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Chapter 8:

Author proceeds to Montgomery, and reports to the New Government, and is dispatched northward, on a special mission.

on the evening of the 16th of February, the day after I had resigned my commission, I took a sorrowful leave of my family, and departed for Montgomery, by the way of Fredericksburg and Richmond. Virginia and North Carolina had not yet seceded, and anxious debates were going on, on the all-absorbing question, in each town and village in these two States, through which I passed. It was easy to see, that the great majority of the people were with the extreme South, in this her hour of need, but there were some time-servers and trimmers, who still talked of conciliation, and of guarantees. They inquired eagerly after news from Washington, at all the stations at which the train stopped, and seemed disappointed when they found we had nothing more to tell them, than they had already learned through the telegraph.

On the evening of the 18th, I entered the level tract of pine lands between West Point, and Montgomery. The air had become soft, and balmy, though I had left a region of frosts, and snow, only two days before. The pine woods were on fire as we passed through them, the flames now and then running up a lightwood tree, and throwing a weird and fitful glare upon the passing train. The scene was peculiarly Southern, and reminded me that I was drawing near my home, and my people, and I mechanically repeated to myself the words of the poet:

Breathes there a man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!

And my heart, which up to that moment, had felt as though a heavy weight were pressing upon it, began to give more [82] vigorous beats, and send a more inspiring current through my veins. Under this happy influence I sank, as the night advanced, and the train thundered on, into the first sound sleep which had visited my weary eyelids, since I had resigned my commission, and read at the foot of the letter accepting my resignation, my name inscribed as plain ‘Esq.’ This night-ride, through the burning pine woods of Alabama, afterward stood as a great gulf in my memory, forming an impassable barrier, as it were, between my past, and my future life. It had cost me pain to cross the gulf, but once crossed, I never turned to look back. When I washed and dressed for breakfast, in Montgomery, the next morning, I had put off the old man, and put on the new. The labors, and associations of a lifetime had been inscribed in a volume, which had been closed, and a new book, whose pages were as yet all blank, had been opened.

My first duty was to put myself in communication with Mr. Conrad, the chairman of the Committee of Naval Affairs. Several naval officers had preceded me to the seat of the new government, and others were arriving. It was agreed that there should be a special meeting on the next day, in joint session, of the two committees—on military and naval affairs.

The Confederate Congress was in session in the State Capitol, and about noon, I repaired thither to witness the spectacle. They did me the honor to admit me to the floor, and upon casting my eyes over the august assembly, I recognized a number of familiar faces. General Howell Cobb of Georgia was the President; Toombs, Crawford, and other distinguished men were there from the same State. Curry, McRae, Robert H. Smith and other able men were there from Alabama. In short the Congress was full of the best talent of the South. It was by far the best Congress that ever assembled under the new government. It was a convention as well as a Congress, since it was charged with the establishment of a Provisional Government. Every one realized the greatness of the crisis that was upon us, and hence the very best men in the community had been selected to meet the emergency. The harmony of the body was equal to its ability, for, in the course of a few weeks, it had put the complicated machinery of a government in motion, and was already taking active measures for defence, [83] in case the Federal power should decide upon making war upon us.

Mr. Davis, the Provisional President, had preceded me to the capital, only a few days, and my next step was to call upon him. I had known him in the city of Washington. He received me kindly, and almost the first question which he asked me, was whether I had disembarrassed myself of my Federal commission. I replied to him that I had done so, as a matter of course, before leaving Washington, and that my allegiance henceforth belonged to the new government, and to the Southern people. He seemed gratified at this declaration, and entered into a free, and frank conversation with me, on the subject of the want of preparation for defence, in which he found our States, and the great labor that lay before us, to prepare for emergencies. Congress, he said, has not yet had time to organize a navy, but he designed to make immediate use of me, if I had no objection. I told him that my services were at his command, in any capacity he thought fit to employ them. He then explained to me his plan of sending me back to the city of Washington, and thence into the Northern States, to gather together, with as much haste as possible, such persons, and materials of war as might be of most pressing necessity.

The persons alluded to, were to be mechanics skilled in the manufacture, and use of ordnance, and rifle machinery, the preparation of fixed ammunition, percussion caps, &c. So exclusively had the manufacture of all these articles for the use of the United States, been confined to the North, under ‘the best government the world ever saw,’ that we had not even percussion caps enough to enable us to fight a battle, or the machines with which to make them, although we had captured all the forts, and arsenals within our limits, except Fort Sumter and Fort McRae. The President was as calm and unmoved as I had ever seen him, and was living in a very simple, and unpretending style at the Exchange Hotel. He had not yet selected all his Cabinet; nor indeed had he so much as a private secretary at his command, as the letter of instructions which he afterward presented me, for my guidance, was written with his own hand. This letter was very full, and precise, frequently descending into detail, and manifesting an [84] acquaintance with bureau duties, scarcely to have been expected from one who had occupied his exalted positions.

On the next day, I attended the joint-session of the two committees above named. These committees were composed, as was to have been expected, of some of the best men of the Congress. Conrad, Crawford, Curry, and the brilliant young Bartow of Georgia were present, among others whose names I do not now recall. But few naval officers of any rank had as yet withdrawn from the old service; Rousseau, Tattnall, Ingraham, and Randolph were all the captains; and Farrand, Brent, Semmes, and Hartstone were all the commanders. Of these there were present before the committees, besides myself, Rousseau, Ingraham, and Randolph; Major Wm. H. Chase, late of the engineers of the Federal Army, was also present. Randolph commanded the Navy Yard at Pensacola, and Chase the military defences. We discussed the military and naval resources of the country, and devised such means of defence as were within our reach—which were not many—to enable us to meet the most pressing exigences of our situation, and separated after a session of several hours. I can do no more, of course, than briefly glance at these things, as I am not writing, as before remarked, the history of the war.

The next morning I called again on the President, received my instructions, and departed Northward on the mission which had been assigned me. I will be brief in the description of this mission also. I stopped a day at Richmond, and examined the State Arsenal, in charge of Capt. Dimmock, and the Tredegar Iron Works; having been especially enjoined to report upon the present, and future capacity of these works for the casting of cannon, shot, shells, &c. The establishment had already turned its attention in this direction, and I was gratified to find that it was capable of almost indefinite enlargement, and that it could be made a most valuable auxiliary to us. The reader will see how confidently we already reckoned upon the support of Virginia.

Reaching Washington again, I visited the Arsenal, and inspected such of its machinery as I thought worth my notice, particularly an improved percussion-cap machine which I found in operation. I also held conferences with some [85] mechanics, whom I desired to induce to go South. Whilst I was in Washington Mr. Abraham Lincoln, the newly elected President of the United States, arrived, for the purpose of being inaugurated. Being purely a sectional President, and feeling probably that he had no just right to rule over the South, he had come into the city by night, and in disguise, afraid to trust himself among a people of whom he claimed to be Chief Magistrate. Poor old General Winfield Scott was then verging toward senility, and second childhood, and had contributed no little, perhaps, to Mr. Lincoln's alarm. He had been gathering together troops for some days, in the Federal capital, for the purpose of inaugurating, amid bayonets, a President of the United States. It had been the boast of the American people, heretofore, that their Presidents did not need guards, but trusted wholly for their security, to the love, and confidence of their constituents, but the reign of peace, and good will was at an end, and the reign of the bayonet was to ensue. The rumbling of artillery through the streets of Washington, and the ring of grounded arms on the pavements, had sounded the death-knell of liberty in these States for generations. Swarms of visitors from far and near, in the North and West, had flocked to Washington, to see their President inaugurated, and were proud of this spectacle of arms; too stupid to see its fearful significance.

The auspicious day, the 4th of March, at length arrived, and whilst the glorious pageant is being prepared; whilst the windows and the house-tops along Pennsylvania Avenue are being thronged with a motley population of men and women, come to see the show; whilst the President elect, in a hollow square of bayonets, is marching toward the Capitol, the writer of these pages, having again taken leave of his family, was hurrying away from the desecration of a capital, which had been ceded by a too credulous Maryland, and Virginia, and which had been laid out by Washington. As I left the Baltimore depot, extra trains were still pouring their thousands into the streets of Washington. I arrived in New York, the next day, and during the next three weeks, visited the West Point Academy, whither I went to see a son, who was a cadet at the Institution, and who afterward became a major of light [86] artillery, in the Confederate service; and made a tour through the principal work-shops of New York, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

I found the people everywhere, not only willing, but anxious to contract with me. I purchased large quantities of percussion caps in the city of New York, and sent them by express without any disguise, to Montgomery. I made contracts for batteries of light artillery, powder, and other munitions, and succeeded in getting large quantities of the powder shipped. It was agreed between the contractors and myself, that when I should have occasion to use the telegraph, certain other words were to be substituted, for those of military import, to avoid suspicion.

I made a contract, conditioned upon the approval of my Government, for the removal to the Southern States, of a complete set of machinery for rifling cannon, with the requisite skilled workmen to put it in operation. Some of these men, who would thus have sold body, and soul to me, for a sufficient consideration, occupied high social positions, and were men of wealth. I dined with them, at their comfortable residences near their factories, where the music of boring out cannon, accompanied the clatter of the dishes, and the popping of champagne-corks; and I had more than one business interview with gentlemen, who occupied the most costly suites of apartments at the Astor House in New York City. Many of these gentlemen, being unable to carry out their contracts with the Confederate States because of the prompt breaking out of the war, afterward obtained lucrative contracts from the Federal Government, and became, in consequence, intensely loyal. It would be a quasi breach of honor to disclose their names, as they dealt with me, pretty much as conspirators against their government are wont to deal with the enemies of their government, secretly, and with an implied confidence that I would keep their secret. It is accordingly safe.

In the mean time, the great revolution was progressing. Abraham Lincoln had delivered his inaugural address, with triple rows of bayonets between him, and the people to whom he was speaking; in which address he had puzzled his hearers, and was no doubt puzzled himself, as to what he really meant, [87] He was like President Buchanan; now he saw it, and now he didn't. He would not coerce the States, but he would hold on to the ceded places within their limits, and collect the public revenue. Texas, and Arkansas went out whilst I was in New York. The bulletin-boards at the different newspaper offices were daily thronged by an unwashed multitude, in search of some new excitement. The Northern public was evidently puzzled. It had at first rather treated secession as a joke. They did not think it possible that the Southern people could be in earnest, in dissolving their connection with a people, so emniently proper as themselves; but they now began to waver in this opinion. Still they forbore any decided demonstration. Like sensible men they preferred waiting until they could see how large a bull they were required to take by the horns.

Toward the latter part of my stay in New York I received the following letter from the Hon. Stephen R. Mallory, who had been appointed Secretary of the Navy, which branch of the public service had been organized since I had left Montgomery:

Sir:—With the sanction of the President, I am constrained to impose upon you duties connected with this Department, in addition to the important trusts with which you are charged; but I do so, upon the express understanding, that they are not to interfere with the performance of your special duties. I have received reliable information, that two, or more steamers, of a class desired for immediate service, may be purchased at, or near New York; steamers of speed, light draught, and strength sufficient for at least one heavy gun. When I say to you, that they are designed to navigate the waters, and enter the bays, and inlets of the coast, from Charleston to the St. Mary's, and from Key West, to the Rio Grande, for coast defence; that their speed should be sufficient to give them, at all times, the ability to engage, or evade an engagement; and that eight or ten-inch guns, with perhaps two thirtytwos, or if not, two of smaller calibre should constitute their battery, your judgment will need no further guide. Be pleased, should your other important engagements permit, to make inquiries, in such manner as may not excite special attention, and give me such details as to cost, character, &c., as you may deem important.


Under these instructions I made diligent search in the waters of New York, for such steamers as were wanted, but none could be found. The river, and Long Island Sound boats were mere shells, entirely unfit for the purposes of war, and it was difficult to find any of the sea-going steamers, which combined the requisite lightness of draught, with the other qualities desired.

March was now drawing to a close, the war-cloud was assuming darker, and more portentous hues, and it soon became evident that my usefulness in the North was about to end. Men were becoming more shy of making engagements with me, and the Federal Government was becoming more watchful. The New York, and Savannah steamers were still running, curiously enough carrying the Federal flag at the peak, and the Confederate flag at the fore; and in the last days of March, I embarked on board one of them, arriving in Montgomery on the 4th of April, just eight days before fire was opened upon Fort Sumter. During the short interval that elapsed between my arrival, and my going afloat, I was put in charge of the LightHouse Bureau; the Confederate Congress having, upon my recommendation, established a Bureau, with a single naval officer at its head, instead of the complicated machinery of a Board, which existed in the old Government. I had barely time to appoint the necessary clerks, and open a set of books, before Fort Sumter was fired upon, and the tocsin of war was sounded.

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