We did not look upon the post at Waterproof as a sure protection. There was no cavalry to make the promised patrol between Waterproof and the post next below it, or to hunt down any guerrillas that might come near. A few of the soldiers were mounted on mules and horses taken from the vicinity, but they were not effective for rapid movements. It was understood, and semi-officially announced, that the post was established for the protection of Government plantations. The commandant assured me he had no orders to that effect. He was placed there to defend the post, and nothing else. We were welcome to any protection his presence afforded, but he could not go outside the limits of the town to make any effort in our behalf.
There was a store at Waterproof which was doing a business of two thousand dollars daily. Every day the wives, brothers, or sisters of men known to belong to the marauding bands in the vicinity, would come to the town and make any purchases they pleased, frequently paying for them in money which the guerrillas had stolen. A gentleman, who was an intimate friend of General Thomas, was one of the proprietors of this store, and a son of that officer was currently reported to hold an interest in it. After a time the ownership was transferred to a single cotton speculator, but the trading went on without hinderance. This speculator told me the guerrilla leader had sent him a verbal promise that the post should not be disturbed or menaced so long as the store remained there. Similar scenes were enacted at nearly all the posts established for the “protection” of leased plantations. Trading stores were in full operation, and the amount of goods that reached the Rebels and their friends was enormous.
I have little doubt that this course served to prolong the resistance to our arms along the Mississippi River. If we had stopped all commercial intercourse with the inhabitants, we should have removed the inducement for Rebel troops to remain in our vicinity. As matters were managed, they kept close to our lines at all the military posts between Cairo and Baton Rouge, sometimes remaining respectfully quiet, and at others making occasional raids within a thousand yards of our pickets.
The absence of cavalry, and there being no prospect that any would arrive, led us to believe that we could not long remain unmolested. We were “in for it,” however, and continued to plow and plant, trusting to good fortune in getting safely through. Our misfortune came at last, and brought our free-labor enterprise to an untimely end.
As I stated in the previous chapter, Colburn and myself made daily visits to the plantation, remaining there for dinner, and returning to Waterproof in the afternoon. On Monday, May 2d, we made our usual visit, and returned to the post. A steamer touched there, on its way to Natchez, just after our return, and we accepted the invitation of her captain to go to that place. Our journey to Natchez was purely from impulse, and without any real or ostensible business to call us away. It proved, personally, a very fortunate journey.