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Story Archives: A family flees Tensas after 'Philistines' arrive in Natchez
|A family flees Tensas after 'Philistines' arrive in Natchez|
(23rd in a series)
Friday, July 17, 1863
"My dear Mother,
"I am just on the wing, to start west, & may not have another opportunity to communicate with you again, for a long time. The Philistines are upon us – all around us, devastating & destroying as they go. Lizzie & I are both feeble folk & but little able to work for our large family.
"If we loose our negroes I don't know what we will do. If we stay here, we are bound to loose every thing, & perhaps be outraged & insulted, beside…"
H. Winbourne Drake and his wife Elizabeth (Lizzie) Miller Drake were like other slave-holding planters in this region reacting to the arrival of federal troops at Natchez following the Union victory at Vicksburg on July 4. Gen. U.S. Grant's army had moved through Tensas Parish during the spring and crossed the river to Bruinsburg in Jefferson County in route to Vicksburg. The Drakes had heard rifle and cannon fire as the Union advance and Confederate calvary clashed.
Both Union and Confederate troops foraged the countryside. Grant's army depended on the livestock, orchards and vegetable gardens for subsistence as it moved quickly through the region in route to Vicksburg. After the siege ended there with a Union victory, a federation occupation force of 1,200 troops arrived in Natchez on Monday, July 13, 1863. Companies from this occupation force moved about the region cutting Confederate supply lines while Union gunboats monitored the Mississippi and her tributaries.
Four days later, Drake wrote his mother in Jefferson County to inform her that he was heading west to Bienville Parish. He loaded every possession he could on wagons. Most planters made Texas their destination. The exodus included scores of white families and hundreds of slaves advancing west ahead of the federal invasion.
A month after Drake left Tensas Parish, thousands of Union troops had amassed at Natchez. Hosea Whitford Rood, an 18-year-old private in Company E of the 12th Wisconsin Regiment, was among the arrivals. Natchez had been made a staging area for expeditions into both Mississippi and Louisiana to root out Confederate resistance.
At Vicksburg on the 15th of August, Rood's company was ordered to break camp and prepare to move downriver to Natchez. Some of the men were so ill, including Rood, that they could barely walk the two miles to the landing to board a steamboat. Army regulations required that the sick make their way to the landing unassisted. After all, ill soldiers would hinder an army on the move.
In a book about his Civil War experiences, Rood recalled that the sick "walked with staffs—some with one, some with two; some staffs were long, others short. Most of them went stooped over as if about to fall to the front....Many of them wore an expression of countenance similar to that on the face just above the cross-bones on the labels of bottles containing poison."
Many could walk only a few feet before they had to stop and lay down to rest. So common was the sight, Rood said, that it looked as if the sick were playing leap frog. Many of the men suffered from poor diet, disease and fatigue.
At the Vicksburg landing, some were able to buy fruit from the sutler shops. Peaches were a favorite there.
ARRIVAL AT NATCHEZ
"In due time we were on the boats, and just as darkness settled down over river, and city, and land, our fleet dropped out into the current, headed down-stream, and we thus began a delightful ride. The air over the river was much sweeter and fresher than we had ever known it in the camp we had just left. There was a gentle breeze passing over the water, just enough to fan our brows with delicious coolness. We enjoyed a refreshing sleep on the way, and awoke to find ourselves nearing the landing at 'Natchez under the Hill.'"
Almost immediately after docking, Rood said something of a miracle happened: "It was not long before we were surrounded by row-boats loaded with the good things of the field and the garden," brought and sold primarily by former slaves.
"There were melons—great big ones—in abundance; there were peaches and apples; and there were tomatoes, and cucumbers, and sweet potatoes. All these,—but the most marketable of all were the watermelons. Some of the boys devoured melons with a recklessness that seemed to set all probable and possible consequences at defiance. We who were sick, out of respect to our condition, tried to be moderate, but the trial cost us a world of self-denial; some, quite overcome by their long pent up, but now liberated, appetites, ate until the aching void within them was all gone—all but the ache.
"Toward noon of that day we disembarked, our baggage was loaded on the wagons and the regiment marched away to a camp about two miles from the landing, and a short distance outside the city limits. The procession of the sick was formed something after the manner of the day before at Vicksburg, but they made better progress. There was something about pretty Natchez to take their attention off their aches and pains; there was much in the fresh air they had breathed since leaving Vicksburg to give a bit of new life; and then there is no doubt that a taste of watermelons and peaches had done something towards making them think life yet worth living."
Camp life at Natchez appealed to the Yankees from Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa and Indiana. They feasted on fruit and vegetables, rested some days, went on expeditions on others and wrote letters home. Not far from the camp was Monmouth mansion, the home of the late John Quitman, a Natchez lawyer who served as governor of Mississippi, fought in the Texas revolution and later in the Mexican-American War. This son of a preacher, Quitman was a fierce secessionist before his death prior to the Civil War.
Quitman's Monmouth still operated like many self-sustaining plantations that depended on slave labor for existence. Rood described what he saw:
"There was the typical large dwelling house of the southern gentleman, two stories in height, square, and with wide verandas extending across all four sides. Near by was the large kitchen building where the good things were prepared for 'Massa's table.' A few rods to the rear were the little houses in which the negroes lived, each having attached to it a small garden patch. All these, with the stables, hen houses, and various other buildings, made the place look like a village. The whole was shaded by magnificent trees of nature's own planting. Near the house was the little family cemetery, in which lay the remains of the General."
Rood observed white children and black children playing "indiscriminately, and apparently quite oblivious of the color line. They learned to draw it later."
"The Quitmans, like most southern people of their rank who lived out of town, kept up a garden of several acres. It contained all sorts of things from onions and potatoes to pineapples, pomegranates, figs and large pecan-nut trees. In that climate a garden means more than it does in Wisconsin, especially when one or more negroes give their entire time to the care of it. We used to like to walk in that garden. Its close proximity to our camp enabled us now and then to get a taste of something delicious."
THAT BETTER LAND
Meanwhile, Southern families, black and white, were suffering from the effects of the war. Natchez suffered economically, but by and large residents of both races fared better there than their peers outside town. In addition to economic disaster for the region, food was short and many were hungry. Courthouses were empty, there was no one in charge of law and order and citizens had to fend for themselves.
For H. Winbourne Drake, life seemed more promising farther west in Bienville Parish. He would stay there two years before returning home to Tensas Parish in 1865 minus two children lost to diphtheria.
The eldest son of a Methodist minister, Drake grew up on his parents' small plantation near Church Hill at Magnolia Springs in Jefferson County. Well-educated and once employed as a college professor teaching Latin and Greek, he moved to Tensas Parish in the early 1850s and married Elizabeth "Lizzie" Miller of Waterproof. There he farmed and later earned a law degree and served in the Legislature.
In the letter to his mother sent four days after the federal occupation of Natchez began, the arrival of the Union army -- ("the Philistines are upon us") -- gave him great concern about the future. The 35-year-old Drake worried about his mother, too, alone at the old home place in Jefferson County.
"These are truly troublous & perilous times, upon which we are cast," he wrote. "The wisest & the best are in fear & doubt. How literally have my dear father's prophecies come true. We should rejoice that he was taken away from the evil, which he foresaw – though how inestimable now would be his wise calm and counsels.
"Shall we meet again? Mother! Perhaps on earth never again.
"Shall we meet again? Mother! Where parting is no more – where wars & troubles come no more.
"Oh! pray for me, Mother, that I may meet you in that better land."
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