Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Up the Alabama

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It was a soft, bright, warm evening in March (which corresponds to the June of our colder clime) when I took my way down the broad streets of Mobile, bound up the Mobile and Alabama rivers to Montgomery, the beautiful capital of the state, and, for a time, of the Southern Confederacy.

As I approached the pier, the air was filled with the music of a steam organ on one of the boats, which was played by a German musical artist, engaged by the year, at a handsome salary. It is a strange music that fills the air with a vast body of harmony, carrying with it the impression of the power that gives it birth—in the range of long cylindrical boilers—of which the organ is the melodious collection of escape pipes and safety valves.

The Mobile river, which is but an extension of the deep bay, into which flow the Tombigbee and the Alabama, is broad and deep, and was now bank full. There were scarcely any visible shores. We steamed through a vast forest, which opened before us in picturesque reaches of the richest semi-tropical foliage, and the air was thick with the odour of the orange-blossom and the jessamine. The two fine rivers which unite to form the Mobile, have, like it, preserved their Indian names, but how the tribe that found for two of them such musical designations as Mobile and Alabama ever came to name a river the Tombigbee, I shall leave to some Choctaw or Cherokee to find a satisfactory explanation. Perhaps I do the aboriginal savages injustice. The Americans are not slow at corrupting names when they can make them sound more familiar. Thus a point on the Mississippi, which the French named Le Bois Brulé, is known to all the boatmen as “Bob Ruly’s Woods.”

The captain of our steamer was an Irishman, tall, handsome, eloquent, and thoroughly and enthusiastically Southern American in his views and feelings. For twenty years he had steamed up and down the Alabama, and he could not have been more devoted to his adopted country, or the section to which he belonged, had he been born upon the banks of the river.

As we sat forward of the pilot-house, on the promenade deck, enjoying the soft and perfume-laden evening breeze, he told me his story. When a boy of nineteen, he found himself, a raw immigrant, with five dollars in his pocket, on the banks of this river, looking for work; and the first, hardest, and roughest he could find was that of a deck-hand on a steamboat. He became one of a gang of white and black, who stood ready to land and receive freight, take in wood, and feed the furnaces. This hard and rapid work came at all hours of day or night, and the fare was as hard as the work. I have seen the men, a group of negroes on one side of the boat, and of the white hands, mostly Irish or Germans, on the other, eating their bread and bacon, and drinking black coffee from an iron pan, seated on piles of wood or bales of cotton.

But the wages, to a poor Irish boy, were a strong inducement. They gave him eight pounds a month, and found, in a rough fashion, bacon for food, and for his bed a dry goods box or cotton bale. He went to work, and was so sober, active, and intelligent, that the mate had no excuse to knock him into the river with a billet of wood, as was the custom.

He had been a week on the boat, when, one dark night, a fire was seen, and a cry heard, on the bank of the river. The mate would not land, but sent Patrick ashore in the yawl. Standing by the signal fire at the river side, attended by two or three grinning negroes, was a planter, who handed him a package, and said, “Here is thirty-four thousand dollars. Give it to the captain or clerk, and ask him to deposit it for me in the Planters’ bank, as soon as you get in. Tell them not to forget it, as it is to pay a note that falls due day after to-morrow.”

Patrick put the money into his bosom, and pushed off into the dark and lonely river. Doubtless he might have got ashore, and away; and doubtless he thought of it, as he felt the fortune in his bosom, but he pulled straight for the boat, as she lay, blowing off steam in mid-channel. And while he rowed he thought of what he must do.

“What was it all about?” asked the mate, as he sprang on the low deck.

“A message for the captain, sir,” said Patrick.

“Then go into the cabin and give it to him, and be quick about it,” said the not over-polite officer.

Patrick went up the companion way to the cabin, where he found the jolly captain, with a group of planters and merchants, busy at a game of poker, and more busy with the punch. He turned to the clerk, who was deeper in both punch and poker than the captain.

“Faith, an’ this will never do,” said Patrick. “If I give them the money to-night, they will lose it at poker, and never remember it in the morning.” So he went forward on deck again, and stowed the package of bank notes at the bottom of his clothes-bag in the forecastle, if so small a hole can be dignified by any such an appellation.

In the morning, when the officers were awake and sober, Patrick handed over his money and message.

“What is all this?” said the captain; “where did you get this money?”

“I went ashore in the yawl for it last night, sir.”

“And why did you not bring it to the office at once?”

“I did, sir; but you and the clerk were both very busy.”

The passengers, who had been engaged in the same line of business, had a hearty laugh.

“Young man,” said the captain, “how long have you been on this boat?”

“A week, sir.”

“And how much money have you got?”

“Five dollars, sir.”

“Very well—go to your work.”

In three weeks, Patrick was second mate; in a year, first mate; and, not long after, captain; and now, as we sat talking on the Alabama, he had a wife, children, a plantation, and two or three steamboats.

The Alabama flows through the richest cotton country in the world. It winds about as if it had taken a contract to water as much of the state as possible, and give a good steamboat landing to every plantation. Our general course, from Mobile to Montgomery, was north-east, but we were often steaming for hours south-west, and in every other direction. The distance, as the crow flies, is a hundred and sixty miles: by the river it is little less than four hundred. The banks of the river are low in some places; in others high and precipitous, and everywhere covered with the richest and most luxuriant vegetation. There were a thousand landscapes in which a painter would revel.

The passengers were a curious study for the traveller. Here was a swarthy planter, taking his newly purchased gang of hands up to his newly-bought plantation. He had purchased a thousand acres of wild land for twenty-five thousand dollars—five thousand down. He had bought four or five families of negroes at New Orleans, twenty-five thousand more—half cash. And now he was ready to clear away the forest, and raise cotton; to buy more negroes, to raise more cotton, to buy more negroes, to raise more cotton; and so on, until tired of the monotonous accumulation.

There were Virginians, also, who had been spending the winter in New Orleans, and were now returning before the hot season should commence. They were attended by their body servants; and nicer, better behaved, more intelligent, gentlemanly and lady-like people of colour it would be difficult to find anywhere. If there is such a thing as genius for service or servitude, it is developed in these “hereditary bondsmen,” who care so little to “be free,” that they will not “strike the blow.”

We had politicians and preachers, and three Sisters of Charity from the hospitals of New Orleans, going home to recruit, a thousand miles, to their mother house in Maryland. All over the South these Sisters travel free. Where there is yellow fever they have friends, and no Southerner would touch their money.

At last we are at Montgomery. It is a beautiful little town, of ten thousand inhabitants, built upon more hills than Rome, with deeper valleys between them. It is a city of palaces and gardens; not crowded into a narrow space, but spread out broadly over the hills and valleys, with wide streets, handsome villas, elegant shops, and such gardens as only the south, with its glorious wealth of foliage and flowers, can give. A large and handsome domed state-house crowns one of the finest eminences.

Montgomery impresses the traveller with its beauty and riches. It is the centre of one of the finest cotton regions, in the finest cotton state—a state of sixty thousand square miles—and the plantations, which stretch away on every side, were in the highest state of cultivation. Every negro could make five or six bales of cotton, besides raising his own corn and bacon. A hundred negroes, therefore, besides their own support, made five or six hundred bales of cotton, worth twenty-five or thirty thousand dollars, which represents the clear profit of a well-conducted plantation. The yearly export of the single town of Montgomery was 106,000 bales, amounting to 5,300,000 dollars a-year. Well might it be prosperous and rich. There may have been poor people, but I saw none. In a thousand miles of that country one never sees a hand held out for charity. On every side is abounding wealth. The population of such a city is like nothing in Europe. The middle class is small—the lower class is wanting. There is more wealth, style, and fashion in a town like Montgomery, of ten thousand inhabitants, than in a European town of eighty or a hundred thousand.

When I arrived in Montgomery, the good citizens had a new sensation. Since the abolition of the slave trade, no negroes had ever been imported from Africa, until the owner of the yacht Wanderer took a fancy to buy a small cargo at Dahomey, and distribute them, as an experiment, among the planters of Alabama. They did not sell for much; as there was risk in the purchase, few cared to try them. There was one native African boy at Montgomery; a bright little fellow enough, a pet with his master, of whom he had become very fond, and the little savage was learning the language, manners, and customs very rapidly. There was no need to punish him. It was only necessary to threaten to send him back to Dahomey. He would fall on his knees in great distress, and earnestly beg to be saved from so terrible a misfortune.

Montgomery, like most of the considerable towns in America, has its cemetery laid out like a park or pleasure-ground, and is becoming filled with ambitious marble monuments. A portion of the ground is set apart for negroes, and they, too, have their gravestones, which record their humble virtues. I was struck by the original form of a marble monument which an honest German had raised to an adopted son who had been drowned in the river. The epitaph was so peculiar that I copied it:—

Stop as you pass by my grave. Here I, John Schockler, rest my remains. I was born in New Orleans, the 22nd of Nov., 1841; was brought up by good friends; not taking their advice, was drowned in this city in the Alabama river, the 27th of May, 1855. Now I warn all young and old to beware of the dangers of this river. See how I am fixed in this watery grave; I have got but two friends to mourn.

What Montgomery now is, or may be in the future, I know not, but I shall always remember it as a bright, beautiful, elegant, and hospitable city, and worthy, from its refinement and hospitality, of a prosperous and noble destiny.

N. M.