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Chapter 1: the forehead of the storm.

  • Washington city in 1861.
  • -- her two social circles -- was she a new Sodom? -- lobbyists and diplomats -- eve of the storm -- echo from Charleston Harbor -- a dinner and a ball -- popular views of the situation -- Buchanan's policy and the peace Congress -- separation a certainty -- preparations for the hejira -- precautions for Lincoln's inauguration -- off for Dixie.
    The cloud no bigger than a man's hand had risen.

    It became visible to all in Washington over the southern horizon. All around to East and West was but the dull, dingy line of the storm that was soon to burst in wild fury over that section, leaving only seared desolation in its wake. Already the timid and wary began to take in sail and think of a port; while the most reckless looked from the horizon to each other's faces, with restless and uneasy glances.

    In the days of 1860, as everybody knows, the society of Washington city was composed of two distinct circles, tangent at no one point. The larger, outer circle whirled around with crash and fury several months in each year; then, spinning out its centrifugal force, flew into minute fragments and scattered to extreme ends of the land. The smaller one--the inner circle-revolved sedately in its accustomed grooves, moving no whit faster for the buzz of the monster that surrounded and half hid it for so long; and when that spun itself to pieces moved on as undisturbed as Werther's Charlotte.

    The outer circle drew with it all the outside population, all the “dwellers in tents,” from the busiest lobbyman to the laziest lookeron. All the “hotel people” --those caravans that yearly poured unceasing into the not too comfortable caravanserai down town — stretched eager hands toward this circle; for, to them, it meant Washington. Having clutched an insecure grasp upon its rim, away they went with a fizz and a spin, dizzy and delighted-devil take the hindmost! Therein did the thousand lobbyists, who yearly came to roll logs, pull wires and juggle through bills, find their congenial prey. [12]

    Who shall rise up and write the secret history of that wonderful committee and of the ways and means it used to prey impartially upon government and client? Who shall record the “deeds without a name,” hatched out of eggs from the midnight terrapin; the strange secrets drawn out by the post-prandial corkscrew? Who shall justly calculate the influence the lobby and its workings had in hastening that inevitable, the war between the states?

    Into this outer circle whirled that smaller element which came to the Capital to spend money — not to make it. Diamonds flash, point lace flounces flaunt! Who will stop that mighty whirligig to inspect whether the champagne is real, or the turtle is prime?

    Allons! le jeu est fait!

    Camp-followers and hangers — on of Congress, many of its members from the West, claim agents from Kansas, husbandless married women from California and subterranean politicians from everywhere herein found elements as congenial as profitable. All stirred into the great olla podrida and helped to “Make the hell broth boil and bubble.”

    The inner circle was the real society of Washington. Half submerged for half of each year by accumulating streams of strangers, it ever rose the same-fresh and unstained by deposit from the baser flood. Therein, beyond doubt, one found the most cultured coteries, the courtliest polish and the simplest elegance that the drawing-rooms of this continent could boast. The bench and the bar of the highest court lent their loftiest intellects and keenest wits. Careful selections were there from Congress of those who held senates on their lips and kept together the machinery of an expanding nation; and those “rising men,” soon to replace, or to struggle with them, across the narrow Potomac near by. To this society, too, the foreign legations furnished a strong element. Bred in courts, familiar with the theories of all the world, these men must prove valuable and agreeable addition to any society into which they are thrown.

    It is rather the fashion just now to inveigh against foreigners in society, to lay at their door many of the peccadilloes that have crept into our city life; but the diplomats are, with rare exceptions, men of birth, education and of proved ability in their own homes. Their ethics may be less strict than those which obtain about Plymouth Rock, but experience with them will prove that, however loose their [13] own code, they carefully conform to the custom of others; that if they have any scars across their morals, they have also the tact and good taste to keep them decorously draped from sight.

    In the inner circle of Washington were those officers of the army and navy, selected for ability or service-or possibly “by grace of cousinship” --to hold posts near the government; and, with full allowance for favoritism, some of these were men of culture, travel and attainment-most of them were gentlemen. And the nucleus, as well as the amalgam of all these elements, was the resident families of old Washingtonians. These had lived there so long as to be able to winnow the chaff and throw the refuse off.

    There has ever been much talk about the corruption of Washington, easy hints about Sodom, with a general sweep at the depravity of its social system. But it is plain these facile fault-finders knew no more of its inner circle-and for its resident society only is any city responsible-than they did of the court of the Grand Turk. Such critics had come to Washington, had made their “dicker,” danced at the hotel hops, and been jostled on the Avenue. If they essayed an entrance into the charmed circle, they failed.

    Year after year, even the Titans of the lobby assailed the gates of that heaven refused them; and year after year they fell back, baffled and grommelling, into the pit of that outer circle whence they came. Yet every year, especially in the autumn and spring, behind that Chinese wall was a round of entertainments less costly than the crushes of the critic circle, but stamped with quiet elegance aped in vain by the non-elect. And when the whirl whirled outf at last, with the departing Congress; when the howling crowd had danced its mad carmagnole and its vulgar echoes had died into distance, then Washington society was itself again. Then the sociality of intercoursethat peculiar charm which made it so unique-became once more free and unrestrained.

    Passing from the reek of a hotel ball, or the stewing soiree of a Cabinet secretary into the quiet salon of a West End home, the very atmosphere was different, and comparison came of itself with that old Quartier Saint Germain, which kept undefiled from the pitch that smirched its Paris, through all the hideous dramas of the bonnet rouge.

    The influence of political place in this country has long spawned a social degradation. Where the gift is in the hands of a fixed power, [14] its seeking is lowering enough; but when it is besought from the enlightened voter himself, “the scurvy politician” becomes a reality painfully frequent. Soliciting the ballot over a glass of green corn juice in the back room of a country grocery, or flattering the cara sposa of the farmhouse, with squalling brat upon his knee, is scarcely calculated to make the best.of men more of “an ornament to society.” Constant contact with sharpers and constant effort to be sharper than they is equally as apt to blunt his sense of delicacy as it is to unfit one for higher responsibilities of official station. So it was not unnatural that that society of Washington, based wholly on politics, was not found wholly clean. But under the seething surface-first visible to the casual glance — was a substratum as pure as it was solid and unyielding. Habitues of twenty years remarked that, with all the giddy whirl of previous winters in the outer circle, none had approached in mad rapidity that of 1860-6 . The rush of aimless visiting, matinees and dinners, balls and suppers, followed each other without cessation; dress and diamonds, equipage and cards, all cost more than ever before. This might be the last of it, said an uneasy sense of the coming storm; and in the precedent sultriness, the thousands who had come to make money vied with the tens who came to spend it in mad distribution of the proceeds. Madame, who had made an immense investment of somebody's capital in diamonds and lace, must let the world see them. Mademoiselle must make a certain exhibit of shapely shoulders and of telling stride in the German; and time was shortening fast. And Knower, of the Third House, had put all the proceeds of engineering that last bill through, into gorgeous plate. It would never do to waste it, for Knower meant business; and this might be the end of the thing.

    So the stream rushed on, catching the weak and timid ones upon its brink and plunging them into the whirling vortex. And still the rusty old wheels revolved, as creakily as ever, at the Capital. Blobb, of Oregon, made machine speeches to the sleepy House, but neither he, nor they, noted the darkening atmosphere without. Senator Jenks took his half-hourly “‘nip” with laudable punctuality, thereafter rising eloquent to call Mr. President's attention to that little bill; and all the while that huge engine, the lobby, steadily pumped away in the political basement, sending streams of hot corruption into every artery of the government. [15]

    Suddenly a sullen reverberation echoes over the Potomac from the South. The long-threatened deed is done at last. South Carolina has seceded, and the first link is rudely stricken from the chain.

    There is a little start; that is all. The Third House stays for a second its gold spoon; and, perhaps, a trifle of the turtle spills before reaching its mouth. Madame rearranges her parure and smoothes her ruffled lace; while Mademoiselle pouts a little, then studies her card for the next waltzer. Senator Jenks takes his “nip” just a trifle more regularly; and Blobb, of Oregon, draws a longer breath before his next period. As for the lobby-pump, its piston grows red-hot and its valves fly wide open, with the work it does; while thicker and more foul are the streams it sends abroad.

    For awhile there is some little talk around Willard's about the “secesh;” and the old soldiers wear grave faces as they pass to and fro between the War Department and General Scott's headquarters. But to the outer circle, it is only a nine-day wonder; while the dancing and dining army men soon make light of the matter.

    But the stone the surface closes smoothly over at the center makes large ripples at the edges. Faces that were long before now begin to lengthen; and thoughtful men wag solemn heads as they pass, or pause to take each other by the buttonhole. More frequent knots discuss the status in hotel lobbies and even in the passages of the departments; careful non-partisans keep their lips tightly closed, and hot talk, pro or con, begins to grow more popular.

    One day I find, per card, that the Patagonian Ambassador dines me at seven. As it is not a state dinner I go, to find it even more stupid. At dessert the reserve wears off and all soon get deep in the Star of the West episode.

    “ Looks mighty bad now, sir. Something must be done, sir, and soon, too,” says Diggs, a hard-working M. C. from the North-west. “But, as yet, I don't see-what, exactly!”

    “Will your government use force to supply Fort Sumter?” asks Count B., of the Sardinian legation.

    “ If so, it might surely drive out those states so doubtful now, that they may not go to extremes,” suggested the Prussian charge ad interim.

    “Why, they'll be whipped back by the army and navy within ninety days from date,” remarks a gentleman connected with pension brokerage. [16]

    “ If part of the army and navy does not go to get whipped with them,” growls an old major of the famed Aztec Club. And the scar across the nose, that he brought away from the Belen Gate, grows very uncomfortably purple.

    “By Jove! I Weally believes he means it! Weally!” whispers very young Savile Rowe, of H. B. M. legation. “Let's get wid of these politics. Dwop in at Knower's; soiwee, you know ;” and Savile tucks his arm under mine.

    Two blocks away we try to lose uncomfortable ideas in an atmosphere of spermaceti, hot broadcloth, jockey club and terrapin.

    “Next quadwille, Miss Wose?”

    “Oh, yes, Mr. Rowe; and — the third galop-let me see — the fifth waltz. And oh! isn't it nasty of those people in South Carolina! Why don't they behave themselves? Oh, dear! what a lovely color Karmeen Sorser has to-night! Au revoirl” and Miss Rose Ruche glides off, à deux temps, on the arm of the Turkish charg.

    As I stroll through the rooms, there is much glaring light and there are many nude necks. I am jostled by polking damsels and buttonholed by most approved bores. But, through the blare of the brass horns and over the steaming terrapin, the one subject rises again and again, refusing burial as persistently as Eugene Aram's old man.

    “Try a glass of this punch,” Knower chirps cheerily. “Devilish good punch! Good glass, too. See the crest and the monogram blowed in. Put Kansas Coal Contriver's Company proceeds into that glass. But things are looking blue, sir, devilish blue; and I don't see the way out at all. Fact is, I'm getting pretty down in the mouth!” And the lobbyist put a bumper of punch in the same position. “People may talk, sir, but my head's as long as the next, and I don't see the way out. Washington's dead, sir; dead as a hammer, if this secession goes on. Why, what'll become of our business if thef move the Capital? Kill us, sir; kill us! Lots of southern members leaving already” --and Knower's voice sunk to a whisper-“and would you believe it? I heard of nine resignations from the army to-day. Gad, sir! had it from the best authority. That means business, I'm afraid.”

    And little by little the conviction dawned on all classes that it did mean business-ugly, real business. What had been only mutterings a few weeks back grew into loud, defiant speech. Southern men, in and out of Congress, bawded under their leading spirits, boldly and [17] emphatically declared what they meant to do. Never had excitement around the Capitol run half so high. Even the Kansas-Nebraska furore had failed to pack the Senate galleries so full of men and women, struggling for seats and sitting sometimes through the night. One after another the southern leaders made their valedictoriessome calm and dignified, some hot and vindictive-and left the seats they had filled for years. One after another, known and honored names were stricken from the army and navy lists, by resignation. One after another, states met in convention and, by “ordinance of secession,” declared themselves independent of the Federal Governmen.t. It was as though the train had been prepared and the action of South Carolina was but the lighting of the fuse. Within six weeks from Mr. Buchanan's New Year reception, six states had deliberately gone out of the Union.

    When it was too late, the sleepy administration opened its eyes. Not liking the looks of things, it shut them again. When it was too late, there were windy declarations and some feeble temporizing; but all thinking men felt that the crisis had come and nothing could avert it. The earthquake that had rumbled so long in premonitory throes suddenly yawned in an ugly chasm, that swallowed up the petty differences of each side. One throb and the little lines of party were roughly obliterated; while across the gulf that gaped between them, men glared at each other with but one meaning in their eyes.

    That solemn mummery, the “, Peace Congress,” might temporarily have turned the tide it was wholly powerless to dam; but the arch seceder, Massachusetts, manipulated even that slight chance of compromise. The weaker elements in convention were no match for the peaceful Puritan whom war might profit, but could not injure. Peace was pelted from under her olive with splinters of Plymouth Rock, and Massachusetts members poured upon the troubled waters oil-of vitriol!

    When the “Peace commissioners” from the southern Congress at Montgomery came to Washington, all felt their presence only a mockery. It was too late! they came only to demand what the government could not then concede, and every line they wrote was waste of ink, every word they spoke waste of breath. Southern congressmen were leaving by every train. Families of years residence were pulling down their household gods and starting on a pilgrimage to [18] set them up — where they knew not, save it must be in the South. Old friends looked doubtfully at each other, and wild rumors were rife of incursions over the Potomac by wild-haired riders from Virginia. Even the fungi of the departmental desks, seeming suddenly imbued with life, rose and threw away their quills-and with them the very bread for their families — to go South. It was the modern hegira!

    A dull, vague unrest brooded over Washington, as though the city had been shadowed with a vast pall, or threatened with a plague.. Then when it was again too late, General Scott-“the general,” as the hero of Lundy's Lane and Mexico was universally knownvirtu-ally went into the Cabinet, practically filling the chair that Jefferson Davis had vacated. Men felt that they must range themselves on one side, or the other, for the South had spoken and meant what she said. There might be war; there must be separation!

    I was lounging slowly past the rampant bronze Jackson in. Lafayette Square when Styles Staple joined me.

    “When do you start?” was his salutation.

    “When do I start?” Staple's question was a sudden one.

    “Yes, for the South? You're going, of course; and the governor writes me to be off at once. Better go together. Eh? Night boat, 4th of March.”

    Now the governor mentioned was not presiding executive of a southern state, but was Staple peere, of the heavy cotton firm of Staple, Long & Middling, New Orleans. Staple fils had been for years a great social card in Washington. The clubs, the legations, the avenues and the german knew him equally well; and though he talked about “the house,” his only visible transaction with it was to make the name familiar to bill-brokers by frequent drafts. So I answered the question by another:

    What are you going to do when you get there?

    “Stop at Montgomery, see the Congress, draw on ‘the house,’ and then t‘ Orleans,” he answered cheerfully. “Come with me. Lots to see; and, no doubt, about plenty to do. If this sky holds, all men will be wanted. As you're going, the sooner the better. What do you say? Evening boat, March 4th? Is it a go?”

    It gave only two days for preparation to leave what had come nearer being home than any other place in a nomadic life. But he was right. I was going, and we settled the matter, and separated to, wind up our affairs and take conge. [19]

    The night before President Lincoln's inauguration was a restless and trying one to every man in Washington. Nervous men heard signal for bloody outbreak in every unfamiliar sound. Thoughtful ones peered beyond the mist and saw the boiling of the mad breakers, where eight millions of incensed and uncontrolled population hurled themselves against the granite foundation of the established government. Selfish heads tossed upon sleepless pillows, haunted by the thought that the dawn would break upon a great change, boding ruin to their prospects, monetary or political. Even the butterflies felt that there was a something impending; incomprehensible, but uncomfortably suggestive of work instead of pleasure. So Washington rose red-eyed and unrefreshed on the 4th of March, 1861.

    Elaborate preparations had been made to have the day's ceremonial brilliant and imposing beyond precedent. Visiting militia and civil organizations from every quarter-North, East and West-had been collecting for days, and meeting reception more labored than spontaneous. The best bands of the country had flocked to the Capital, to drown bad blood in the blare of brass; and all available cavalry and artillery of the regular army had been hastily rendezvoused, for the double purpose of spectacle and security. Still the public mind was feverish and unquiet; and the post commandant was like the public mind.

    Rumors were again rife of raids over the Potomac, with Henry A. Wise or Ben McCullough at their head; nightmares of plots to rob the Treasury and raze the White House sat heavy on the timid; while extremists manufactured long-haired men, with air guns, secreted here and there and sworn to shoot Mr. Lincoln, while reading his inaugural.

    All night long, orderlies were dashing. to and fro at breakneck speed; and guard details were marching to all points of possible danger. Day dawn saw a light battery drawn up on G street facing the Treasury, guns unlimbered and ready for action; while infantry held both approaches to the Long Bridge across the Potomac. Other bodies of regulars were scattered at; points most available for rapid concentration; squadrons of cavalry were stationed at the crossings of several avenues; and all possible precautions were had to quell summarily any symptoms of riot.

    These preparations resembling more the capital of Mexico than [20] that of these United States, were augury of the peace of the administration thus ushered in! Happily, they were needless. All who remember that inauguration will recall the dull, dead quiet with which the day passed off. The very studiousness of precaution took away from the enjoyment of the spectacle even; and a cloud was thrown over the whole event by the certainty of trouble ahead. The streets were anxious and all gayety showed effort, while many lowering faces peeped at the procession from windows and housetops.

    It was over at last. The new man had begun with the new era; and Staple and I had finished our chasse at Wormley's dinner table, when that worthy's pleasant, yellow face peered in at the door.

    As we jumped into the carriage awaiting us and Wormley banged the door, a knot of loungers ran up to say good-bye. They were all men-about-town; and if not very dear to each other, it was still a wrench to break up associations with those whose faces had been familiar to every dinner and drive and reception for years. We had never met but in amity and amid the gayest scenes; now we were plunging into a pathless future. Who could tell but a turn might bring us face to face, where hands would cross with deadly purpose; while the hiss of the Minie-ball sang accompaniment in place of the last galop that Louis Weber had composed.

    “Better stay where you are, boys!” --“You're making a bad thing of it!” --“Don't leave us Styles, old fellow!” --“You'll starve down South, sure!” --were a few of the hopeful adieux showered at us.

    “Thank you all, just the same, but I think we won't stay,” Staple responded. “What would ‘the house’ do? God bless you, boys! Good-bye, Jim!”

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