Kate Stone’s Civil War: Burn our cities

Stone understood what was happening … something terrible was coming, and she would stand up to meet it.


From 2012 to 2015, Stillness of Heart will share interesting excerpts from the extraordinary diary of Kate Stone, who chronicled her Louisiana family’s turbulent experiences throughout the Civil War era.

Learn more about Stone’s amazing life in 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864, 1865 and beyond. Click on each year to read more about her experiences. You can read the entire journal online here.

(Photo edited by Bob Rowen)

The spring of 1862 brought to Stone the first tangible costs of war. The two-month silence in her diary ended sadly in May as she mourned the “perfect love of a lieutenant” she had swooned over. He died not after a glorious charge, not after a gallant pursuit of the Yankees, but merely of sickness, as so many Civil War soldiers did throughout the war. Reflections on her “nonsense” musings from March 1862 made her feel guilty and petty.

The spring attacks and counterattacks between Union and Confederate forces in the Western Theater — coupled with the fear over failing levees threatening to further flood the area — resounded with tectonic force throughout Stone’s diary, and she sensed that Southern defeats, including the catastrophic fall of New Orleans, exposed her beloved Louisiana to further Union atrocities. Stone, her writing always at its most beautiful when anguished, powerfully evoked her beloved Louisiana, “with her fertile fields of cane and cotton, her many bayous and dark old forests, [which] lies powerless at the feet of the enemy.”

The Civil War was no longer a far-off cyclone of glorious drama, draining her society of young men and precious resources. Its violent power now shook Brokenburn’s foundations. Day by day, the trembles grew stronger. Stone understood what was happening … something terrible was coming, and she would stand up to meet it.

May 9

After two months of silence I will resume my homely chronicles. Reading over the nonsense of the last page, how sad it seems now, for the Lt. Davis mentioned with such jesting is dead far away from his mother “an only son and she a widow.” He escaped at the siege of Donelson only to come home with Capt. Buckner to fall a prey to a long, lingering illness and die at last among strangers.

Two days after my last date [March 9], Mamma, Brother Coley, Brother Walter, and I went down by land to Vicksburg. Brother Coley joined his company as a private with Capt. C. B. Buckner as captain. In a few days they left for Jackson, Miss., where they still are, and Mamma and Brother Walter returned home. I remained with Aunt Laura until last week when Brother Walter came down in the carriage for me, and, after moving adventures by field and flood, we reached home safely.

How many stirring events are crowded into the last sixty days: Our victory in Hampton Roads; the two-day battle and victory at Shiloh; the fall of several of our small towns on the coast; the long bombardment, heroic defense, and final surrender of Island No. 10; the attack on and successful defense of Fort Pillow; and last and most important of all the long and terrible bombardment of Fort Jackson with the passing of the gunboats under heaviest fire and then the investure and fall of the greatest City of the South, New Orleans. And not a blow struck in its defense. Such was not its fate in the days of Jackson.

As a natural consequence of her surrender, the forts also gave up, and fair Louisiana with her fertile fields of cane and cotton, her many bayous and dark old forests, lies powerless at the feet of the enemy. Though the Yankees have gained the land, the people are determined they shall not have its wealth, and from every plantation rises the smoke of burning cotton. The order from Beauregard advising the destruction of the cotton met with a ready response from the people, most of them agreeing that it is the only thing to do. As far as we can see are the ascending wreaths of smoke, and we hear that all the cotton of the Mississippi Valley from Memphis to New Orleans is going up in smoke. We have found it is hard to bum bales of cotton. They will smoulder for days. So the huge bales are cut open before they are lighted and the old cottons burns slowly. It has to be stirred and turned over but the light cotton from the lint room goes like a flash. …

Though agreeing on the necessity of destroying the cotton, all regret it. And it has thrown a gloom over the country that nothing but news of a great victory could lighten. We are watching and praying for that. The planters look upon the burning of the cotton as almost ruin to their fortunes, but all realize its stern necessity, and we have not heard of one trying to evade it.

The Yankee gunboats are expected to appear before Vicksburg today. … It seems hopeless to make a stand at Vicksburg. We only hope they may burn the city if they meet with any resistance. How much better to burn our cities than let them fall into the enemy’s hands.

To resume the earlier record: Two weeks after Dr. Buckner’s company left Vicksburg, Aunt Laura, Beverly, and I went to Jackson to pay them a visit and spent a week at the Bowman House, a comfortable hotel for these times. I enjoyed the stay greatly. Saw so many soldiers and other nice people. And it was such a time of excitement, just after the battle of Shiloh, and we met so many men and officers who were in the fight: Maj. McCardle, whom we heard acted gallantly, Col. Ferguson, aide to Beauregard and lieutenant colonel of Stark’s regiment (the one Dr. Buckner’s company is in) , also mentioned with great praise. He is almost my beau ideal in looks and manner, a West Pointer. I came near losing my heart to him. Just hadn’t time. He was ordered off so soon.

The cars were crowded for days with wounded soldiers going home and relatives going on to see their wounded friends. … The troops at Yorktown have undergone great hardships, particularly the Leesburg Brigade, The flower of both armies with the best generals are stationed within a few miles of each other and the great battle of the war is soon to be fought. And our hearts are heavy with anxiety for our two soldiers who will be in it. …

The conscription has caused a great commotion and great consternation among the shirking stay-at-homes. Around here, many are deluding themselves with the belief that the call will not be enforced in Louisiana now that New Orleans has fallen and Vicksburg is threatened. We are to make a stand there. A weak one, I fear.

We earnestly hope these coward souls will be made to go. They are not joining volunteer companies as most of the conscripts are. They will not even raise a guerrilla troop for home defense. Not a single man has joined for the last two months. I forgot George Hardison, who is under age, and several men from the Bend.

May 10

The smoke of the burning cotton is still rising as far as we can see. For the last five days the air has been heavy with the smoke and odor of burned cloth. There is still a day’s work here before the last bale is ashes. Mamma has reserved about eight bales for spinning and making cloth for the hands.

I must tell an adventure returning ten days ago from Vicksburg.

Brother Walter came for me, with Webster driving, when I had about given up hope of seeing Brokenburn again for many months as the Yankees were hourly expected in Vicksburg. Numbers of people were leaving the city and Aunt Laura was preparing to go on the next train to Jackson to be with Dr. Buckner. I would have been forced to go with her. I could not remain in Vicksburg or with the Nailors in the country, perhaps for months, and so I was relieved when Brother Walter walked in. The next morning we crossed the ferry and were just driving up the road when we were stopped by the news that the Vicksburg levee had broken. Already the river road was impassable and in the course of two hours the water would be over DeSoto. We were horrified but told Webster to turn around and rush as fast as he could to the depot at Mr. Burney’s. Fortunately, we reached there just in time to catch the train and the last one it proved to be for many a day. There was a great crowd of parish people and people going on to Monroe and Texas. Such excitement!

First it was said that the train would be cut off by the water, and then that we would be fired on or captured by a Yankee gunboat. They were momentarily expected and there were many false alarms of their being in sight. We shipped everything on a flat car mules, carriage, Webster and about two or three the train pulled out. We reached Tallulah station rather late. Met several friends on the train who begged us to get off and spend the night the Dancys, Colemans, etc. But I thought in these troublous times home was the best place. So we drove on as far as Mrs. Gustine’s above the Bend, and as it was then quite dark we stayed with them all night, Brother Walter going on home to relieve Mamma’s anxiety. …

It was the last trip the cars can make until the river falls. We came through water so deep that it nearly came in the coaches. They were crowded. In the car with us was a guerrilla captain going to Texas to raise a company. He had just escaped from New Orleans with several men of his command. He said they burned several thousand bales of cotton and other supplies. He was so excited and eager and talked so well of everything he had seen or heard in New Orleans. He is from New Orleans, and his heart and soul are with the Cause.

Mamma was charmed to get us home again when we arrived next day. The day before Mr. Catlin had ridden by to tell her that we were cut off by the break in the levee and that the Yankees were in Vicksburg. She was wretched not knowing what we would do. …

Kate Nailor spent several days with us at Aunt Laura’s. She is looking dreadful but is as lovely as ever. She is soon to be married to Wilkins Roach and much I fear her heart is not in it. He is very wealthy and her family are urging it on, but her heart is in Virginia with My Brother. But they have had a quarrel and now it can never be set right, because in a fit of jealousy and pique she is throwing herself away on a man she barely likes. Poor Kate! And poor absent lover! They have been sweethearts for years.

May 11

The news of the day is a rumored skirmish and evacuation of Yorktown, an advance of Morgan and Forrest with their cavalry troops on Nashville and Paducah to destroy government stores, and the falling back of the Yankee gunboats to New Orleans instead of attacking Vicksburg. That will give time to finish the fortifications at Vicksburg, which are going up rapidly.

We have seen Butler’s Proclamation on taking possession of New Orleans and as he has the cool impudence to say “of the State of Louisiana.” It is a most tyrannical and insulting document and shows what mercy we may expect if subjugated. It made my blood boil to read it, and I could cry when I think of New Orleans completely in his power. Let us hope this will rouse the spirit of the people who still linger at home and send them to the battlefield. How can anyone in the South ever fall so low as to take such an oath of allegiance?

May 17

Norfolk has been abandoned and in consequence the Merrimac had to be burned to prevent its falling into the hands of the enemy.

May 19

Natchez has surrendered and the gunboats are now above Rodney. We listen hourly for the cannonading to begin at Vicksburg. Surely the gallant Mississippians will not give up their chief city without a struggle. … Better one desperate battle and the city in flames than tame submission. … We heard the barking of cannon today and thought at first the fight was on at Vicksburg, but the firing was so slow we think now they were only getting the range of the guns.

May 20

The flower garden is one mass of blooms now, and the fragrance on the front gallery is delicious. Uncle Hoccles is very proud of his promising vegetables. But we hear there is great danger of the levee giving away just in front of us, and in that case farewell to gardens, orchards, crops, and everything. The levee for two miles is in a wretched state, but the planters have put all the available men on it and are working hard. They may save the day.

Author: Fernando Ortiz Jr.

Handsome gentleman scholar, Civil War historian, unpretentious intellectual, world traveler, successful writer.

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