Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Admiral and the Overseer in the Vicksburg Campaign

In order to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi, Union forces had to control the Yazoo River.  David Dixon Porter had his men and ships begin clearing out trees and sweeping the river for torpedoes. During the operation, Porter witnessed local plantation owners setting fire to their stocks of cotton.  He also noticed that plantation's overseer did not seem to care that his boss had just set the place on fire.  He took no notice to the Yankee forces in his backyard, either.  Seeing this, the flag officer struck up a conversation with the overseer.  Here is how Porter remembered the conversation in his book Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War :

A burly overseer, weighing over two hundred pounds, sat at the door of log-hut with a pipe in his mouth. He was a white man, half bull-dog, half blood-hound, and his face expressed everything that was bad in human nature, but he smoked away as if nothing was the matter—as Nero fiddled while Rome was burning. He looked on us with perfect indifference; our presence didn’t seem to disturb him at all. Doubtless he felt quite secure; that we didn’t want anything so bad as he was.

I called to him, and he came down in his shirt-sleeves, bareheaded, and looked stolidly at me as if to say, “Well, what do you want?”

“Why did those fools set fire to that cotton?” I inquired.

“Because they didn’t want you fools to have it,” he replied. “It’s ourn, and I guess things ain’t come to such a pass that we can’t do as we please with our own.”

“Tell them we won’t trouble it,” I said; “it is wicked to see such material going off like smoke.”

In five minutes he had a dozen Negroes at his side, and they were all sent up the bayou on a full run to stop the burning of cotton. He believed our word, and we did not disappoint him.

“And who are you ?” I inquired of the man.

“I am in charge of this plantation,” he replied; “this is the mother of my children”—pointing to a fat, thick-lipped Negress who stood, with her bosom all bare and arms a-kimbo, about ten yards away—”and these fine fellows are my children,” he continued, pointing to some light-colored boys who had followed him down.

“I suppose you are Union, of course? You all are so when it suits you,” I said.

“No, by G-- , I’m not, and never will be; and as to the others, I know nothing about them. Find out for yourself. I’m for Jeff Davis first, last, and all the time. Do you want any more of me?” he inquired, “for I am not a loquacious man at any time.”

“No, I want nothing more with you,” I replied; “but I am going to steam into that bridge of yours across the stream and knock it down. Is it strongly built?”

“You may knock it down and be d—d,” he said, “It don’t belong to me; and, if you want to find out how strong it is, pitch into it . You’ll find a hard nut to crack; it ain’t made of candy.”

"You are a Yankee by birth, are you not ?” I asked.

“Yes, d—n it, I am,” he replied; “that’s no reason I should like the institution. I cut it long ago,” and he turned on his heel and walked off.

We came to one more bridge; down it went like nine-pins, and we steamed slowly on, forcing our way through small, lithe willows that seemed to hold us in a grip of iron. This lasted for an hour, during which we made but half a mile. But that was the last of the willows for a time. Had they continued, we would have been obliged to give it up. The small sprouts, no larger than my little finger, caught in the rough plates of the overhang and held us as the threads of the Lilliputians held Gulliver.

The banks of the bayou were high with right behind us with an army, and an army, too, that was no respecter of ducks, chickens, pigs, or turkeys, for they used to say of one particular regiment in Sherman’s corps that it could catch, scrapes, and skin a hog without a soldier leaving the ranks. I was in hopes they would pay the apostate Yankee a visit, if only to teach him good manners.

1 comment:

  1. Just to let everyone know, the latest issue of Naval History has an article profiling Adm. Porter and his exploits on the Mississippi.