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


ACROSS the mud-stained Ohio river, down which great rafts of wood, covered with huts, as in the old Rhineland, were floating lazily, and then a long, hot day's journey through the length and breadth of the Ohio State. The early morning air was loaded with that dull, still closeness which foretels a day of sweltering heat, and the presage was fully realized. The cars were crowded with travellers; and though, for a wonder, the stoves were not lit, yet the closed windows served to maintain that stifling warmth of temperature which seems essential to an American's idea of comfort. The car in which I happened to take my seat was filled with soldiers, most of them rejoicing their regiments, and a few escorting a batch of Southern prisoners. These men were bush-whackers, captured in the mountains of Western Virginia by one of Fremont's flying columns, and were being sent to Columbus for imprisonment. The party consisted of some dozen or so, all well-dressed quiet-looking men, apparently of the rank of small

-- 50 --

farmers. The younger men said nothing, and declined all conversation with their guardians; but the oldest of the band — a man, I should think, long past sixty — talked very freely, and assured anybody who would listen to him, that his share in the insurrection had been entirely passive, and that the only reason he had not fought for the Union was because civil war seemed such an awful thing to him. "It's the same old story, sir, they always tell," was the remark of a private soldier, who had been one of the capturing party; and, I suspect, myself, the objection to civil war was one of late adoption. The Federal soldiers, let me add, were as quiet and well-behaved as I always found them. Many of them were reading newspapers, and none talked loudly or offensively. In fact, I should never wish for pleasanter fellow-passengers; but, pleasant as they were, they still made the car uncomfortably hot; and before long, I, in company with some confirmed smokers, betook myself, in defiance of all rules, to the broad steps fixed behind the carriages. I don't know that there is any more danger in sitting on the steps than in any other part of the cars. If there were a collision or a break-down, you, sitting there, would be tossed into the middle of the adjoining meadow, instead of into the face of your next-hand neighbour. But as a fact, the great respect for law, which prevails throughout America, hinders travellers from availing themselves freely of the seats upon the steps. At any rate, sitting,

-- 51 --

as I sat there, with my legs dangling over the single line of rails, the ride was a very pleasant one.

Mile after mile, and hour after hour, the train carried us headlong through the same pleasant, rich, flat country. You seem to pass, so to speak, through the successive strata of the emigration era. Sometimes there were long tracts of forest-land, where the axe was yet unknown. Then you came to the half-reclaimed lands, where, amidst an undergrowth of bush-wood, the great trees stood, dead and leafless, ready for felling, killed by the fatal rim notched round their trunks. Then followed the newly-reclaimed fields, with black, charred stumps still standing in their midst, and marked out by the snake-fences, with their unfastened rails, piled crosswise one upon the other; and then, from time to time, you came upon a tract of field-land, hemmed in by tight post and cross-bar fences, with every stump and trunk rooted out, and with a surface as smooth, and rich, and green as that of a Leicestershire meadow. You could mark every stage of the uncut settler's life, from the rough shanty run up in the midst of the uncut brushwood, to the trim, neat farm-house, with its lawn and flower-beds, and the children playing before the door. The New World lay before you in the process of its creation. New roads were making everywhere; new villages were springing up; teams of rough, sturdy horses were ploughing up the old fallow-lands; the swamps were being cleared of their dank, reedy

-- 52 --

marsh-plants, and the broad, shallow streams were being banked and dammed into deep quiet water-courses. It was then that I first understood the poetry of the emigrant world — not romantic or spasmodic, but idyllic in its nature, of the Herman and Dorothea type. There was nothing grand about the monotony of the scene — not a house in a distance of a hundred miles of more than one storey high; not a church-spire or a hill of any kind; nothing that was old, except the forest, and that was vanishing. Still, throughout the whole district there was the same unbroken air of rough comfort, and ease, and plenty; and of want or poverty there was no trace forthcoming. Years ago I had heard the crew of an emigrant vessel singing, "Cheer, boys, cheer!" as the ship unmoored from its anchorage, and dropped down the Mersey westwards, and I had fancied that the burden of the song was as vain as most poets' promises; but now, it seemed to me, that the promise had come true, and that this rich western country was, in very truth, the "new and happy land." A long summer-day's journey carried us through that pleasant State; and, as we came near Cincinnati, we passed again into a settled country. For miles before we reached the city we rattled through its suburb-villages with their broad, clean streets, and their neat wooden houses, before whose doors the women, with their long stuff hoods, sat knitting in the evening twilight. Railroads branched out on every side — no longer rough, single tracks, but

-- 53 --

smooth, broad, double lines of rail. Elegant brick-built stations succeeded the wooden sheds which did duty for stopping-places in the newly-settled districts, and the slopes of the low hill on either side were covered with green-shuttered stone villas, which looked as though they had been transplanted bodily from Kingston or Hampstead.

Of Cincinnati, the "Queen city of the West," there is not much that I need say. One American city is very like another. It is strange, after travelling for hundreds of miles through the half-settled country, to come in the Far West upon a great city, filled with every luxury and comfort of old-world civilization. The stalls, so it seemed to me, with their grand fronts and marble facings, were handsomer even than those of New York; and the music-shops, and print-depôts, and book-stands, which you saw on every side, all told of wealth, and education, and refinement. The hilly slopes, too, on which the city stands, the countless gardens, and the rows of almond trees which lined the streets, and which were then in full bloom, give the city a brighter look than you often see in the northern capitals. There was an air about the place, and I suppose not a fallacious one, as though trade were not thriving. The Mississippi and Ohio are the great arteries of the whole western country, and with the great rivers barred up, the trade of Cincinnati was paralyzed for the time. Many of the stores and shops were closed: in most of

-- 54 --

those open there being notices that, for the present, business could only be done for cash. The prices of the theatres and entertainments were advertised as "reduced to suit the times." There was little shipping about the wharves, and what goods there were being shipped were mostly military stores. Work was scarce, and there was much poverty, I was told, amongst the working classes, though the country is too rich for actual distress to be felt. The young men were gone to the war, and the hospitals were crowded with wounded soldiers — Confederates as well as Federal — who had just been brought up from the battle-field of Pittsburgh Landing.

But what struck me most was the German air of the place and people. It was hard, strolling through the streets, to realize that you were not in some city of the old German Vaterland. The great thoroughfares and the fashionable streets were American in every feature, and the only trace of Germany to be found there was in the number of German names — Hartmans, Meyers, Schmidt, and so on — written over the shop-doors. When, however, you passed into the suburbs, and the poorer parts of the city, everything, except the names of the streets, was German. A sluggish canal runs through the town, and, with one of those ponderous jokes so dear to the German mind, the quarter above the canal, where the Germans mostly dwell, is called "Ueber dem Rhein." Here, "across the Rhine," the Germans have brought their fatherland with them. Almost everybody that

-- 55 --

you meet is speaking in the harsh, guttural, German accents. The women, with their squat, stout figures, their dull blue eyes, and fair flaxen hair, sit knitting at their doors, dressed in the stuffed woollen petticoats of German fashion. The men have still the woollen jackets, the blue worsted pantaloons, and the low-crowned hats one knows so well in Bavaria and the Tyrol. There are "Bier Gartens," "Restaurations," and "Tanz Saale," on every side. The goods in the shop windows are advertised in German, and the official notices of sheriffs' sales and ward-elections are posted up on the walls, in English it is true, but with a German translation underneath. There are German operas, German concerts, and half a dozen German theatres, the very play-bills of which are printed in the old, plain, small German style, undebased by the asterisks and repetitions and sensation headings which form the pride of an American theatrical placard. Here, in the free West, the Germans have asserted their right to spend Sunday as they like; and so "across the Rhine," the dancing gardens are open, and the Turner feasts take place, and the first representations of the opera are given on the Sunday as in their native land. It was curious to me to note the audience at one of the small German theatres I dropped into one evening. The women had brought their babies and knitting with them; the men had their long pipes, and both men and women sat drinking the lager beer,

-- 56 --

and eating the inevitable sausages, and the "butterbrod und schinken" sandwiches. The play was full of true German common-place moralities, and the actors, inferior as they were, acted with that conscientious laborious carefulness which supplies the place of talent on the German stage. But more curious than the resemblance to the old country was the gradual development you could notice in the audience, by which the German element was being merged in the American. The older comers had already dropped the old-fashioned German dress, and when they talked to each other it was as often in English as in German. With many, too, of the younger generation, who had probably been born in the New World, the placid expression of the German face was already changed for the sharp anxious look so universal to the native-born American. The notion is, that the heavy taxation which must follow this war for years will stop the German emigration. If so, and fresh German blood is not poured into the old settlement, the German breed will soon be swallowed into the American; and fifty years hence, the existence of the old German quarter "across the Rhine" will be a matter of tradition.

From Cincinnati I went down the Ohio river, which forms the frontier between the States of Indiana and Kentucky as far as Louisville. "La Belle Rivière," as the early French settlers called the Ohio, must have been a term applied rather to the river itself, than to

-- 57 --

the scenery through which it runs. If you took away the villa "chateaux" on its banks, and the picturesque old Norman towns with their Gothic churches, I don't know that the Seine would be an interesting river; and the Ohio is not unlike the Seine, without chateaux, or towns, or churches. The broad rapid stream, the low sloping hills on either side, the straggling brick-built towns scattered along the banks, form pretty well the only features that strike a traveller passing down the river. The first hour's sail is very pleasant, the second is monotonous, the third is wearily dull; and, after the third, you devote your attention much more to what is going on inside the vessel than to the external scenery. Happily, inside the steamer there is plenty of interest for a stranger. The boat itself, with its broad deck, on which the freight is stowed, its long cabin, raised on pillars above the deck, running from the bows to the stern, and its engines rising above the cabin, is a strange sight in itself to an European. The ladies, of whom we had few on board, sat at one end of the cabin, and the men gathered round the other, where they smoked, expectorated, read newspapers, liquored at the bar, and played the mysterious game of "euchre." It was your own fault if you wanted companionship. I made a chance acquaintance with a gentleman sitting beside me at dinner, and before half an hour was over, I had been introduced to, and shaken hands with, half of our fellow passengers, all of whom were strangers to both of

-- 58 --

us. The sole objection to this promiscuous introduction is, that every one you are introduced to asks you to drink as a matter of politeness. Happily, American whisky is very weak, and as you are allowed to help yourself from the bottle, you can take as little as you please. I was struck then, by the way, as I had often been before, at the great liberality in standing treat, to use a common word, of the ordinary Americans. Men to whom, from their dress and air, money must really be a matter of consequence, will spend many shillings in paying for drinks for perfect strangers; and if any friend's friend is standing by, will press him to join him as a matter of course. There is no ostentation, as far as I can see, about this custom, but a simple feeling of rough hospitality, not over refined, perhaps, but still creditable in itself. I was struck, too, as I was frequently, with the extraordinary freedom with which, in the midst of this civil war, men of all opinions expressed their sentiments in public. We had many Union soldiers on board, several Government officials, and a good sorting of Secessionists. We had various political discussions, but all in perfect good humour and frankness; and the only opinion I did not hear expressed was Abolitionist, either because there were no Abolitionists in the party, or because Abolitionist doctrines are too unpopular in these border Slave States to be freely expressed. There was one old Kentucky farmer I was introduced to, who was just going home,

-- 59 --

after having been kept in prison at Columbus as a Secessionist. He confessed openly that he was in favour of secession, but declared, whether truly or not, that he had taken no part for or against it, and that his imprisonment had been due to a malicious information given against him by the Union doctor of the village, whose conduct he had had to censure for immorality. "The only thing, sir," he said, "I thought was hard, was, that I was arrested on the very spot of ground where our regiment was encamped in 1812, when we were drawn out to fight the Britishers, begging your pardon, sir." Yet this old man was conversing in the most friendly way with another old Kentucky backwoodsman, who had sent three sons to fight in the Federal army, and was asking everybody if they could tell him whether his boys' regiment had been in the battle of Pittsburgh Landing, and who, when he was assured that the regiment had not been under fire, made the comment — "Well, I should have liked my boys to have been in at the battle." A gentlemen, by the way, who had just returned from the field of battle, assured me, that amongst all the dead bodies lying scattered over that hard-fought field, he saw but one, rebel or loyal, who had been shot in the back.

-- 60 --

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