George William Bagby.

Selections from the miscellaneous writings of Dr. George W. Bagby (Volume 1) online

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treme nervous depression will he admit himself not
competent to the discharge of the most arduous and
varied duties of life, and especially of those duties
for which he is evidently unfitted. He looks upon
himself as pre-eminently a man of business a prac-
tical man. Rothschild was not his equal in finan-
ciering ability ; Napoleon nor Hampden could have
wearied him in work ; Halifax was not his superior
in political sagacity. Name any man who has suc-
ceeded or failed in any undertaking, he will instantly
unfold to you the secret of his success, or the over-
sight which led to his downfall.

" But for cards and liquor," himself would have
excelled any man of his acquaintance ; as it is, see
how well he gets along in the world. In truth, his
mind is strictly of the "nil admirari" order; he
worships no man ; and his regard for himself is only


a reluctant indulgence accorded not to what lie is,
but to what he ought to be, and would be, " but for
cards and liquor."

For this remarkable self-confidence he is indebted
partly to a nature eminently high-spirited, and partly
to his position. Like the driver of a locomotive, he
wields a power infinitely greater than his own. He
handles the lever that unlooses the throttle-valve of
the mightiest engine on earth, and it is but natural
that he should confound derived with individual
power. Disconnect him from his engine, let him
conduct a business, other than his own, upon the
same loose principles, he would soon discover his
errror. But then he would lose one of his most
delightful traits.

The Virginia editor is not a profoundly learned
man; he is not even a smatterer, in the sense, at
least, in which that equivocal compliment was paid
to Milton. His specialty is politics ; and his tastes
not less than his occupation conspire to prevent his
acquiring any other knowledge. Of Latin he re-
members a few terms, such as " ex post facto " and
" ex parte" which he picked up while drifting, for a
few weeks, through a law office. Of Greek he re-
tains nearly the whole alphabet, being only a little
uncertain as to the relative shapes of Zeta and Xi,
and confusing Phi with Psi. His stock of poetry
consists of a few scraps of Hudibras, Byron, and
Peter Pindar ; he has, besides, a professional pride
and tenderness for the quatrain commencing :
" Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again I "


It would be impossible to restrain him from quoting
this occasionally, and, if it were possible, it would
be cruel.

His historical information does not extend quite
to the times of the Ach^an League and the Amphic-
tyonic Council, but dates rather from the Resolu-
tions of '98. With the wordings of the American
government, from its inception down to the present
time; with the character, and, to an extent, with
the writings of the great men who took prominent
part in its formation ; with the policy of the party
leaders; with the politicians, great and small, of his
own times, and with their tactics, he is intimately
familiar. In fact, his attainments may be summed
up in the word " politics ;" for while he does not un-
derrate those who understand and take an interest in
Belles Lettres and the Arts and Sciences, he frankly
confesses that he knows and cares nothing about them
himself. So fitted is he for partisan journalism, and
so wedded to it, that it is to be hoped the divine
economy has set apart some waste democratic star,
some uncleared portion of the celestial public domain,
some half-settled nebulous Kansas as a newspaper
heaven for him and his fellows. Elsewhere no con-
ceivable use could be found for them.

His style in writing varies from the plainest Anglo-
Saxon to the most gorgeous highfalutin. In gen-
eral, however, he makes use of ordinary English, and
cares little or nothing about nicety and finish. He
is better at repartee than at argument, but prefers


hard talk to the most polished wit. His humor is
peculiar, and considerably wider than it is subtle.

It has been said by some that the Virginia editor
is chosen rather for the stoutness of his heart than
for the brilliancy of his intellect, and, to be honest,
there is some truth in the allegation. A newspaper,
to be successful in the Old Dominion, must not be
defective in what they call chivalry; and a long-
established paper, having the prestige of high-toned
valor, would hardly employ a ready-writing craven
in preference to a brave gentleman less facile with
the pen. But the requirements of the public in this
regard, and the usages of the papers, have been a
thought exaggerated.

It is not true, for example, that the man-of-all-
work, the "Caesar" of the office, who is employed to
sweep out the old papers and trash in the morning,
receives an additional compensation for sweeping in
the dead editors lying about the door, who have
been killed at various places during the night and
brought there, as to a Morgue, for recognition and
distribution. Neither is it true that a paper, in order
to keep up its circulation, must have at least one
editor killed a day, and that papers having secured
a good editor, one whom they are unwilling to lose,
are in the habit of imposing upon the public by
buying up worthless wretches to assassinate in place
of him. Equally unfounded is the report that papers
impoverished and doing a small business are forced
to practice the contemptible fraud of substituting
wooden dummies, manikins, or lay figures in place


of bona fide corpses. These reports have reference,
doubtless, to States farther South than Virginia.

A propensity for gaming is a part of the editor's
constitution an hereditary taint, for which he is no
more responsible than for the age of his grand-
father, and which he could as easily get rid of as re-
move the shape of his legs. The affliction being
eminently genteel, he not only bears up under it
with manly fortitude, but cherishes it with much re-
gard. He is not much of a hand at " short cards."
His delight is to be seated over against a grim, im-
perturbable faro-dealer to have bets of "red
checks" all over the table half a dozen "piddlers"
of "white chips" to be leaning over his shoulder
and admiring his nerve a negro to be patiently
awaiting the end of the *.!eal to hand him a brandy
toddy on a silver waiter for the game to be stoutly
contested, and himself to "come out right smartly
winner." He has no great faith in "cases," but be-
lieves in betting on three cards at a time, and has a
special hankering for " the pot."

After all, and in spite of his many faults, the Vir-
ginia Editor is a gentleman. He comes of a good
stock, and, however wild he may be, never disgraces
it by a low or mean action. His vices are not those
of a groveling spirit. If his temper is hot, it is not
implacable; if his resentment is quick, it never
seeks an under-handed revenge. If he prefers a
clean bullet-hole to a fisticuffish bruising or mang-
ling with a bludgeon, that is his own concern. If
he is a sturdy partisan, he is above the venality and


the trimming which disgraces the journalism of
States nearer the pole than his own. If he drinks
too much, it is because the liquor he uses is of the
best quality. If he gambles, it is because he can't
help it. If he lives something beyond his income,
he is doing no more than all enlightened nations and
the majority of great men have done and continue
to do. His tastes are lavish. An imperial gallon
cannot be contained in a quart pot. And what po-
litical fabric was ever reared or maintained in its
integrity without the aid of an occasional loan ? If
he is not a very good citizen, it is because he wants
to be a better editor.

Finally, half an ounce of lead is "honorably and
satisfactorily adjusted " in his heart or brain, and the
Virginia Editor dies, to the great joy of himself and
to the intense grief of his party, the faro-dealers,
the bar-keepers, and of every body who is entitled
to an unexpected fifty cents simply because he is a
negro and can run an errand. The no longer belli-
gerent remains are attended to the tomb by an im-
mense concourse of citizens of all parties, and the
epitaph, stale but true, is, that "the community
-could have better spared a better man."



AMONG my earliest recollections is a trip from
Cumberland County to Lynchburg, in 1835,
or thereabouts. As the stage approached Glover's
tavern in Appomattox county, sounds as of a can-
nonade aroused my childish curiosity to a high pitch.
I had been reading Parley's History of America, and
this must be the noise of actual battle. Yes ; the war
against the hateful Britishers must have broken out
again. Would the stage carry us within range of the
cannon balls ? Yes, and presently the red-coats would
come swarming out of the woods. And and Gen.
Washington was dead; I was certain of that; what
would become of us? I was terribly excited, but
afraid to ask questions. Perhaps I was scared..
Would they kill an unarmed boy, sitting peacably
in a stage coach ? Of course they would ; Britishers
will do anything ! Then they will have to shoot a
couple of men first; and I squeezed still closer be-
tween them.

My relief and my disappointment were equally
great, when a casual remark unfolded the fact that the


noise which so excited me was only the " blasting of
rock on the Jeems and Kanawha Canell." What was
"blasting of rock?"

What was a " canell ?" and, above all, what man-
ner of thing was a " Jeerns and Kanawha Canell?"
Was it alive ?

I think it was ; more alive than it has ever been
since, except for the first few years after it was opened.

Those were the " good old days " of batteaux,
picturesque craft that charmed my young eyes more
than all the gondolas of Venice would do now. True,
they consumed a week in getting from Lynchburg to
Richmond, and ten days in returning against the
stream, but what of that ? Time was abundant in
those days. It was made for slaves, and we had the
slaves. A batteau on the water was more than a
match for the best four or six horse bell-team that
ever rolled over the red clay of Bedford, brindle dog
and tar-bucket included.

Fleets of these batteaux used to be moored on the
river bank near where the depot of the Virginia and
Tennessee Railroad now stands ; and many years after
the "Jeems and Kanawha" was finished, one of them
used to haunt the mouth of Blackwater creek above
the toll-bridge, a relic of departed glory. For if
ever man gloried in his calling, the negro batteau-
man was that man. His was a hardy calling, de-
manding skill, courage and strength in a high degree.
I can see him now striding. the plank that ran along
the gunwale to afford him footing, his long iron-shod
pole trailing in the water behind him. Now he turns,-


and after one or two ineffectual efforts to get his pole
fixed in the rocky bottom of the river, secures his
purchase, adjusts the upper part of the pole to the
pad at his shoulder, bends to his task, and the long,
but not ungraceful bark mounts the rapids like a sea-
bird breasting the storm. His companion on the
other side plies the pole with equal ardor, and be-
tween the two the boat bravely surmounts every
obstacle, be it rocks, rapids, quicksands, hammocks,
what not. A third negro at the stern held the
mighty oar that served as a rudder. A stalwart,
jolly, courageous set they were, plying the pole all
day, hauling in to shore at night under the friendly
shade of a mighty sycamore, to rest, to eat, to play
the banjo, and to snatch a few hours of profound,
blissful sleep.

The up-cargo, consisting of sacks of salt, bags of
coffee, barrels of sugar, molasses and whiskey, af-
forded good pickings. These sturdy fellows lived
well, I promise you, and if they stole a little, why,
what was their petty thieving compared to the enor-
mous pillage of the modern sugar refiner and the
-crooked-whiskey distiller ? They lived well. Their
cook's galley was a little dirt thrown between the
ribs of the boat at the stern, with an awning on oc-
casion to keep off the rain, and what they didn't eat
wasn't worth eating. Fish of the very best, both
salt and fresh, chickens, eggs, milk and the invinci-
ble, never-satisfying ash-cake and fried bacon. I see
the frying-pan, I smell the meat, the fish, the Rio
.coffee ! I want the batteau back again, aye ! and the


brave, light-hearted slave to boot. What did he
know about the State debt? There was no State
debt to speak of. Greenbacks? Bless, you! the
Farmers Bank of Yirginia was living and breathing,
and its money was good enough for a king. Re-
adjustment, funding bill, tax-receivable coupons
where were all these worries then ? I think if we
had known they were coming, we would have stuck
to the batteaux and never dammed the river. Why,.
shad used to run to Lynchburg! The world was
merry, butter-milk was abundant; Lynchburg a lad,
Richmond a mere youth, and the great " Jeems and
Kanawha canell" was going to oh! it was going to
do everything.

This was forty years ago and more, mark you.

In 1838, 1 made my first trip to Richmond. What
visions of grandeur filled my youthful imagination !
That eventually I should get to be a man seemed
probable, but that I should ever be big enough to
live, actually live, in the vast metropolis, was beyond
my dreams. For I believed fully that men were
proportioned to the size of the cities they lived in.
I had seen a man named Hatcher from Cartersville,
who was near about the size of the average man in
Lynchburg, but as I had never seen Cartersville, I
concluded, naturally enough, that Cartersville must
be equal in population. Which may be the fact, for
I have never yet seen Cartersville, though I have
been to Warminster, and once came near passing
through Bent-Creek.

I went by stage.


It took two days to make the trip, yet no one com-
plained, although there were many Methodist min-
isters aboard. Bro. Lafferty had not been born. I
thought it simply glorious. There was an unnatural
preponderance of preacher to boy nine of preacher
to one of boy. That boy did not take a leading part
in the conversation. He looked out of the window,
and thought much about Richmond. And what a
wonderful world it was ! So many trees, such nice
Tocks, and pretty ruts in the red clay ; such glorious
taverns, and men with red noses; such splendid
horses, a fresh team every ten miles, and an elegant
smell of leather, proceeding from the coach, prevail-
ing everywhere as we bowled merrily along. And
then the stage horn. Let me not speak of it, lest
Thomas and his orchestra hang their heads for very
shame. I wish somebody would tell me where we
stopped the first night, for I have quite forgotten.
Any how, it was on the left-hand side coming down,
and I rather think on the brow of a little hill. I
know we got up mighty soon the next morning.

We drew up at the Eagle hotel in Richmond.
Here again words, and time too, fail me. All the
cities on earth packed into one wouldn't look as big
and fine to me now as Main street did then. If
things shrink so in the brief space of a life- time,
what would be the general appearance, say of Peters-
burg, if one should live a million or so of years ?
This is an interesting question, which you may dis-
cuss with yourself, dear reader.

Going northward, I remained a year or two, and


on my return the " canell " was finished. I had seen
bigger places than Richmond, but had yet to have
.my first experience of canal travelling. The packet-
landing at the foot of Eighth street presented a scene
of great activity. Passengers on foot and in vehicles
continued to arrive up to the moment of starting. I
took a peep at the cabin, wondering much how all
the passengers were to be accommodated for the
night, saw how nicely the baggage was stored away
on deck, admired the smart waiters, and picked up a
-deal of information generally. I became acquainted
with the names of Edmond & Davenport in Rich-
mond, and Boyd, Edmond & Davenport in Lynch-
burg, the owners of the packet-line, and thought
to myself, " What immensely rich men they must
be ! Why, these boats cost ten times as much as a
stage-coach, and I am told they have them by the

At last we were off, slowly pushed along under
the bridge on Seventh street ; then the horses were
hitched ; then slowly along till we passed the crowd
of boats near the city, until at length, with a lively
jerk as the horses fell into a trot, away we went, the
cut-water throwing up the spray as we rounded the
Penitentiary hill, and the passengers lingering on
deck to get a last look at the fair city of Richmond,
lighted by the pale rays of the setting sun.

As the shadows deepened, everybody went below.
There was always a crowd in those days, but it was a
-crowd for the most part of our best people, and no
one minded it. I was little, and it took little room


to accommodate me. Everything seemed as cozy
and comfortable as heart could wish. I brought to
the table an excellent one it was a school boy's
appetite, sharpened by travel, and thought it was
" just splendid."

Supper over, the men went on deck to smoke,
while the ladies busied themselves with draughts or
backgammon, with conversation or with books. But
not for long. The curtains which separated the
female from the male department were soon drawn,
in order that the steward and his aids might make
ready the berths. These were three deep, " lower,"
" middle," and " upper ;" and great was the desire on
the part of the men not to be consigned to the
" upper." Being light as a cork, I rose naturally to
the top, clambering thither by the leathern straps with
the agility of a monkey, and enjoying as best 1 might
the trampling overhead whenever we approached
a lock. I didn't mind this much, but when the fel-
low who had snubbed the boat jumped down about
four feet, right on my head as it were, it was pretty
severe. Still I slept the sleep of youth. We all
went to bed early. A few lingered, talking in low
tones ; and way-passengers, in case there was a crowd,
were dumped upon mattresses, placed on the dining-

The lamp shed a dim light over the sleepers, and
all went well till some one and there always was
some one began to snore. Sn-a-a-aw aw-aw-poof !
They would turn uneasily and try to compose them-
selves to slumber again. No use. Sn-a-a-aw -poof!


" D that fellow ! Chunk him in the ribs, some-
body, and make him turn over. Is this thing to go on
forever ? Gentlemen, are you going to stand this all
night ? If you are, I am not. I am going to get up
and dress. Who is he, anyhow? No gentleman
would or could snore in that way!"

After awhile silence would be restored, and all
would drop off to sleep again, except the little fellow
in the upper berth, w T ho, lying there, would listen to
the trahn-ahn-ahn-ahn of the packet-horn, as we
drew nigh the locks. How mournfully it sounded in
the night ! what a doleful thing it is at best, and
how different from the stage-horn, with its cheery,
ringing notes ! The difference in the horns marks the
difference in the two eras of travel; not that the
canal period is doleful I would not say that, but it
is less bright than the period of the stage-coach.

To this day you have only to say, within my hear-
ing, trahn-akn-ahn* to bring back the canal epoch.
I can see the whole thing down to the snubbing-post,
with its deep grooves which the heavy rope had worn.
Indeed, I think I could snub a boat myself, with very
little practice, if the man on deck would say " hup /"
to the horses at the proper time.

We turned out early in the morning, and had pre-
cious little room for dressing. But that w r as no hard-
ship to me, who had just emerged from a big board-
ing school dormitory. Still, I must say, being now a
grown and oldish man, that I would not like to live
and sleep and dress for twenty or thirty years in the
cabin of a canal-packet. The ceremony of ablution


was performed in a primitive fashion. There were
the tin basins, the big tin dipper with the long
wooden handle. I feel it vibrating in the water now,
and the water a little muddy generally ; and there
were the towels, a big one on a roller, and the little
ones in a pile, and all of them wet. These were
discomforts, it is true, but, pshaw ! one good, big,
long, deep draught of pure, fresh morning air one
glimpse of the roseate flush above the wooded hills
of the James, one look at the dew besprent bushes
and vines along the canal bank one sweet caress of
dear mother nature in her morning robes, made am-
ple compensation for them all. Breakfast was soon
served, and all the more enjoyed in consequence of an
hour's fasting on deck ; the sun came out in all his
splendor ; the day was fairly set in, and with it there
was abundant leisure to enjoy the scenery, that grew
more and more captivating as we rose, lock after lock,
into the rock-bound eminences of the upper James.
This scenery I will not attempt to describe, for time
has sadly dimmed it in my recollection. The wealth
of the lowlands, and the upland beauty must be seen
as I have seen them, in the day of their prime, to be

The perfect cultivation, the abundance, the elegance,
the ducal splendor, one might almost say, of the great
estates that lay along the canal in the old days have
passed away in a great measure. Here were gentle-
men, not merely refined and educated, fitted to dis-
play a royal hospitality and to devote their leisure
to the study of the art and practice of government,


but they were great and greatly successful farmers
as well. The land teemed with all manner of pro-
ducts, cereals, fruits, what not ! negroes by the hun-
dreds and the thousands, under wise directions, gen-
tle but firm control, plied the hoe to good purpose.
There was enough and to spare for all to spare ?
aye ! to bestow with glad and lavish hospitality. A
mighty change has been wrought. What that change
is in all of its effects mine eyes have happily been
spared the seeing ; but well I remember I can never
forget how from time to time the boat would stop
at one of these estates, and the planter, his wife, his
daughters, and the guests that were going home with
him, would be met by those who had remained be-
hind, and how joyous the greetings were ! It was a
bright and happy scene, and it continually repeated
itself as we went onward.

In fine summer weather, the passengers, male and
female, stayed most of the time on deck, where there
was a great deal to interest, and naught to mar
the happiness, except the oft-repeated warning,
" braidge /" "low braidge /" ]STo well-regulated
packet-hand was ever allowed to say plain "bridge;"
that was an etymological crime in canal ethics. For
the men, this on-deck existence was especially de-
lightful ; it is such a comfort to spit plump into the
water without the trouble of feeling around with
your head, in the midst of a political discussion, for
the spittoon.

As for me, I often went below, to devour Dickens'
earlier novels, which w^ere then appearing in rapid



succession. But, drawn by the charm of the scenery,,
I would often drop my book and go back on deck
again. There was an islet in the river where, ex-
actly, I cannot tell which had a beauty of its own
for me, because from the moment I first saw it, my
purpose was to make it the scene of a romance, when
I got to be a great big man, old enough to write
for the papers. There is a point at which the pas-
sengers would get off, and taking a near cut across
the hills, would stretch their legs with a mile or two
of walking. It was unmanly, I held, to miss that.
Apropos of scenery, I must not forget the haunted
house near Manchester, which was pointed out soon
after we left Richmond, and filled me with awe ; for
though I said I did not believe in ghosts, I did. The
ruined mill, a mile or two further on, was always an
object of melancholy interest to me ; and of all the
locks from Lynchburg down, the Three-Mile Locks
pleased me most. It is a pretty place, as every one
will own on seeing it. It was so clean and green,
and white and thrifty-looking. To me it was simply

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Online LibraryGeorge William BagbySelections from the miscellaneous writings of Dr. George W. Bagby (Volume 1) → online text (page 10 of 27)