May 9th. [7th1]—To-day the papers contain a proclamation by the President of the Confederate States of America, declaring a state of war between the Confederacy and the United States, and notifying the issue of letters of marque and reprisal. I went out with Mr. Wigfall in the forenoon to pay my respects to Mr. Jefferson Davis at the State Department. Mr. Seward told me that but for Jefferson Davis the Secession plot could never have been carried out. No other man of the party had the brain, or the courage and dexterity, to bring it to a successful issue. All the persons in the Southern States spoke of him with admiration, though their forms of speech and thought generally forbid them to be respectful to any one.
There before me was “Jeff Davis’ State Department” — a large brick building, at the corner of a street, with a Confederate flag floating above it. The door stood open, and “gave” on a large hall whitewashed, with doors plainly painted belonging to small rooms, in which was transacted most important business, judging by the names written on sheets of paper and applied outside, denoting bureaux of the highest functions. A few clerks were passing in and out, and one or two gentlemen were on the stairs, but there was no appearance of any bustle in the building.
We walked straight up-stairs to the first-floor, which was surrounded by doors opening from a quadrangular platform. On one of these was written simply, “The President.” Mr. Wigfall went in, and after a moment returned and said, “The President will be glad to see you; walk in, sir.” When I entered, the President was engaged with four gentlemen, who were making some offer of aid to him. He was thanking them “in the name of the Government.” Shaking hands with each, he saw them to the door, bowed them and Mr. Wigfall out, and turning to me said, “Mr. Russell, I am glad to welcome you here, though I fear your appearance is a symptom that our affairs are not quite prosperous,” or words to that effect. He then requested me to sit down close to his own chair at his office-table, and proceeded to speak on general matters, adverting to the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and asking questions about Sebastopol, the Redan, and the Siege of Lucknow.
I had an opportunity of observing the President very closely: he did not impress me as favorably as I had expected, though he is certainly a very different looking man from Mr. Lincoln. He is like a gentleman—has a slight, light figure, little exceeding middle height, and holds himself erect and straight. He was dressed in a rustic suit of slate-colored stuff, with a black silk handkerchief round his neck; his manner is plain, and rather reserved and drastic; his head is well formed, with a fine full forehead, square and high, covered with innumerable fine lines and wrinkles, features regular, though the cheek-bones are too high, and the jaws too hollow to be handsome; the lips are thin, flexible, and curved, the chin square, well defined; the nose very regular, with wide nostrils; and the eyes deep set, large and full—one seems nearly blind, and is partly covered with a film, owing to excruciating attacks of neuralgia and tic. Wonderful to relate, he does not chew, and is neat and clean-looking, with hair trimmed, and boots brushed. The expression of his face is anxious, he has a very haggard, care-worn, and pain-drawn look, though no trace of anything but the utmost confidence and the greatest decision could be detected in his conversation. He asked me some general questions respecting the route I had taken in the States.
I mentioned that I had seen great military preparations through the South, and was astonished at the alacrity with which the people sprang to arms. “Yes, sir,” he remarked, and his tone of voice and manner of speech are rather remarkable for what are considered Yankee peculiarities, “In Eu-rope” (Mr. Seward also indulges in that pronunciation) “they laugh at us because of our fondness for military titles and displays. All your travellers in this country have commented on the number of generals, and colonels, and majors all over the States. But the fact is, we are a military people, and these signs of the fact were ignored. We are not less military because we have had no great standing armies. But perhaps we are the only people in the world where gentlemen go to a military academy who do not intend to follow the profession of arms.”
In the course of our conversation, I asked him to have the goodness to direct that a sort of passport or protection should be given to me, as I might possibly fall in with some guerilla leader on my way northwards, in whose eyes I might not be entitled to safe conduct. Mr. Davis said, “I shall give such instructions to the Secretary of War as shall be necessary. But, sir, you are among civilized, intelligent people who understand your position, and appreciate your character. We do not seek the sympathy of England by unworthy means, for we respect ourselves, and we are glad to invite the scrutiny of men into our acts; as for our motives, we meet the eye of Heaven.” I thought I could judge from his words that he had the highest idea of the French as soldiers, but that his feelings and associations were more identified with England, although he was quite aware of the difficulty of conquering the repugnance which exists to slavery.
Mr. Davis made no allusion to the authorities at Washington, but he asked me if I thought it was supposed in England there would be war between the two States? I answered, that I was under the impression the public thought there would be no actual hostilities. “And yet you see we are driven to take up arms for the defence of our rights and liberties.”
As I saw an immense mass of papers on his table, I rose and made my bow, and Mr. Davis, seeing me to the door, gave me his hand and said, “As long as you may stay among us you shall receive every facility it is in our power to afford to you, and I shall always be glad to see you.” Colonel Wigfall was outside, and took me to the room of the Secretary of War, Mr. Walker, whom we found closeted with General Beauregard and two other officers in a room full of maps and plans. He is the kind of man generally represented in our types of a “Yankee” — tall, lean, straight-haired, angular, with fiery, impulsive eyes and manner—a ruminator of tobacco and a profuse spitter—a lawyer, I believe, certainly not a soldier; ardent, devoted to the cause, and confident to the last degree of its speedy success.
The news that two more States had joined the Confederacy, making ten in all, was enough to put them in good humor. “Is it not too bad these Yankees will not let us go our own way, and keep their cursed Union to themselves? If they force us to it, we may be obliged to drive them beyond the Susquehanna.” Beauregard was in excellent spirits, busy measuring off miles of country with his compass, as if he were dividing empires.
From this room I proceeded to the office of Mr. Benjamin, the Attorney-General of the Confederate States, the most brilliant perhaps of the whole of the famous Southern orators. He is a short, stout man, with a full face, olive-coloured, and most decidedly Jewish features, with the brightest large black eyes, one of which is somewhat diverse from the other, and a brisk, lively, agreeable manner, combined with much vivacity of speech and quickness of utterance. He is one of the first lawyers or advocates in the United States, and had a large practice at Washington, where his annual receipts from his profession were not less than £8000 to £10,000 a year. But his love of the card-table rendered him a prey to older and cooler hands, who waited till the sponge was full at the end of the session, and then squeezed it to the last drop.
Mr. Benjamin is the most open, frank, and cordial of the Confederates whom I have yet met. In a few seconds he was telling me all about the course of Government with respect to privateers and letters of marque and reprisal, in order probably to ascertain what were our views in England on the subject. I observed it was likely the North would not respect their flag, and would treat their privateers as pirates. “We have an easy remedy for that. For any man under our flag whom the authorities of the United States dare to execute, we shall hang two of their people. ” “Suppose, Mr. Attorney-General, England, or any of the great powers which decreed the abolition of privateering, refuses to recognize your flag?” “We intend to claim, and do claim, the exercise of all the rights and privileges of an independent sovereign State, and any attempt to refuse us the full measure of those rights would be an act of hostility to our country.” “But if England, for example, declared your privateers were pirates?” “As the United States never admitted the principle laid down at the Congress of Paris, neither have the Confederate States. If England thinks fit to declare privateers under our flag pirates, it would be nothing more or less than a declaration of war against us, and we must meet it as best we can.” In fact, Mr. Benjamin did not appear afraid of anything; but his confidence respecting Great Britain was based a good deal, no doubt, on his firm faith in cotton, and in England’s utter subjection to her cotton interest and manufactures. “All this coyness about acknowledging a slave power will come right at last. We hear our commissioners have gone on to Paris, which looks as if they had met with no encouragement at London; but we are quite easy in our minds on this point at present.”
So Great Britain is in a pleasant condition. Mr. Seward is threatening us with war if we recognize the South, and the South declares that if we don’t recognize their flag, they will take it as an act of hostility. Lord Lyons is pressed to give an assurance to the Government at Washington, that under no circumstances will Great Britain recognize the Southern rebels; but, at the same time, Mr. Seward refuses to give any assurance whatever, that the right of neutrals will be respected in the impending struggle.
As I was going down stairs, Mr. Browne called me into his room. He said that the Attorney-General and himself were in a state of perplexity as to the form in which letters of marque and reprisal should be made out. They had consulted all the books they could get, but found no examples to suit their case, and he wished to know, as I was a barrister, whether I could aid him. I told him it was not so much my regard to my own position as a neutral, as the vafri inscilia juris which prevented me throwing any light on the subject. There are not only Yankee ship-owners but English firms ready with sailors and steamers for the Confederate Government, and the owner of the Camilla might be tempted to part with his yacht by the offers made to him.
Being invited to attend a levée or reception held by Mrs. Davis, the President’s wife, I returned to the hotel to prepare for the occasion. On my way I passed a company of volunteers, one hundred and twenty artillerymen, and three field-pieces, on their way to the station for Virginia, followed by a crowd of “citizens” and negroes of both sexes, cheering vociferously. The band was playing that excellent quick-step “Dixie.” The men were stout, fine fellows, dressed in coarse grey tunics with yellow facings, and French caps. They were armed with smooth-bore muskets, and their knapsacks were unfit for marching, being waterproof bags slung from the shoulders. The guns had no caissons, and the shoeing of the troops was certainly deficient in soling. The Zouave mania is quite as rampant here as it is in New York, and the smallest children are thrust into baggy red breeches, which the learned Lipsius might have appreciated, and are sent out with flags and tin swords to impede the highways.
The modest villa in which the President lives is painted white—another “White House”—and stands in a small garden. The door was open. A colored servant took in our names, and Mr. Browne presented me to Mrs. Davis, whom I could just make out in the demi-jour of a moderately-sized parlour, surrounded by a few ladies and gentlemen, the former in bonnets, the latter in morning dress à la midi. There was no affectation of state or ceremony in the reception. Mrs. Davis, whom some of her friends call “Queen Varina,” is a comely, sprightly woman, verging on matronhood, of good figure and manners, well-dressed, ladylike, and clever, and she seemed a great favorite with those around her, though I did hear one of them say “It must be very nice to be the President’s wife, and be the first lady in the Confederate States.” Mrs. Davis, whom the President C. S. married en secondes noces, exercised considerable social influence in Washington, where I met many of her friends. She was just now inclined to be angry, because the papers contained a report that a reward was offered in the North for the head of the arch rebel Jeff Davis. “They are quite capable, I believe,” she said, “of such acts.” There were not more than eighteen or twenty persons present, as each party came in and staid only for a few moments, and, after a time, I made my bow and retired, receiving from Mrs. Davis an invitation to come in the evening, when I would find the President at home.
At sundown, amid great cheering, the guns in front of the State Department, fired ten rounds to announce that Tennessee and Arkansas had joined the Confederacy.
In the evening I dined with Mr. Benjamin and brother-in-law, a gentleman of New Orleans, Colonel Wigfall coming in at the end of dinner. The New Orleans people of French descent, or “Creoles,” as they call themselves, speak French in preference to English, and Mr. Benjamin’s brother-in-law labored considerably in trying to make himself understood in our vernacular. The conversation, Franco-English, very pleasant, for Mr. Benjamin is agreeable and lively. He is certain that the English law authorities must advise the Government that the blockade of the Southern ports is illegal so long as the President claims them to be ports of the United States. “At present,” he said, “their paper blockade does no harm; the season for shipping cotton is over; but in October next, when the Mississippi is floating cotton by the thousands of bales, and all our wharfs are full, it is inevitable that the Yankees must come to trouble with this attempt to coerce us.” Mr. Benjamin walked back to the hotel with me, and we found our room full of tobacco-smoke, filibusters, and conversation, in which, as sleep was impossible, we were obliged to join. I resisted a vigorous attempt of Mr. G. N. Sanders and a friend of his to take me to visit a planter who had a beaver-dam some miles outside Montgomery. They succeeded in capturing Mr. Deasy.
1 Note: In the book, this entry is placed between the 6th and 8th, though it is recorded as the 9th. Also, the declaration of war, made in secret session of the Confederate Congress, had been made public on the 6th and appeared in the papers on the 7th.