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A blog of Nineteenth Century history, focusing, but not exclusively, on the American Civil War seen through the prism of personal accounts, newspaper stories, administrative records and global history.
A thousand tales. A miscellany. A maze of historical tangents.

A Capitol View

A Capitol View
Images of 1861 juxtaposed- Union Square, New York vs. Capitol Square, Richmond

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A Jaunt up the James VII- "North and South"

SIR: In a recent number of the Richmond Examiner, I find a letter over the signature of "A Virginian," addressed to Hon. EDWARD EVERETT, of Massachusetts. I think I cannot be mistaken in believing that you are the author of that letter. Before the war I knew the style and manner of every Virginian writer of note or promise; and no small part of their writings which they wished the world to see, or from which they hoped to gain either fame or money came before me while in manuscript. From no one of these have I read more, and with more pleasure, than from JOHN ESTEN COOKE. NO one seemed to me to possess so delicate a fancy or to be master of so graceful a style. There were always paragraphs in his communications which THACKERAY might have written. I find these characteristics in this letter to Mr. EVERETT. I do not think the last three years likely to have developed them in any other Virginian; and so I conclude that the "Virginian" who wrote the letter is yourself. That letter was copied into the NEW-YORK TIMES, and I avail myself of that medium far a reply.
Of Lower Brandon I know nothing, except from your letter. I presume that in quaint loveliness and genial hospitality it was all that you claim for it; that it furnished the original for those charming sketches of life and manners in the Old Dominion, which you never tired of writing or we of reading. I have no doubt that when Mr. EVERETT visited Virginia he was received at Lower Brandon with a cordiality not less than that which welcomed you when you visited New-York; that in his case, as well as in yours, host and guest felt that in offering and accepting hospitality, they were both receiving as well as giving honor. I think that you look back with sad memories upon those days of personal friendship, as well as upon those which followed, when pleasure and profit alike led you to send the choicest productions, of your thought and fancy to those Northern journals, at which you now fling a gratuitous sneer, hardly in keeping with your amiable nature.
I presume also that Lower Brandon has been laid waste during the war. It is not the first or only case of the kind. If I had been asked four years ago to name the two Virginians who were most likely to achieve something more than a provincial literary reputation, I think I should have named. JOHN ESTEN COOKE and DAVID H. STROTHER. STROTHER retained his loyalty to the Union; you did quite otherwise. Well, two and a half years ago, he was the possessor of a beautiful cottage at Berkely Springs, a place not unknown to you, while his father, JOHN STROTHER, was the proprietor of the hotel at the Springs. "Porte Crayon's" cottage was adorned with paintings, the work of his own cunning hand, the outgrowth of his fancy and observation. Early in January, 1862, a body of Confederate troops made a sudden dash upon the Springs. There was, I think, no resistance. Unmindful of how "the great Ernathian conqueror bade spare the house of PINDARUS," these troops cut in pieces the paintings of "Porte Crayon," and-burned his cottage. They took possession of the hotel in which the elder STROTHER lay upon a sick bed. They used his furniture for firewood, although the town was surrounded by forests, and finally went off, after plundering the place. The old man, noted for a generation for his noble character, died a week after in his wasted and outraged home. I shall not imitate your example by picking up from the filthy gutter of the Southern press vile epithets to designate the commander of the Confederate forces. They were led by THOMAS J. JACKSON, for whom you claim the character of a Christian hero. With him, as volunteer aid, came CHARLES J. FAULKNER, who had a few months before been United States Minister to France. Which do you think was the greater outrage, the breaking of the window-panes at Lower Brandon, or the mutilating the pictures at "Porte Crayon's" cottage?
And so Lower Brandon is now as desolate as "the Calypsos Isle of Blennerhassett." That, Sir, was an unfortunate allusion of yours. Was the proprietor of Lower Brandon the Blennerhassett of the modern Aaron Burr? Did he in his weakness and ambition suppose that the overthrow of a great nation was only another "Virginian Comedy;" that the Union might be set aside as easily as you fling down the scenes when the play is over? Treason may be a very gentle-manly crime, but those who undertake it should remember that it is a dangerous one. It is not well for any man to undertake to play treason.
You assure Mr. EVERETT that now "for the first time in the history of the world, have we seen a people pretending to be civilized, organizing expeditions for the pure and simple purpose of plunder and destruction, and instead of seek-ing to mitigate the miseries of a state of war, do-ing all they can to aggravate them." You of course mean it to be understood that this has been done by the Union and not by the Confederacy. It is quite possible that the Southern papers have not kept you well-informed as to the wanton destruction of property in the Confederate raids into West Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri; nor of the murders and massacres of Union men in Tennessee. You probably had not seen Capt. SEMMES' account of the cruise of the Alalama, in which he tells how with a swift vessel fraudulently procured in England, manned with a crew of Englishmen raked up in the slums of Liverpool, and shipped under false pretences, he set forth on his cruise of pure destruction. You had not read how on the broad and peaceful ocean, by means of false colors, he lured within his grasp every American ship that came in sight; how he put the crews in irons and burnt every vessel, from the humble fishing-smack, or the poor whaler returning from a perilous three years' voyage, to the stately India merchantman. You had not read the fiendish exultation with which he speaks of strewing the ocean with Yankee merchandise, and lighting up the midnight sky with the blaze of burning vessels. You had not read this. I read it the very day on which I read your letter. You had not read SEMMES' own account, but you knew that in a few months he had in sheer wantonness destroyed more than sixty vessels.; that there were more than a score, of which any one was of tenfold the value of Lower Brandon. And yet you talk of the wanton destruction of property:
But even if you knew nothing of all this, a few steps out of your usual path would have taken you to the Libby Prison and the other slaughter-pens at Richmond. There you might have seen strong men in the flush and strength of manhood starved to skeletons in a month. Is this your idea of "mitigating the miseries of a state of war?" But if your fine, poetic sensibilities prevented you from looking upon such misery which you had no power to alleviate you certainly read for your papers were full of it, of the wanton burning of Chambersburgh. Did it never occur to you that each of the honored homes there laid in ashes was dear to its inmates as were the lawn and halls of Lower Brandon to their dwellers?
But the courtly family of Lower Brandon, when they abandoned the estate, left the happy negroes behind them, although "they might easily enough have removed men, women and children from tide-water, and transported them into Middle Georgia for security, or sold them at immense prices, and invested the proceeds in cotton bonds." Did it not occur to you that in writing that sentence you were overthrowing the theory of the idyllic happiness of the negroes at Lower Brandon. Do you imagine that any man or woman, black or white, can be perfectly happy, knowing that at any moment he or she is liable to be "sold at immense prices, and the proceeds invested in cotton bonds?" Knowing also that the same fate will be the heritage of their children and children's children? If these black men had been white, you would have seen in the alacrity with which some of them abandoned their "comfortable cabins, pot a feu, and garden patch," something more than a childish longing for "sojer's clothes and military grandeur." Had the dainty possessors of Lower Brandon in successive generations done so little for their slaves, that you could not conceive the possibility that some of these dusky beings might really think it worth periling their lives in the effort to do away with a system by which they and theirs might at any moment be sold, "and the proceeds invested in cotton bonds?"
You speak of some special cases of outrage and violence. Let me ask you, Sir, upon what evidence? You are estopped from bringing in the testimony of the negroes, for by your own laws not one or all of them could bear legal testimony against a white man. Have you any witness to produce whose testimony would be admitted by yourself or your courts?
But be the evils and sufferings of the war what they may, they are all of your own making, yours and such men as the owners of Lower Brandon. You sought by force and violence to destroy the Government, which alone rendered it possible that such a paradise as Lower Brandon could exist, from generation to generation. The United States never sought the war. Who attacked Harper's Ferry? Who plundered the public property at Norfolk? Who assailed Fort Sumter? Who threatened the National Capital? Who did all these and a hundred other like acts before the Union struck a blow? You of Virginia, owners of Lower Brandon and the like, did it. You did it because you thought that by so doing you would perpetuate a system by which you might forever retain the power of sending your slaves to Middle Georgia, or selling them at immense prices to the cotton-planters of the Gulf and the sugar-growers of the Mississippi. And now if you find that you have flung yourselves between the upper and nether stones of that slowly grinding mill of the gods which yet grinds so very fine, you have only yourselves to thank for it.
Commending this bit of ethics to your serious meditation, I have the honor to be, Sir, yours most respectfully, AN AMERICAN.

-New York Times, August 22, 1864

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