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Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Prose Works. 1892.

V. November Boughs

17. New Orleans in 1848

  • [From the New Orleans Picayune, Jan. 25, 1887.]
  • AMONG the letters brought this morning (Camden, New Jersey, Jan. 15, 1887,) by my faithful post-office carrier, J. G., is one as follows:

  • “NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 11, ’87.—We have been informed that when you were younger and less famous than now, you were in New Orleans and perhaps have helped on the Picayune. If you have any remembrance of the Picayune’s young days, or of journalism in New Orleans of that era, and would put it in writing (verse or prose) for the Picayune’s fiftieth year edition, Jan. 25, we shall be pleased,” etc.
  • In response to which: I went down to New Orleans early in 1848 to work on a daily newspaper, but it was not the Picayune, though I saw quite a good deal of the editors of that paper, and knew its personnel and ways. But let me indulge my pen in some gossipy recollections of that time and place, with extracts from my journal up the Mississippi and across the great lakes to the Hudson.

    Probably the influence most deeply pervading everything at that time through the United States, both in physical facts and in sentiment, was the Mexican War, then just ended. Following a brilliant campaign (in which our troops had march’d to the capital city, Mexico, and taken full possession,) we were returning after our victory. From the situation of the country, the city of New Orleans had been our channel and entrepot for everything, going and returning. It had the best news and war correspondents; it had the most to say, through its leading papers, the Picayune and Delta especially, and its voice was readiest listen’d to; from it “Chapparal” had gone out, and his army and battle letters were copied everywhere, not only in the United States, but in Europe. Then the social cast and results; no one who has never seen the society of a city under similar circumstances can understand what a strange vivacity and rattle were given throughout by such a situation. I remember the crowds of soldiers, the gay young officers, going or coming, the receipt of important news, the many discussions, the returning wounded, and so on.

    I remember very well seeing Gen. Taylor with his staff and other officers at the St. Charles Theatre one evening (after talking with them during the day.) There was a short play on the stage, but the principal performance was of Dr. Colyer’s troupe of “Model Artists,” then in the full tide of their popularity. They gave many fine groups and solo shows. The house was crowded with uniforms and shoulder-straps. Gen. T. himself, if I remember right, was almost the only officer in civilian clothes; he was a jovial, old, rather stout, plain man, with a wrinkled and dark-yellow face, and, in ways and manners, show’d the least of conventional ceremony or etiquette I ever saw; he laugh’d unrestrainedly at everything comical. (He had a great personal resemblance to Fenimore Cooper, the novelist, of New York.) I remember Gen. Pillow and quite a cluster of other militaires also present.

    One of my choice amusements during my stay in New Orleans was going down to the old French Market, especially of a Sunday morning. The show was a varied and curious one; among the rest, the Indian and negro hucksters with their wares. For there were always fine specimens of Indians, both men and women, young and old. I remember I nearly always on these occasions got a large cup of delicious coffee with a biscuit, for my breakfast, from the immense shining copper kettle of a great Creole mulatto woman (I believe she weigh’d 230 pounds.) I never have had such coffee since. About nice drinks, anyhow, my recollection of the “cobblers” (with strawberries and snow on top of the large tumblers,) and also the exquisite wines, and the perfect and mild French brandy, help the regretful reminiscence of my New Orleans experiences of those days. And what splendid and roomy and leisurely bar-rooms! particularly the grand ones of the St. Charles and St. Louis. Bargains, auctions, appointments, business conferences, &c., were generally held in the spaces or recesses of these bar-rooms.

    I used to wander a midday hour or two now and then for amusement on the crowded and bustling levees, on the banks of the river. The diagonally wedg’d-in boats, the stevedores, the piles of cotton and other merchandise, the carts, mules, negroes, etc., afforded never-ending studies and sights to me. I made acquaintances among the captains, boatmen, or other characters, and often had long talks with them—sometimes finding a real rough diamond among my chance encounters. Sundays I sometimes went forenoons to the old Catholic Cathedral in the French quarter. I used to walk a good deal in this arrondissement; and I have deeply regretted since that I did not cultivate, while I had such a good opportunity, the chance of better knowledge of French and Spanish Creole New Orleans people. (I have an idea that there is much and of importance about the Latin race contributions to American nationality in the South and Southwest that will never be put with sympathetic understanding and tact on record.)

    Let me say, for better detail, that through several months (1848) I work’d on a new daily paper, The Crescent; my situation rather a pleasant one. My young brother, Jeff, was with me; and he not only grew very homesick, but the climate of the place, and especially the water, seriously disagreed with him. From this and other reasons (although I was quite happily fix’d) I made no very long stay in the South. In due time we took passage northward for St. Louis in the “Pride of the West” steamer, which left her wharf just at dusk. My brother was unwell, and lay in his berth from the moment we left till the next morning; he seem’d to me to be in a fever, and I felt alarm’d. However, the next morning he was all right again, much to my relief.

    Our voyage up the Mississippi was after the same sort as the voyage, some months before, down it. The shores of this great river are very monotonous and dull—one continuous and rank flat, with the exception of a meagre stretch of bluff, about the neighborhood of Natchez, Memphis, etc. Fortunately we had good weather, and not a great crowd of passengers, though the berths were all full. The “Pride” jogg’d along pretty well, and put us into St. Louis about noon Saturday. After looking around a little I secured passage on the steamer “Prairie Bird,” (to leave late in the afternoon,) bound up the Illinois River to La Salle, where we were to take canal for Chicago. During the day I rambled with my brother over a large portion of the town, search’d after a refectory, and, after much trouble, succeeded in getting some dinner.

    Our “Prairie Bird” started out at dark, and a couple of hours after there was quite a rain and blow, which made them haul in along shore and tie fast. We made but thirty miles the whole night. The boat was excessively crowded with passengers, and had withal so much freight that we could hardly turn around. I slept on the floor, and the night was uncomfortable enough. The Illinois River is spotted with little villages with big names, Marseilles, Naples, etc.; its banks are low, and the vegetation excessively rank. Peoria, some distance up, is a pleasant town; I went over the place; the country back is all rich land, for sale cheap. Three or four miles from P., land of the first quality can be bought for 3 or 4 an acre. (I am transcribing from my notes written at the time.)

    Arriving at La Salle Tuesday morning, we went on board a canal-boat, had a detention by sticking on a mud bar, and then jogg’d along at a slow trot, some seventy of us, on a moderate-sized boat. (If the weather hadn’t been rather cool, particularly at night, it would have been insufferable.) Illinois is the most splendid agricultural country I ever saw; the land is of surpassing richness; the place par excellence for farmers. We stopt at various points along the canal, some of them pretty villages.

    It was 10 o’clock A. M. when we got in Chicago, too late for the steamer; so we went to an excellent public house, the “American Temperance,” and I spent the time that day and till next morning, looking around Chicago.

    At 9 the next forenoon we started on the “Griffith” (on board of which I am now inditing these memoranda,) up the blue waters of Lake Michigan. I was delighted with the appearance of the towns along Wisconsin. At Milwaukee I went on shore, and walk’d around the place. They say the country back is beautiful and rich. (It seems to me that if we should ever remove from Long Island, Wisconsin would be the proper place to come to.) The towns have a remarkable appearance of good living, without any penury or want. The country is so good naturally, and labor is in such demand.

    About 5 o’clock one afternoon I heard the cry of “a woman overboard.” It proved to be a crazy lady, who had become so from the loss of her son a couple of weeks before. The small boat off, and succeeded in picking her up, though she had been in the water 15 minutes. She was dead. Her husband was on board. They went off at the next stopping place. While she lay in the water she probably recover’d her reason, as she toss’d up her arms and lifted her face toward the boat.

    Sunday Morning, June 11.—We pass’d down Lake Huron yesterday and last night, and between 4 and 5 o’clock this morning we ran on the “flats,” and have been vainly trying, with the aid of a steam tug and a lumbering lighter, to get clear again. The day is beautiful and the water clear and calm. Night before last we stopt at Mackinaw, (the island and town,) and I went up on the old fort, one of the oldest stations in the Northwest. We expect to get to Buffalo by to-morrow. The tug has fasten’d lines to us, but some have been snapt and the others have no effect. We seem to be firmly imbedded in the sand. (With the exception of a larger boat and better accommodations, it amounts to about the same thing as a becalmment I underwent on the Montauk voyage, East Long Island, last summer.) Later.—We are off again—expect to reach Detroit before dinner.

    We did not stop at Detroit. We are now on Lake Erie, jogging along at a good round pace. A couple of hours since we were on the river above. Detroit seem’d to me a pretty place and thrifty. I especially liked the looks of the Canadian shore opposite and of the little village of Windsor, and, indeed, all along the banks of the river. From the shrubbery and the neat appearance of some of the cottages, I think it must have been settled by the French. While I now write we can see a little distance ahead the scene of the battle between Perry’s fleet and the British during the last war with England. The lake looks to me a fine sheet of water. We are having a beautiful day.

    June 12.—We stopt last evening at Cleveland, and though it was dark, I took the opportunity of rambling about the place; went up in the heart of the city and back to what appear’d to be the court-house. The streets are unusually wide, and the buildings appear to be substantial and comfortable. We went down through Main Street and found, some distance along, several squares of ground very prettily planted with trees and looking attractive enough. Return’d to the boat by way of the lighthouse on the hill.

    This morning we are making for Buffalo, being, I imagine, a little more than half across Lake Erie. The water is rougher than on Michigan or Huron. (On St. Clair it was smooth as glass.) The day is bright and dry, with a stiff head wind.

    We arriv’d in Buffalo on Monday evening; spent that night and a portion of next day going round the city exploring. Then got in the cars and went to Niagara; went under the falls—saw the whirlpool and all the other sights.

    Tuesday night started for Albany; travel’d all night. From the time daylight afforded us a view of the country all seem’d very rich and well cultivated. Every few miles were large towns or villages.

    Wednesday late we arriv’d at Albany. Spent the evening in exploring. There was a political meeting (Hunker) at the capitol, but I pass’d it by. Next morning I started down the Hudson in the “Alida;” arriv’d safely in New York that evening.