Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Memphis

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As I write, this beautiful little city of the South may be given to the flames by its own people, or by the shells of its Northern invaders. When I think of its probable fate, it rises before me like a picture, and I see again the sweeping torrent of its great river, the shore lined with busy steamers, loading with cotton, the precipitous bluffs, or alluvial banks, rising a hundred feet from the river brink, the streets, the spires, the villas and gardens of a lovely town, and a fertile and beautiful land. Memphis—the name carries us back thirty centuries to Egypt and the Nile. Our Memphis is of to-day, and carries us across the ocean to America and the Mississippi. When the old world peopled the new, the emigrants took with them the names of the places they discovered or peopled. The Spaniards and French drew heavily upon the calendar. In the West Indies and Spanish America we have San Salvador, San Domingo, Santa Cruz, Santa Fé. The French, in Louisiana and Canada, gave the names of saints and European cities, or adopted Indian designations. Thus we have St. Lawrence, St. Louis, New Orleans, Montreal, Ontario, Niagara. The English settlers of the American colonies at first took English names, and the oldest towns are called Jamestown, Yorktown, Richmond, Charleston, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Boston, Exeter, Cambridge, Hartford, Albany, Baltimore, Hanover, Orford, and a hundred others. These are repeated over and over. The names of several of the States evince their English origin, as New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, so named in honour of Queen Elizabeth, the Carolinas and Georgia. The Dutch, German, and French settlers also gave their own familiar names to their settlements. But as the number of towns and villages increased, it was necessary to have more names, and people adopted those of every famous city in the world, from Babylon, Nineveh, Thebes, Memphis, Troy, Athens, Rome, Antioch, Carthage, Jerusalem, to Lisbon, Madrid, Lyons, Genoa, Florence, Smyrna, Moscow, and so on to Pekin and Canton. A few hours’ ride on a New York railway will carry you through the famous cities of Troy, Utica, Rome, Syracuse, Amsterdam, and Geneva. As the proper names of the eastern hemisphere became exhausted, and the Washingtons, Jeffersons, Jacksons, and other popular American names had been repeated in every State, another rich supply was found in the often musical designations of the aboriginal languages. These were sometimes resorted to, even in the early history of the country. Four of the great lakes retain their ancient names of Ontario, Erie, Huron, and Michigan. Massachusetts, Connecticut, Delaware, Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, and Oregon are Indian names of states. Indian chiefs and tribes have given names to hundreds of towns and rivers. Writers have animadverted upon the bad taste of some of these designations, but the Cantons and Cairos, Romes and Londons, are certainly as good names as the Smithtowns, Jonesvilles, and Pittsburgs, by which the early settlers of hundreds of obscure villages make their names immortal.

Let us return, or rather proceed, to Memphis. It was a long journey there. I was in the pretty town of Cleveland, on the south bank of Lake Erie, in Ohio, when the summons came. The distance is about 800 miles, and I had my choice of many routes. I could go for 100 miles to the head of the Ohio, and the rest of the way by steamer; I could take a steamer at Cincinnati. I could go west, by Chicago, to the Mississippi, and so down that river; or I could take the most rapid route, by rail across Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois to Cairo, and thence on the Mississippi.

The cars, as the Americans designate their railway carriages, on the road from Cleveland to Cincinnati, are among the nicest I have ever seen. They are not only brightly painted, gilded, and upholstered, and furnished with retiring rooms, but are warmed in winter, cooled in summer, and thoroughly ventilated always, in a manner that could scarcely fail to satisfy a “Times” correspondent. In the warmest days of an American summer, with the thermometer at a hundred, and the train enveloped in clouds of dust, these cars are clean, airy, and cool. By ingenious machinery a constant current of air is cooled and washed clean from dust by being made to pass through showers of water. In winter, these cars are warmed and ventilated with hot air, supplied in great abundance by a similar apparatus.

These cars, it is true, are not very exclusive. They seat thirty or forty passengers. The “gentlemanly” conductor walks through the entire train to examine tickets, when it is in rapid motion; so the boy who sells newspapers, books, and sugar-plums, has free access, and the coloured gentleman who supplies the passengers with water, where that luxury is not kept in well-iced reservoirs in every car. But the lack of exclusiveness is compensated to the traveller, who wishes to see the people of the country he is passing through. In the car in which I was seated there were near me, as I gathered from the conversation, a judge, a member of congress, and an ex-governor of some state. They were talking politics very freely. On the seats before me were a middle-aged Chinese woman, who could speak a little English, and two children, a bright boy and girl some ten or twelve years old, who spoke nothing but Chinese, though their father was an American. They had been sent from China to Kentucky under the sole charge of their Chinese nurse, who was a queerly dressed but most estimable and trusty seeming personage, where they were to be educated under the care of their antipodal grandparents. The enterprising Kentuckian had make a fortune in China and married a Chinese wife. She could speak no English, and the children had learnt only their mother tongue. It was curious to study in the faces and actions of these two bright children the intermingled characteristics of the two races.

Two persons on the seat behind me were of scarcely less interest. One was a New York lady, young and pretty to the last degree, of the most delicate type of American beauty, with its pearly complexion, exquisite features, and little hands and feet. She was dressed for a long journey, and in a fashion that was singularly perfect. Her face was thoughtful as well as beautiful, her manner perfectly self-possessed, and a little that of a spoiled child, and she had a wonderful faculty of wrapping her pretty person in a full supply of shawls and making herself comfortable. Her travelling companion puzzled me, both in himself and in his relation to the fair lady. He called her “Mees Fannee,” and treated her with a mingled politeness and familiarity. She kept him to English as much as possible, but he shied like a restive horse into French and Spanish. He turned out to be a Mexican general, whose name I had often seen in the newspapers, on his way from New York to take part in a civil war then in progress, and his somehow cousin, Mees Fannee, was going to New Orleans under his escort to join her married sister.

Arrived at Cincinnati, we took the western road for Cairo. Forests dark and drear, newly-cleared farms, and newly-built villages, are the monotonous accompaniments of a Western American journey. The prairies have a monotony of their own. Your eye searches all round the horizon for the joyous blue peak of a far-off mountain. You cannot even see a tree. The railway itself is tiresome in its straight-lined and dead-level uniformity. A deep cut, a high embankment, a heavy grade, or a sharp curve, would be a relief. The only variety we had was that of the violent motion caused by the displacement of the ties by frost. This was so great at times as to set all the cars dancing, and almost to throw the passengers from their seats.

After six hundred miles of rail—and some of it of the roughest—we arrived at that little, forlorn, sunken fragment of a city, Cairo. It is built upon a point of land, recovered by huge embankments from the floods of the Ohio and Mississippi, which here form their junction, and it is important besides, as the Southern terminus of the Illinois Central Railroad. Here lay the steamers from Cincinnati and St. Louis, waiting for the arrival of the trains with Southern passengers. I chose the finest and fastest from St. Louis. What a luxury to the tired and dusty traveller was that great palace-like boat, with her saloon two hundred feet long, light, lofty, and elegantly furnished; rich carpets, soft lounges, huge mirrors, cut glass chandeliers, pictured panels, marble tables, vases, of flowers, pianoforte—everything to give repose or promote enjoyment. I was shown to a large and thoroughly furnished state room, as comfortable as any bed-chamber need be.

The tables were set for breakfast from eight to ten o’clock, and every one ordered what he required from a printed bill of fare, containing a great variety of dishes. It was a Southern boat, and the negro waiters were perfectly trained to their duties. They spring to anticipate your wishes, they gently suggest some favourite dish, they seem delighted to make your meal agreeable.

After breakfast there is the promenade on deck, with the ever-changing panorama of river scenery; the lounge on the balconies, with the new friend or novel; a game of chess or cards in the saloon, or music. So we glide along till the early dinner at three o’clock. This sumptuous meal is served up with all the formalities. Oval tables are set across the saloon, each table for twelve persons. Every name is written upon a card, and placed beside his plate. A careful clerk has assorted the whole company with the nicest care. Each table has its own party of persons suitable to each other. The courses come on in due order, with all the luxuries of fish, flesh, and fowl, and an admirable dessert. Tea and supper are served at seven o’clock, and after the tables are cleared the waiters, who are all musicians, play an hour of quadrilles, waltzes, &c., and the passengers dance if they are so inclined. Then music and conversation grow lively aft, and cards still livelier forward. One passage fee pays all expenses. No waiter expects a fee. The only extras are boots and porter. At the end of a long trip, ladies usually give a small gratuity to the chambermaid.

On a high, bold bluff, we descry two miles of handsome buildings, and our boat rounds to, so as to bring her head up stream, and in a few moments we land at Memphis. The shore is thronged with hacks and porters. The hotels are not half a mile away, and the fare demanded is the modest sum of ten shillings. The Southerners are devoted to free trade. I have known New Orleans cabmen to ask and get five pounds for taking a load of passengers a few rods. It was late at night, and in rather a heavy shower: in fact the rain amounted to an inundation, and the water in the streets was two feet deep. The excuse for high fares at Memphis was, that it was muddy.

There was no mistake about that. The streets are broad, the side walks well laid, the buildings fine, but the streets had never been paved, and the stumps of the forest trees were in some of the public squares. Paving was a difficulty. In the alluvial valley of the Mississippi stone is rare. Flag stones for the side walks are imported from Liverpool, as ballast to the cotton ships. The clay loam of the finest streets of Memphis was cut into ruts, two feet deep, by the mule teams and waggons which brought the cotton from the railways to the river.

How beautiful the city was, how lovely the country, with its villas, gardens, and flowering and fragrant forests around it, I cannot describe. The soil is rich; the climate bright and genial. Roses bloom all the winter in the gardens. Cotton and maize grow abundantly in their season. Money is plentiful; wages are high; there is work for all in that land of plenty: so it was before the war. I have travelled a thousand miles and never seen one hand held out for charity.

In the long and almost perpetual summers of the South, ice is a luxury of the first order. Every morning the ice cart comes round as regularly as milkman or baker: it is seen on every table. Stored in great warehouses, built with double walls, filled in with spent tanbark or sawdust, it is made to last from year to year, even in a climate where the thermometer ranges for weeks at nearly a hundred degrees. But whence comes the ice? A thousand miles up the river the winters are long and cold. The ice, two feet in thickness, is cut out in blocks, and stored up for the opening of navigation. Loaded in immense flat-boats or rafts of boards, it floats down with the current, to Memphis. Two men, on each flat-boat, keep the frail craft in mid-channel, signal the steam-boats that might run them down, and lazily while away the weeks of this slow and tedious voyage. Mr. Lincoln, the present President of the United States, is said to have been engaged at one time in navigating in this manner the very river down which he is now sending his victorious gun-boats.

If Memphis needs ice to cool her liquids, she needs also fuel to roast and boil. The steam-boats and locomotives have burnt off the forests, but there is an abundance of coal around the sources of the Ohio. You see it in seams, ten feet in thickness, cropping out of the high banks of the Monongahela, needing only to be picked out and sent down a broad trough to the flat-boat by the shore. The coal floats down with the current like the ice, a thousand or two thousand miles, and lights the grates and furnaces of Memphis and New Orleans. Many cargoes are lost. Sometimes the mere swell of a passing steamer sinks the frail flat-boat; sometimes a sudden hurricane will sink a hundred, and many lives are lost.

The first Sunday spent in a gay southern city is a curious social revelation. You walk out toward evening, the sky is blue, the air is balm, but a thousand rainbows of gay and flashing colours have broken loose; all negrodom has put on its wonderful attire of finery, and come out to take the air. Slavery has its fascinations, and one of these is to see the whole negro population of a rich city like Memphis out on a Sunday afternoon. The negroes not only outdo the whites in dress, but they caricature their manners; and sable belles and sooty exquisites appropriate the finest walks, and interpret the comedy of life in their own fashion.

There is a handsome theatre at Memphis, very fashionably attended when there are attractive stars. The coloured population, of course, is suitably provided for, and takes an intense satisfaction in the drama. The negroes are, perhaps, even more fond of the circus; and I have seen a full gallery noisily enjoying the make-believe negro minstrels. But the circus, with its trained horses, spangled finery, and clownish antics, is, perhaps, their strongest attraction. One came up the river from New Orleans while I was at Memphis. It was a complete circus, with ring, boxes, pit and gallery, a full stud and company, all propelled by steam. It steamed from town to town along the thousands of miles of the Mississippi and its branches, staying a day or two at one place, and weeks at another. When its great steam organ, which could be heard three miles, announced its arrival at Memphis, the whole juvenile and negro population was on the qui vive. I was visiting at the residence of a gentleman, two miles in the country. In came Harry, a handsome black boy, fat and lazy, who would go to sleep, currying his horse or over his rake in the garden, with his—“Please, massa, de circus am come.”

“Well, Harry, suppose it has come, what then?”

“Please, massa, give me a pass to go and see it.”

“A pass, ay? but who is to pay?”

“Oh! I’se got two bits for de ticket.”

So the good-natured massa filled up a blank pass, which would allow Harry to be abroad after nine o’clock at night, without being taken up by the police.

Harry was hardly out of the library before there came another visitor, a black little nursery maid, some twelve or fourteen years old.

“Please, massa,” said she, in the familiar wheedling way of children and slaves, “Harry’s goin’ to de circus.”

“And you want to go, too?”

“Yes, please, massa.”

“I am afraid you will get into trouble. It’s a good way, and you will be out late.”

“Oh! no, massa; I won’t get into no trouble, I won’t, indeed: I’ll keep by Harry, please, massa!”

“Have you got any money?”

“No, massa; you please give me two bit, massa.”

Of course, the two bits came, and with them another pass for the circus.

The wealth and importance of the cities of Southern America are not to be estimated by their population. Memphis, in its palmiest day, had less than twenty thousand population, but the wealth and business were immense. There were five daily papers, and many other periodicals. The stocks of goods were large, the commercial buildings spacious, the style of living fast and luxurious.

A European traveller is astonished to see so well-dressed, and in many respects, so well-bred a people given over to such a vile habit as the constant and profuse chewing of tobacco, with its disgusting accompaniments. The floors of rail cars are deluged, the parlors of hotels and cabins of steamboats are covered with huge spittoons. The floor of the court-house in Memphis was covered more than an inch deep in saw-dust, and when the audience at the theatre applauded with stamping of feet and canes, the dust that rose from the floor was an impalpable tobacco powder, which set the whole house sneezing. The nastiness of this horrid American custom could scarcely have a stronger illustration. I remember another instance, however, of a more ludicrous character. A crowded western audience was listening in breathless silence to a popular speaker; and the only sound that could be heard in the pauses of his declamation, was a rapid, heavy, and continuous shower of tobacco-juice that fell upon the floor, all over the hall, and soon rendered it a broad lake. In the hush of a deep tragedy, in a New York theatre, there comes up the crackling sound of hundreds of persons eating pea-nuts—a sound like that of a great drove of hogs eating acorns in a western forest; but the pattering shower of tobacco-juice is the strangest noise, as well as the most disgusting. But the traveller must learn to overlook national peculiarities, and not to condemn a people for one or two singularities.

Memphis was, and I hope still is, a beautiful city. As usual, in America, there are churches in abundance. The finest were the Episcopalian and Roman Catholic, standing near neighbours, with rector and priest on the most friendly terms. Then came the Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, &c. There is also a very handsome Jews’ synagogue, where I heard an eloquent discourse, by a famous Rabbi from Cincinnati, and some very fine music.

The planters, professional men, and merchants, whose villas beautify the suburbs for miles, were full of lavish Southern hospitality. No one could expect to find in a new country so many beautiful and luxurious houses. One of the most beautiful places near the city was a Dominican convent and academy, where I got a good view of a hundred or more young misses, mostly planters’ daughters, sent here to be educated in this sylvan paradise, by the white-robed daughters of St. Dominic. Four-fifths of them were Protestants, but a large portion of the youth of the South are educated in Jesuit Colleges, and the female convents of various religious orders.

Slavery, as seen by the traveller in the South, presents only its softest and most amiable aspects. There is something fascinating in the respect with which every white person is treated, and the obsequious alacrity with which he is served. Every negro, to whomsoever he may belong, must be respectful and obedient to any white person. The superiority of race is asserted and acknowledged. If there are hardships and cruelties in this servitude, they are rarely seen by a stranger. The negroes are careless and happy, or stolid and stupid. Some are trusted with untold gold—some, I am sure, rule their masters and mistresses, and have things pretty much their own way. The servants of old families, where generations of black men have served generations of whites, have all the pride of family and ancestry, and look down with aristocratic contempt upon the common niggers of the nouveaux riches. That Slavery has either a strong fascination, or some redeeming features, may be judged from the fact that English, Irish, and the Northern American emigrants to the South, whatever their former opinions, generally follow the customs of the country, and become the owners of slaves.

Short as was my stay, I looked back from the deck of the steamer that carried me to New Orleans, not without a sigh for the beauties of Memphis as they glowed in the radiance of the setting sun, and, all golden hued and splendid, slowly faded from my view, till darkness fell upon the woods and waters, and silence broken only by the roar of steam, and the rush of our sharp prow down the rapid river.

Since the above was written, a change has come over the scene. When the Federal supremacy on the sea was extended to the great rivers of the west, Memphis fell before the fleet of gun and mortar boats that descended from Cairo. When Island No. 10, and Fort Pillow had been evacuated by the Confederates, Memphis was at the mercy of the mortar fleet. The whole river would have been opened to the Federal steamers, but for the successful defence of Vicksburg. Memphis was occupied by a Federal garrison. Some Union men were found, but the greater portion of the male population was with the Confederate army, whose scouring parties are often in sight of the city. The clergy who dared still to pray for the success of the Southern cause were silenced. The property of rebels has been confiscated, and the city is held under the threat of destruction, if an attempt is made to retake it.