The Most Hated Man in the Southern States

Chapter 6

I was awakened in the cold, dark heart of the night with the gladsome news that the repairs to our locomotive had been effected and steam was once again being raised in the boiler. There was time yet for my ablutions and rudimentary grooming, and with that done I made my farewell to my gracious host and departed for the station. That place was lit by lanterns, within and without, and the moon was waxing fat over the pines. There was still a small crowd in the street despite the early hour but they were cheerful rather than boisterous, and for that I was most grateful.

I found McFee stretched out on the floor of the press car, and told him he had best take a few men and make a sweep of the establishments. I would not have held our departure for so much as a second for any member of the press, but neither would I have willingly abandoned anyone in this wretched frontier village without pressing need.

As the engine raised steam, the crews made last-minute checks on every bearing and hitch. The tender was topped off with water to the very brim; this leg of our journey would be the shortest, and with reasonable economy we might only have to stop once for fuel and water, if at all.

At last the whistle sounded, prompting a scramble from reporters who had been waiting on the platform. The whistle sounded again, the pistons chuffed and the great drivers began to turn, thrusting the General Scott and her cargo into motion. A few newsmen had to sprint down the tracks and leap for the rear car; at least one fell, though he was not much wounded except in his dignity. I never did know how many of the gentlemen of the press we left behind in Tupelo.

McComber came up to the club car to make his report, so exhausted he reeled like a drunkard. "There was work shoddily done," he said. "Shoddily done! And I know who did that work, and once we are home again I will know why!" I sent him off to sleep and sent Oscar with him to make his pallet. And I will tell you that when we returned to Mobile we found two of our workmen gone, leaving no notice, but whether they were lazy or inattentive, or guilty of some mischief, neither McComber nor I would ever know.

For the first few hours we alternately trudged up hill and swooped down dale, making decent time in the average. The General Scott gusted smoke from the roaring fire in her belly, pistons pounding like a runner's heart, and through that long night never once faltered. The firemen were keeping the pressure right up on the safety line, and I did hear the exhaust trip once or twice as evidence. The engineer was keeping the cut-off nearly full on the grade, sacrificing pressure and water for power, pushing the locomotive around the curves so hard we were more than once nearly flung out of our seats. I made no complaint for this was exactly as I wanted it; I could not bear to lose from timidity.

The General Winfield Scott

At last the sun rose behind us, lighting the dewy trees like giant chandeliers. The morning fog was streaked in rainbow tones save where the gray blast of smoke from our stack cleaved it open. We kept a keen watch from the cab for any dangerous condition on the tracks, for the fog was thick in the many gullies, valleys and stream bottoms, but so dense was the vapor that even the sharpest of eyes was of little use. We would plunge into a fogbank filled with trepidation and foreboding, then roar into the clear air as a great whale sounds above the waters, relieved, only to plunge headlong into another ocean of gray.

Around us lay a vast, trackless forest, apparently untouched by man except where the railroad had made its way. The country was still hilly, but the way had been filled and cut so as to be more level, and the General Scott roared along without let or hindrance. The windows were flung open and a fine, clear morning air swept out the stale smoky atmosphere of the cars and took all our care and trouble with it. Everyone was in fine spirits once again, and victory was on all our lips. That magnificent scene, coupled with hot biscuits and strong coffee, left me energized and ready for any further contingencies that might befall.

In mid-morning we decided to stop for water at what is now Holly Springs, Mississippi. We had been driving the locomotive hard with the cut-off more open than not, and our consumption of steam - and hence wood and water - had been heavy.

Locomotives have a type of mechanism on the piston cylinder that governs how much steam will be admitted to the cylinder on each stroke. Open it wide and the piston is pushed the entire length of the cylinder before the steam is cut off; close it and only a brief puff is injected at the top of the stroke. This allows for high power - and high steam consumption, and heavy wear - when needed, such as when starting off or climbing a grade. Less steam is needed once the train is in motion, so the more economical setting is used in that case.

As I say, we had been driving the General Scott hard up the hilly grades and using her flat-out on the straightaways, so our steam consumption was heavy. Locomotive do not recirculate water but exhaust it, and as we had been using a lot of steam, so we had consumed a great amount of our water and wood.

Once we had sounded the tender and made some rough estimates, it was clear that we would have little margin if we steamed on to Memphis without taking on more water. Our fine progress had relieved my anxieties somewhat and I readily assented to the plan. With the practice of previous days to guide us, the operation was conducted with a smooth efficiency that brought a favorable comparison from Major Beauregard. "The Army could not have performed such an operation with more efficiency and dash than the men of the Great Southern Railroad," he said.

The final run into Memphis was equally faultless; we steamed along at a great rate of speed, estimated at over thirty-five miles per hour, and on some down-grades we may have approached forty. On approach to the station we had to sound the whistle almost continuously as men and boys thronged the tracks, scattering like squirrels to let the train through. Our destination was the grand new complex at Front and Poplar, so new that outlying parts of it were still under construction. The city men had been reluctant to allow smoky machinery into the heart of their town, offering at first a site south of Calhoun Street instead. Our response was to open negotiations with nearby towns such as Randolph. This gained us no love from the citizens of Memphis but a fine new station instead!

If the crowd at Mobile had been large and merry, this almost defied description, for Memphis was by far the larger town. The epidemics of yellow fever that would nearly depopulate the place were more than seven years in the future, and the prosperity and vigor of the place were amazing. The city claimed twenty thousand inhabitants, and if that is true and not some fanciful exaggeration then fully ten thousand thronged in the streets between the station and the steamboat landing.

Such was the press of the crowd and the general level of joyous hysteria and intoxication that I was utterly unable to find anyone who could tell me if we had won or lost. Say rather that I found a dozen or more who told both tales! I resolved to go to the steamboat landing and see for myself how the matter lay, and with teams of railroad men surrounding the train to hold back the revelers, I was able to make my way down the platform. There, I was accosted by a gentleman whom I later discovered to be the Mayor, waving a note-paper and screaming at the top of his lungs. As thousands of others were competing for volume I was utterly unable to discern a word, and so opened the note and was nearly stricken dead upon the spot.

It said, "Please come at once to the Steamboat Landing," and it was signed by Judah Benjamin.

We had lost.