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Chapter 11: the Rotunda.

Scene-Rotunda, New Orleans; marble floor, and open galleries, supported by fluted shafts. Time-Wednesday, January 13, 1875, eight o'clock in the evening. Persons present-General Sheridan, with his staff, Lieutenant-governor Penn, Senators, Members of Congress, foreign consuls, sea captains, newspaper scouts, orderlies, messengers, telegraph clerks, and other crowds, including two English travellers. Temperature-boiling point of mercury.

“ Look out for squalls,” drops a well-known voice, as we emerge from the dining-hall into the Rotunda. “ The affair is on, and must be settled .either yea or nay. If Grant backs down, there will be peace; if not, there will be war. Look out! Before you go to bed, the world will know the worst.”

The central hall of our hotel is a grand apartment — the Rotunda of an edifice which in Italy [113] would be called a palace; a news-room, lounge, divan, and stock exchange; a place where merchants buy and sell, where gamblers square accounts, where duellists look for seconds, and where everyone devours the news. Here telegrams are received from every corner of the earth. Here journals are hawked and politics discussed. All strangers in the city lodge in the hotel, and citizens who want them have to seek them in this hall, the central point of New Orleans. Here idlers smoke, and chat, and see the lions. In the Rotunda you buy places for the carnival, numbers for the lottery, tickets for excursion trains. In one recess you find drink, in a second tobacco, for sale. Here you play billiards, there poker, everywhere the deuce. From seven o'clock to ten the hall is thronged by men of pleasure, politics, and business, and the corridors boom with voices, like the uproar of a stormy sea.

To-night the scene in our Rotunda is a sight. General Sheridan, dressed in plain clothes, is standing near a shaft, puffing his cigar, and chatting with his friends. Is it design or accident, his standing with his back against that shaft, so that his person is covered from assault except in front? About him [114] fret and seethe a crowd of citizens, many of them bearing proud, historic names. General Ogden is here, General Taylor is here, and General Penn is here. The lame man pushing through the crowd is General Badger, now recovering from his wounds. The gentlemen near Sheridan, also in plain clothes, are General Emory and Colonel Sheridan, a younger brother of the chief. Banditti! How the Southern fire darts out, the Southern pride expands, as Senator and General cross the hall, restrained alike by courtesy and policy from rushing on the man who calls them outlaws and is only waiting for a word to string them up! With what a cold and haughty mien these magnates pass the shaft against which Sheridan leans!

“ Have you no fear of accidents?” I ask General Penn.

“Not much,” he answers; “we are fiercely tried, but we can bear the strain.”

“ Many of these gentlemen, I suppose, are armed, and some fanatic, vexed beyond endurance, may create a row.”

“ Such things may happen; but the League is under high control. No leaguer carries a weapon, [115] not even a pocket-knife, on his person. We are strong enough to do without knives and pistols. If a fight must come, we shall go into it like soldiers, not like Negroes and Kickapoos. But there will be no fight — the President is backing down.”

A buzz of conversation swells and murmurs to the dome, like flow and ebb of tides on shingle. Now it rises to a roar, through which a military band outside is hardly heard; anon it sinks into such silence that the click-click of the telegraph needle strikes on the ear with pain. A crash of kettle-drums rolls up. All eyes appear to seek the clock, as though the dial were a living face on which a man might read the secrets of President Grant's Cabinet. All ears are strained towards the telegraph clerk, as though his needles were living spirits, from which men could force the secrets of the Capitol. Messages come in as fast as clerks can read them, so that we in the Rotunda learn what is being said and done in our behalf, not only in Charleston and Richmond, but in New York and St. Louis, as soon as these things are known in Broadway. Wires connect us with the Capitol, and we [116] are told of what occurs before it is known in Pennsylvania-avenue.

The President, we learn, is much perplexed and changes his decision every hour. Yesterday he was rock; this morning he is spray. A passionate and obstinate man, he wants to rule his country as he ruled his camp, and is amazed to find his countrymen object to military rule.

Never has President seen a rising like that of the northern and western cities on receipt of news from New Orleans. Boston and New York are up in arms; Chicago and Philadelphia are up in arms; St. Louis and Cincinnati are up in arms. Caesarism is answered by a White Revival. Eloquent words are ringing through the air; Republicans joining voices with Democrats in denouncing the policy of President Grant. The venerable Bryant leads the way in New York; the liberal Adams is the spokesman of Massachusetts. Evarts lends his name to what is little less than an impeachment of the President and his Cabinet. “ These practices,” cries Bryant, “ must be denounced, must be stopped, must be broken up for ever!” “What right,” asks Adams, “have soldiers of the United States to determine who [117] shall sit in the Legislature of a State?” Evarts brings the matter home: “ Here we have a national gensdarmerie instead of a civil police! The Legislature of Louisiana is as much a part of our Government as the Legislature of New York.” Men who have never before this moment mixed in politics, leave their books and join these enemies of President Grant. “Here is an act done in a time of peace,” says Curtis, “so dangerous to all civil freedom, so bold and reckless a violation of law, that men who have condoned everything else are compelled to speak out.” Kellogg and Packard, Antoine. and Pinchback, are forgotten in the fury now being vented on the great criminal at the White House. Impeachment is demanded in a thousand voices. Resignation is suggested, and in fact announced. The country seems aflame, the whole White family rallying to the defence of outraged law.

Yesterday the President seemed resolved to back his lieutenant. He was asked by the Senate to state what is passing in New Orleans, and how he means to deal with matters; for the reports of Foster, Phelps, and Potter to Congress, clearing the [118] White citizens of New Orleans, and charging disorder in the South on the military party, have created a profound excitement. When such party men as Foster and Phelps can find no word to say for their political friends, the cause is lost; yet President Grant was minded to go on, assume the burthen of events, and leave Sheridan free to take his course. He framed a Message to Congress in this sense.

But beyond the War Office, where his adjutants fumed and smoked, he found few backers. Senators of his own opinions and of great experience in affairs, came to his private cabinet and told him he was wrecking his party, if not ruining his country. The Republicans have lost so much, they are afraid of risking more. By secrecy and silence on the Caesarian question of a third term, the President lost them many thousands of supporters in the North, and now, by his unhappy interference with the Legislature of New Orleans, the South is gone. The Senators fear to face new trials. Are they to go further in a course for which Radicals like Foster and Phelps cannot say a word?

High office has no effect in softening censure [119] of the President's course. General Sherman takes no pains to hide his views. Vice-President Wilson opposes his official superior, and some of the leading journals are demanding that Grant shall retire from the White House, leaving his powers in Wilson's hands. More than all else, Hamilton Fish declares that if the President sustains Sheridan and justifies Durell and Packard, he will resign his post as Secretary of State. This menace tells. Fish is not only the ablest man in Grant's Cabinet, but one of the ablest men in America. Bristow, Secretary of the Treasury, takes the same line as Fish. Without these gentlemen, the President's Cabinet could not stand a week; and if his Cabinet falls, who knows what else may fall?

The Governors of powerful States are talking in an ominous way. “A State has disappeared,” says Governor Alien to the people of Ohio; “a sovereign State of this Union has no existence this night.” A sovereign State! The President thinks he put an end to all that babble about sovereign States on the battle field, and here, in one of the rich and populous northern cities, the Governor of a great State is talking of Louisiana as a “sovereign [120] member of the Union.” Governor Tilden, of New York, is still more menacing and emphatic: “For similar acts our English ancestors sent the first Charles to the scaffold and expelled the second James from the throne.”

Louisiana is not more conscious than Ohio and New York that the day is big with fate. The policy of ruling by the sword has reached a turning-point. To-night will see this policy either make a step or fall back many steps. If Caesar rises, the Republic sinks.

On what a thread the issue seems to hang! While President Grant is pondering pros and cons, a pistol-shot, fired by a fool, may start a civil war. Sheridan is prepared to act, and the devastator of the Shenandoah would sweep the quays of New Orleans as thoroughly as he swept the granaries of Blue Ridge. If blood begins to flow, the President will support his officers; but who can say how many States will rally to the Government? It is not easy to assert. Since the fall elections many things are changed. The White Revival has set in, the centre of political gravity has been moved. A strong majority of Democrats will sit in the new Chamber. [121] If blood is shed, who knows what shape the White Revival may assume? Is it likely that men who voted with the South seven weeks ago will arm to crush her seven weeks hence?

Some ladies peer down wistfully from the gallery into the sea of dark and bearded faces which are constantly raised to the clock. One lady is that damsel who has come to the Rotunda on her pleasure trip. Poor girl! She sees these scowling brows and haughty gestures. She has reason to suppose that every man is armed. She knows that all these people hate her lover with a fury not to be appeased by blood. Who can assure her that the evening will not close in massacre?

A cry is raised at the operator's desk. News-news — from Washington!

“Read, read!” scream a hundred voices. One of the clerks jumps on a bench, the printed telegraph slip in his hand, and waving it before his audience, cries out lustily: “ Gentlemen, the President backs down!”

“ Backs down?” each wild and pallid auditor asks his neighbour; “Yes, backs down!”

At once the strained and tragic situation softens; [122] lips relax, eyes lighten into humour, and everyone begins to chatter and shake hands. Some slip away to spread the news elsewhere. The knots and groups break up, and many seek for details in the messages which still keep pouring in.

“Play over,” says the well-known voice; “ Durell repudiated, Belknap discredited, Sheridan excused. The President abandons all responsibility. Sheridan is not sustained, and his recommendations are described as unlawful. Yes, the play is over. Sheridan will now have time for his pleasure trip, and he may then go home to his wedding-cake. Third term? The third term is dead. Exit Caesar!”

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Philip Sheridan (10)
Grant (8)
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Stephen B. Packard (2)
Evarts (2)
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Taylor (1)
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Potter (1)
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Emory (1)
Curtis (1)
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W. W. Belknap (1)
Badger (1)
Caesar C. Antoine (1)
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