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.
“The life we are leading now,” Stone wrote dejectedly, “is a miserable, frightened one, living in constant dread of great danger, not knowing what form it may take, and utterly helpless to protect ourselves. …”
Stone’s mother agreed completely. Her cotton crop was destroyed. Damaged levees flooded the region. Life’s daily necessities were impossibly overpriced. New Orleans was gone, and Vicksburg would not hold out forever. Relatives and friends dead. Home defense forces utterly impotent. Union soldiers taking what they wanted whenever they wanted it. Union gunboats defiling the Mississippi River. Slaves more a threat than ever before. Her mother came to a single solution.
At long last, she decided, it was time to lead her family west.
But one more tragedy awaited them, one that would silence Stone’s diary for more than two weeks.
We have had an exciting time since the last date. Two Yankees came out Friday guided by John Graves and carried off my horse Wonka in spite of all we could do.
Wonka was racing around the yard, glad to be at liberty after being tied out so long, when two most villainous-looking Yankees rode up to the gallery where we three ladies and the two children were standing. They had pistols in their hands and proposed a “swap” but we all refused of course and begged them not to take the horse. Mamma even offered to pay the price for him, but the greatest villain of the two refused bluntly and worked himself into a towering rage while the other, the smooth villain, galloped off to catch the horse. I called to one of the Negroes to open the gate, thinking it would give Wonka a chance to escape, but as they seemed afraid I ran to do it myself. When the wretch called to me impudently to stop, I did not notice him but threw the gate open. He then dashed up with the pistol pointed at my head … and demanded in the most insolent tone how I dared to open a gate when he ordered it shut. I looked at him and ran on to open the other gate. Just then Mamma called to me that they had caught the horse, and as I turned to go in the house the man cursed and said, “I had just as soon kill you as a grasshopper.” I was not frightened but I was furiously angry and would have been glad to have seen him lying dead. And I never saw Mamma so angry. Aunt Laura took it more calmly, and the little girls were frightened. Johnny was sick with fever. In five minutes the man had changed saddles and was riding my prancing, beautiful pet gaily off, leaving in his place a pack of animated bones, covered with sorrel skin. …
I cried the rest of the day and half of the night. We had had the horse tied out in the cane for days, and not ten minutes before the men came, Webster brought him up and said that he would die if he was kept tied up where the mosquitoes could get to him any longer. So I told Webster to turn him in the yard and went out to see, and I never saw him look finer. At that moment the Negroes called from the kitchen that the Yankees were coming, and in a minute they were dashing up to the gallery and in ten minutes more were racing away on my horse.
I think I will never see lilac blooms again without recalling this sad incident. We had all just come in from the garden and had great sprays of the purple flowers in our hands and stuck in the children’s hats, and when the Yankees rode away and the excitement subsided we were still holding the tossing, fragrant plumes. …
The Negroes all behaved very well while the men were here. Most of them hid, and the others did not show the slightest disposition to go with them, though the Yankees asked them to go. They made William help catch the horse by cursing and holding a pistol to his head, and then invited him to go along with them to camp. He refused most positively, and they rode off without doing any further damage. These two returned by way of Mrs. Hardison’s, stopping to have a long talk with her Negroes, and took one of her mules, crossing just below the house. The effect of their talk with Mr. Hardison’s Negroes came out today when six of the men with their children and clothes walked off in broad daylight after a terrible row, using the most abusive language to Mrs. Hardison. Mr. Hardison expected to get home today and move them all to Monroe, but he has waited too long. The other Negroes declare they are free and will leave as soon as they get ready. Mrs. Hardison sent for Johnny and Mr. McPherson early this morning. Johnny went at once but they could do nothing. None of them have even a gun. A Negro has stolen Mr. Hardison’s. But guns are of no use to people in our dilemma. To use one would only be to invite complete destruction from the soldiers.
The river is rising rapidly, and the levee at Lake Providence has been cut. It looks like we are going to be overflowed, a misfortune that we will welcome if it drives the Yankees away. No effort is made to hold the levees; in fact, they spoke of cutting the one at Pecan Grove before the Yankees came up, and it is a pity they did not. A few feet more of water would be a protection as the Yankees would not be able to come out in boats.
This country is in a deplorable state. The outrages of the Yankees and Negroes are enough to frighten one to death. The sword of Damocles in a hundred forms is suspended over us, and there is no escape. The water hems us in. The Negroes on Mrs. Stevens’, Mr. Conley’s, Mr. Catlin’s, and Mr. Evans’ places ran off to camp and returned with squads of soldiers and wagons and moved off every portable thing furniture, provisions, etc., etc. A great many of the Negroes camped at Lake Providence have been armed by the officers, and they are a dreadful menace to the few remaining citizens. The country seems possessed by demons, black and white.
Storms and rain for two days. There has been almost constant rain since Christmas. The oldest inhabitants say they never saw such persistent rains. It might be the rainy season of the tropics. Some think the cannonading at Vicksburg brings on the rains. It is seldom we hear the cannon that it is not succeeded by showers or a downpour, and often it is difficult to distinguish between the burst of thunder and the roar of the guns.
The firing has been kept up, now fast then slow, for several days until today there is quiet. The sound comes over the water with such distinctness as to rattle the windows, and when the river is low we scarcely hear the guns.
Johnny brought us news Sunday (Sunday does not seem like Sunday nowadays. It’s always the time of the greatest excitement). He said that Mrs. Graves was going Monday to see the Yankee general and would try to get my horse returned. That we know is a hopeless job, but we wrote asking her to report the behavior of the two men, giving the names they gave us and telling of their frequent raids out this way. Mrs. Hardison also wrote asking her to represent to the commanding general that there are only women and children in these homes, and, if he will allow marauding parties to continue to harass us, at least to send an officer in charge. Mrs. Graves says that the pickets are very strict now and that it is hard to get through the lines. The Graves have lost twenty of their Negroes. The letters of protection do them no good. Mrs. Hardison’s servants have behaved worse than anyone’s. They have done everything but strike her and have used very abusive language. The leader is a boy or man, Charles, who ran to the Yankees among the first and soon returned to stay at home. He said he had enough of Yankees.
The life we are leading now is a miserable, frightened one, living in constant dread of great danger, not knowing what form it may take, and utterly helpless to protect ourselves. It is a painful present and a dark future with the wearing anxiety and suspense about our loved ones. We long for news from the outside world, and yet we shudder to think what evil tidings it may bring us. Could we hear that all our soldiers are well, the troubles here at home would seem but light ones.
We beguile the time sewing and reading well-thumbed books, starting at every sound, and in the evening play backgammon or chess. Aunt Laura has just learned backgammon and enjoys playing a game. Little Sister has third-day chills and looks thin and pale. It seems impossible to break them without quinine, and we can get none. Johnny is at last almost well. Beverly’s hair has been cut short and she looks like a pretty little boy and is delighted with her appearance.
So my and My Brother’s old friend, Joe Wicks, is dead. And he died, as a Southern boy should, leading his men in action. He was adjutant of a Tennessee regiment and was killed in a skirmish near Oxford months ago. What a host of pleasant memories his name awakens of the happy Clinton days when I was a little girl of twelve off at school for the first time, with My Brother as protector and comforter, and Joe my first little lover. What a gay, guileless time we all had together, boarding there with his sister, Mrs. Rhodes. …