October 12, 1865: More from Mississippi

As promised, the Cape Girardeau Weekly Argus of October 12, 1865 ran the second installment of “Baldface”s report of his travels in Mississippi. This one has some fascinating stuff: the destruction of the railroads, the value of black soldiers, class differences in the response to the Southern defeat, etc. Most noteworthy are the planters’ fears that free black people won’t produce cotton as well (productivity didn’t return to pre-war levels for many decades). The solution of bringing in Chinese “coolie” labor is suggested, with the advantage that the Chinese will kill themselves if you make them angry. I suppose the author is indulging in a bit of hyperbole about the callousness of the planters, but I may be an optimist. Finally, the author mentions the passion of the freedmen for education. And apparently of freed women for nice shoes, and their feet are bigger than those of white women?

From Mississippi.
Jackson, Miss., Sept. 26.

Dear Argus: the close of my last letter left us at Vicksburg, having just finished an examination of the strongholds held by the rebel soldiers and the bomb-proof residences occupied by the non-combatants.

On the second morning we commenced loading up our teams for Jackson — a distance of fifty miles due east. The rates were $2.50 per cwt. We were shocked, and had the teamster repeat it several times before we were satisfied we understood him — thinking all the time he took us for some wandering nomads, and wished to have a little joke with us. But our empty pocket-books will bear us witness that it was no joke.

We stowed our precious selves away on the cars, and after a twelve-mile ride were dumped off at Big Black. You know all about Big Black. or at least you’ve heard of it often enough. If the prefix “big” had been left off, 1 should have had no cause to quarrel with the name. Everything looked black enough to us at this moment. The sun was nearly setting, and the distance to the first house where we could obtain accommodations, was six miles. With legs wearied to a full appreciation of the horizontal, we reached the place. It was what was once a wealthy planter’s residence; but the planter had generously reimbursed nature, and his property went to some extent to reimburse the “Yankees” for their troublesome march through the country. The old lady that officiated as our hostess was a perfect Xantippe. Her tongue was double-shotted and every poor “Yank ” that came within range suffered the consequence of his temerity.

It is necessary to pass over the line of the southern road to form any idea of the amount of railroad property destroyed. Every station, and nearly every town or village adjacent, between Vicksburg and Meridian, are destroyed. Not a vestige of any of the bridges or trestle-work were left, and acres of ground covered with trucks and the other iron appendages of locomotives and cars, bore ample testimony to the amount of rolling stock destroyed.

The city of Jackson suffered terribly. Its business streets wore completely destroyed. The capitol, the Court House, and the Governor’s residence escaped the general conflagration. The Penitentiary is among the ruins, and so are all the fine railroad buildings of both roads. Some buildings were pied by shells, though generally it was the work of incendiarism. The business part of the town is rebuilding with great rapidity, and hundreds of negroes are receiving employment in removing the debris, and in taking down the shattered walls; while the sound of the plane, saw and hammer is monotonous — Two hundred buildings will have been erected this month, though some are but temporary structures. An ordinary store-room rents at $250 per month, and large stocks of goods are awaiting the completion of these buildings.

The number of negroes in the city is very large. You can hire any number of them at $1.00 per day, while the minimum price for board among the whites is $2.00 per day. Planters complain that it is impossible to keep negroes at work on the plantations — their desire to crowd into cities where soldiers are stationed being so great.

The negro soldier, I am convinced, is quite an improvement on the white volunteer. They are better drilled, better disciplined, and better behaved than any volunteers I met during the war. Citizens have stated to me frequently that the presence of negro soldiers was almost more than any Southern man could bear and expressed the hope that they would in a short time have their State Militia organized. I thought of the pleasures we derived from our Missouri State Militia. That organization was a splendid travesty on protection. — Cut-throats set free to act their pleasure. I advised those with whom I conversed on the subject, to thank God they had negro soldiers, officered as they were, to protect them until all military organizations should cease to be a necessity.

I had an interview with Gov. Sharkey. I found him a very courteous gentleman, and laboring industriously to restore the State to quiet and prosperity. He has much to adjust, and the new order of things will give the next Legislature a broad field in which to show their patriotism and statesmanship. If the State and County offices in Mississippi are not filled by good men, it will not be owing to a scarcity of office-seekers, for there are no less than eight or ten competitors for the several offices in the gift of the people. Among the candidates I notice many that have an especial claim on the loyal voters of the state, and that claim they herald with seeming pride in their circulars: “lost a leg,” or “arm,” as the case may be, on some one of the ma y sanguinary battle-fields. The services they performed in endeavoring to destroy their country is held forth as an inducement to voters to select them to repair the damages done. “The hair of the dog is good for the bite.”

The ignorant, unlettered people of Mississippi — especially the young un-married men — are still hot-headed secessionists. They never understood the real issue of the war, and probably never will. They still have hope that through Pappy Price, Maximilian and God, something will turn up to secure the final independence of the South. They are waiting and ready to join any armed force against the United States. There is another and better class of people — those that led off in the rebellion — who are endeavoring to make the amende honorable by encouraging loyalty and industry, and are leaving nothing undone that will re-establish their old functional relation with the government. Planters, for a long time after the surrender, believed it impossible to raise cotton without slave labor, but they are becoming hopeful, and are making all needful arrangements to raise this valuable staple on a scale not far short of the more palmy days of cotton raising. The importation of Coolies is talked of by many planters. The Coolies, they say, have one commendable quality at least which the free negro is not in possession of, “that if one don’t suit you all you’ve got to do is to make him mad, and he will kill himself.” This is, to say the least, an equivocal virtue in the poor Coolie.

But I am of opinion, they will have much less trouble with the free negro than they anticipate. When he comes to work for himself, and is to enjoy the benefits of his own labor, the mechanical movement he manifests under the lash will be replaced by a prompt, energetic one,that self-interest will always promote. I discover they manifest great industry at their books at present. There is not one but has his spelling book, and in camp, when off duty, is studying with an earnestness creditable to any white student. To learn to read and write seems their highest ambition. They are so seldom to be found without a book in their possession, that to conclude the negro and his book were one and inseparable, would be natural enough.

The other day a negro, well advanced in years, called for a first reader. I asked him if he intended learning to read. “No,” he replied, “I’se want it for my old fadder. He can’t work any more, and he wants to learn so he can read de Bible.” — Sceptic as I am I was pleased with the old negro’s desire to read his Bible.

The demand for spelling books and for “fine ladies shoes number eleven,” is very great. Eastern manufacturers of fine shoes will have to run their numbers to fifteen, to supply the southern demand.


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