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Chapter 23: the Senate in 1845.

The personnel of the House was at this time not so notable as that of the Senate; it was more noisy, less distinguished, if one might so say, than when ex-President Adams was there and the two Ingersolls, besides many others who became notable afterward. Judge Stephen A. Douglas was just beginning to figure in the public eye as a leading man of pronounced opinions. Mr. Lincoln, I have heard since, was also there.

Vice-President George Mifflin Dallas presided over the Senate with matchless grace and temper, and it was at that time an august body composed of men of great dignity, intellect, and integrity.

The Senators wore full dress on the floor of the Senate, or such ceremonious garments as marked their respect for the place. The older men wore silk stockings and low shoes. Mr. Dallas always wore a spotless white cravat. He was tall and well proportioned, his eyes and eyebrows were quite black, and his hair, which was inclined to curl, was snowy [269] white. There was a certain nice, delicate, sense of harmony and propriety about everything he did. For instance, if he wrote a note it was without erasures, placed in the most graceful manner on the paper, and sealed with care. He considered the peculiarities of every one as worthy of his notice, and never mortified the sensibilities of the most uneducated.

It was a little thing, but it showed his polite consideration for others. One of the Senators from Arkansas always called the State Arkansas, the other pronounced it Arkansaw. As each rose to address the chair, Mr. Dallas acknowledged the salutation with the Senator's preferred pronunciation. He bowed his stately head and said, “The Senator from Arkansas,” or the “Senator from Arkansaw.” No matter how hot the debate, lie always followed this rule. Once a Senator, perhaps tired of hearing Mr. Dallas called just, made a most offensive attack upon him; but the Vice-President neither called him to order nor evinced the least consciousness of being the object of animadversion, and it seemed to discomfort his assailant sadly, who finally sat down. His “politeness was benevolence in small things.”

Mr. Benton was a man of rare personal dignity, and he never descended from the [270] plane on which he had established himself. He was of medium height; but was, when I saw him, an old man, and had become so stout that it subtracted from his height somewhat. He had a rather swelling oratorical manner, but had always something wherewith to maintain the dignity of his tone. Woe betide the man against whom he had a prejudice if, in an unwary hour, a statement unwarranted by indisputably attested facts had been made in contravention of any of his theories. In such a case one little page after another hied away to the library with small squares of paper memoranda for the librarian; each one returned with a ponderous tome, until sometimes, especially when Mr. Clay was speaking, breast high before him on his desk rose a rampart of formidable books. Statesmen's manuals, Jefferson's letters, geographies of almost all countries, maps, antiquated books of travel-everything poured aliment into this great and retentive mind, and served as a weapon of offence or defence. Everything he knew was at once available, because his repose of mind never permitted him to be flurried or disconcerted. He had reasoned out his policy, and was entirely sincere in his opinions.

As soon as his antagonist took his seat, Mr. Benton arose, and with a courtly salutation to the Speaker, and one scarcely less so [271] to the doomed one, he began as one would hunt a hare. He took each ill-considered postulate and chased it over heavy ground until nearly overcome, and then he set on his authorities in full cry. With his hand upon the first book of the formidable collection before him, in most gentle tones he demonstrated that within those covers was the testimony of a patriot, an actor in the very event so strangely, so hideously misunderstood (with a little deferential bow and wave of the hand) by the gentleman. After the first blow he warmed to the work, and a finer display of varied reading in old and rare books, of statesmen's lore, of burning eloquence, keen satire, and exalted romanesque declamation could hardly be imagined. “Friends, countrymen, and lovers,” would have seemed a natural invocation from him, and most people gladly listened that they might hear. I did. He had a habit of talking to himself as he walked home, and Grund, a Hessian reporter of the Senate, described him in a letter to the New York Herald thus: “I saw Mr. Benton walking up the avenue to-day, keeping up a gentle remonstrance with himself for being so much greater than the rest of the world.”

It made the very women feel profound who heard him, and was for them a cheap and charming education in our governmental history. [272] He never became so irritated (after I knew him) that he would not suffer any reasonable interruption by question or explanation; but nothing discomposed, daunted, or broke the silver threads of his argument. He calmly took them up again and wove the net tightly about his victim. He answered everything with a provoking kind of assured triumph that was so hard to bear because there was so little which could be disputed in the facts arrayed. But when Mr. Clay confronted him, it was

Worth ten years of peaceful life,
One glance at their array.

Their policy, their ideas, their education, their method of oratory, their moral standards, everything differed. Each hated the other with the most unaffected bitterness. Mr. Benton's mailed glove lay always before the Senator from Kentucky; and not infrequently, when Mr. Benton had finished a noble argument, studded all over with darts of satire or vague reference to the past, that stung and clung to Mr. Clay until he was trembling with fury, he would sit down with a fine air of having been void of offence and in charity with all men.

Mr. Clay, who was a very impressive man, but not of the leonine character like his opponent, [273] would rear his tall form, turn his blazing eyes on the Speaker, and begin with all amenities of debate to “puncture the Senator's balloon;” but Mr. Benton would throw down a little more ballast, and as he rose out of reach Mr. Clay would pour out a tide of keen, gentlemanly invective, and invoke memories not understood very often by the Senate, but infuriating in the extreme to his antagonist, and then came as grand a tourney and clash of equal minds in desperate encounter of angry wit as one could hear. They doubled and returned upon each other in feint and foil and deadly thrust; then the followers and close friends of each would ask to interpose a word, perhaps, to permit the contestants to get cool. But one day a Whig Senator from a Southern State, full of ardent affection for Mr. Clay, interrupted him just as he was bearing down in splendid style upon his antagonist, and Mr. Clay spoke aloud, “Sit down, sir, I can defend myself; sit down.” Mr. Benton sent a soft smile of sympathy and amusement flying across, and the audience was with the Southern Senator, and Mr. Clay lost his point.

While Mr. Benton would be in full career demolishing some lesser man, Mr. Clay would cast a meaning look at him, and in a stage aside suggest a response; and then, no [274] matter what the subject, in some way among the warp and woof of it, Mr. Benton would weave in Mr. Clay, who, always lance in hand, pushed on to the fight; and all smaller people stood aside for the two champions.

Mr. Calhoun never willingly engaged in these tilts. He was anxious about the policy which he thought it best to adopt; for this he plead with hurried, earnest, clear reasoning, never hesitating for a word, or indulging in any unnecessary blame or personalities. If he was misunderstood, he arose in an enthusiastic, quick manner, and repeated his assertion verbatim. Mr. Benton had no admiration for his political theses, but utter confidence in his simple honesty, and so they generally came to a friendly armistice.

Mr. Davis, only a few years ago, wrote of Mr. Calhoun:

In my early manhood I enjoyed his personal acquaintance, and perhaps more of his consideration, from the fact that, as Secretary of War, he gave me the appointment as a cadet.

When, in 1845, I entered the House of Representatives, he was a Senator. I frequently visited him at his lodgings. His conversation was both instructive and peculiarly attractive. He and his colleague, the impulsive, brilliant orator, Mr. McDuffie, did not fully concur on the great question of the [275] day — notice to Great Britain to terminate the joint occupancy of Oregon-and their comparison of views, which, on one occasion I was permitted to hear, was deeply interesting.

It will be remembered that Mr. Calhoun was induced to leave the repose his impaired health required, and return to the Senate, because of the threatened danger of war with Great Britain. War was to him an evil which only the defence of the honor and rights of his country would justify. That made him the advocate of the War of 1812, but in 1845 he saw no such justification, and was therefore in favor of negotiation, by which it was believed the evils of war could be avoided without sacrifice of the honor or rights of our country.

As a Senator he was a model of courtesy; he listened attentively to each one who spoke, neither reading nor writing when in his seat, and, while his health permitted, was punctual and constant in attendance. He conducted his correspondence by rising at dawn and writing his letters before breakfast. Had he been the Senator of a new State, this would hardly have been possible.

Issues growing out of the disposal of the public lands within the States occupied much of the time of Congress, and for this and more [276] important reasons he proposed, for certain considerations, to surrender the public lands to the new States in which they lay. This was but another exhibition of his far-reaching wisdom and patriotism, as shown by his argument for the measure. Always earnest, often intense in debate, he never practised ad captandum devices, seldom sought the aid of illustration, simile, or quotation, but concisely and in logical sequence stated his views like one demonstrating a problem, the truth of which was so clear to his mind that he could not doubt its acceptance by all who listened to the proof. Perhaps he was too little of a party man to believe, as the English parliamentarian said, that he had known opinions, but had not known votes to be changed by a speech.

Wide as was his knowledge, great as was his wisdom, reaching toward prophetic limit, his opinions were but little derived from books or conversation. Data he gathered on every hand, but his ideas were the elaboration of his brain, were as much his own as is honey, not of the leaf, but of the bag of the bee.

Mr. Cass, who was a very large, fleshy person, always warm, and obliged to use a fan, which was the largest palm-leaf that I ever saw, fanned himself industriously until some [277] one either attacked his resolutions or his political record; then, in clear, statesmanlike logic, very devoid of ornamentation or rhetoric, he said what he thought; but, if one after another sprung into the debate, the contention somewhat confused him and he was not at his best. No one wrote better than Mr. Cass.

He was one of the kindest-hearted men in the world, and if he had to say no to any one, could not do it in person, but dismissed the applicant, who, friendly but uncertain, waited, quite buoyed up by hope, to receive in a few hours a courteous though decided refusal. Mr. Cass was testy sometimes, but it was the testiness of an overworked man, not an ill-natured one. Nothing annoyed him like being called a “Michigander;” he said the name was suggestive.

Mr. Webster sat to the right of Mr. Cass, and no words can describe the first impression he made upon me. I had heard of him, and spent long hours in reading aloud his speeches in the National Intelligencer when a mere child, and to see him was like looking at Jungfrau, or any other splendid natural phenomenon. There was no doubt as to where he sat, for the conviction of his identity was forced upon one when he turned his massive, overhanging forehead, with those great [278] speculative, observant eyes full of lambent fire. He was as careful as a woman about the delicate neatness of his attire. He generally wore a dress coat, well adjusted and of the finest material, spotless linen, and silk stockings with slippers, which in those days were called “pumps,” tied in a bow on the instep of his shapely feet.

He, like Mr. Calhoun, always listened most attentively to any Senator who was speaking; but Mr. Webster, except when Mr. Calhoun or some other intellectual giant had the floor, had the air of protecting indulgence that a superior being might wear to an inferior. He was rarely offensive, but sometimes showed a dignified indulgence to weakness that was hard to hear. He never was voluble. A strong instance of the brevity of his wit was given once, when it had been expected that Mr. Webster would be nominated for the Presidency, but Messrs. Bell and Everett were chosen for the ticket. After the nomination was made, some people went up to Mr. Webster's house to serenade him. He was irritated and disappointed, and had just composed himself to sleep when the Marine Band blared out “Hail to the chief.” He did not appear for some time, and when the cries of “Webster! Webster!” became tumultuous, he put his head out of the window and said: “My [279] friends, the sun rules the day, and mankind watches his coming and going; but where, can you tell me where, the stars go in the morning?-they are seen no more. Goodnight.” So he shut the window and retired.

Mr. Benton used to get very tired of the long speeches in the Senate, for he, too, listened attentively. One day a certain Senator, who spoke on all occasions, and for hours at a time, had consumed the day and worn out every one. As the dusk lowered upon the hall Mr. Benton arose, and in his deep voice moved an adjournment. “For,” said he, in his grand manner, “we are worse than the villiens, sir, worse than the villiens; they had their allotted time for work, but we are kept here, sir, until the stars shine out.” But there was an hour in the day that came to be recognized as one that Mr. Benton would have. About midday, or perhaps three o'clock, he always rose and left the chamber to take his paralyzed wife out for an airing. Generally he brought her, with infinite tenderness, to the Capitol grounds, seated her on a bench in a pleasant shade, and no young lover could try more sedulously than he to amuse and comfort her. She seemed to be most happy when with him, and it was a familiar sight to see him picking lowers for her as they first peeped up in the early Spring. He introduced [280] me to a lady once “Mrs. C., a friend of my wife's, madam; need I say more?”

I met him at an unusual hour one day going toward the Senate, and said, “You are unusually late, are you not?” “Yes,” said he, “my wife would not let me go until I took her to Jessie Anne's (Mrs. Fremont). Jessie Anne is a charming woman, and my wife is a judge of women, madam — a judge of women.” He had a habit of accentuating his opinions or remarks by repetition. He was one of the very few great men who did not lose something by close proximity; he certainly was a power among men.

Not far from Mr. Benton sat Dixon H. Lewis, of Alabama, one of the brightest men of his day, and intellectually and untiringly active; but he weighed, before he had attained his greatest size, five hundred pounds, and must have weighed more when I first saw him. A chair was made for him, because he could not use those of ordinary size. He always commanded the confidence of his party and State, and the attention of the Senate.

Then there was John Bell, of Tennessee, and honest John Davis, of Massachusetts-kindly dignified gentlemen; James M. Mason and R. M. T. Hunter, of Virginia; splendid old Colonel Butler, of South Carolina, whose [281] head was as white as cotton, though his eyes were bright, his eyebrows black and strongly marked, and his brave spirit was as young as the youngest of the Senators; David Atchison, a solemn, literal, tender man of a tall ungainly figure. He was the friend of Mr. Davis's boyhood; King, of Alabama, a man as elegant as he was sound and sincere; General Dodge, under whom Mr. Davis had served in the West; he was straight, active, prompt, and had a certain wariness of manner which suggested an Indian hunter, which he had been for the best part of his life; and General Augustus Dodge his son; Mr. Pearce, of Maryland, a refined scholarly man, to whom the institutions for promoting science in America owed very much, and who to his friends and faith was true in every regard; Mr. Simon Cameron, cheerful and wily; gentle, sensible Mr. Bradbury, of Maine; Colonel Dix, of New York, another one of Mr. Davis's old friends, who looked very reserved and soldierly among the political men about him; Reverdy Johnson, of Maryland, a witty, graceful man, eloquent and sympathetic in the extreme-his appearance was somewhat marred by one eye having been injured in a duel — he was universally beloved by the gentlemen of the Senate; with these were many others of renown. One tall [282] form “when seen became a part of sight” that of Sam Houston. He was considerably over the ordinary height--six feet four at least. He had a noble figure and handsome face, but he had forgotten Polonius's advice, “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, but not express'd in fancy.” He rejoiced in a catamount skin waistcoat; it was very long-waisted, and his coat was left ostentatiously open to show it. Another waistcoat, which he alternated with the catamount, was of a glowing scarlet cloth. His manner was very swelling and formal. When he met a lady he took a step forward, then bowed very low, and in a deep voice said, “Lady, I salute you.”

It was an embarrassing kind of thing, for it was performed with the several motions of a fencing lesson. If she chanced to please him, at the same or the next interview he generally took a small snakeskin pouch from his pocket and pulled out from it a little wooden heart, the size of a twenty-five cent piece, and presented it with, “Lady, let me give you my heart.” These hearts he whittled all day long in the Senate, and had a jeweller to put a little ring in them. There was a certain free, stolid manner that suggested his long residence with the Indians. A favorite story of his was that he met Mr. [283] Davis at a sutler's store in the West, and introduced himself to him. After talking a little while with him, General Houston said, “The future United States Senator salutes the future President.” My husband remembered something of the kind, but not clearly enough to state it.

As will be seen, the Senate was made up of more than ordinarily respectable men, and a more imposing deliberative body one could hardly find. It was a severe ordeal for a young man to pass when he engaged one of these dignified old men in a debate, who, to great acquirementts, added stores of memories, and who often explained crises in the political world from the stand-point of the responsible agents.

It was the 21st of February, in this year, that ex-President John Quincy Adams sank in his seat on the floor of the House. As he was borne to the Vice-President's room he murmured, “This is the last of earth — I am composed.” He died, after lying insensible for two days. Alert, determined, useful, and eloquent to the last hour of his service in the House, he was mourned by all who knew him.

Mr. Davis left Washington without unnecessary delay and travelled post homeward. [284] Our return was over the same perilous way, called then “The national route,” over which we had climbed so painfully the cold December of 1845; but now the whole mountain sides were rosy with the blossoms of the laurel, and nothing could have been more attractive than the scenery.

One day we heard a rumbling noise in front of us, and in a few minutes caught up with Duncan's battery going down to Mexico. Mr. Davis got out of the stage, and had a few moments' eager conversation with the fair-haired stripling who sat on the caisson, and then came back alert and flushed by the anticipation of his prospective campaign, which seemed even to me to take shape, and become real after I saw the first harbinger of war. During the greater part of the journey Mr. Davis studied a little pocket edition of military tactics, and, when I remonstrated, explained agreeably the mysteries of enfilading, breaking column, hollow squares, and what not, and I felt that there was “blood upon that hand.” When we reached home, Colonel Davis set about arranging his plantation affairs so as to be absent a year or more from home. He and James Pemberton had a long and anxious conversation upon the advisability of James accompanying him; and James decided the matter himself, as he became [285] satisfied, after counting over all the arguments, pro and con, that I should need his protection and the interest of the place might suffer in his absence. So my brother-in-law offered one of his negroes, named Jim Green, as a servant, and with an Arabian horse named Tartar, for himself, and a stout serviceable one for Jim, my husband left home to join his regiment in New Orleans. As there are plenty of unsophisticated country brides nowadays, it is needless to say what the parting cost us, and how sad it was.

No material could have been more favorable for the hot work they had to do than that of the First Mississippi Regiment. It was composed of the young men of the State whose names were well known by the reputations their fathers had achieved. The privates, most of them, took their servants to do the drudgery of the camp. They were enlisted for a year., the longest period then asked. My brother, Joseph Davis Howell, was a private in the regiment, and great was our terror lest his six feet seven inches would make him a mark for the enemy. Robert Davis, a nephew, was also a private. Colonel Davis joined the First Mississippi Regiment on the 21st of July, 1846, when they were in camp below New Orleans, whither they had proceeded before his arrival in Mississippi. [286]

On the 26th of July, they sailed on the steamship Alabama, and, after a favorable voyage, landed at Brazos, St. Iago, within seven miles of Point Isabel, where they encamped and remained until the 2d of August.

It was a sandy neck of land, covered with mounds blown up by the northers that swept the country with great force. All the water the regiment used was obtained by digging holes in the sides of these mounds, from which it trickled, but it was somewhat brackish, and the heat was intense. The men had been unaccustomed to hardship, and so much illness resulted from the exposure that by August 9th they had lost by discharge and illness forty men. As soon as the regiment landed, however, Colonel Davis began a rigid course of discipline, and the officers' “awkward-squad” drill was as sternly insisted upon as that of the soldiers.

While they were there, sometimes every tent in camp was prostrated by the norther, and during its prevalence great confusion reigned in camp, as in their exposed position the sharp dry sand blew into the men's eyes, and the keen cold wind pierced them. My husband never could control his risibles when he told of a certain civilian colonel who did not know how to pitch his tent. [287] After he retired a norther blew it and the rest of the regimental tents of his command down over their inmates. They were all greatly startled and rushed out in their night-clothes. The greatest confusion prevailed, and in the darkness no one missed the colonel, but presently he was descried creeping cautiously out from under the debris. When he gained his feet he began to prance up and down in front of the men, crying aloud, with chattering teeth, “My men, if you are afraid just look at me; see how cool I am;” and then he would strike his breast and repeat, “only see how c-o-o-l I am.” But the shock was so great to him that it was some time before he could recognize his officers.

After three weary weeks of drilling, with discomforts of all kinds to men and officers, under a burning sun, the regiment took up its line of march and reached the mouth of the Rio Grande, August 2th, about nine miles distant from the Brazos. There they again encamped, awaiting means of transportation to Camargo, where they were to join General Zachary Taylor, and proceed immediately to Monterey. My brother, Joseph Davis Howell, wrote from this place: “I think, if there is anything to be done at all, that our regiment will have the opportunity of being called into service, for we are said to [288] be the most orderly, quiet, and best-drilled regiment that has come here.”

At the mouth of the Rio Grande they took the steamer for Camargo.

An anecdote was told me by one of the Mississippi Regiment of an incident that happened here, by which it would seem in that day the rights of property in a hostile country were rigidly guarded.

The men had been living on salt meat and bread, and were hungry for vegetables of any kind. About a quarter of a mile from the camp of the First Mississippi was a field of very fine corn, just in the “roasting-ear stage.” One man espied it, and “the whole regiment settled on it like a drove of mules and did not leave an ear. I saw the Colonel coming and hid mine under a bush; but he was in such a tearing rage and asked me where the rest were that I pointed over the fence and made tracks for camp. That night he made us a speech, and told us that private rights must and should be respected. So he found out the owner of the corn and paid for the crop.”

I may say here, without fear of inaccuracy, that the First Mississippi Regiment, from the Colonel down to the last private, returned home without one article belonging to a citizen of Mexico. The sacred silver and gold vessels and the Church vestments studded [289] over with precious stones, were in an open room at Monterey and also at Saltillo. The image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a large doll dressed in satin, was admired and examined, but left untouched, though the frock in which she was arrayed was worked in arabesques adorned with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds of great price, and she wore a necklace of immense pearls which were of several colors. Colonel Davis saw one of the soldiers in friendly conversation with an old priest, holding admiringly a gold reliquary, the top of which was rayed with diamonds, several hundred, he thought, altogether. The Mexicans felt and had perfect security for their property. War has made great innovations upon the precepts of the Decalogue since then.

Mr. Davis thus described the condition of General Taylor and his army at this time:

The Mexicans evacuated Matamoras, and General Taylor took peaceable possession, May 18th. Though responsibility for the war might still be debated, the fact of its existence could not be disputed, and as the Rio Grande, except at time of flood, offered little obstacle to predatory incursions, it was obviously sound policy to press the enemy back upon the border. General Taylor moved forward to Camargo, on the San Juan, a tributary of the [290] Rio Grande. This last-named river rose so as to enable steam-boats to transport troops and supplies, so that by September a sufficiently large force of volunteers had reported at General Taylor's Headquarters to justify a farther march into the interior; but the move must be by land, and for that there was far from adequate transportation.

Upon reaching General Taylor's headquarters Colonel Davis found a hearty welcome, and informed General Taylor of the agreement to which the President had kindly consented, that Colonel Davis should stay with General Taylor and not be subject to orders from any other head of a corps d'armee. Whether the brave old General had become too famous, or that an action was not expected to occur in that wing of the army, no one knew; but General Scott was daily diminishing General Taylor's force by taking every effective regiment he could get to make an attack upon the City of Mexico. General Wool, at a dinner at our house years afterward, spoke of it as “when General Scott drew all our teeth and left us to meet the Mexicans.” As soon as the proper disposition of troops could be made, General Taylor hired “Mexican packers” to supplement the little transportation on hand. He was able to add one division of volunteers to [291] the regulars of his command, and with a force of 6,625 men, of all arms, he marched against Monterey, a fortified town of great natural strength and garrisoned by 10,000 men under General Ampudia.

Soon after his arrival Ampudia, the Mexican general at Matamoras, made a threatening demand that General Taylor should withdraw his troops beyond Mexico, to which he replied that his position had been taken by order of his Government and would be maintained.

On September 19th he encamped before the town, and on the 21st commenced the attack. On the fifth day General Ampudia proposed to surrender. Commissioners were appointed, and terms of capitulation agreed upon by which the enemy were to retire beyond a specified line, and the United States forces were not to advance beyond that line during the next eight weeks, or until the pleasure of the respective Governments should be known. By some strange misconception the United States Government disapproved of the arrangements, and ordered that the armistice should be terminated, by which we lost whatever had been gained in the interests of peace by the generous terms of the capitulation, and got nothing; for, during the short time which remained unexpired, no provision [292] had been, or could be made, to enable General Taylor to advance into the heart of Mexico. Presuming that such must be the purpose of the Government, he assiduously strove to collect the means needful for that object. When his preparations were well-nigh perfected General Scott was sent to Mexico with orders which enabled him at discretion to strip General Taylor of both troops and material of war.

Secretary Marcy and General Taylor had a sharp controversy, conducted by a series of letters, about the capitulation, and General Taylor, much to the astonishment of the public, had decidedly the advantage of Governor Marcy, who was a master of fence. Mr. Davis was at the camp-fire when General Taylor wrote it, and said:

General Taylor's reply to Secretary Marcy's strictures, in regard to the capitulation of Monterey, exhibited such vigor of thought and grace of expression that many attributed it to a member of his staff who had a literary reputation, but it was written by his own hand, in the open air, by his campfire at Victoria.

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