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Chapter 8: New Orleans, the Crescent city.

  • Location and commercial importance
  • -- old methods of business -- relations of planter and factor -- a typical brokerage House -- secure reliance on European recognition and the kingship of cotton -- yellow Jack and his treatment -- French town and American -- hotels of the day -- home society and “the Heathen” -- social Customs -- Creole women's taste -- Cuffee and cant -- early regiments and crack companies -- judges of wine -- a champion diner.
    At a first glimpse, New Orleans of those days was anything but a picturesque city. Built upon marshy flats, below the level of the river and protected from inundation by the Levee, her antique and weathered houses seemed to cower and cluster together as though in fear.

    But for a long time, “The Crescent city” had been at the head of commercial importance-and the desideratum of direct trade had been more nearly filled by her enterprising merchants than all others in the South. The very great majority of the wealthy population was either Creole, or French; and their connection with European houses may account in some measure for that fact. The coasting trade at the war was heavy all along the Gulf shore; the trade with the islands a source of large revenue, and there were lines and frequent private enterprises across the ocean.

    For many reasons, it was then believed New Orleans could never become a great port. Foremost, the conformation of the Delta, at the mouth of the river, prevented vessels drawing over fifteen feetat most favorable tides — from crossing either of the three bars; and the most practical and scientific engineers, both of civil life and the army, had long tried in vain to remedy the defect for longer than a few weeks. Numerous causes have been assigned for the rapid reformation of these bars; the chemical action of the salt upon the vegetable matter in the river water; the rapid deposit of alluvium as the current slackens; and a churning effect produced by the meeting of the channel with the waves of the Gulf. They cpuld not be successfully removed, however, and were a great drawback to the trade of the city; which its location at the mouth of the great water avenue of the whole West, makes more advantageous than any other point in the South.

    The river business in cotton, sugar and syrup was, at this time, [60] immense; and the agents of the planters-factor is the generic term --made large fortunes in buying and selling at a merely nominal rate of percentage. The southern planter of ante-bellum days was a man of ease and luxury, careless of business and free to excess with money; and relations between him and his agent were entirely unique.

    He had the same factor for years, drawing when he pleased for any amount, keeping open books. When his crop came in, it was shipped to the factor, the money retained-subject to draft-or invested. But it was by no means rare, when reckoning day came, for the advance drafts to have left the planter in debt his whole crop to the factor. In that case, it used to cost him a trip to Europe, or a summer at Saratoga only; and he stayed on his plantation and did not cry over the spilt milk, however loudly his ladies may have wailed for the missing creme-de-la-creme of Virginia springs.

    The morning after arrival we at last saw “the house;” which, far from being an imposing edifice, was a dingy, small office, just off the Levee, with the dingier sign of “Long, Staple & Middling” over the door. There were a few stalwart negroes basking in the sun about the entrance, sleeping comfortably in the white glare, or showing glancing ivories, in broad grins-each one keeping his shining cotton hook in full view, like a badge of office. Within was a perfect steam of business, and Staple pere was studying a huge ledger through a pair of heavy gold spectacles-popping orders like firecrackers, at half a dozen attentive clerks. Long, the senior partner, was in Virginia-and Middling, the junior, was hardly more than an expert foreman of the establishment.

    “Happy, indeed, to meet you, sir!-93 of Red River lot, Mr. Edds-Heard of you frequently-Terribly busy times these, sir, partner away-13,094 middlins, for diamond B at 16 1/3, Adams--. We dine at seven, you remember, Styles-Don't be in a hurry, sir!--1,642 A. B., page 684, Carter — Good day-See you at seven.”

    And it was only over the perfect claret, at the emphasized hour, that we discovered Mr. Staple to be a man of fine mind and extensive culture, a hearty sympathizer in the rebellion-into which he would have thrown his last dollar-and one of the most successful men on the Levee. Long, his senior partner, was a western man of hard, keen business sense, who had come to New Orleans fifty years before, a barefooted deck-hand on an Ohio schooner. By shrewdness, [61] dogged industry and some little luck, he made “Long's,” the best known and richest house in the South-west, until in the crash of 1837 it threatened to topple down forever. Then Mr. Staple came forward with his great credit and large amount of spare capital, saved the house and went into it himself; while Middling, the former clerk of all work, was promoted, for fidelity in the trying times, to a small partnership.

    Like all the heavy cotton men of the South, Mr. Staple believed firmly that cotton was king, and that the first steamer into a southern port would bring a French and British minister.

    “ It's against our interest for the present to do so,” he said, confidently; “but my partner and I have advised all our planters to hold their cotton instead of shipping it, that the market may not be glutted when the foreign ships come in. And, yet, sir, it's coming down now faster than ever. Everybody prefers, in the disorganized state of things, to have ready money for cotton, that in three months time must be worth from twenty to thirty cents!”

    “Hard to believe, sir, isn't it? Yet our planters, looking at things from their own contracted standpoint, think the English and French cabinets will defer recognition of our Government. As for ‘the house,’ sir, it will put all it possesses into the belief that they can not prove so blind!”

    Like most of the wealthy men in New Orleans, Mr. Staple had a charmingly located villa a mile from the lake and drove out every evening, after business hours, to pass the night.

    “Not that I fear the fever,” he explained. “What strangers regard as such certain death is to us scarce more than the agues of a North Carolina flat. ‘ Yellow Jack’ is a terrible scourge, indeed, to the lower classes, and to those not acclimatized. The heavy deposits of vegetable drift from the inundations leave the whole country for miles coated four or five inches deep in creamy loam. This decomposes most rapidly upon the approach of hot weather, and the action of the dews, when they begin to fall upon it, causes the miasmata to rise in dense and poisonous mists. Now these, of course, are as bad in country-except in very elevated localities — as in town; but they are only dangerous in crowded sections, or to the enervated constitutions that could as ill resist any other disease.”

    “You astonish me, indeed,” I answered. “For I have always. [62] classed yellow fever and cholera as twin destroyers. They must be, from such seasons as you have every few years.”

    “ So all strangers think. But to the resident, who from choice, or business engagements, has passed one summer in the city, ‘Jack’ loses his terrors. The symptoms are unmistakable. Slight nausea and pain in the back, headache and a soupcon of chill. The workingman feels these. He can not spare the time or the doctor's bill, perhaps. He poohs the matter — it will pass off-and goes to work. The delay and the sun set the disease; and he is brought home at night-or staggers to the nearest hospital — to die of the black vomit in thirty-six hours. Hence, the great mortality.”

    “Now, I feel these pains, I at once recognize the fever, go right home, bathe feet and back in hot water, take a strong aperient, put mustard on my stomach and pile on the blankets. In an hour I am bathed in sweat till maybe it drips through the mattress. I put on another blanket, take a hot draught with an opiate, and go to sleep. It is not a pleasant thing, with the thermometer at ninety degrees in the shade; but when I wake in the morning, I have saved an attack of fever.”

    This regimen was constantly repeated to me. In the district crowded with the poorer classes, who are dependent on their daily labor for their daily bread, the fever stalks gaunt and noisome, marking his victims and seldom in vain. All day long, and far into the night in bad seasons, the low, dull rumble of the dead-cart echoed through the narrow streets; and at the door of every squalid house was the plain pine box that held what was left of some one of its loved inmates. Yet through this carnival of death, steadily and fearlessly, the better class of workers walk; not dreading the contagion and secure in their harness of precaution.

    To sleep in the infected atmosphere in sickly quarters was thought more dangerous; but any business man considered himself safe, if he only breathed the poisonous air in the daytime. The resident physicians, in their recent treatment, feel the disease quite in their hands, when no other foe than the fever is to be combated. Any preceding excess of diet, drink or excitement is apt to aggravate it; but in ordinary cases, where proper remedies are taken in season, nine out of ten patients recover.

    Otherwise, this ratio is just reversed; and in the working classesespecially [63] strangers — to take the fever, in bad years, is to die. The utmost efforts of science, the most potent drugs-even the beautiful and selfless devotion of the Howard Association and its likeavailed nothing in the wrestle with the grim destroyer, when he had once fairly clutched his hold. And in the crowded quarters, where the air was poison without the malaria, his footing was too sure for mortal to prevail against him.

    New Orleans was, at this time, divided into two distinct towns in one corporation — the French and American. In the one, the French language was spoken altogether for social and business purposes, and even in the courts. The theaters were French, the cafes innocent of English, and, as Hood says, the “very children speak it.” Many persons grow up in this quarter-or did in years back — who never, to their old age, crossed to the American town or spoke one word of English. In the society of the old town, one found a miniatureexact to the photograph — of Paris. It was jealously exclusive, and even the most petted beaux of the American quarter deemed it privilege to enter it. A stranger must come with letters of the most urgent kind before he could cross its threshold. All the etiquette and form of the ancien regime obtained here — the furniture, the dress, the cookery, the dances were all French.

    In the American town the likeness to Mobile was very marked, in the manners and style of the people. The young men of the French quarter had sought this society more of late years, finding in it a freedom from restraint, for which their associations with other Americans in business gave them a taste. The character of the society was gay and easy-and it was not hedged in so carefully as that of the old town. Strangers were cordially — if not very carefully-welcomed into it; and the barriers of reserve, that once protected it, were rapidly breaking down before the inroads of progress and petroleum.

    The great hotels — the “St. Charles,” “St. Louis” and otherswere constantly filled with the families of planters from all points of the river and its branches, and with travelers from the Atlantic border as well. Many of these were people of cultivation and refinement; but many, alas! the roughest of diamonds with a western freedom of expression and solidity of outline, that is national but not agreeable. In the season these people overflowed the hotels, [64] where they had constant hops with, occasionally, splendid balls and even masques. Many of them were “objects of interest” to the young men about town, by reason of papa's business, or Mademoiselle's proper bank account. So the hotels-though not frequented by the ladies of the city at all-became, each year, more and more thronged by the young men; and consequently, each year, the outsiders gained a very gradual, but more secure, footing near the home society and even began to force their way into it.

    It must be confessed that some damsels from Red River wore diamonds at breakfast; and that young ladies from Ohio would drive tandem to the lake! And then their laughs and jokes at a soiree would give a dowager from Frenchtown an apoplexy!

    Que voulez vous? Pork is mighty! and cotton was king!

    There was much difference of opinion as to the morals of the Crescent City. For my own part, I do not think the men were more dissipated than elsewhere, though infinitely more wedded to enjoyment and fun in every form. There was the French idea prevalent that gambling was no harm; and it was indulged to a degree certainly hurtful to many and ruinous to some. From the climate and the great prevalence of light wines, there was less drunkenness than in most southern towns; and if other vices prevailed to any great extent — they were either gracefully hidden, or so sanctioned by custom as to cause no remark, except by straight-laced strangers.

    Oh! the delicious memories of the city of old! The charming cordiality to be found in no colder latitude, the cosy breakfasts that prefaced days of real enjoyment — the midnight revels of the bal masque! And then the carnival!-those wild weeks when the Lord of Misrule wields his motley scepter-leading from one reckless frolic to another till Mardi Gras culminates in a giddy whirl of delirious fun on which, at midnight, Lent drops a somber veil!

    Sad changes the war has wrought since then!

    The merry “Krewe of Comus” has been for a time replaced by the conquering troops of the Union; the salons where only the best and brightest had collected have been sullied by a conquering soldiery; and their leader has waged a vulgar warfare on the noble womanhood his currish spirit could not gaze upon without a fruitless effort to degrade.

    Of the resident ladies, I can only say that to hear of a fast onein ordinary acceptation of that term-was, indeed, rare. [65]

    The young married woman monopolized more of the society and its beaux than would be very agreeable to New York belles; but, if they borrowed this custom from their French neighbors, I have not heard that they also took the license of the Italian.

    Public and open improprieties were at once frowned down, and people of all grades and classes seemed to make their chief study good taste. This is another French graft, on a stem naturally susceptible, of which the consequences can be seen from the hair ribbon of the bonne to the decoration of the Cathedral.

    The women of New Orleans, as a rule, dress with more tastemore perfect adaptation of form and color to figure and complexionthan any in America. On a dress night at the opera, at church, or at a ball, the toillettes are a perfect study in their exquisite fitnesstheir admirable blending of simplicity and elegance. Nor is this confined to the higher and more wealthy classes. The women of lower conditions are admirably imitative; and on Sunday afternoons, where they crowd to hear the public bands with husbands and children, all in their best, it is the rarest thing to see a badly-trimmed bonnet or an ill-chosen costume. The men, in those days, dressed altogether in the French fashion; and were, consequently, the worst dressed in the world.

    The most independent and obtrusively happy people one noticed in New Orleans were the negroes. They have a sleek, shiny blackness here, unknown to higher latitudes; and from its midst the great white eyeballs and large, regular teeth flash with a singular brilliance. Sunday is their day peculiarly-and on the warm afternoons, they bask up and down the thoroughfares in the gaudiest of orange and scarlet bandannas. But their day is fast passing away; and in place of the simple, happy creatures of a few years gone, we find the discontented and besotted idler-squalid and dirty.

    The cant of to-day — that the race problem, if left alone, will settle itself — may have some possible proof in the distant future; but the few who are ignorant enough to-day to believe the! “negro question” already settled may find that they are yet but on the threshold of the “irrepressible conflict” between nature and necessity.

    To the natural impressibility of the southron, the Louisianian adds the enthusiasm of the Frenchman. At the first call of the governor for troops, there had been readiest response; and here, as in Alabama, [66] the very first young men of the state left office and countingroom and college to take up the musket. Two regiments of regulars, in the state service, were raised to man the forts-“Jackson” and “St. Philip” --that guarded the passes below the city. These were composed of the stevedores and workingmen generally, and were officered by such young men as the governor and council deemed best fitted. The Levee had been scoured and a battalion of “Tigers” formed from the very lowest of the thugs and plugs that infested it, for Major Bob Wheat, the well-known filibuster.

    Poor Wheat! His roving spirit still and his jocund voice now mute, he sleeps soundly under the sighing trees of Hollywood-that populous “city of the silent” at Richmond. It was his corps of which such wild and ridiculous stories of bowie-knife prowess were told at the Bull Run fight. They, together with the “Crescent rifles,” “Chasseurs-à--pied” and “Zouaves,” were now at Pensacola.

    The “Rifles” was a crack corps, composed of some of the best young men in New Orleans; and the whole corps of “Chasseurs” was of the same material. They did yeomen's service in the four years, and the last one saw very few left of what had long since ceased to be a separate organization. But of all the gallant blood that was shed at the call of the state, none was so widely known as the “Washington artillery.” The best men of Louisiana had long upheld and officered this battalion as a holiday pageant; and, when their merry meetings were so suddenly changed to stern alarums, to their honor be it said, not one was laggard.

    In the reddest flashings of the fight, on the dreariest march through heaviest snows, or in the cozy camp under the summer pines, the guidon of the “W. A.” was a welcome sight to the soldier of the South-always indicative of cheer and of duty willingly and thoroughly done.

    It was very unwillingly that I left New Orleans on a transport, with a battalion of Chasseurs for Pensacola. Styles was to stay behind for the present, and then go on some general's staff; so half the amusement of my travel was gone. “The colonel” was desold.

    “Such a hotel as the St. Charles!” he exclaimed, with tears in his voice-“such soups. Ah! my boy, after the war I'll come here to live-yes, sir, to live! It's the only place to get a dinner. Egad, sir, out of New Orleans nobody cooks!” [67]

    I suggested comfort in the idea of red snapper at Pensacola.

    “ Red fish is good in itself. Egad, I think it is good,” replied the colonel. “But eaten in camp, with a knife, sir-egad, with a knife-off a tin plate! Pah! You've never lived in camp.” And in a hollow, oracular whisper, he added: “Wait!”

    And they were real models, the New Orleans hotels of those days, and the colonel's commendations were but deserved. In cuisine, service and wines, they far surpassed any on this continent; and for variety of patrons they were unequaled anywhere.

    Two distinct sets inhabited the larger ones, as antagonistic as oil and water. The habitues, easy, critical to a degree, and particular to a year about their wines, lived on comfortably and evenly, enjoying the very best of the luxurious city, and never having a cause for complaint. The up-river people flocked in at certain seasons by the hundred. They crowded the lobbies, filled the spare bed-rooms, and eat what was put before them, with but little knowledge save that it was French. These were the business men, who came down for a new engagement with a factor, or to rest after the summer on the plantation. One-half of them were terribly busy; the other half having nothing to do after the first day — they always stay a weekand assuming an air of high criticism that was as funny to the knowing ones as expensive to them.

    At our hotel, one evening, as favored guests, we found ourselves on an exploring tour with mine host. It ended in the wine-room.

    The mysteries of that vaulted chamber were seldom opened to the outer world; and passing the profanum vulgus in its first bins, we listened with eager ears and watering mouths to recital of the pedigree and history of the dwellers within.

    Long rows of graceful necks, golden crowned and tall, peered over dust and cobwebs of near a generation; bottles aldermanic and plethoric seemed bursting with the hoarded fatness of the vine; clear, white glass burned a glowing ruby with the Burgundy; and lean, jaundiced bottles-carefully bedded like rows of invalids-told of rare and priceless Hocks.

    From arch to arch our garrulous cicerone leads us, with a heightened relish as we get deeper among his treasures and further away from the daylight.

    “ There!” he exclaims at last with a great gulp of triumph. [68] “There! that's Sherry, the king of wines! Ninety years ago, the Conde Pesara sent that wine in his own ships. Ninety years agoand for twenty it has lain in my cellar, never touched but by my own hand” --and he holds up the candle to the shelf, inch deep in dust, while the light seems to dart into the very heart of the amber fluid, and sparkle and laugh back again from the fantastic drapery the spiders had festooned around the bottles. “Yes, all the Pesaras are dead years gone; and only this blood of the vine is left of them.”

    “But you don't sell that wine!” gasps the colonel. “Egad! you don't sell it to those-people — up stairs!”

    “I did once” --and mine host sighs. “A great cotton man came down. He was a king on the river-he wanted the best! Money was nothing to him, so I whispered of this, and said twenty dollars the bottle! And, Colonel, he didn't-like it!”

    “Merciful heaven!” the colonel waxes wroth.

    “So Francois there sent him a bottle of that Xeres in the outer bin yonder-we sell it to you for two dollars the bottle-and he said that was wine!”

    But of the other family — who live in ai American hurry and eat by steam — was the goblin diner of whom a friend told me in accents of awe. One day, at the St. Charles, a resident stopped him on the way to their accustomed table:

    Have you seen these people eat?

    he asked. “No? Then we'll stop and look. This table is reserved for the up-river men who have little time in the city and make the most of it. While they swallow soup, a nimble waiter piles the nearest dishes around them,, without regard to order or quality. They eat fish, roast and fried, onp the same plate, swallowing six inches of knife blade at every bolt. Then they draw the nearest pie to them, cut a great segment in it, make three huge arcs therein with as many snaps of their teeth; seize a handful of nuts and raisins and rush away, with jaws still working like a flouring-mill. Ten minutes is their limit for dinner.” My friend only smiled. The other adding:

    You doubt it? Here comes a fine specimen; hot, healthy and evidently busy. See, he looks at his watch! I'll bet you a bottle of St. Peray he does his dinner within the ten.

    “ Done” --and they sat opposite him, watch in hand.

    And that wonderful Hoosier dined in seven minutes!

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