Friday, April 20, 2012

April 20, 1862

April 20, 1862: Just downstream from Fort Jackson, on the Mississippi River, the Union fleet sits, while Porter’s mortar boats continue to shell the forts. Flag Officer Farragut decides that his fleet will run by the forts, instead of bomb them out. In accordance with this plan, the USS Pinola and USS Itasca, gunboats, steam upriver to cut the river "boom" the Rebels have made by linking old schooner hulls together with chains. After some trouble, and much pestering cannon fire from the forts, the boat crews are able to slip the chain off one hull and accidentally tear out the post of another while freeing one of the ships from running aground. A gap is now clear in the barrier, and all there is to oppose the Federal fleet in steaming up to New Orleans is two forts full of heavy guns and a motley river flotilla that includes the CSS Louisiana and the CSS Manassas, armored rams.

—David L. Day, a soldier in the 25th Massachusetts Infantry Reg., still stationed in Newbern, North Carolina, records his impressions and observations about the poor white trash in the region:

Poor White Trash.
Among the white people about here, are very few who would be ranked among the first or even second class. Nearly all of them are what is called the poor white trash or clay-eaters. I am told they actually do eat clay, a habit they contract like any other bad habit. Now I cannot vouch for the truth of this, never having seen them eating it, but some of them look as though that was about all they had to eat. They are an utterly ignorant set, scarcely able to make themselves intelligible, and in many ways they are below the negroes in intelligence and manner of living, but perhaps they are not wholly to blame for it, the same principle that will oppress a black man, will a white one. They are entirely cut off from the means of acquiring land or an education, even though they wished to. Public schools are unknown here and land can only be purchased by the plantation. That leaves them in rather a bad fix; poor, shiftless and ignorant. Their highest ambition is to hunt, fish, drink whiskey and toady to their masters. You speak to one of them and he will look at you in a listless sort of way as though unable or undecided whether to answer or not. Ask one of them the distance across the river, and he will either say he don’t know, or "it is right smart." Ask one of them the distance to any place or house out in the country, and he will tell you it is "a right smart step," or "you go up yer a right smart step, and you will come to a creek," and from there it will be so many looks and a screech; meaning from the creek that number of angles in the road and as far beyond as the voice will reach. They do not seem to have any intelligent idea about anything, and in talking with the cusses, one scarcely knows whether to pity them or be amused.

Snuff Dipping.
The women here have a filthy habit of snuff chewing or dipping as they call it, and I am told it is practiced more or less by all classes of women. The manner of doing it is simple enough; they take a small stick or twig about two inches long, of a certain kind of bush, and chew one end of it until it becomes like a brush. This they dip into the snuff and then put it in their mouths. After chewing a while they remove the stick and expectorate about a gill, and repeat the operation. Many of the women among the clay-eaters chew plug tobacco and can squirt the juice through their teeth as far and as straight as the most accomplished chewer among the lords of creation.

---George Washington Cable, post-war novelist, reminisces about these days in New Orleans, when he was a young teen, after the blockade had stopped up trade on the Mississippi, yet before the Union Navy had captured the city:

There had come a great silence upon trade. Long ago the custom-warehouses had begun to show first a growing roominess, then emptiness, and then had remained shut, and the iron bolts and cross-bars of their doors were gray with cobwebs. One of them, in which I had earned my first wages as a self-supporting lad, had been turned into a sword-bayonet factory, and I had been turned out. For some time later the Levee had kept busy; but its stir and noise had gradually declined, faltered, turned into the commerce of war and the clatter of calkers and ship-carpenters, and faded out. Both receipts and orders from the interior country had shrunk and shrunk, and the brave, steady fellows, who at entry and shipping and cash and account desks could no longer keep a show of occupation, had laid down the pen, taken up the sword and musket, and followed after the earlier and more eager volunteers. . . . The blockade had closed in like a prison-gate: the lighter tow-boats, draped with tarpaulins, were huddled together under Slaughterhouse Pointd boilers and motionless machinery yielding to rust; . . . At length only the foundries, the dry-docks across the river, and the ship-yard in suburb Jefferson, where the great ram Mississippi was being too slowly built, were active, and the queen of Southern commerce, the city that had once believed it was to be the greatest in the world, was absolutely out of employment.

There was, true, some movement of the sugar and rice crops into the hands of merchants who had advanced the money to grow them; and the cottonpresses and cotton-yards were full of cotton, but there it all stuck; and when one counts in a feeble exchange of city for country supplies, there was nothing more. . . .

Gold and silver had long ago disappeared. Confederate money was the currency; and not merely was the price of food and raiment rising, but the value of the money was going down. The State, too, had a paper issue, and the city had another. Yet with all these there was first a famine of small change, and then a deluge of "shinplasters." Pah ! What a mess it was! The boss butchers and the keepers of drinking-houses actually took the lead in issuing "money." The current jokould pass the label of an olive-oil bottle, because it was greasy, smelt bad'and bore an autograph---Plagniol Frères, if I remember rightly. . . .

Decay had come in. In that warm, moist climate it is always hungry, and wherever it is allowed to feed, eats with a greed that is strange to see. With the wharves, always expensive and difficult to maintain, it made havoc. The occasional idle, weather-stained ship moored beside them, and resting on the water almost as light and void as an empty peascod, could hardly find a place to fasten to. The streets fell into sad neglect, but the litter of commerce was not in them, and some of their round-stone pavements after a shower would have the melancholy cleanness of weather-bleached bones. How quiet and lonely the harbor grew! The big dry-docks against the farther shore were all empty. Now and then a tug fussed about, With the yellow river all to itself; and one or two steamboats came and went each day, but they moved drowsily. . . .

But the public mind was at a transparent heat. Everybody wanted to know of everybody else, "Why don't you go to the front?" Even the gentle maidens demanded tartly, one of another, why their brothers or lovers had not gone long ago, though, in truth, the laggards were few indeed. The very children knew--even we, the uninformed, the lads and women, knew the enemy was closing down upon us.

But there was little laughter. Food was dear; the destitute poor were multiplying terribly; the market men and women, mainly Germans, Gascon-French, and Sicilians, had lately refused to take the shinplaster currency, and the city authority had forced them to accept it. There was little to laugh at. The Mississippi was gnawing its levees and threatening to plunge in upon us. The city was believed to be full of spies.

No comments:

Post a Comment