NIU Libraries Digitization Projects
Lincoln/Net Prairie Fire Illinois During the Civil War Illinois During the Gilded Age Mark Twain's Mississippi Back to Digitization Projects Contact Us

Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
Persistent link to this document:

Previous section

Next section

Western Virginia.

TOWARDS the middle of last April Washington was growing empty. Willard's Hotel was rapidly losing its customers, and the managers were fast becoming oppressively civil, even to a single one-trunk-and-carpet-bag traveller like myself. Pennsylvania Avenue was no longer crowded with artillery and baggage-waggons. Officers had become few in number, passes had ceased to be required for crossing the now-deserted lines, and the weekly receptions of senators and representatives were being dropped one by one. All these symptoms were hints to a traveller to move elsewhere. Indeed, I should have gone some weeks before, but for three causes. The first was, that after some two or three weeks of spring as warm as most English summers, we had heavy falls of snow, covering the ground for days together; the second was, that my introductions had made society in Washington so pleasant to me, that it was with reluctance I parted from it; and thirdly, and lastly, I experienced a difficulty which

-- 33 --

almost all travellers must have felt of making up your mind where to go to, when there is no particular reason why you should go to one place more than to another. Naturally, my first inclination would have been to go "on to Richmond" with the grand army of the Potomac, but unfortunately there were many objections to such a proceeding. In the first place, I had such confidence in the "masterly inactivity," as the New York Herald used to style it, of General McClellan's tactics, that I doubted, as it proved with reason, whether I might not be kept waiting at Fortress Monroe for weeks to come. In the second, I strongly suspected that if I did follow the army, I should see very little but the smoke of the cannon in the event of a battle; and, lastly — but why should I go on, unmindful of Queen Elizabeth's answer to the magistrates of Falmouth in the matter of their not ringing the town bells, and enumerate the reasons why I did not go with the Potomac army, when there was one simple and decisive argument, and that was that I could not. I was supposed, rightly or wrongly, to be connected with the English press, and on this ground was denied access to the Richmond expedition, by orders of the Secretary of War. It is useless trying to conceal anything in America. Before I had been a couple of weeks in the country, my name, antecedents, and history, and good deal of personal intelligence that was perfectly novel to myself, was published in

-- 34 --

the American papers. Under these circumstances, it was little use seeking to obtain permission to visit the peninsula, and I had received such uniform courtesy from all American officials I had hitherto come across, that I did not like to disturb the pleasing tenor of my recollections, by exposing my self to the probability of a discourteous refusal from Mr. Stanton.

So, in fact, my choice of directions in which to travel was limited. The orders of the War Department precluded my journeying East, the insurrection would not allow me to go South, and the cold forbade me from travelling North. The only path open to me lay westward in the track of the war, and it was this path I resolved to follow. My road lay through Western Virginia, whence the Confederates had just retreated, through Ohio, the great Border Free State, through Kentucky, the chief of the Union Slave States, whose loyalty, to say the most, had been a half-hearted neutrality, down to Tennessee, the stronghold and battlefield of the Confederates in the West.

I left Washington in the early morning, on the day when the President signed the measure for the emancipation of the slaves in the district of Columbia, a bright promise, as it proved, of a brighter future. By the way, the night before I left, a Washington friend of mine, the most lukewarm of Abolitionists, told me an incident worth relating: He had been driving that day in

-- 35 --

hired carriage, whose coachman, an old negro, he had known for years. To his astonishment the driver mistook his way repeatedly. At last my friend grew angry, and asked the man what ailed him. "Ah, massa," the negro answered; "all this matter about the emancipation has got into my head somehow, and I feel stunned like." Well, in the words of a dear friend of mine,

"God's fruit of justice ripens slow,"
and it is pleasant to me to think that I, too, have seen the ripening of one small fruit of justice. So as we passed on that morning through the dull barren fields of Maryland, I could not help watching the coloured folk in the cars with more than usual interest. I had not been long enough in the country to lose the sense of novelty with which the black people impress a stranger. To me they are the one picturesque element in the dull monotony of outward life in America. With their dark swarthy skins varying from the deepest ebony to the rich yellow hue — with their strange love for bright colours in their dress, no matter how stained and faded, and yet, gaudy as they are, arranged with a sort of artistic instinct — with their bright laughing smile and their deep wistful eyes, they form a race apart, a strange people in a strange land. Probably, if you lived amongst them, you would lose all sense of their picturesqueness just as we in England should see little romance about gipsies, if there was a Romany

-- 36 --

camp squatted down in every village. As a gentleman, who is known as one of the acutest of observers, once said to me, "negroes are just like a man you meet, who is an uncommonly pleasant companion for half an hour, but whom you find a monstrous bore when you are shut up all alone with him for a long rainy day." While I remained in America I was still in the early stage of investigation, and could hardly appreciate the evident distaste which even the stanchest Free soilers have for the black race. A very strong Republican confessed to me on one occasion that he could never shake hands with a negro without instinctive repugnance, and this feeling is, I suspect, a very universal one throughout the Free States. In Maryland, as in all slave countries, there prevails a more kindly feeling towards the individual negro. In the car in which I travelled from Washington, black men came in and out freely, and the white passengers seemed to have no objection to their contact. Indeed, in one or two cases, I saw men get up to make room for negro women, who, in justice I must add, were neither young nor pretty. By one of the barbarous laws of the black code of Maryland, the Washington railroad is forbidden to take free coloured people as passengers unless they can obtain a bond from some responsible householder, for a thousand dollars, to indemnify the company in case of their being claimed afterwards as fugitive slaves. Of course, this rule was always evaded, whenever

-- 37 --

the negro was personally known to the railroad officials, and during the war everything was in such confusion that, I fancy, it was rarely enforced. Barring this provision, coloured people may pass freely in the cars of the Baltimore and Ohio line. There is not, indeed, the absolute equality in American railway travelling that we fancy in Europe. I dare say the reader may have observed how on our penny river steamboats, where there is no difference of fares, and no division of classes, yet, somehow or other, the working poor generally congregate in the bows of the vessel, rarely in the more aristocratic stern. The same thing happens across the Atlantic. On all American lines there is always one car, generally the one nearest the engine, where, without notice or order, the common soldiers, the working men, and the negroes take their places naturally. There is nothing to hinder a roughshod, mud-covered soldier from sitting in the hinder cars, but he rarely does so. How far a man of colour might be liable to insult if he placed himself amidst the genteel society, I cannot say. It is certain he would feel uncomfortable, and avoids the experiment. The western line of the Baltimore and Ohio turns off at the famous Relay Bridge, the junction of the Washington and the Wheeling railroads, which the Confederates tried in vain to blow up at the first outburst of hostilities. The country was in look much the same as when I passed through it some six weeks before. The leaves

-- 38 --

were but little more forward, and the fields and villages still bore the same dreary deserted aspect. But in one respect there was a marked difference. The camps along the line were removed, there were few roadside pickets, and the army had passed away. In Appleton's Handbook, which is the Bradshaw of America, the only notice taken of the civil war is that the time-tables of some half the railroads are left blank without notices of trains. Along the Border States the progress of the war might have been traced month by month, by watching the increase of new blanks, or the disappearance of old ones. When I first came to Washington, the Baltimore and Ohio route still presented a blank in the pages of the Guide Book. At that period the line was in the hands of the Confederates, and Western Virginia was in a great measure subject to the rule of the Government at Richmond. Now, within a few days' time, the line had been reopened, and the Confederate forces had been forced to retire from every point along the route. Still the railroad was not much in favour with the public. The whole of the railway officials, like all inhabitants of slave-holding States, were very lukewarm Unionists, and just before the reopening of the line a proposal that all the servants of the Company should be required to take the oath of allegiance was rejected by a Board of Directors at Baltimore, by a majority of six teen to seven. There were stories, too, of Southern

-- 39 --

"bush-whackers" wandering about in the wild mountain countries through which the line runs, and trying to tear up the rails and upset the trains. A long Italian experience had utterly destroyed my faith in brigands of any kind, and I certainly had no intention of going some hundred of miles out of my way in order to avoid an imaginary bush-whacker. Distances are so enormous in America that an Englishman finds it hard to realize them. My first day's journey, which was to take me from the eastern to the western frontier of the single State of Virginia, was four hundred miles in length — as far as from London to Edinburgh.

At the Relay Bridge we first began our real journey into the quondam dominions of Secession. Our train was a short one of two or three cars in all, filled chiefly with soldiers returning to their regiments stationed along the line, a good number of way passengers, going to visit their property or friends in the recovered districts, and a few travellers, like myself, journeying towards the West. There was not much of political conversation in the carriages. Every now and then, as we passed a detachment of Union soldiers, some Northern ladies in the car waved their handkerchiefs; but the bulk of the passengers made no demonstration. A Baltimore lady, who sat next me, and who assumed as I saw all Southern people did — that, being an Englishman, I was in heart favourable to the Confederate cause, communicated to me her indignation at

-- 40 --

the treatment of the South; and, informed me, amongst other things, that if the women of Baltimore could only catch Wendell Phillips, they would not leave a bone unbroken in his body. She was so perfectly frank in her statements, that I do not doubt her assertion, that she had never been in favour of secession, and that she had never been rich enough to keep slaves herself; but the whole social creed in which she had been reared and bred was in favour of slavery; and, woman-like, she never thought of doubting the foundations of the creed she had been taught. Of all the foolish assumptions I have seen constantly made in discussions on the slavery question, the most erroneous seems to me to be that, because there are only, say, 400,000 slaveholders in the whole Slave States, this small number measures the whole amount of persons who have any interest in, or care for, the existence of slavery. You might just as well argue that there are not one thousand persons in Great Britain who can really feel any interest in the existence of the peerage.

Our route lay across the Alleghany Mountains, along the troughs of winding valleys, by the sides of rivers whose very names — the Patapsco and the Potomac, the Shenandoah and the Monongahela — bear the rhythm of music with them. Jefferson said, that it was worth a voyage across the Atlantic to witness such scenery as that of the Upper Potomac; and doubtless it is a scene

-- 41 --

of great beauty. Still, like all the American scenery I have seen, it is wearily monotonous. Some years ago a Yankee brought to London a panorama of the Mississippi, of I don't know how many thousand yards length. The first hundred yards or so were extremely interesting; but when you had seen the same scene unrolled slowly, yard after yard, and hour after hour, the sight became so wearisome, that I doubt if any one ever saw the panorama to its close. So it is with American scenery, in reality as well as pictorially. One gets tired of the endless low hills of unvarying height; of the ceaseless forests in which the timber is all of the same small growth; of the scattered houses which never vary in size or aspect. After a long journey, you have much the same feeling as a pedestrian must have had who walked a thousand times over one mile of road in a thousand hours. Still, if you could have compressed the journey into one-tenth of its distance, it would have been a very lovely one. From Baltimore the road winds up a narrow gorge, with wood-clad granite cliffs on either side, and a deep mountain stream rolling down the midst. Every three or four miles you pass a cotton factory, and the high smoke-begrimed chimneys, the river-side mills, and the stone-built, slate-roofed houses, give it a strange resemblance to a valley in the mountain district of Lancashire. Then you come upon the table-land, at the summit of the Alleghany ridge, wild, desolate, and dreary, and then down rapid inclines,

-- 42 --

under frequent tunnels, and over countless bridges, into the rich valley of the Ohio river. Such is the outline of the journey. Fill it up with long stretches of brush wood forest, with stray fields surrounded with tumble down snake-fences, with high cliffs of rock hanging over mountain torrents, with scattered wooden houses standing few and far apart, and with here and there glimpse of a wide, rich champaign country stretching away in the far distance, and you will know as much as I can recall of the scenery of the Alleghany Pass.

The traces of the war were few. The country is too poor a one, too little peopled, and too scantily cultivated to leave much opening for destruction. Of banditti, or bush-whackers, I need hardly say we saw no sign. There were a few deserted camps along the wood, and a few pickets of Union soldiers, looking very desolate in that lone country. The two points, when you come across the track of the war, are at Harper's Ferry and Cumberland. The grand stone bridge across the Potomac, at the former spot, was blown up by the Confederates, when they evacuated the place in March. With true Yankee energy, a sort of make-shift wooden bridge of most unsubstantial look had been run up on the old stone buttresses, but on the day before I crossed, this temporary bridge had broken down, and our journey was brought to an apparent stand-still when we arrived at the river-side. However, in a short time a rope

-- 43 --

was stretched across the stream, and passengers and luggage were ferried over the rapid swollen torrent to proceed on their journey by the return train from Wheeling. This stoppage caused a delay of some hours, and so I had time to wander about the ruins of what once was the town of Harper's Ferry. Here, a year before, stood the armoury of the United States, where 1,500 workmen were employed constantly. Now everything was destroyed. The walls alone were left standing, and the town was half in ruins. There is nothing grand about the débris of small red-brick buildings. Just after the fall of Fort Sumter, when the Confederates were expected daily to enter Washington, a friend of mine was passing the treasury buildings, with General Stone, who was afterwards confined at Fort Lafayette on a charge of treason. My friend said something to the General about the beauty of the marble portico, and the answer he received in reply was, "Yes; the treasury will make a fine Palmyra." So it would have done, but there is nothing Palmyresque about the ruins of Harper's Ferry. There is nothing but a look of squalid misery of wanton destruction. The ground around the arsenal is strewed with fragments of the workmen's cottages that stood around it, and amidst the broken masses of brickwork the sign-post of some roadside inn, left by mere chance still standing, rose gibbet-like, with its sign-board riddled through with rifle-shot

-- 44 --

creaking harshly on its rusty hinges. The town itself, which bore traces of once having been busy and prosperous, was almost deserted; soldiers swarmed in every hole and corner, and sentries were placed at every turning, but otherwise the place seemed empty. There were few men visible, and even the women and children stood sullenly apart. Most of the shops were closed, and a few that remained open had little in them. There is no resurrection, I fear, possible for Harper's Ferry. Standing at the confluence of two rivers, the Shenandoah and the Potomac, between precipitous cliffs resembling the Avon at Clifton, only on a grander scale, it is one of the loveliest spots in America; but ever since the war, a fatality seems to have hung over it. Since I saw it, it has changed hands four times over from Confederates to Federals, and the battle of Antietam was fought almost within sight of it. Ever since John Brown's insurrection it has never prospered. I was shown the little outhouse where the stern old Puritan was confined, after the failure of his mad attempt. It was here that, lying wounded, mangled, and at death's-door, he was tortured by the questionings of Mr. Mason. And now two years have scarcely passed and Mr. Mason is in England, owing his liberty, if not his life, to the strength of a free country; begging in vain for help to an insurrection as fatal as that of his quondam prisoner — his slaves escaped in a body — his house occupied by Massachusetts regiments, and his

-- 45 --

property ruined — while the Northern regiments, as they marched across the Potomac into Virginia, shrouded by the dusk of the evening, used to sing in triumph that — "John Brown's soul was marching on" before them.

After all, Harper's Ferry was the property of the Federal Government; and, therefore, the Confederates had perhaps a right to destroy it. But, if I had been the staunchest of Secessionists, and also for my misfortunes a shareholder in the Baltimore and Ohio line, I should have found it hard to excuse the wanton injury inflicted on private property in Cumberland. This was the chief railway depôt on the line, and before the Confederates evacuated it they destroyed every piece of rolling stock along the road. For miles on either side I passed burnt-up cars, shattered engines, and coal trucks, which, being of iron, could neither be burnt nor broken, and had therefore been rolled down the embankments. Fancy Wolverton burnt down, with everything breakable in its sheds smashed and battered, and you will know the look of Cumberland junction.

As long as we remained in the manufacturing districts near Baltimore, the aspect of the houses and people was comfortable and prosperous enough; and, indeed, this region has been but little directly affected by the war. But, as soon as we left Maryland for Western Virginia, the scene changed. Here, for the

-- 46 --

first time in the States, I saw the symptoms of squalid, Old World poverty. Miserable wooden shanty hovels, broken windows stuffed with rags, and dirty children playing together with the pigs on the dung-heaps before the doors, gave an Irish air of decay to the few scattered villages through which the railroad passed. Our train, owing to the necessity of proceeding with extreme caution during the night, through fear of the obstructions which Secessionist sympathizers might have across the line, moved on at a foot's pace, and our journey occupied some thirty-six hours, instead of the twenty-four which it was advertised to take. The snow, too, still lay on the high bleak uplands, and what with the cold, the weariness of sitting for hours on low-backed seats, and the constant stoppages at the shuntings in order to allow trains moving eastward loaded with soldiers and supplies to pass by us, our progress towards the end was a dismal and a dreary one.

There is one fact for which I shall always remember Wheeling gratefully — namely, that it was the first place where I was really hot since I left Italy, some eight months before. Otherwise, it is a quiet sleepy little town, without much to be said about it. Like all the Southern towns, too, I had yet seen, it was wonderfully English in appearance. The broad herring-bone flagged High Street; the small narrow-windowed red-brick houses, with their black chimney-pots; the shabby looking shops, with the flies buzzing about the dirty

-- 47 --

window-panes; the long walls and tall factory-chimneys, all made the place resemble an English country-town, where the old county people had died out, and the new manufacturing element had not prospered. Still, Wheeling is a go-ahead place, in its way, for a Southern city, and has proved loyal to the Union. It will be the capital of the new State of Western Virginia, if it ever succeeds in establishing its independence; and it is the head-quarters of the emancipation party in the State, probably because its German population is considerable. General Fremont had his head-quarters here, when in command of the mountain district, and the town was, therefore, filled with foreign officers. A crowd of new arrivals had just come in, as I was making my way to bed; and there, sitting on the one hat-box which formed the whole of his luggage, composed, clean-shaven, and serene, was my old acquaintance, Major, Colonel, General, or whatever his rank now may be, Von Traubenfass. My friend is a mystery to me, as to every one else. What man about the press does not remember Traubenfass years ago, in the great military scandal case of —. Well, it is a long time ago, and there is no good raking-up old sores. Where and in what strange medley has Traubenfass not been involved? He has served, of course, in the Spanish legion — in the wars of the Rio Grande — in the Schleswig-Holstein campaign. He has been in the service of half a dozen Indian princes, and has a perfect galaxy of

-- 48 --

orders from deposed potentates. When I met him last, twelvemonths before, he was a general unattached in the Garibaldian army, and received (and, what is more, was paid punctually) a very handsome salary for his unknown services. Then I heard of him as projector, manager, and secretary of an Italian railroad, which was to connect Sicily with the mainland. Now, he was instructor of cavalry, or inspector of horses, or military commissioner in the army of the United States. He informed me, with perfect equanimity, that he supposed the war would not last much longer, and then he should be on his legs again. But, meanwhile, he was certain that something else would turn up. What nation he belongs to, who he has been, where he comes from, or what his age is, are all questions I have often asked in vain, and doubt if he knows himself. He is perfectly quiet, temperate, and frugal, and the one weakness to which I have ever known him plead guilty, is a belief in an infallible system for winning at rouge-et-noir. After parting with Traubenfass, and indulging in a whisky cocktail, in augury of our next meeting in some unknown part of the globe, I retired to bed. What, I wonder, is the connexion between slavery and dirt — that in all Slave States the hotels and the beds are always dirty?

-- 49 --

Previous section

Next section

Dicey, Edward. Six Months in the Federal States, Vol. II . London: MacMillan and Co., 1863. [format: book], [genre: travelogue]. Permission: Newberry Library
Persistent link to this document:
Powered by PhiloLogic