We six madcaps got in the carriage and buggy, and rode off in search of news. We took a quantity of old linen rags along, and during the whole drive, our fingers were busy making lint. Once we stopped at a neighbor’s to gather the news, but that did not interfere with our labors at all. Four miles from here we met a crowd of women flying, and among them recognized Mrs. La Noue and Noémie. A good deal of loud shouting brought them to the carriage in great surprise to see us there. They were running from the plantation where they had taken refuge, as it was not safe from the shells, as the gunboats had proved to them. The reports we had heard in the morning were from shots fired on this side of the river by them, in hopes of hurting a guerrilla or two. Noémie told us that two Western regiments had laid down their arms, and General Williams had been killed by his own men. She looked so delighted, and yet it made me sick to think of his having been butchered so. Phillie leaned out, and asked her, as she asked everybody, if she knew anything about her father. Noémie, in her rapture over that poor man’s death, exclaimed, “Don’t know a word about him! know Williams was cut to pieces, though!” — and that is all we could learn from her.
We went on until we came in sight of Baton Rouge. There it stood, looking so beautiful against the black, lowering sky that I could not but regret its fate. We could see the Garrison, State House, Asylum, and all that; but the object of the greatest interest to me was the steeple of the Methodist church, for to the right of it lay home. While looking at it, a negro passed who was riding up and down the coast collecting lint, so I gave him all we had made, and commenced some more. Presently, we met Mr. Phillips, to whom Phillie put the same question. “He is on the Laurel Hill a prisoner — Confound that negro! where did he go?” And so on, each answer as far as concerned her, seeming a labor, but the part relating to the servant very hearty. Poor Phillie complained that everybody was selfish — thought only of their own affairs, and did not sympathize with her. “Yes, my dear,” I silently assented; for it was very true; every one seemed to think of their own interests alone. It was late before we got home, and then we had great fun in watching shells which we could dimly trace against the clouds, falling in what must have been the Garrison. Then came a tremendous fire, above, which may have been a boat — I don’t know.
I hear a tremendous firing again, and from the two volumes of smoke, should judge it was the Arkansas and the Essex trying their strength at a distance. We are going down to see what’s the fun. It would be absurd to record all the rumors that have reached us, since we can rely on none. They say we fought up to nine last night, and occupied the Garrison for five minutes, when the shells forced us to abandon it. Also that four regiments laid down their arms, that the Federals were pursued by our men to the river, driven to the gunboats, and pushed off to prevent the Western men from coming aboard. An eye-witness, from this side, reports that General Williams, “they say,” was forcibly held before a cannon and blown to pieces. For the sake of humanity, I hope this is false.
Oh, what a sad day this is for our country! Mother disapproved so of our going to the levee to see the fight, that we consented to remain, though Miriam and Ginnie jumped into the buggy and went off alone. Presently came tidings that all the planters near Baton Rouge were removing their families and negroes, and that the Yankees were to shell the whole coast, from there up to here. Then Phillie, Lilly (Nolan), and I jumped in — the carriage that was still waiting, and ran after the others to bring them back before they got in danger; but when we reached the end of the long lane, we saw them standing on the high levee, wringing their hands and crying. We sprang out and joined them, and there, way at the bend, lay the Arkansas on fire! All except myself burst into tears and lamentations, and prayed aloud between their sobs. I had no words or tears; I could only look at our sole hope burning, going, and pray silently. Oh, it was so sad! Think, it was our sole dependence! And we five girls looked at her as the smoke rolled over her, watched the flames burst from her decks, and the shells as they exploded one by one beneath the water, Coming up in jets of steam. And we watched until down the road we saw crowds of men toiling along toward us. Then we knew they were those who had escaped, and the girls sent up a shriek of pity.
On they came, dirty, half-dressed, some with only their guns, others, a few, with bundles and knapsacks on their backs, grimy and tired, but still laughing. We called to the first, and asked if the boat were really afire; they shouted, “Yes,” and went on, talking still. Presently one ran up and told us the story. How yesterday their engine had broken, and how they had labored all day to repair it; how they had succeeded, and had sat by their guns all night; and this morning, as they started to meet the Essex, the other engine had broken; how each officer wrote his opinion that it was impossible to fight her with any hope of success under such circumstances, and advised the Captain to abandon her; how they had resolved to do so, had exchanged shots with the Essex across the point, and the first of the latter (only one, also) had set ours afire, when the men were ordered to take their side arms. They thought it was to board the Essex, assembled together, when the order was given to fire the Arkansas and go ashore, which was done in a few minutes. Several of the crew were around us then, and up and down the road they were scattered still in crowds.
Miriam must have asked the name of some of the officers; for just then she called to me, “He says that is Mr. Read!” I looked at the foot of the levee, and saw two walking together. I hardly recognized the gentleman I was introduced to on the McRae in the one that now stood below me in rough sailor pants, a pair of boots, and a very thin and slazy lisle undershirt. That is all he had on, except an old straw hat, and — yes! he held a primer! I did not think it would be embarrassing to him to meet me under such circumstances; I only thought of Jimmy’s friend as escaping from a sad fate; so I rushed down a levee twenty feet high, saying, “O Mr. Read! You won’t recognize me, but I am Jimmy’s sister!” He blushed modestly, shook my hand as though we were old friends, and assured me he remembered me, was glad to meet me, etc. Then Miriam came down and talked to him, and then we went to the top of the levee where the rest were, and watched the poor Arkansas burn.
By that time the crowd that had gone up the road came back, and we found ourselves in the centre of two hundred men, just we five girls, talking with the officers around us as though they were old friends. You could only guess they were officers, for a dirtier, more forlorn set I never saw. Not dirty either; they looked clean, considering the work they had been doing. Nobody introduced anybody else; we all felt like brothers and sisters in our common calamity. There was one handsome Kentuckian, whose name I soon found to be Talbot, who looked charmingly picturesque in his coarse cottonade pants, white shirt, straw hat, black hair, beard, and eyes, with rosy cheeks. He was a graduate of the Naval Academy some years ago. Then another jolly-faced young man from the same Academy, pleased me, too. He, the doctor, and the Captain, were the only ones who possessed a coat in the whole crowd, the few who saved theirs carrying them over their arms. Mr. Read more than once blushingly remarked that they were prepared to fight, and hardly expected to meet us; but we pretended to think there was nothing unusual in his dress. I can understand, though, that he should feel rather awkward; I would not like to meet him, if I was in the same costume.
They all talked over their loss cheerfully, as far as the loss of money, watches, clothes, were concerned; but they were disheartened about their boat. One threw himself down near my feet, saying, “Me voilà. I have saved my gun, et puis the clothes that I stand in!” and laughed as though it were an excellent joke. One who had been on the Merrimac chiefly regretted the loss of the commission appointing him there, though he had not saved a single article. The one with the jolly face told me Will Pinckney was among those attacking Baton Rouge, and assured him he expected to take supper there last night. He thought it would be with us, I know! I hope he is safe!
After a while the men were ordered to march up the lane, to some resting spot it is best not to mention here, and straggled off; but there were many sick among them, one wounded at Vicksburg, and we instantly voted to walk the mile and three quarters home, and give them the carriage and buggy. But long after they left, we stood with our new friends on the levee watching the last of the Arkansas, and saw the Essex, and two gunboats crowded with men, cautiously turn the point, and watch her burn. What made me furious was the thought of the glowing accounts they would give of their “capture of the Arkansas!!!” Capture, and they fired a shot apiece! — for all the firing we heard was the discharge of her guns by the flames. We saw them go back as cautiously, and I was furious, knowing the accounts they would publish of what we ourselves had destroyed. We had seen many shells explode, and one magazine, and would have waited for the other, if the clouds had not threatened rain speedily. But we had to leave her a mere wreck, still burning, and started off on our long walk.
In our hurry, I had brought neither handkerchief nor gloves, but hardly missed either, I was so excited. Mr. Talbot walked home with me, and each of the others with some one else. He had a small bundle and a sword, and the latter I insisted on carrying. It was something, to shoulder a sword made for use rather than for ornament! So I would carry it. He said “he would remember who had carried it, and the recollection would give it a new value in his eyes, and I might rest assured it should never be disgraced after that,” and all that sort of thing, of course, as it is usual to say it on such occasions. But I shouldered the sword bravely, determined to show my appreciation of the sacrifice they had made for us, in coming to our rescue on a boat they had every reason to believe was unsafe. I liked Mr. Talbot! He made himself very agreeable in that long walk. He asked permission to send me a trophy from the first action in which he used “that” sword, and did n’t I say yes! He thought Southern men had every encouragement in the world, from the fact that the ladies welcomed them with great kindness in victory or defeat, insinuating he thought they hardly deserved our compassion after their failure on the Arkansas. But I stoutly denied that it was a failure. Had they not done their best? Was it their fault the machinery broke? And in defeat or victory, were they not still fighting for us? Were we the less grateful when they met with reverse? Oh, did n’t I laud the Southern men with my whole heart! — and I think he felt better for it, too! Yes! I like him!
We all met at the steps, and water was given to our cavaliers, who certainly enjoyed it. We could not ask them in, as Dr. Nolan is on his parole; but Phillie intimated that if they chose to order, they might do as they pleased, as women could not resist armed men! So they took possession of the sugar-house, and helped themselves to something to eat, and were welcome to do it, since no one could prevent! But they first stood talking on the balcony, gayly, and we parted with many warm wishes on both sides, insisting that, if they assisted at a second attack on Baton Rouge, they must remember our house was at their service, wounded or in health. And they all shook hands with us, and looked pleased, and said “God bless you,” and “Good-bye.”
I heard a while ago, the doctor of the Ram, who brought back the buggy, say the Arkansas’s crew were about leaving; so remembering poor Mr. Read had lost everything, mother, suggesting he might need money, gave me twenty dollars to put in his hands, as some slight help towards reaching his destination. Besides, coming from Jimmy’s mother, he could not have been hurt. But when I got down, he was far up the lane, walking too fast for me to overtake him; then I tried to catch Mr. Stephenson, to give it to him for me, but failed. Presently, we saw I am afraid to say how many wagons loaded with them, coming from the sugar-house; so Phillie, Lilly, and I snatched up some five bottles of gin, between us, and ran out to give it to them A rough old sailor received mine with a flood of thanks, and the others gave theirs to those behind. An officer rode up saying, “Ladies, there is no help for it! The Yankee cavalry are after us, and we must fight them in the corn. Take care of yourselves!” We shouted “Yes!” told them to bring in the wounded and we would nurse them. Then the men cried, “God bless you,” and we cried, “Hurrah for the Arkansas’s crew,” and “Fight for us!” Altogether it was a most affecting scene. Phillie, seeing how poorly armed they were, suggested a gun, which I flew after and delivered to a rough old tar. When I got out, the cart then passing held Mr. Talbot, who smiled benignly and waved his hat like the rest. He looked still better in his black coat, but the carts reminded me of what the guillotine days must have been in France. He shouted “Good-bye,” we shouted “Come to us, if you are wounded”; he smiled and bowed, and I cried, “Use that sword!” — whereupon he sprang to his feet and grasped the hilt as though about to commence. Then came other officers; Mr. Scales, Mr. Barblaud, etc., who smiled recognition, stopped, the wagon as Phillie handed up a plate of bread and meat, and talked gayly as they divided it, until the Captain rode up. “On, gentlemen! not a moment to lose!” Then the cart started off, the empty plate was flung overboard, and they rode off waving hats and crying, “God bless you, ladies!” in answer to our repeated offers of taking care of them if they were hurt. And they have gone to meet the Yankees, and I hope they won’t, for they have worked enough to-day, and from my heart I pray God prosper those brave men!