Thomas W. Knox.

Camp-Fire and Cotton-Field Southern Adventure in Time of War. Life with the Union Armies, and Residence on a Louisiana Plantation online

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pleasure-ground was reserved for the white people alone, no negro
being allowed to enter the inclosure under severe penalties. A
regiment of our soldiers encamped near this park, and used its fence
for fuel. The park is now free to persons of whatever color.

Natchez suffered less from the war than most other places of its size
along the Mississippi. The Rebels never erected fortifications in or
around Natchez, having relied upon Vicksburg and Port Hudson for their
protection. When Admiral Farragut ascended the river, in 1862, after
the fall of New Orleans, he promised that Natchez should not be
disturbed, so long as the people offered no molestation to our
gun-boats or army transports. This neutrality was carefully observed,
except on one occasion. A party which landed from the gun-boat _Essex_
was fired upon by a militia company that desired to distinguish
itself. Natchez was shelled for two hours, in retaliation for this
outrage. From that time until our troops occupied the city there was
no disturbance.

When we arrived at Natchez, we found several Northern men already
there, whose business was similar to our own. Some had secured
plantations, and were preparing to take possession. Others were
watching the situation and surveying the ground before making their
selections. We found that the best plantations in the vicinity had
been taken by the friends of Adjutant-General Thomas, and were gone
past our securing. At Vidalia, Louisiana, directly opposite Natchez,
were two fine plantations, "Arnuldia" and "Whitehall," which had been
thus appropriated. Others in their vicinity had been taken in one way
or another, and were out of our reach. Some of the lessees declared
they had been forced to promise a division with certain parties in
authority before obtaining possession, while others maintained a
discreet silence on the subject. Many plantations owned by widows and
semi-loyal persons, would not be placed in the market as "abandoned
property." There were many whose status had not been decided, so
that they were practically out of the market. In consequence of these
various drawbacks, the number of desirable locations that were open
for selection was not large.

One of the leasing agents gave us a letter to a young widow who
resided in the city, and owned a large plantation in Louisiana,
fifteen miles from Natchez. We lost no time in calling upon the lady.

Other parties had already seen her with a view to leasing her
plantation. Though she had promised the lease to one of these
visitors, she had no objections to treating with ourselves, provided
she could make a more advantageous contract.

In a few days we repeated our visit. Our rival had urged his reasons
for consideration, and was evidently in favor. He had claimed to be
a Secessionist, and assured her he could obtain a safeguard from the
Rebel authorities. The lady finally consented to close a contract with
him, and placed us in the position of discarded suitors. We thought of
issuing a new edition of "The Rejected Addresses."



Passing the Pickets. - Cold Weather in the South. - Effect of Climate
upon the Constitution. - Surrounded and Captured. - Prevarication
and Explanation. - Among the Natives. - The Game for the
Confederacy. - Courtesy of the Planters. - Condition of the
Plantations. - The Return.

Mr. Colburn went to St. Louis, on business in which both were
interested, and left me to look out a plantation. I determined to make
a tour of exploration in Louisiana, in the region above Vidalia. With
two or three gentlemen, who were bound on similar business, I passed
our pickets one morning, and struck out into the region which was
dominated by neither army. The weather was intensely cold, the ground
frozen solid, and a light snow falling.

Cold weather in the South has one peculiarity: it can seem more
intense than the same temperature at the North. It is the effect of
the Southern climate to unfit the system for any thing but a warm
atmosphere. The chill penetrates the whole body with a severity I have
never known north of the Ohio River. In a cold day, the "Sunny South"
possesses very few attractions in the eyes of a stranger.

In that day's ride, and in the night which followed, I suffered more
than ever before from cold. I once passed a night in the open air in
the Rocky Mountains, with the thermometer ten degrees below zero.
I think it was more endurable than Louisiana, with the mercury ten
degrees above zero. On my plantation hunt I was thickly clad, but the
cold _would_ penetrate, in spite of every thing. An hour by a fire
might bring some warmth, but the first step into the open air would
drive it away. Fluid extract of corn failed to have its ordinary
effect. The people of the vicinity said the weather was unusually
severe on that occasion. For the sake of those who reside there
hereafter, I hope their statement was true.

Our party stopped for the night at a plantation near Waterproof, a
small village on the bank of the river, twenty-two miles from Natchez.
Just as we were comfortably seated by the fire in the overseer's
house, one of the negroes announced that a person at the door wished
to see us.

I stepped to the door, and found a half-dozen mounted men in blue
uniforms. Each man had a carbine or revolver drawn on me. One of my
companions followed me outside, and found that the strange party had
weapons enough to cover both of us. It had been rumored that several
guerrillas, wearing United States uniforms, were lurking in the
vicinity. Our conclusions concerning the character of our captors were
speedily made.

Resistance was useless, but there were considerations that led us to
parley as long as possible. Three officers, and as many soldiers,
from Natchez, had overtaken us in the afternoon, and borne us company
during the latter part of our ride. When we stopped for the night,
they concluded to go forward two or three miles, and return in the
morning. Supposing ourselves fairly taken, we wished to give
our friends opportunity to escape. With this object in view, we
endeavored, by much talking, to consume time.

I believe it does not make a man eloquent to compel him to peer into
the muzzles of a half-dozen cocked revolvers, that may be discharged
at any instant on the will of the holders. Prevarication is a
difficult task, when time, place, and circumstances are favorable. It
is no easy matter to convince your hearers of the truth of a story
you know to be false, even when those hearers are inclined to be
credulous. Surrounded by strangers, and with your life in peril, the
difficulties are greatly increased. I am satisfied that I made a sad
failure on that particular occasion.

My friend and myself answered, indiscriminately, the questions that
were propounded. Our responses did not always agree. Possibly we might
have done better if only one of us had spoken.

"Come out of that house," was the first request that was made.

We came out.

"Tell those soldiers to come out."

"There are no soldiers here," I responded.

"That's a d - d lie."

"There are none here."

"Yes, there are," said the spokesman of the party. "Some Yankee
soldiers came here a little while ago."

"We have been here only a few minutes."

"Where did you come from?"

This was what the lawyers call a leading question. We did not desire
to acknowledge we were from Natchez, as that would reveal us at once.
We did not wish to say we were from Shreveport, as it would soon be
proved we were not telling the truth. I replied that we had come from
a plantation a few miles below. Simultaneously my companion said we
had just crossed the river.

Here was a lack of corroborative testimony which our captors commented
upon, somewhat to our discredit. So the conversation went on, our
answers becoming more confused each time we spoke. At last the leader
of the group dismounted, and prepared to search the house. He turned
us over to the care of his companions, saying, as he did so:

"If I find any soldiers here, you may shoot these d - d fellows for

During all the colloquy we had been carefully covered by the weapons
of the group. We knew no soldiers could be found about the premises,
and felt no fear concerning the result of the search.

Just as the leader finished his search, a lieutenant and twenty men
rode up.

"Well," said our captor, "you are saved from shooting. I will turn you
over to the lieutenant."

I recognized in that individual an officer to whom I had received
introduction a day or two before. The recognition was mutual.

We had fallen into the hands of a scouting party of our own forces.
Each mistook the other for Rebels. The contemplated shooting was
indefinitely postponed. The lieutenant in command concluded to encamp
near us, and we passed the evening in becoming acquainted with each

On the following day the scouting party returned to Natchez. With
my two companions I proceeded ten miles further up the river-bank,
calling, on the way, at several plantations. All the inhabitants
supposed we were Rebel officers, going to or from Kirby Smith's
department. At one house we found two old gentlemen indulging in a
game of chess. In response to a comment upon their mode of amusement,
one of them said:

"We play a very slow and cautious game, sir. Such a game as the
Confederacy ought to play at this time."

To this I assented.

"How did you cross the river, gentlemen?" was the first interrogatory.

"We crossed it at Natchez."

"At Natchez! We do not often see Confederates from Natchez. You must
have been very fortunate to get through."

Then we explained who and what we were. The explanation was followed
by a little period of silence on the part of our new acquaintances.
Very soon, however, the ice was broken, and our conversation became
free. We were assured that we might travel anywhere in that region
as officers of the Rebel army, without the slightest suspicion of our
real character. They treated us courteously, and prevailed upon us to
join them at dinner. Many apologies were given for the scantiness of
the repast. Corn-bread, bacon, and potatoes were the only articles
set before us. Our host said he was utterly unable to procure flour,
sugar, coffee, or any thing else not produced upon his plantation.
He thought the good times would return when the war ended, and was
particularly anxious for that moment to arrive. He pressed us to pass
the night at his house, but we were unable to do so. On the following
day we returned to Natchez.

Everywhere on the road from Vidalia to the farthest point of our
journey, we found the plantations running to waste. The negroes had
been sent to Texas or West Louisiana for safety, or were remaining
quietly in their quarters. Some had left their masters, and were
gone to the camps of the National army at Vicksburg and Natchez. The
planters had suspended work, partly because they deemed it useless
to do any thing in the prevailing uncertainty, and partly because the
negroes were unwilling to perform any labor. Squads of Rebel cavalry
had visited some of the plantations, and threatened punishment to
the negroes if they did any thing whatever toward the production of
cotton. Of course, the negroes would heed such advice if they heeded
no other.

On all the plantations we found cotton and corn, principally the
latter, standing in the field. Sometimes there were single inclosures
of several hundred acres. The owners were desirous of making any
arrangement that would secure the tilling of their soil, while it
did not involve them in any trouble with their neighbors or the Rebel

They deplored the reverses which the Rebel cause had suffered, and
confessed that the times were out of joint. One of the men we visited
was a judge in the courts of Louisiana, and looked at the question
in a legal light. After lamenting the severity of the storm which was
passing over the South, and expressing his fear that the Rebellion
would be a failure, he referred to his own situation.

"I own a plantation," said he, "and have combined my planting interest
with the practice of law. The fortune of war has materially changed my
circumstances. My niggers used to do as I told them, but that time is
passed. Your Northern people have made soldiers of our servants, and
will, I presume, make voters of them. In five years, if I continue the
practice of law, I suppose I shall be addressing a dozen negroes as
gentlemen of the jury."

"If you had a negro on trial," said one of our party, "that would be
correct enough. Is it not acknowledged everywhere that a man shall be
tried by his peers?"

The lawyer admitted that he never thought of that point before.
He said he would insist upon having negroes admitted into court as
counsel for negroes that were to be tried by a jury of their race. He
did not believe they would ever be available as laborers in the field
if they were set free, and thought so many of them would engage in
theft that negro courts would be constantly busy.

Generally speaking, the planters that I saw were not violent
Secessionists, though none of them were unconditional Union men. All
said they had favored secession at the beginning of the movement,
because they thought it would strengthen and perpetuate slavery. Most
of them had lost faith in its ultimate success, but clung to it as
their only hope. The few Union men among them, or those who claimed
to be loyal, were friends of the nation with many conditions. They
desired slavery to be restored to its former status, the rights of the
States left intact, and a full pardon extended to all who had taken
part in the Rebellion. Under these conditions they would be willing to
see the Union restored. Otherwise, the war must go on.

We visited several plantations on our tour of observation, and
compared their respective merits. One plantation contained three
thousand acres of land, but was said to be very old and worn out. Near
it was one of twelve hundred acres, three-fourths covered with corn,
but with no standing cotton. One had six hundred acres of cotton
in the field. This place belonged to a Spaniard, who would not be
disturbed by Government, and who refused to allow any work done until
after the end of the war. Another had four hundred acres of standing
cotton, but the plantation had been secured by a lessee, who was about
commencing work.

All had merits, and all had demerits. On some there was a sufficient
force for the season's work, while on others there was scarcely an
able field-hand. On some the gin-houses had been burned, and on others
they were standing, but disabled. A few plantations were in good
order, but there was always some drawback against our securing
them. Some were liable to overflow during the expected flood of the
Mississippi; others were in the hands of their owners, and would not
be leased by the Government. Some that had been abandoned were
so thoroughly abandoned that we would hesitate to attempt their
cultivation. There were several plantations more desirable than
others, and I busied myself to ascertain the status of their owners,
and the probabilities concerning their disposal.

Some of the semi-loyal owners of plantations were able to make very
good speculations in leasing their property. There was an earnest
competition among the lessees to secure promising plantations. One
owner made a contract, by which he received five thousand dollars in
cash and half the product of the year's labor.

A week after the lessee took possession, he was frightened by the
near approach of a company of Rebel cavalry. He broke his contract and
departed for the North, forfeiting the five thousand dollars he had
advanced. Another lessee was ready to make a new contract with the
owner, paying five thousand dollars as his predecessor had done. Four
weeks later, this lessee abandoned the field, and the owner was at
liberty to begin anew.

To widows and orphans the agents of the Government displayed a
commendable liberality. Nearly all of these persons were allowed to
retain control of their plantations, leasing them as they saw fit, and
enjoying the income. Some were required to subscribe to the oath of
allegiance, and promise to show no more sympathy for the crumbling
Confederacy. In many cases no pledge of any kind was exacted.

I knew one widow whose disloyalty was of the most violent character.
On a visit to New Orleans she was required to take the oath of
allegiance before she could leave the steamboat at the levee. She
signed the printed oath under protest. A month later, she brought this
document forward to prove her loyalty and secure the control of her



Military Protection. - Promises. - Another Widow. - Securing
a Plantation. - Its Locality and Appearance. - Gardening in
Louisiana. - How Cotton is Picked. - "The Tell-Tale." - A Southerner's
Opinion of the Negro Character. - Causes and Consequences.

Parties who proposed to lease and cultivate abandoned plantations were
anxious to know what protection would be afforded them. General Thomas
and his agents assured them that proper military posts would soon be
established at points within easy distance of each other along the
river, so that all plantations in certain limits would be amply
protected. This would be done, not as a courtesy to the lessees, but
as a part of the policy of providing for the care of the negroes.
If the lessees would undertake to feed and clothe several thousand
negroes, besides paying them for their labor, they would relieve
the Government authorities of a great responsibility. They would
demonstrate the feasibility of employing the negroes as free laborers.
The cotton which they would throw into market would serve to reduce
the prices of that staple, and be a partial supply to the Northern
factories. All these things considered, the Government was anxious to
foster the enterprise, and would give it every proper assistance. The
agents were profuse in their promises of protection, and assured us it
would be speedily forthcoming.

There was a military post at Vidalia, opposite Natchez, which afforded
protection to the plantations in which General Thomas's family and
friends were interested. Another was promised at Waterproof, twenty
miles above, with a stockade midway between the two places. There was
to be a force of cavalry to make a daily journey over the road between
Vidalia and Waterproof. I selected two plantations about two miles
below Waterproof, and on the bank of the Mississippi. They were
separated by a strip of wood-land half a mile in width, and by a
small bayou reaching from the river to the head of Lake St. John. Both
plantations belonged to the same person, a widow, living near Natchez.

The authorities had not decided what they would do with these
plantations - whether they would hold them as Government property, or
allow the owner to control them. In consideration of her being a widow
of fifteen years' standing, they at length determined upon the latter
course. It would be necessary to take out a lease from the authorities
after obtaining one from the owner. I proceeded at once to make the
proper negotiations.

Another widow! My first experience in seeking to obtain a widow's
plantation was not encouraging. The first widow was young, the second
was old. Both were anxious to make a good bargain. In the first
instance I had a rival, who proved victorious. In the second affair I
had no rival at the outset, but was confronted with one when my suit
was fairly under way. Before he came I obtained a promise of the
widow's plantations. My rival made her a better offer than I had done.
At this she proposed to desert me. I caused the elder Weller's advice
to be whispered to him, hoping it might induce his withdrawal. He did
not retire, and we, therefore, continued our struggle. _He_ was making
proposals on his own behalf; I was proposing for myself and for Mr.
Colburn, who was then a thousand miles away.

My widow (I call her mine, for I won at last) desired us to give her
all the corn and cotton then on the plantations, and half of what
should be produced under our management. I offered her half the former
and one-fourth the latter. These were the terms on which nearly
all private plantations were being leased. She agreed to the offer
respecting the corn and cotton then standing in the field, and
demanded a third of the coming year's products. After some hesitation,
we decided upon "splitting the difference." Upon many minor points,
such as the sale of wood, stock, wool, etc., she had her own way.

A contract was drawn up, which gave Colburn and myself the lease of
the two plantations, "Aquasco" and "Monono," for the period of one
year. We were to gather the crops then standing in the field, both
cotton and corn, selling all the former and such portion of the latter
as was not needed for the use of the plantations. We were to cultivate
the plantations to the best of our abilities, subject to the fortunes
of flood, fire, and pestilence, and the operations of military and
marauding forces. We agreed to give up the plantations at the end of
the year in as good condition as we found them in respect to stock,
tools, etc., unless prevented by circumstances beyond our control. We
were to have full supervision of the plantations, and manage them
as we saw fit. We were to furnish such stock and tools as might be
needed, with the privilege of removing the same at the time of our

Our widow (whom I shall call Mrs. B.) was to have one-half the
proceeds of the corn and cotton then on the plantations, and seven
twenty-fourths of such as might be produced during the year. She
was to have the privilege of obtaining, once a week, the supplies of
butter, chickens, meal, vegetables, and similar articles she might
need for her family use. There were other provisions in the contract,
but the essential points were those I have mentioned. The two
plantations were to be under a single management. I shall have
occasion to speak of them jointly, as "the plantation."

With this contract duly signed, sealed, and stamped, I went to the
"Agent for Abandoned Plantations." After some delay, and a payment
of liberal fees, I obtained the Government lease. These preliminaries
concluded, I proceeded to the locality of our temporary home. Colburn
had not returned from the North, but was expected daily.

The bayou which I have mentioned, running through the strip of woods
which separated the plantations, formed the dividing line between the
parishes "Concordia" and "Tensas," in the State of Louisiana. Lake St.
John lay directly in rear of "Monono," our lower plantation. This lake
was five or six miles long by one in width, and was, doubtless, the
bed of the Mississippi many years ago.

On each plantation there were ten dwelling-houses for the negroes. On
one they were arranged in a double row, and on the other in a single
row. There was a larger house for the overseer, and there were
blacksmith shops, carpenter shops, stables, corn-cribs, meat-houses,
cattle-yards, and gin-houses.

On Aquasco there was a dwelling-house containing five large rooms, and
having a wide veranda along its entire front. This dwelling-house was
in a spacious inclosure, by the side of a fine garden. Inside this
inclosure, and not far from the dwelling, were the quarters for the
house-servants, the carriage-house and private stable, the smoke-house
and the kitchen, which lay detached from the main building, according
to the custom prevailing in the South.

Our garden could boast of fig and orange trees, and other tropical
productions. Pinks and roses we possessed in abundance. Of the latter
we had enough in their season to furnish all the flower-girls on
Broadway with a stock in trade. Our gardener "made his garden" in
February. By the middle of March, his potatoes, cabbages, beets, and
other vegetables under his care were making fine progress. Before
the jingle of sleigh-bells had ceased in the Eastern States, we were
feasting upon delicious strawberries from our own garden, ripened in
the open air. The region where plowing begins in January, and corn is
planted in February or early March, impresses a New Englander with its
contrast to his boyhood home.

When I took possession of our new property, the state of affairs was
not the most pleasing. Mrs. B. had sent the best of her negroes to
Texas shortly after the fall of Vicksburg. Those remaining on the
plantations were not sufficient for our work. There were four mules

Online LibraryThomas W. KnoxCamp-Fire and Cotton-Field Southern Adventure in Time of War. Life with the Union Armies, and Residence on a Louisiana Plantation → online text (page 20 of 32)