Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Mobile
The steamboat route from New Orleans to Mobile is one of the most delightful on the Gulf of Mexico. The distance is about 150 miles, through Lake Ponchartrain and along the coast of Mississippi, while a chain of islands, extending the whole distance, gives a wonderful variety to the prospect, and makes a continuous harbour or safe shelter from the Gulf typhoons.
We start from New Orleans by a short railroad, traversed in ten minutes, through a swamp. But this swamp is picturesque and interesting. Long streamers of moss hang from the gloomy cypress-trees. The undergrowth is of stunted palms. Birds of bright plumage and unrivalled song are seen and heard among the flowering shrubs. We pass through a fishing-village, out to the end of a long pier, and walk on board the long, light, low-pressure steamer, built strong enough for this sheltered sea navigation, and fleet and powerful enough to run off eighteen or twenty miles an hour without perceptible exertion.
The negro porters, probably the property of the company, place my luggage on board, and I step to the clerk’s office, pay my five dollars, and receive the key of my state-room. In a few moments we are careering across the blue waters of the lake, whose low shores are scarcely visible. The spires of New Orleans are fading in the sunset.
Then comes a supper, set out for 200 people, with great elegance and a greater profusion. The strange and delicious fish of these Southern waters and the wonderful oysters are among the choicest luxuries, but nothing is wanting necessary to a substantial and elegant repast. The sun is down, and up rises the yellow moon. The blue southern sky is full of stars, and the constellations which are here seen in the zenith are there low on the northern horizon. The Pole-star rises but thirty degrees, and then gently dips into the northern wave. It is a glorious night: the sea is like glass, only that long swells come in from the Gulf, while the faint land breeze is loaded with the odours of the jessamine, which now fills the forests with its blossoms, and floods the whole air with its fragrance.
How our fleet boat cuts through the water! I walk forward to her stem, before which rises a slender stream—a little fountain, which falls in a silver shower in the moonlight, with halos of faint lunar rainbows; aft, we leave a long slender line of glittering foam. Our rapid arrow-flight scarcely more disturbs the sea than the flight of a bird over its waters.
Music on the waves! Music and moonlight, beauty and fragrance on the star-gemmed southern sea. A group of ladies and gentlemen have gathered around the pianoforte in the great saloon. The fair Southerners are showing their musical accomplishments. Hark! it was “Ben Bolt” just now, and now it is “Casta Diva;” the next will be some negro melody, or “Old Dog Tray.” But this is not the only music. I hear the mellow twanging of the banjo forward, and the pulsing beat of dancing feet keeping time to the rude music. Between decks are groups of negroes—men, women, and children—who have come down the river from Kentucky and are bound to the plantations up the Alabama. Some are asleep; others are reclining in picturesque groups, while a ring of whites and blacks are enjoying the rude music and dance. The owners of the negroes are making them comfortable for the night, or talking the eternal politics, and chewing the eternal tobacco.
I fall easily into conversation with one of the most intelligent. He is a fiery Southerner, and there is no measure for his contempt of Northern politicians. Trust Douglas? Never! The time has come when the South must control her own destinies. The Northern democracy must join with the South, and elect a Southern candidate, or the Union is gone for ever. They have borne too much. They will bear no longer. There was much more, but it is not needful to recite it. It was the quiet and gentlemanly but determined expression of the spirit that has already covered the gory battle-fields of that fair Southern land with thousands of her devoted sons, that has carried desolation and mourning into thousands of Southern homes.
When I questioned about slavery, and the condition of the negroes, he only pointed to the groups lying around us.
“There they are,” said he, “look at them. We have four millions of such; and in some way we must take care of them. If we can contrive any better method for all parties concerned, you may be mighty sure that we shall adopt it. We claim that we, who live among our negroes and were raised among them, understand their condition and necessities better than people thousands of miles away. We are all in the same boat, and we must sink or swim together.”
As I had no vocation to convert the gentleman to my views, or impress him with my feelings, we passed to other subjects. But it was clear that his mind was full of the sense of injury and injustice—clear that he, like all the Southerners I ever met, believed that he understood the whole subject of his own domestic institutions better, and could manage it more wisely, than his near or distant neighbours.
I took one more look at the soft bright scene through which we were gliding, and retired to my state room. At dawn we were passing up Mobile Bay. The great cotton ships were lying at anchor outside the bar, some miles below the city, and the steamers were bringing down their loads of cotton. If Mobile had but a channel of twenty-five feet of water over her bar, she would be the great cotton city of the South. But the Bay closes in, and we glide up to the wharves. It is early; few are stirring, and the city is almost silent, but the view up the long, shaded garden streets, lined with white villas, with their green blinds, is enchanting.
It is too early for breakfast, but the steward has his smoking coffee-urn on a table set out with small cups, and he offers us a cup of café noir and a biscuit before we go on shore. The passage-fee has paid for everything, but I pass a dime to the negro steward with my empty cup. It is worth it to see the grace and dignity of his salutation of thanks. I really think there cannot be found anywhere a more perfect manner than among the better class of Southern negroes, but why the manners of the Southern slaves should be superior to those of the free negroes of the North, I will leave it to others to determine. The fact is unquestionable. I have not been to Liberia, and cannot tell how it may be where negroes, with the advantages of civilisation, are masters of the situation, and have no antipathies or rude repulsions of race to contend against. There may be great refinement of manners in Liberia; it is certain that the habitual deference of the negro to the white, and the corresponding condescension of the white gentleman to the negro, produces a kind of courtliness of behaviour which is not seen in the free communities of the Northern States.
Mobile is one of the oldest cities of the Southern States. Lemoine d’Iberville, a brave French officer, planted a colony at Biloxi, on the coast west of Mobile, in 1699. In 1701 he removed his colony to the site of the present city of Mobile. The Spanish had a few years before built a fort at Pensacola. Mobile is older than New Orleans; but I will not write its history. It has now a population of 28,000, a large commerce, and as it lies at the mouth of two rivers, navigable for hundreds of miles through the richest cotton regions of the South, it is, with respect to this trade, one of the most important of American cities. The streets are broad and finely built, with a profusion of shade, trees and shrubbery. The drives around are exceedingly fine, as the land rises gradually from the sea. The hedges are of the Cherokee rose, which climbs over everything and covers the trees with its rich foliage and flowers.
There are, as in all American cities, immense hotels, accommodating hundreds of guests, an abundance of churches, the principal one here being the Roman Catholic Cathedral. The Catholics, descended from the oldest French and Spanish families, are numerous and influential. They have a fine hospital, orphan asylums, a Jesuit college near the city, where the young men are educated, and a spacious Convent of the Visitation for young ladies.
It is not easy to write of the social character of a foreign city without seeming to betray social confidences. I shall try not to give offence. One of my first visits was to a lady, who though quite at home, not only in New Orleans and New York, but in half the capitals of Europe, is a thorough Southerner, and takes special pride in Mobile. She is a lively writer, but still more lively in conversation. She speaks all necessary languages, and knows everybody in the world worth knowing. In her drawing-room, surrounded by the souvenirs of her travels and acquaintances, and listening to her lively anecdotes, you are sure to meet, under the most favourable circumstances, just the people you most wish to see. And the little lady, who has made for herself a position quite regal, is not obliged to be exclusive. You are as likely to see with her and be introduced to an actress, a singer, an artist, or a man of letters, as a mere person of fashion, titled or otherwise. Indeed, if her manner was warmer to one than another, her voice kinder, and her smile more cheering, it was to the struggling genius, who needed just such encouragement and just such influence as she could give him.
In the suburbs of Mobile I remember, and shall never forget, a group of white cottages, shaded by immense live oaks, stretching out their giant arms a hundred feet. It was a cluster of gardens. The proprietors could sit under their own vines and fig trees, for there were plenty of both. Here lived one of my hospitable entertainers, in this patriarchal suburban Eden, surrounded by his children and grandchildren; and in one of the cottages lived his mother, a woman of eighty, whom this son of sixty kissed with the tenderness of a lover as often as they met. It was a pleasant thing to see this family of four generations gathered at dinner, or all kneeling together at church. The gentlemanly young negro who waited upon me seemed a humble member of the family. The cook was an artist in her department of the Franco-American school, with some African modifications. It would require a painter’s pencil, with a palette plentifully charged with ivory black, to do justice to the boy of eight who waited upon the table, or the younger apprentice of six, whose important business it was to wield a long whisk, and make war on every fly that dared to alight in that vicinity.
One day we made up a nice party to go on a small steamer down the bay. It was a charming voyage. The princess of the fête was a little girl of nine years old, an orphan granddaughter of my host. He was taking her to see a score of negroes, who were part of the property left her by her father, and of whom he had the care. “I did not like to hire them out,” said he. “Hired negroes are liable to be worked too hard, and badly treated. A man does not take so good care even of a hired horse as of one he owns. So, as I had an island down here, with plenty of clay on it, and bricks were in good demand, I hired a Yankee overseer, and set the boys to making bricks. The women cook and take care of them, and I go down every week or two to see how they get on, and carry them some little comforts, tea, coffee, and tobacco.” “And how does the Yankee overseer?” I asked.
“Very well, now. He wanted to drive too hard at first, and thought the negroes ought to work as hard as he did. He pushed them so hard, and kept them on such a short allowance, that two of the boys stole a boat one night, and came up to town to complain of him. They said they couldn’t stand it. But I promised to make it all right, and went down with them. I told him he must not expect negroes to work as hard as white people; and he has done very well since. These Yankees are great workers themselves, and hard masters to other people.”
The little lady was joyfully received by the whole coloured population. She distributed her presents of tea, tobacco, and gay kerchiefs among her property, listened to their stories, heard a long impromptu song composed in her honour, with a break-down accompaniment, and left in the golden sunset, her kind, graceful, and even affectionate good-byes answered by showers of thanks and blessings.
The whole scene and the events of my visit were vividly recalled to my mind by a letter I lately received from the gentleman whose hospitality I so greatly enjoyed. “We are in the midst of a long, I fear, and terrible war,” he wrote; “but we are united and determined. My sons and sons-in-law are with the army, and when there is a call for more soldiers I am ready to buy me a pair of revolvers, and follow them. We may be defeated—we never can be conquered.”
Beautiful Mobile, ere this, perhaps, many of thy hospitable homes are shrouded in mourning, and many of thy genial hearths are desolate!