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Chapter 18: society at the Capital.

  • Richmond overflowing
  • -- variety of visitors -- gradual growth of gayety -- “Danceable Teas” -- amateur benefits -- “youth at the helm” -- a society woman's view -- social theories and practice -- Virginian hospitality -- Quieter Sociability -- the Presidential household -- Mr.Davis And Mrs. Davis -- formal Levees -- social ethics -- dissipation -- Disappointing Solons.
    But while everything was dull and lifeless in the camps of the South, a far different aspect was presented by its Capital. There was a stir and bustle new to quiet Richmond. Congress had brought crowds of attaches and hangers-on; and every department had its scores of dependents. Officers from all quarters came in crowds to spend a short furlough, or to attend to some points of interest to their commands before the bureaux of the War Department. The full hotels showed activity and life unknown to them. Business houses, attracted by the increased demands of trade and the new channels opened by Government necessities, sprang up on all sides; and the stores-though cramped by the blockade-began to brush off their dust and show their best for the new customers. Every branch of industry seemed to receive fresh impetus; and houses that had for years plodded on in moldy obscurity shot, with the rapidity of Jonah's gourd, up to first-class business.

    The streets presented a scene of unwonted activity; and Franklin street — the promenade par excellence, vied with “the avenue” in the character and variety of the crowds that thronged its pavement. The majority of the promenaders were officers, their uniforms contrasting brightly with the more quiet dresses around. While many of them were strangers, and the peculiarities of every State showed in the faces that passed in rapid panorama, yet numbers of “Richmond boys” came back for a short holiday; almost every one bringing his laurels and his commission.

    My friend, Wyatt, had kept his laughing promise, and showed me a captain's bars. General Breckinridge had found him hiding in the ranks, and had added A. A. G. to his title.

    “Knew it, old man!” was his comment--“Virtue must be rewarded-merit, like water, will find its level. Captain Wyatt, A. A. G.-demnition neat, eh? Now, I'll be here a month, and we must [148] do something in the social line. I find the women still industry mad; but the sewing-circles get up small dullabilties-‘ danceable teas,’ as papa Dodd abroad calls them. They're not splendid to a used — up man, like you — not Paris nor yet Washington, but they'll show you our people.”

    And Wyatt was right. The people of Richmond had at first held up their hands in holy horror at the mere mention of amusement! What! with a war in the land must people enjoy themselves? Never! it would be heartless!

    But human nature in Virginia is pretty much like human nature everywhere else; and bad as the war was, people gradually got used to “the situation.” They had lost friends — a relation or two was pretty badly marked perhaps-but what glory the tens and hundreds left had gained! There was no fighting now; and the poor fellows in camp would be only too glad to know that their brothers-in-arms were being paid for their toils by the smiles of the fair. The great majority of the strangers, too, were young men who had been recommended to the mercy of the society by these very sufferers in camp.

    Gradually these influences worked — the younger and gayer people indulged in the “danceable teas,” Wyatt spoke of, after their sewingcircles. Imperceptibly the sewing was left for other times; and by Christmas there was a more constant — if less formal and generalround of gaiety than had been known for years. This brought the citizens and strangers more together, and naturally the result was a long season of more regular parties and unprecedented gaiety. Many still frowned at this, and, as usual, made unhappy Washington the scapegoat-averring that her pernicious example of heartlessness and frivolity had worked the evil.

    These rigid Romans staid at home and worked on zealously in their manufacture of warm clothing, deformed socks and impossible gloves for the soldier boys. All honor to them for their constancy, if they thought they were right, and the harmless gaiety wrong; and they fought the good fight, from behind their abatis of knitting needles, only with the innocent weapons of tongue and precept. But human nature and inclination still held their own; and there were many defections from the ranks of the elect, to those of the more practicaland probably equally well-intentioned-pleasure-seekers. [149]

    But parties were by no means the only resource for pleasure-lovers. Anything that combined amusement and put dollars in the treasuries of charitable societies became the rage; and here the rigidly virtuous and the non-elect met on neutral ground. Among the amateurs of the city were some who would have taken high rank in any musical circle, and these gave a series of concerts for the benefit of distressed families of the soldiers. The performers were the most fashionable of the society; and, of course, the judgment of their friends — who crowded to overflowing the churches where the concerts were held — was not to be relied on. But critics from New Orleans and all parts of the South declared the performances creditable to any city. After them the audience broke up into little cliques and had the jolliest little suppers the winter produced, with the inevitable “lancers” until the smallest of small hours.

    Then, there were charades and tableaux parties; while a fewmore ambitious of histrionic fame-got up private theatricals. Altogether, in the gay set, the first winter of the war was one to be written in red letters, for old Richmond rang with a chime of merry laughter that for the time drowned the echo of the summer's fights and the groans of the wayside hospitals.

    One unique point in the society of Richmond struck me with a constantly recurring surprise. I could not get accustomed to the undisputed supremacy of the unmarried element that almost entirely composed it. It constantly seemed to me that the young people had seized the society while their elders' heads were turned, and had run away with it for a brief space; and I always looked to see older people come in, with reproof upon their brows, and take charge of it again. But I looked in vain. One day at a dinner, I remarked this to my next neighbor; suggesting that it was only because of the war. She was one of the most charming women the society could boastscarcely more than a bride, just out of her teens, beautiful, accomplished and very gay.

    “Strangers always remark this,” she answered; “but it is not the result of the war, or of the influx of strangers, as you suppose. Since I can remember, only unmarried people have been allowed to go to parties by the tyrants of seventeen who control them. We married folks do the requisite amount of visiting and teaing-out; and sometimes even rise in our wrath and come out to dinner. But as for [150] a party-no! As soon as a girl is married, she must make up her mind to pay her bridal visits, dance a few weeks upon sufferance and then fold up her party dresses. No matter how young, how pretty, or how pleasant she may be, the Nemesis pursues her and she must succumb. The pleasant Indian idea of taking old people to the river bank and leaving them for the tide, is overstrictly carried out by our celibate Brahmins. Marriage is our Ganges. Don't you wonder how we ever dare to declare ourselves old enough?”

    I did wonder; for it had always been a hobby of mine that a certain amount of the married leaven was necessary in every society to give it tone and stamina. Though the French principle of excluding young ladies from all social intercourse, and giving the patent of society to Madame, may be productive of more harm than good, the converse seems equally objectionable. I can recollect no society in which some of the most pleasant memories do not center around the intercourse with its married portion. Richmond is no exception to the rule. In the South, women marry younger than in the colder states; and it often happens that the very brightest and most attractive points of character do not mature until an age when they have gotten their establishment. The education of the Virginia girl is so very different in all essential points from that of the northerner of the same station, that she is far behind her in self-reliance and aplomb. There is, doubtless, much in native character, but more in early surroundings and the habit of education. The southerner, more lanquid and emotional, but less self-dependent-even if equally “up in” showier accomplishments — is not formed to shine most at an early stage of her social career. Firmer foothold and more intimate knowledge of its intricacies are necessary to her, before she takes her place as a woman of the world.

    Hence, I was much puzzled to account for the patent fact that the better matured of its flowers should be so entirely suppressed, in the Richmond bouquet, by the half-opened buds. These latter, doubtless, gave a charming promise of bloom and fragrance when they came to their full; but too early they left an effect of immaturity and crudity upon the sense of the unaccustomed. Yet Richmond had written over the portals of its society: Who enters here no spouse must leave behind! and the law was of the Medan. A stranger within their gates had no right to cavil at a time-honored custom; [151] but not one could spend a winter week in the good old town, and fail to have this sense of unfinishedness in her society fabric.

    The fair daughters of the Capital are second to none in beauty, grace and the higher charm of pure womanhood. Any assembly showed fresh, bright and gentle faces, with constant pretty ones, and an occasional marked beauty. There is a peculiar, lithe grace, normal to the South, that is hard to describe; and, on the whole, even when not beautiful, there is a je ne sais quoi that renders her women very attractive.

    The male element at parties ranged from the passe beau to the boy with the down still on his cheek — ancient bachelors and young husbands alike had the open sesame. But if a married lady, however young in years or wifehood, passed the forbidden limits by accident-Vae victis!

    She was soon made to feel that the sphere of the mated was pantry or nursery — not the ball-room. To stranger dames — if young and lively-justice a little less stern was meted; but even they, after a few offenses, were made to feel how hard is the way of the transgressor.

    In a community like Richmond, where every one in the circle had played together in childhood, or was equally intimate, such a state of things might readily obtain. In a larger city, never. It spoke volumes for the purity and simplicity of the society that for years it had gone on thus, and no necessity for any matronage had been felt. But now the case was different — a large promiscuous element of military guests was thrown into it; and it struck all that society must change its primitive habit.

    The village custom still prevailed in this — a gentleman could call for a lady-take her in his charge alone and without any chaperone — to a party and bring her back at the “we sma‘ hours.” This;. was not only well, as long as the “Jeanette and Jenot” state of society prevailed, but it told convincingly the whole story of the honest truth of men and women. But with the sudden influx-when a wolf might so readily have imitated the guise of the lamb — a slight hedge of form could in no manner have intimated a necessity for it. Yet Richmond, in the proud consciousness of her simple purity, disdained all such precautions; and the informalities of the country town obtained in the salons of the nation's Capital. [152]

    But parties were not the only hospitalities the wanderers received at the hands of the Virginians. In no state in the country one becomes domesticated so soon as in the Old Dominion. You may come to any of its towns a perfect stranger, but with a name known to one prominent citizen, or fortified with a few letters from the right source, and in a time astonishingly short you find yourself at home. This has been time out of mind Virginian custom; and as Richmond is but a condensation of all that is Virginian, it prevailed here as well. If the stranger did not give himself up to the whirl and yield himself, “rescue or no rescue,” to the lance of the unmarried, he could find, behind the chevaux de frise of clashing knitting-needles, the most genial welcome and most whole-souled hospitality.

    “ Stupid party last night-too full,” criticised Wyatt, as he lounged in my room one morning. “You seemed bored, old man, though I saw you with Nell H. Desperate flirt-pretty, too! But take my advice; let her alone. It don't pay to flirt.” --The ten years between the captain and myself were to my credit on Time's ledger-“It's all very well to stick up your pennon and ride gaily into the lists to break a lance with all comers. Society cries laissez aller! and her old dowagers shower largesse. Presto! my boy, and you find your back on the grass and your heels in the air. But I've some steadygoing cousins I want to introduce you to. Suit you exactly.”

    Confound the boy! Where did he get that idea? But I was introduced to the “steady-going cousins” and to me now the Richmond of memory begins and ends in their circle. The jovial, pleasant family dinner around the old-time board; the consciousness of ready welcome to the social fireside, or partake of the muffin at eight, or the punch-brewed very near Father Tom's receipt-at midnight. Then the never-to-be-forgotten coterie of the brightest women of the day under the shaded droplight, in the long winter evenings! And none were excluded by the “steady goers” because they had committed matrimony. They did quantities of work that season; baskets of socks, bales of shirts and boxes of gloves, in numbers marvelous to see, went from that quiet circle to warm the frozen hands and feet, keeping watch and ward for them. And the simple words of cheer and love that went with them must have warmed hearts far colder than beat under the rough shirts they sent.

    And never did the genial current of talk-sometimes chatty, sometimes [153] brilliant — flag.for a moment. The foremost men of government and army were admitted, and I doubt if ever the most ardent of the unmarried-wilting in the lancers, or deliquescing in the deux temps-found very much more genuine enjoyment than the “easy goers,” over their distorted socks and impracticable gloves.

    They talked of books, events and people, and no doubt gossiped hugely; but though some of the habitues were on the shady side of thirty and were sedately walking in the quiet parts of spinsterhood, I never heard one bitter-far less one scandalous, word!

    Ferat qui meruit palmam! Let the green leaves adorn those wonderful women!

    But the novelty most remarked in the society of this winter was the household of President Davis. Soon after the Government was firmly established in Richmond, the State of Virginia placed at his disposal a plain but comfortable house; and here — with only the ladies of his family and his private secretary-he lived with the quiet simplicity of a private citizen.

    It will hardly be invading her sacra privata to say that the President's lady did everything to remove false ideas that sprung up regarding the social atmosphere of the “Executive mansion.” She was “at home” every evening; and, collecting round her a staff that numbered some of the most noted men and brilliant women both of the stranger and resident society, assured all her varied guests a warm welcome and a pleasant visit. In this circle Mr. Davis would, after the trying business of the day, give himself an hour's relaxation before entering on labors that went far into the night; and favored friends and chance visitors alike here met the man, where they expected the official.

    Austere and thoughtful at all times, rarely unbending to show the vein of humor hidden deep under his stern exterior, and having besides “the divinity that doth hedge” even a republican president, Mr. Davis was never calculated for personal popularity. Even in the early days of his career he forced by his higher qualities-rather than sought by the arts of a trickster — the suffrages of his people; and they continued to cast their shells for him, even while they clamored that he was “the Just.”

    Whatever grave errors reflecting criticisms may lay at his door; whatever share in the ruin of the South, the future historians may [154] ascribe to his unswerving self — will and unvarying faith in his own power — no one who traces his career from West Point to the New Saint Helena--will call them failings of the demagogue.

    In these informal receptions of his lady, Mr. Davis said little; listening to the varied flow of talk that showed her equally cognizant and appreciative of social, literary and sterner topics. For the edification of the gayer visitor, she related odd experiences of her public life, with rare power of description and admirable flashes of humor. She discussed the latest book with some of the small litterateurs with whom she was infested; or talked knowingly of the last picture, or the newest opera, faint echoes from which might elude the grim blockaders on the coast.

    Mr. Davis spoke little, seeming to find a refreshing element in her talk, that — as she pithily said of some one else — was like tea, that cheers but not inebriates. Occasionally he clinched an argument, or gave a keener point to an idea by a short, strong sentence.

    After all had partaken of the cup of tea handed round informally, Mr. Davis retired to his study and once more donned his armor for battle with the giants without and the dwarfs within his territory.

    These informal “evenings” began to grow popular with the better class of Virginians, and tended to a much more cordial tone between the citizens and their chief. They were broken by bimonthly “levees,” at which Mr.Davis and Mrs. Davis received “the world and his wife.”

    But the formal “levee” was a Washington custom and smacked too much of the “old concern” to become very popular, although curiosity to see the man of the hour and to assist at an undress review of the celebrities of the new nation, thronged the parlors each fortnight. A military band was always in attendance; the chiefs of cabinet and bureaux moved about the crowd; and generals-who had already won names to live forever-passed, with small hands resting; lightly on their chevrons, and bright eyes speaking most eloquently that old truism about who best deserve the fair.

    More than once that winter General Johnston moved through the rooms-followed by all eyes and calling up memories of subtle strategy and hard-won victory. Sometimes the burly form of Longstreet appeared, ever surrounded by those “little people” in whom he delighted; and the blonde beard of Hood-whose name already began [155] to shine with promise of its future brilliance-towered over the throng of leading editors, “senior wranglers” from both houses of Congress, and dancing men wasting their time in the vain effort to talk.

    But not only the chosen ten thousand were called. Sturdy artisans, with their best coats and hands scrubbed to the proper point of cleanliness for shaking the President's, were always there. Moneyed men came, with speculation in their eyes, and lobby members trying to throw dust therein; while country visitors-having screwed their courage up to the desperate point of being presented-always dropped Mr. Davis' hand as if its not over-cordial grasp burned them.

    But the “levees” on the whole, if odd exhibitions, were at least useful in letting the “dear public” have a little glimpse of the inner workings of the great machine of government. And they proved, even more than the social evenings, the ease of right with which Varina Howell Davis wore her title of “the first lady in the land.”

    The men of Richmond have spoken for themselves. They wrote the history of their class when they came forward-one and all, to sacrifice ease-affluence-life for the cause they felt to be just. There were some, as I shall hereafter endeavor to show, who were dwellers with them, but were not of them. These did nothing and gave nothing willingly for a cause in which they saw only a speculation. This is not the place to speak of such. They belong not to the goodly company of those who-whatever their weaknesses, or even their errors-proclaimed themselves honest men and chivalric gentlemen.

    The young men of the whole South are off-hand and impulsive; either naturally careless in pecuniary matters, or made so by habit. Sowing wild oats is an almost universal piece of farming; and the crop is as luxuriant in the mountains of Virginia as in the overflowed lands of Louisiana.

    Perhaps in Richmond they were not now seen from the most advantageous point of view. They were generally young planters from the country, reckless, jovial and prone to the lighter dissipations; or the young business and professional men, who rebounded from the routine of their former lives into a little extra rapidity. One and all --for the eyes they sought would not have looked upon them elsethey had gone into the army; had fought and wrought well; and now with little to do, boon companionship and any amount of [156] petting, they were paying for it. The constant strain of excitement produced much dissipation certainly-but it seldom took the reprehensible form of rowdyism and debauch. Some men drank deeplyat dinners, at balls and at bar-rooms; some gambled, as Virginians always had gambled-gaily, recklessly and for ruinous stakes. But find them where you would, there was about the men a careless pervading bonhomie and a natural high tone resistlessly attractive, yet speaking them worthy descendants of the “Golden horse Shoe Knights.”

    As yet the influence of the Government was little felt socially. The presence of a large congregation of army men from the various camps had given an impetus to gaiety it would not otherwise have known; but this was all. There was little change in the habits and tone of social intercourse. The black shadow of Washington had not yet begun to spread itself, and its corrupt breath had not yet polluted the atmosphere of the good old town.

    The presence of Congress, with its ten thousand followers, would hardly be considered as elevating anywhere. There is an odor of tobacco — of rum — of discredit — of anything but sanctity about the American politician that makes his vicinage unpleasant and unprofitable.

    Congress had met in the quiet halls of the Virginia legislature. At first all Richmond flocked thither, crowding galleries and lobbies to see the might and intellect of the new nation in its most august aspect; to be refreshed and strengthened by the full streams that flowed from that powerful but pure and placid fountain; to hear words that would animate the faint and urge the ready to braver and higher deeds.

    Perhaps they did not hear all this; for after a little they stopped going, and the, might and majesty of the new giant's intellect was left severely to itself. Of the herd of camp-followers who overflowed the hotels and filled the streets, little note was taken. An occasional curious stare — a semi-occasional inquiry as to who they were-and they passed even up Franklin street without more remark. To the really worthy in government or army, the cordial hand of honest welcome was extended.

    The society unvaryingly showed its appreciation of excellence of intellect or character, and such as were known, or found to possess it, [157] were at once received on the footing of old friends. But on the whole, the sentiment of the city was not in favor of the run of the new comers. The leaders of society kept somewhat aloof, and the general population gave them the sidewalk. It was as though a stately and venerable charger, accustomed for years to graze in a comfortable pasture, were suddenly intruded on by an unsteady and vicious drove of bad manners and low degree. The thoroughbred can only condescend to turn away.

    Willing as they were to undergo anything for the cause, the Virginians could not have relished the savor of the new importations ; nor can one who knows the least of the very unclean nature of our national politics for a moment wonder.

    Montgomery had been a condensed and desiccated preparation of the Washington stew, highly flavored with the raciest vices. Richmond enjoyed the same mess, with perhaps an additional kernel or two of that garlic.

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