Axidava

Plantation Life In War Times

The rolling fire of the revolution is fast sweeping over the prairie, and one must fly before it or burn. I am obliged to see all that can be seen of the South at once, and then, armed with such safeguards as I can procure, to make an effort to recover my communications. Bridges broken, rails torn up, telegraphs pulled down,—I am quite in the air, and air charged with powder and fire.

One of the most extraordinary books in the world could be made out of the cuttings and parings of the newspapers which have been published within the last few days. The judgments, statements, asseverations of the press, everywhere necessarily hasty, ill-sifted, and off-hand, do not aspire to even an ephemeral existence here. They are of use if they serve the purpose of the moment, and of the little boys who commence their childhood in deceit, and continue to adolescence in iniquity, by giving vocal utterance to the “sensation” headings of the journals they retail so sharply and so curtly.

Talk of the superstition of the Middle Ages, or of the credulity of the more advanced period of rural life; laugh at the Holy Coat of Treves, or groan over the Lady of Salette; deplore the faith in winking pictures, or in a communiqué of the Moniteur; moralize on the superstition which discovers more in the liquefaction of the ichor of St. Gennaro than a chemical trick; but if you desire to understand how far faith can see and trust among the people who consider themselves the most civilized and intelligent in the world, you will study the American journals, and read the telegrams which appear in them.

One day the Seventh New York Regiment is destroyed for the edification of the South, and is cut up into such small pieces that none of it is ever seen afterwards. The next day it marches into Washington or Annapolis, all the better for the process. Another, in order to encourage the North, it is said that hecatombs of dead were carried out of Fort Moultrie, packed up, for easy travelling, in boxes. Again, to irritate both, it is credibly stated that Lord Lyons is going to interfere, or that an Anglo-French fleet is coming to watch the ports; and so on, through a wild play of fancy, inexact in line, as though the batteries were charged with the aurora borealis or summer lightning, instead of the respectable, steady, manageable offspring of acid and metal…

I am now, however, dealing with South Carolina, which has been the fons et origo of the secession doctrines and their development into the full life of the Confederate States. The whole foundation on which South Carolina rests is cotton and a certain amount of rice; or rather she bases her whole fabric on the necessity which exists in Europe for those products of her soil, believing and asserting, as she does, that England and France cannot and will not do without them. Cotton, without a market, is so much flocculent matter encumbering the ground. Rice, without demand for it, is unsalable grain in store and on the field. Cotton at ten cents a pound is boundless prosperity, empire, and superiority, and rice and grain need no longer be regarded.

In the matter of slave labor, South Carolina argues pretty much in this way: England and France require our products. In order to meet their wants we must cultivate our soil. There is only one way of doing so. The white man cannot live on our land at certain seasons of the year; he cannot work in the manner required by the crops. He must, therefore, employ a race suited to the labor, and that is a race which will only work when it is obliged to do so.

~

Early one morning I started in a steamer to visit a plantation in the Pedee and Maccamaw district, in the island coast of the State, north of Charleston. Passing Sumter, on which men are busily engaged, under the Confederate flag, in making good damages and mounting guns, we put out a few miles to sea, and with the low sandy shore, dotted with soldiers and guard-houses and clumps of trees, on our left, in a few hours pass the Santee River, and enter an estuary into which the Pedee and Maccamaw run a few miles farther to the northwest.

The steamer ran alongside a jetty and pier, which was crowded by men in uniform, waiting for the news and for supplies of creature comforts. Ladies were cantering along the fine hard beach, and some gigs and tax-carts, fully laden, rolled along very much as one sees them at Scarborough. The soldiers on the pier were all gentlemen of the county. Some, dressed in gray tunics and yellow facings, in high felt-hats and plumes and jack-boots, would have done no discredit in face, figure, and bearing to the gayest cavaliers who ever thundered at the heels of Prince Rupert. Their horses, full of Carolinian fire and mettle, stood picketed under the trees along the margin of the beach. Among these men, who had been doing the duty of common troopers in patrolling the sea-coast, were gentlemen possessed of large estates and princely fortunes; and one who stood among them was pointed out to me as captain of a company, for whose use his liberality provided unbounded daily libations of champagne, and the best luxuries which French ingenuity can safely imprison in those well-known caskets with which Crimean warriors were not unacquainted at the close of the campaign.

They were eager for news, which was shouted out to them by their friends in the steamer, and one was struck by the intimate personal cordiality and familiar acquaintance which existed among them. Three heavy guns, mounted in an earthwork defended by palisades, covered the beach and the landing-place, and the garrison was to have been reinforced by a regiment from Charleston, which, however, had not got in readiness to go up on our steamer, owing to some little difficulties between the volunteers, their officers, and the quartermaster-general’s department.

As the “Nina” approaches the tumble-down wharf, two or three citizens advance from the shade of shaky sheds to welcome us, and a few country vehicles and light phaetons are drawn forth from the same shelter to receive the passengers, while the negro boys and girls who have been playing upon the bales of cotton and barrels of rice, which represent the trade of the place on the wharf, take up commanding positions for the better observation of our proceedings. There is an air of quaint simplicity and old-fashioned quiet about Georgetown, refreshingly antagonistic to the bustle and tumult of most American cities. While waiting for our vehicle we enjoyed the hospitality of one of our friends, who took us into an old-fashioned angular wooden mansion, more than a century old, still sound in every timber, and testifying in its quaint wainscotings, and the rigid framework of door and window, to the durability of its cypress timbers and the preservative character of the atmosphere. In early days it was the crack house of the old settlement, and the residence of the founder of the female branch of the family of our host, who now only makes it his halting-place when passing to and fro between Charleston and his plantation, leaving it the year round in charge of an old servant and her grandchild. Rose-trees and flowering shrubs clustered before the porch and filled the garden in front, and the establishment gave me a good idea of a London merchant’s retreat about Chelsea a hundred and fifty years ago.

At length we were ready for our journey, and, mounted in two light covered vehicles, proceeded along the sandy track, which, after a while, led us to a deep cut in the bosom of the woods, where silence was only broken by the cry of a woodpecker, the boom of a crane, or the sharp challenge of the jay. For miles we passed through the shadow of this forest, meeting only two or three vehicles, containing female planterdom on little excursions of pleasure or business, who smiled their welcome as we passed. Arrived at a deep chocolate-colored stream, called Black River, full of fish and alligators, we find a flat large enough to accommodate vehicles and passengers, and propelled by two negroes pulling upon a stretched rope, in the manner usual in the ferry-boats of Switzerland, ready for our reception.

Another drive through a more open country, and we reach a fine grove of pine and live-oak, which melts away into a shrubbery, guarded by a rustic gate-way, passing through which, we are brought by a sudden turn into the planter’s house, buried in trees, which dispute with the greensward and with wild flower-beds every yard of the space which lies between the hall-door and the waters of the Pedee; and in a few minutes, as we gaze over the expanse of fields just tinged with green by the first life of the early rice crops, marked by the deep water cuts, and bounded by a fringe of unceasing forest, the chimneys of the steamer we had left at Georgetown gliding as it were through the fields indicate the existence of another navigable river still beyond.

Leaving with regret the veranda which commanded so charming a foreground, we enter the house, and are reminded by its low-browed, old-fashioned rooms, of the country houses yet to be found in parts of Ireland or on the Scottish border, with additions, made by the luxury and love of foreign travel, of more than one generation of educated Southern planters. Paintings from Italy illustrate the walls, in juxtaposition with interesting portraits of early colonial governors and their lovely womankind, limned with no uncertain hand, and full of the vigor of touch and naturalness of drapery of which Copley has left us too few exemplars; and one portrait of Benjamin West claims for itself such honor as his own pencil can give. An excellent library—filled with collections of French and English classics, and with those ponderous editions of Voltaire, Rousseau, the mémoires pour servir, books of travel and history such as delighted our forefathers in the last century, and many works of American and general history—affords ample occupation for a rainy day.

But, alas! these, and all things good which else the house affords, can be enjoyed but for a brief season. Just as nature has expanded every charm, developed every grace, and clothed the scene with all the beauty of opened flower, of ripening grain, and of mature vegetation, on the wings of the wind the poisoned breath comes, borne to the home of the white man, and he must fly before it or perish. The books lie unopened on their shelves, the flower blooms and dies unheeded, and, pity ’tis true, the old Madeira garnered ’neath the roof settles down for a fresh lease of life, and sets about its solitary task of acquiring a finer flavor for the infrequent lips of its banished master and his welcome visitors. This is the story, at least, that we hear on all sides, and such is the tale repeated to us beneath the porch, when the moon enhances while softening the loveliness of the scene, and the rich melody of mocking-birds fills the grove.

Within these hospitable doors Horace might banquet better than he did with Nasidienus, and drink such wine as can only be found among the descendants of the ancestry who, improvident enough in all else, learnt the wisdom of bottling up choice old Bual and Sercial ere the demon of oidium had dried up their generous sources forever. To these must be added excellent bread, ingenious varieties of the galette, compounded now of rice and now of Indian meal, delicious butter and fruits, all good of their kind. And is there anything bitter rising up from the bottom of the social bowl? My black friends who attend on me are grave as Mussulman Khitmutgars. They are attired in liveries, and wear white cravats and Berlin gloves. At night when we retire, off they go to their outer darkness in the small settlement of negrohood, which is separated from our house by a wooden palisade. Their fidelity is undoubted. The house breathes an air of security. The doors and windows are unlocked. There is but one gun, a fowling-piece, on the premises. No planter hereabouts has any dread of his slaves. But I have seen, within the short time I have been in this part of the world, several dreadful accounts of murder and violence, in which masters suffered at the hands of their slaves. There is something suspicious in the constant, never-ending statement that “we are not afraid of our slaves.” The curfew and the night patrol in the streets, the prisons and watch-houses, and the police regulations, prove that strict supervision, at all events, is needed and necessary. My host is a kind man and a good master. If slaves are happy anywhere, they should be so with him.

These people are fed by their master. They have upward of half a pound per diem of fat pork, and corn in abundance. They rear poultry and sell their chickens and eggs to the house. They are clothed by their master. He keeps them in sickness as in health. Now and then there are gifts of tobacco and molasses for the deserving. There was little labor going on in the fields, for the rice has been just exerting itself to get its head above water. These fields yield plentifully; for the waters of the river are fat, and they are let in whenever the planter requires it, by means of floodgates and small canals, through which the flats can carry their loads of grain to the river for loading the steamers.

~

Charon pushed his skiff into the water—there was a good deal of rain in it—in shape of snuffer-dish, some ten feet long and a foot deep. I got in, and the conscious waters immediately began vigorously spurting through the cotton wadding wherewith the craft was calked. Had we got out into the stream we should have had a swim for it, and they do say the Mississippi is the most dangerous river for that healthful exercise in the known world.

“Why! deuce take you” (I said at least that, in my wrath), “don’t you see the boat is leaky?”

“See it now for true, massa. Nobody able to tell dat till massa get in, tho’.”

Another skiff proved to be stanch. I bade good-by to my friend, and sat down in my boat, which was soon forced along up-stream close to the bank, in order to get a good start across to the other side. The view, from my lonely position, was curious, but not at all picturesque. The landscape had disappeared at once. The world was bounded on both sides by a high bank, and was constituted by a broad river,—just as if one were sailing down an open sewer of enormous length and breadth. Above the bank rose, however, the tops of tall trees and the chimneys of sugar-houses. A row of a quarter of an hour brought us to the levee on the other side. I ascended the bank, and directly in front of me, across the road, appeared a carriage gate-way and wickets of wood, painted white, in a line of park palings of the same material, which extended up and down the road far as the eye could follow, and guarded wide-spread fields of maize and sugar-cane. An avenue of trees, with branches close set, drooping and overarching a walk paved with red brick, led to the house, the porch of which was just visible at the extremity of the lawn, with clustering flowers, rose, jasmine, and creepers clinging to the pillars supporting the veranda.

The proprietor, who had espied my approach, issued forth with a section of sable attendants in his rear, and gave me a hearty welcome. The house was larger and better than the residences even of the richest planters, though it was in need of some little repair, and had been built perhaps fifty years ago, in the old Irish fashion, who built well, ate well, drank well, and, finally, paid very well. The view from the belvedere was one of the most striking of its kind in the world. If an English agriculturist could see six thousand acres of the finest land in one field, unbroken by hedge or boundary, and covered with the most magnificent crops of tasselling Indian corn and sprouting sugar-cane, as level as a billiard-table, he would surely doubt his senses. But here is literally such a sight. Six thousand acres, better tilled than the finest patch in all the Lothians, green as Meath pastures, which can be cultivated for a hundred years to come without requiring manure, of depth practically unlimited, and yielding an annual profit on what is sold off it of at least twenty pounds an acre at the old prices and usual yield of sugar. Rising up in the midst of the verdure are the white lines of the negro cottages and the plantation offices and sugar-houses, which look like large public edifices in the distance. And who is the lord of all this fair domain? The proprietor of Houmas and Orange grove is a man, a self-made one, who has attained his apogee on the bright side of half a century, after twenty-five years of successful business.

When my eyes “uncurtained the early morning,” I might have imagined myself in the magic garden of Cherry and Fair Star, so incessant and multifarious were the carols of the birds, which were the only happy colored people I saw in my Southern tour, notwithstanding the assurances of the many ingenious and candid gentlemen who attempted to prove to me that the palm of terrestrial felicity must be awarded to their negroes. As I stepped through my window upon the veranda, a sharp chirp called my attention to a mocking-bird perched upon a rose-bush beneath, whom my presence seemed to annoy to such a degree that I retreated behind my curtain, whence I observed her flight to a nest, cunningly hid in a creeping rose trailed around a neighboring column of the house, where she imparted a breakfast of spiders and grasshoppers to her gaping and clamorous offspring. While I was admiring the motherly grace of this melodious fly-catcher, a servant brought coffee, and announced that the horses were ready, and that I might have a three hours ride before breakfast.

If I regretted the absence of the English agriculturist when I beheld the six thousand acres of cane and sixteen hundred of maize unfolded from the belvedere the day previous, I longed for his presence still more when I saw those evidences of luxuriant fertility attained without the use of phosphates or guano. The rich Mississippi bottoms need no manure; a rotation of maize with cane affords them the necessary recuperative action. The cane of last year’s plant is left in stubble, and renews its growth this spring under the title of ratoons. When the maize is in tassel, cow-peas are dropped between the rows, and when the lordly stalk, of which I measured many twelve or even fifteen feet in height, bearing three and sometimes four ears, is topped to admit the ripening sun, the pea-vine twines itself around the trunk with a profusion of leaf and tendril that supplies the planter with the most desirable fodder for his mules in “rolling-time,” which is their season of trial. Besides this, the corn-blades are culled and cured. These are the best meals of the Southern race-horse, and constitute nutritious hay without dust….

As we ride through the wagon-roads,—of which there are not less than thirty miles in this confederation of four plantations held together by the purse and the life of our host,—the unwavering exactitude of the rows of cane, which run without deviation at right angles with the river down to the cane-brake, two miles off, proves that the negro would be a formidable rival in a ploughing-match. The cane has been “laid by;” that is, it requires no more labor, and will soon “lap,” or close up, though the rows are seven feet apart. It feathers like a palm top: a stalk which was cut measured six feet, although from the ridges it was but waist-high. On dissecting it near the root we find five nascent joints not a quarter of an inch apart. In a few weeks more these will shoot up like a spy-glass pulled out to its focus….

In the rear of this great plantation there are eighteen thousand additional acres of cane-brake which are being slowly reclaimed…. We extended our ride into this jungle, on the borders of which, in the unfinished clearing, I saw plantations of “negro corn,” the sable cultivators of which seem to have disregarded the symmetry practised in the fields of their master, who allows them from Saturday noon until Monday’s cockcrow for the care of their private interests….

Corn, chicken, and eggs are, from time immemorial, the perquisites of the negro, who has the monopoly of the two last-named articles in all well-ordered Louisiana plantations. Indeed, the white man cannot compete with them in raising poultry, and our host was evidently delighted when one of his negroes, who had brought a dozen Muscovy ducks to the mansion, refused to sell them to him except for cash. “But, Louis, won’t you trust me? Am I not good for three dollars?” “Good enough, massa; but dis nigger want de money to buy flour and coffee for him young family. Folks at Donaldsonville will trust massa,—won’t trust nigger.” The money was paid, and, as the negro left us, his master observed, with a sly, humorous twinkle, “That fellow sold forty dollars’ worth of corn last year, and all of them feed their chickens with my corn, and sell their own.”

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