to a little shanty, at the door of which we were peremptorily commanded by the landlord to scrub ourselves, before we entered, with the stump of an old broom. This we did, producing on our nether persons the appearance of bread which has been carefully spread with treacle by an economic housekeeper. And the proprietor was right, for had we not done so, the treacle would have run off through the whole house. But after this we fared royally. Squirrel soup and prairie chickens regaled us. One of our new friends had laden his pockets with champagne and brandy; the other with glasses and a corkscrew; and as the bottle went round, I began to feel something of the spirit of Mark Tapley in my soul.
But our visit to Cairo had been made rather with reference to its present warlike character than with any eye to the natural beauties of the place. A large force of men had been collected there, and also a fleet of gun-boats. We had come there fortified with letters to generals and commodores, and were prepared to go through a large amount of military inspection. But the bird had flown before our arrival; or rather the body and wings of the bird, leaving behind only a draggled tail and a few of its feathers. There were only a thousand soldiers at Cairo when we were there — that is, a thousand stationed in the Cairo sheds. Two regiments passed through the place during the time, getting out of one steamer on to another, or passing from the railway into boats. One of these regiments passed before me down the slope of the river bank, and the men as a body seemed to be healthy. Very many were drunk, and all were mud-clogged up to their shoulders and very caps. In other respects they appeared to be in good order. It must be understood that these soldiers, the volunteers, had never been made subject to any discipline as to cleanliness. They wore their hair long. Their hats or caps, though all made in some military form and with some military appendance, were various and ill assorted. They all were covered with loose, thick, blue-gray great-coats, which no doubt were warm and wholesome, but which from their looseness and color seemed to be peculiarly susceptible of receiving and showing a very large amount of mud. Their boots were always good; but each man was shod as he liked. Many wore heavy overboots coming up the leg — boots of excellent manufacture, and from their cost, if for no other reason, quite out of the reach of an English soldier — boots in which a man would be not at all unfortunate to find himself hunting; but from these, or from their high-lows, shoes, or whatever they might wear, the mud had never been even scraped. These men were all warmly clothed, but clothed apparently with an endeavor to contract as much mud as might be possible.
The generals and commodores were gone up the Ohio River and up the Tennessee in an expedition with gunboats, which turned out to be successful, and of which we have all read in the daily history of this war. They had departed the day before our arrival; and though we still found at Cairo a squadron of gun-boats — if gun-boats go in squadrons — the bulk of the army had been moved. There were left there one regiment and one colonel, who kindly described to us the battles he had fought, and gave us permission to see everything that was to be seen. Four of these gun-boats were still lying in the Ohio, close under the terminus of the railway, with their flat, ugly noses against the muddy bank; and we were shown over two of them. They certainly seemed to be formidable weapons for river warfare, and to have been “got up quite irrespective of expense.” So much, indeed, may be said for the Americans throughout the war. They cannot be accused of parsimony. The largest of these vessels, called the “Benton,” had cost 36,000l. These boats are made with sides sloping inward at an angle of forty-five degrees. The iron is two and a half inches thick, and it has not, I believe, been calculated that this will resist cannon-shot of great weight, should it be struck in a direct line. But the angle of the sides of the boat makes it improbable that any such shot should strike them; and the iron, bedded as it is upon oak, is supposed to be sufficient to turn a shot that does not hit it in a direct line. The boats are also roofed in with iron; and the pilots who steer the vessel stand incased, as it were, under an iron cupola. I imagine that these boats are well calculated for the river service, for which they have been built. Six or seven of them had gone up the Tennessee River the day before we reached Cairo; and while we were there they succeeded in knocking down Fort Henry, and in carrying off the soldiers stationed there and the officer in command. One of the boats, however, had been penetrated by a shot, which made its way into the boiler; and the men on deck — six, I think, in number — were scalded to death by the escaping steam. The two pilots up in the cupola were destroyed in this terrible manner. As they were altogether closed in by the iron roof and sides, there was no escape for the steam. The boats, however, were well made and very powerfully armed, and will probably succeed in driving the secessionist armies away from the great river banks. By what machinery the secessionist armies are to be followed into the interior is altogether another question.
But there was also another fleet at Cairo, and we were informed that we were just in time to see the first essay made at testing the utility of this armada. It consisted of no less than thirty-eight mortar-boats, each of which had cost 1700l. These mortar-boats were broad, flat-bottomed rafts, each constructed with a deck raised three feet above the bottom. They were protected by high iron sides supposed to be proof against rifle-balls, and, when supplied, had been furnished each with a little boat, a rope, and four rough sweeps or oars. They had no other furniture or belongings, and were to be moved either by steam-tugs or by the use of the long oars which were sent with them. It was intended that one 13-inch mortar, of enormous weight, should be put upon each; that these mortars should be fired with twenty-three pounds of powder; and that the shell thrown should, at a distance of three miles, fall with absolute precision into any devoted town which the rebels might hold the river banks. The grandeur of the idea is almost sublime. So large an amount of powder had, I imagine, never then been used for the single charge in any instrument of war; and when we were told that thirty-eight of them were to play at once on a city, and that they could be used with absolute precision, it seemed as though the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah could not be worse than the fate of that city. Could any city be safe when such implements of war were about upon the waters?
But when we came to inspect the mortar-boats, our misgivings as to any future destination for this fleet were relieved; and our admiration was given to the smartness of the contractor who had secured to himself the job of building them. In the first place, they had all leaked till the spaces between the bottoms and the decks were filled with water. This space had been intended for ammunition, but now seemed hardly to be fitted for that purpose. The officer who was about to test them, by putting a mortar into one and by firing it off with twenty-three pounds of powder, had the water pumped out of a selected raft; and we were towed by a steam-tug, from their moorings a mile up the river, down to the spot where the mortar lay ready to be lifted in by a derrick. But as we turned on the river, the tug-boat which had brought us down was unable to hold us up against the force of the stream. A second tug-boat was at hand; and, with one on each side, we were just able in half an hour to recover the hundred yards which we had lost down the river. The pressure against the stream was so great, owing partly to the weight of the raft and partly to the fact that its flat head buried itself in the water, that it was almost immovable against the stream, although the mortar was not yet on it.
It soon became manifest that no trial could be made on that day, and so we were obliged to leave Cairo without having witnessed the firing of the great gun. My belief is that very little evil to the enemy will result from those mortar-boats, and that they cannot be used with much effect. Since that time they have been used on the Mississippi, but as yet we do not know with what results. Island No. 10 has been taken; but I do not know that the mortar-boats contributed much to that success. But the enormous cost of moving them against the stream of the river is in itself a barrier to their use. When we saw them — and then they were quite new — many of the rivets were already gone. The small boats had been stolen from some of them, and the ropes and oars from others. There they lay, thirty-eight in number, up against the mud banks of the Ohio, under the boughs of the half-clad, melancholy forest trees, as sad a spectacle of reckless prodigality as the eye ever beheld. But the contractor who made them no doubt was a smart man.
This armada was moored on the Ohio, against the low, reedy bank, a mile above the levee, where the old, unchanged forest of nature came down to the very edge of the river, and mixed itself with the shallow, overflowing waters. I am wrong in saying that it lay under the boughs of the trees, for such trees do not spread themselves out with broad branches. They stand thickly together, broken, stunted, spongy with rot, straight, and ugly, with ragged tops and shattered arms, seemingly decayed, but still ever renewing themselves with the rapid, moist life of luxuriant forest vegetation. Nothing to my eyes is sadder than the monotonous desolation of such scenery. We in England, when we read and speak of the primeval forests of America, are apt to form pictures in our minds of woodland glades, with spreading oaks, and green, mossy turf beneath — of scenes than which nothing that God has given us is more charming. But these forests are not after that fashion; they offer no allurement to the lover, no solace to the melancholy man of thought. The ground is deep with mud or overflown with water. The soil and the river have no defined margins. Each tree, though full of the forms of life, has all the appearance of death. Even to the outward eye they seem to be laden with ague, fever, sudden chills, and pestilential malaria.
When we first visited the spot we were alone, and we walked across from the railway line to the place at which the boats were moored. They lay in treble rank along the shore, and immediately above them an old steamboat was fastened against the bank. Her back was broken, and she was given up to ruin — placed there that she might rot quietly into her watery grave. It was midwinter, and every tree was covered with frozen sleet and small particles of snow which had drizzled through the air; for the snow had not fallen in hearty, honest flakes. The ground beneath our feet was crisp with frost, but traitorous in its crispness; not frozen manfully so as to bear a man’s weight, but ready at every point to let him through into the fat, glutinous mud below. I never saw a sadder picture, or one which did more to awaken pity for those whose fate had fixed their abodes in such a locality. And yet there was a beauty about it too — a melancholy, death-like beauty. The disordered ruin and confused decay of the forest was all gemmed with particles of ice. The eye reaching through the thin underwood could form for itself picturesque shapes and solitary bowers of broken wood, which were bright with the opaque brightness of the hoar-frost. The great river ran noiselessly along, rapid but still with an apparent lethargy in its waters. The ground beneath our feet was fertile beyond compare, but as yet fertile to death rather than to life. Where we then trod man had not yet come with his axe and his plow; but the railroad was close to us, and within a mile of the spot thousands of dollars had been spent in raising a city which was to have been rich with the united wealth of the rivers and the land. Hitherto fever and ague, mud and malaria, had been too strong for man, and the dollars had been spent in vain. The day, however, will come when this promontory between the two great rivers will be a fit abode for industry. Men will settle there, wandering down from the North and East, and toil sadly, and leave their bones among the mud. Thin, pale-faced, joyless mothers will come there, and grow old before their time; and sickly children will be born, struggling up with wan faces to their sad life’s labor. But the work will go on, for it is God’s work; and the earth will be prepared for the people and the fat rottenness of the still living forest will be made to give forth its riches.
We found that two days at Cairo were quite enough for us. We had seen the gun-boats and the mortar-boats, and gone through the sheds of the soldiers. The latter were bad, comfortless, damp, and cold; and certain quarters of the officers, into which we were hospitably taken, were wretched abodes enough; but the sheds of Cairo did not stink like those of Benton Barracks at St. Louis, nor had illness been prevalent there to the same degree. I do not know why this should have been so, but such was the result of my observation. The locality of Benton Barracks must, from its nature, have been the more healthy, but it had become by art the foulest place I ever visited. Throughout the army it seemed to be the fact, that the men under canvas were more comfortable, in better spirits, and also in better health, than those who were lodged in sheds. We had inspected the Cairo army and the Cairo navy, and had also seen all that Cairo had to show us of its own. We were thoroughly disgusted with the hotel, and retired on the second night to bed, giving positive orders that we might be called at half-past two, with reference to that terrible start to be made at half-past three. As a matter of course we kept dozing and waking till past one, in our fear lest neglect on the part of the watcher should entail on us another day at this place; of course we went fast asleep about the time at which we should have roused ourselves; and of course we were called just fifteen minutes before the train started. Everybody knows how these things always go. And then the pair of us jumping out of bed in that wretched chamber, went through the mockery of washing and packing which always takes place on such occasions; a mockery indeed of washing, for there was but one basin between us! And a mockery also of packing, for I left my hair-brushes behind me! Cairo was avenged in that I had declined to avail myself of the privileges of free citizenship which had been offered to me in that barber’s shop. And then, while we were in our agony, pulling at the straps of our portmanteaus and swearing at the faithlessness of the boots, up came the clerk of the hotel — the great man from behind the bar — and scolded us prodigiously for our delay. “Called! We had been called an hour ago!” Which statement, however, was decidedly untrue, as we remarked, not with extreme patience. “We should certainly be late,” he said; “it would take us five minutes to reach the train, and the cars would be off in four.” Nobody who has not experienced them can understand the agonies of such moments — of such moments as regards traveling in general; but none who have not been at Cairo can understand the extreme agony produced by the threat of a prolonged sojourn in that city. At last we were out of the house, rushing through the mud, slush, and half-melted snow, along the wooden track to the railway, laden with bags and coats, and deafened by that melancholy, wailing sound, as though of a huge polar she-bear in the pangs of travail upon an iceberg, which proceeds from an American railway-engine before it commences its work. How we slipped and stumbled, and splashed and swore, rushing along in the dark night, with buttons loose, and our clothes half on! And how pitilessly we were treated! We gained our cars, and even succeeded in bringing with us our luggage; but we did not do so with the sympathy, but amid the derision of the by-standers. And then the seats were all full, and we found that there was a lower depth even in the terrible deep of a railway train in a Western State. There was a second-class carriage, prepared, I presume, for those who esteemed themselves too dirty for association with the aristocracy of Cairo; and into this we flung ourselves. Even this was a joy to us, for we were being carried away from Eden. We had acknowledged ourselves to be no fitting colleagues for Mark Tapley, and would have been glad to escape from Cairo even had we worked our way out of the place as assistant stokers to the engine-driver. Poor Cairo! unfortunate Cairo! “It is about played out!” said its citizen to me. But in truth the play was commenced a little too soon. Those players have played out; but another set will yet have their innings, and make a score that shall perhaps be talked of far and wide in the Western World.
We were still bent upon army inspection, and with this purpose went back from Cairo to Louisville, in Kentucky. I had passed through Louisville before, as told in my last chapter, but had not gone south from Louisville toward the Green River, and had seen nothing of General Buell’s soldiers. I should have mentioned before that when we were at St. Louis, we asked General Halleck, the officer in command of the Northern army of Missouri, whether he could allow us to pass through his lines to the South. This he assured us he was forbidden to do, at the same time offering us every facility in his power for such an expedition if we could obtain the consent of Mr. Seward, who at that time had apparently succeeded in engrossing into his own hands, for the moment, supreme authority in all matters of government. Before leaving Washington we had determined not to ask Mr. Seward, having but little hope of obtaining his permission, and being unwilling to encounter his refusal. Before going to General Halleck, we had considered the question of visiting the land of “Dixie” without permission from any of the men in authority. I ascertained that this might easily have been done from Kentucky to Tennessee, but that it could only be done on foot. There are very few available roads running North and South through these States. The railways came before roads; and even where the railways are far asunder, almost all the traffic of the country takes itself to them, preferring a long circuitous conveyance with steam, to short distances without. Consequently such roads as there are run laterally to the railways, meeting them at this point or that, and thus maintaining the communication of the country. Now the railways were of course in the hands of the armies. The few direct roads leading from North to South were in the same condition, and the by-roads were impassable from mud. The frontier of the North, therefore, though very extended, was not very easily to be passed, unless, as I have said before, by men on foot. For myself I confess that I was anxious to go South; but not to do so without my coats and trowsers, or shirts and pocket-handkerchiefs. The readiest way of getting across the line — and the way which was, I believe, the most frequently used — was from below Baltimore, in Maryland, by boat across the Potomac. But in this there was a considerable danger of being taken, and I had no desire to become a state-prisoner in the hands of Mr. Seward under circumstances which would have justified our Minister in asking for my release only as a matter of favor. Therefore, when at St. Louis, I gave up all hopes of seeing “Dixie” during my present stay in America. I presume it to be generally known that Dixie is the negro’s heaven, and that the Southern slave States, in which it is presumed that they have found a Paradise, have since the beginning of the war been so named.
We remained a few days at Louisville, and were greatly struck with the natural beauty of the country around it. Indeed, as far as I was enabled to see, Kentucky has superior attractions, as a place of rural residence for an English gentleman, to any other State in the Union. There is nothing of landscape there equal to the banks of the Upper Mississippi, or to some parts of the Hudson River. It has none of the wild grandeur of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, nor does it break itself into valleys equal to those of the Alleghanies, in Pennsylvania. But all those are beauties for the tourist rather than for the resident. In Kentucky the land lays in knolls and soft sloping hills. The trees stand apart, forming forest openings. The herbage is rich, and the soil, though not fertile like the prairies of Illinois, or the river bottoms of the Mississippi and its tributaries, is good, steadfast, wholesome farming ground. It is a fine country for a resident gentleman farmer, and in its outward aspect reminds me more of England in its rural aspects than any other State which I visited. Round Louisville there are beautiful sites for houses, of which advantage in some instances has been taken. But, nevertheless, Louisville, though a well-built, handsome city, is not now a thriving city. I liked it because the hotel was above par, and because the country round it was good for walking; but it has not advanced as Cincinnati and St. Louis have advanced. And yet its position on the Ohio is favorable, and it is well circumstanced as regards the wants of its own State. But it is not a free-soil city. Nor, indeed, is St. Louis; but St. Louis is tending that way, and has but little to do with the “domestic institution.” At the hotels in Cincinnati and St. Louis you are served by white men, and are very badly served. At Louisville the ministration is by black men, “bound to labor.” The difference in the comfort is very great. The white servants are noisy, dirty, forgetful, indifferent, and sometimes impudent. The negroes are the very reverse of all this; you cannot hurry them; but in all other respects — and perhaps even in that respect also — they are good servants. This is the work for which they seem to have been intended. But nevertheless where they are, life and energy seem to languish, and prosperity cannot make any true advance. They are symbols of the luxury of the white men who employ them, and as such are signs of decay and emblems of decreasing power. They are good laborers themselves, but their very presence makes labor dishonorable. That Kentucky will speedily rid herself of the institution, I believe firmly. When she has so done, the commercial city of that State may perhaps go ahead again like her sisters.
At this very time the Federal army was commencing that series of active movements in Kentucky, and through Tennessee, which led to such important results, and gave to the North the first solid victories which they had gained since the contest began. On the nineteenth of January, one wing of General Buell’s army, under General Thomas, had defeated the secessionists near Somerset, in the southeastern district of Kentucky, under General Zollicoffer, who was there killed. But in that action the attack was made by Zollicoffer and the secessionists. When we were at Louisville we heard of the success of that gun-boat expedition up the Tennessee river by which Fort Henry was taken. Fort Henry had been built by the Confederates on the Tennessee, exactly on the confines of the States of Tennessee and Kentucky. They had also another fort, Fort Donelson, on the Cumberland River, which at that point runs parallel to the Tennessee, and is there distant from it but a very few miles. Both these rivers run into the Ohio. Nashville, which is the capital of Tennessee, is higher up on the Cumberland; and it was now intended to send the gun-boats down the Tennessee back into the Ohio, and thence up the Cumberland, there to attack Fort Donelson, and afterward to assist General Buell’s army in making its way down to Nashville. The gun-boats were attached to General Halleck’s army, and received their directions from St. Louis. General Buell’s headquarters were at Louisville, and his advanced position was on the Green River, on the line of the railway from Louisville to Nashville. The secessionists had destroyed the railway bridge over the Green River, and were now lying at Bowling Green, between the Green River and Nashville. This place it was understood that they had fortified.
Matters were in this position when we got a military pass to go down by the railway to the army on the Green River, for the railway was open to no one without a military pass; and we started, trusting that Providence would supply us with rations and quarters. An officer attached to General Buell’s staff, with whom however our acquaintance was of the very slightest, had telegraphed down to say that we were coming. I cannot say that I expected much from the message, seeing that it simply amounted to a very thin introduction to a general officer to whom we were strangers even by name, from a gentleman to whom we had brought a note from another gentleman whose acquaintance we had chanced to pick up on the road. We manifestly had no right to expect much; but to us, expecting very little, very much was given. General Johnson was the officer to whose care we were confided, he being a brigadier under General McCook, who commanded the advance. We were met by an aid-de-camp and saddle-horses, and soon found ourselves in the general’s tent, or rather in a shanty formed of solid upright wooden logs, driven into the ground with the bark still on, and having the interstices filled in with clay. This was roofed with canvas, and altogether made a very eligible military residence. The general slept in a big box, about nine feet long and four broad, which occupied one end of the shanty, and he seemed in all his fixings to be as comfortably put up as any gentleman might be when out on such a picnic as this. We arrived in time for dinner, which was brought in, table and all, by two negroes. The party was made up by a doctor, who carved, and two of the staff, and a very nice dinner we had. In half an hour we were intimate with the whole party, and as familiar with the things around us as though we had been living in tents all our lives. Indeed, I had by this time been so often in the tents of the Northern army, that I almost felt entitled to make myself at home. It has seemed to me that an Englishman has always been made welcome in these camps. There has been and is at this moment a terribly bitter feeling among Americans against England, and I have heard this expressed quite as loudly by men in the army as by civilians; but I think I may say that this has never been brought to bear upon individual intercourse. Certainly we have said some very sharp things of them — words which, whether true or false, whether deserved or undeserved, must have been offensive to them. I have known this feeling of offense to amount almost to an agony of anger. But nevertheless I have never seen any falling off in the hospitality and courtesy generally shown by a civilized people to passing visitors, I have argued the matter of England’s course throughout the war, till I have been hoarse with asseverating the rectitude of her conduct and her national unselfishness. I have met very strong opponents on the subject, and have been coerced into loud strains of voice; but I never yet met one American who was personally uncivil to me as an Englishman, or who seemed to be made personally angry by my remarks. I found no coldness in that hospitality to which as a stranger I was entitled, because of the national ill feeling which circumstances have engendered. And while on this subject I will remark that, when traveling, I have found it expedient to let those with whom I might chance to talk know at once that I was an Englishman. In fault of such knowledge things would be said which could not but be disagreeable to me; but not even from any rough Western enthusiast in a railway carriage have I ever heard a word spoken insolently to England, after I had made my nationality known. I have learned that Wellington was beaten at Waterloo; that Lord Palmerston was so unpopular that he could not walk alone in the streets; that the House of Commons was an acknowledged failure; that starvation was the normal condition of the British people, and that the queen was a blood-thirsty tyrant. But these assertions were not made with the intention that they should be heard by an Englishman. To us as a nation they are at the present moment unjust almost beyond belief; but I do not think that the feeling has ever taken the guise of personal discourtesy.
We spent two days in the camp close upon the Green River, and I do not know that I enjoyed any days of my trip more thoroughly than I did these. In truth, for the last month since I had left Washington, my life had not been one of enjoyment. I had been rolling in mud and had been damp with filth. Camp Wood, as they called this military settlement on the Green River, was also muddy; but we were excellently well mounted; the weather was very cold, but peculiarly fine, and the soldiers around us, as far as we could judge, seemed to be better off in all respects than those we had visited at St. Louis, at Rolla, or at Cairo. They were all in tents, and seemed to be light-spirited and happy. Their rations were excellent; but so much may, I think, be said of the whole Northern army, from Alexandria on the Potomac to Springfield in the west of Missouri. There was very little illness at that time in the camp in Kentucky, and the reports made to us led us to think that on the whole this had been the most healthy division of the army. The men, moreover, were less muddy than their brethren either east or west of them — at any rate this may be said of them as regards the infantry.
But perhaps the greatest charm of the place to me was the beauty of the scenery. The Green River at this spot is as picturesque a stream as I ever remember to have seen in such a country. It lies low down between high banks, and curves hither and thither, never keeping a straight line. Its banks are wooded; but not, as is so common in America, by continuous, stunted, uninteresting forest, but by large single trees standing on small patches of meadow by the water side, with the high banks rising over them, with glades through them open for the horseman. The rides here in summer must be very lovely. Even in winter they were so, and made me in love with the place in spite of that brown, dull, barren aspect which the presence of an army always creates. I have said that the railway bridge which crossed the Green River at this spot had been destroyed by the secessionists. This had been done effectually as regarded the passage of trains, but only in part as regarded the absolute fabric of the bridge. It had been, and still was when I saw it, a beautifully light construction, made of iron and supported over a valley, rather than over a river, on tall stone piers. One of these piers had been blown up; but when we were there, the bridge had been repaired with beams and wooden shafts. This had just been completed, and an engine had passed over it. I must confess that it looked to me most perilously insecure; but the eye uneducated in such mysteries is a bad judge of engineering work. I passed with a horse backward and forward on it, and it did not tumble down then; but I confess that on the first attempt I was glad enough to lead the horse by the bridle.
That bridge was certainly a beautiful fabric, and built in a most lovely spot. Immediately under it there was also a pontoon bridge. The tents of General McCook’s division were immediately at the northern end of it, and the whole place was alive with soldiers, nailing down planks, pulling up temporary rails at each side, carrying over straw for the horses, and preparing for the general advance of the troops. It was a glorious day. There had been heavy frost at night; but the air was dry, and the sun though cold was bright. I do not know when I saw a prettier picture. It would perhaps have been nothing without the loveliness of the river scenery; but the winding of the stream at the spot, the sharp wooded hills on each side, the forest openings, and the busy, eager, strange life together filled the place with no common interest. The officers of the army at the spot spoke with bitterest condemnation of the vandalism of their enemy in destroying the bridge. The justice of the indignation I ventured very strongly to question. “Surely you would have destroyed their bridge?” I said. “But they are rebels,” was the answer. It has been so throughout the contest; and the same argument has been held by soldiers and by non-soldiers — by women and by men. “Grant that they are rebels,” I have answered. “But when rebels fight they cannot be expected to be more scrupulous in their mode of doing so than their enemies who are not rebels.” The whole population of the North has from the beginning of this war considered themselves entitled to all the privileges of belligerents; but have called their enemies Goths and Vandals for even claiming those privileges for themselves. The same feeling was at the bottom of their animosity against England. Because the South was in rebellion, England should have consented to allow the North to assume all the rights of a belligerent, and should have denied all those rights to the South! Nobody has seemed to understand that any privilege which a belligerent can claim must depend on the very fact of his being in encounter with some other party having the same privilege. Our press has animadverted very strongly on the States government for the apparent untruthfulness of their arguments on this matter; but I profess that I believe that Mr. Seward and his colleagues — and not they only but the whole nation — have so thoroughly deceived themselves on this subject, have so talked and speechified themselves into a misunderstanding of the matter, that they have taught themselves to think that the men of the South could be entitled to no consideration from any quarter. To have rebelled against the stars and stripes seems to a Northern man to be a crime putting the criminal altogether out of all courts — a crime which should have armed the hands of all men against him, as the hands of all men are armed at a dog that is mad, or a tiger that has escaped from its keeper. It is singular that such a people, a people that has founded itself on rebellion, should have such a horror of rebellion; but, as far as my observation may have enabled me to read their feelings rightly, I do believe that it has been as sincere as it is irrational.
We were out riding early on the morning of the second day of our sojourn in the camp, and met the division of General Mitchell, a detachment of General Buell’s army, which had been in camp between the Green River and Louisville, going forward to the bridge which was then being prepared for their passage. This division consisted of about 12,000 men, and the road was crowded throughout the whole day with them and their wagons. We first passed a regiment of cavalry, which appeared to be endless. Their cavalry regiments are, in general, more numerous than those of the infantry, and on this occasion we saw, I believe, about 1200 men pass by us. Their horses were strong and serviceable, and the men were stout and in good health; but the general appearance of everything about them was rough and dirty. The American cavalry have always looked to me like brigands. A party of them would, I think, make a better picture than an equal number of our dragoons; but if they are to be regarded in any other view than that of the picturesque, it does not seem to me that they have been got up successfully. On this occasion they were forming themselves into a picture for my behoof, and as the picture was, as a picture, very good, I at least have no reason to complain.
We were taken to see one German regiment, a regiment of which all the privates were German and all the officers save one — I think the surgeon. We saw the men in their tents, and the food which they eat, and were disposed to think that hitherto things were going well with them. In the evening the colonel and lieutenant-colonel, both of whom had been in the Prussian service, if I remember rightly, came up to the general’s quarters, and we spent the evening together in smoking cigars and discussing slavery round the stove. I shall never forget that night, or the vehement abolition enthusiasm of the two German colonels. Our host had told us that he was a slaveowner; and as our wants were supplied by two sable ministers, I concluded that he had brought with him a portion of his domestic institution. Under such circumstances I myself should have avoided such a subject, having been taught to believe that Southern gentlemen did not generally take delight in open discussions on the subject. But had we been arguing the question of the population of the planet Jupiter, or the final possibility of the transmutation of metals, the matter could not have been handled with less personal feeling. The Germans, however, spoke the sentiments of all the Germans of the Western States — that is, of all the Protestant Germans, and to them is confined the political influence held by the German immigrants. They all regard slavery as an evil, holding on the matter opinions quite as strong as ours have ever been. And they argue that as slavery is an evil, it should therefore be abolished at once. Their opinions are as strong as ours have ever been, and they have not had our West Indian experience. Any one desiring to understand the present political position of the States should realize the fact of the present German influence on political questions. Many say that the present President was returned by German voters. In one sense this is true, for he certainly could not have been returned without them; but for them, or for their assistance, Mr. Breckinridge would have been President, and this civil war would not have come to pass. As abolitionists they are much more powerful than the Republicans of New England, and also more in earnest. In New England the matter is discussed politically; in the great Western towns, where the Germans congregate by thousands, they profess to view it philosophically. A man, as a man, is entitled to freedom. That is their argument, and it is a very old one. When you ask them what they would propose to do with 4,000,000 of enfranchised slaves and with their ruined masters, how they would manage the affairs of those 12,000,000 of people, all whose wealth and work and very life have hitherto been hinged and hung upon slavery, they again ask you whether slavery is not in itself bad, and whether anything acknowledged to be bad should be allowed to remain.
But the American Germans are in earnest, and I am strongly of opinion that they will so far have their way, that the country which for the future will be their country will exist without the taint of slavery. In the Northern nationality, which will reform itself after this war is over, there will, I think, be no slave State. That final battle of abolition will have to be fought among a people apart, and I must fear that while it lasts their national prosperity will not be great.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01