THE BATTLE OF THE HANDKERCHIEFS.
IN THE early forenoon of February 20, 1863, a whisper ran through New Orleans that the Confederate soldiers in the city were to be taken that day aboard the “Empire Parish,” Capt. Caldwell commanding, and transported to Baton Rouge for an exchange of Union prisoners.
The whisper grew in volume until it reached the ears of the Confederate women of the city. At once, gentle and simple, old and young, matron and maid hurried to the levee to give the boys in gray a warm “God bless you and good-bye.” One o’clock was the hour fixed for the departure of the prisoners, but long before the stroke of the hammer on its bell, the levee for many blocks was densely crowded with people – a number estimated by some at 20,000. No New Orleans woman who had a brother, husband or son on that prison boat could have been kept away. These loving and patriotic women – many of them wearing knots of red-white-and-red ribbon or rosettes of palmetto, or carrying magnificent boquets of roses, camelias and violets – like the flow of an ocean tide, steadily poured through Canal Street on their way to the river front. They debouched, a living torrent, upon the levee in front of the “Empire Parish” – a boat around which guerilla guns had recently been quite busy. What a waving of handkerchiefs was there and glad cries, and wafting of kisses as the sight of a loved face was caught in the prisoner crowd on deck! In the throng on the levee, redeeming it from the epithet “mob” could be noted many ladies prominent in culture and social position. Among these were the poet Xariffa, dear to all Louisiana hearts; Miss Kate Walker, the courageous young heroine of Confederate flag episode, and Mrs. D. R. Graham, then a young wife and mother.
At first, the crowd was orderly though emotional, as was to be expected. Soon, between the soldiers on the boat and some of the Federals on shore began a banter of wits as to what each might expect the next time they met. Some ladies also, who were adept in the use of the deaf and dumb language, were using this form of wireless telegraphy in talking to their prisoner friends. Through the dumb spelling tossed off upon their fingers under the eye of the unwitting sentinel, they learned that the baskets and boxes of delicacies sent to the Confederate prisoners in the Foundry prison had fed the thievish Federal guards instead of the dear ones for whom intended. This unwelcome news made more pronounced the attitude of defiance gradually assumed by the crowd. A wave of restlessness was sweeping over it. Some one cheered for Jeff Davis. A dozen resonant voices joined in the cheer, and quickly followed with a “Hurrah for the Confederacy,” or as a Northern writer puts it, “shouted other diabolical monstrosities.” The feeling growing more tense every minute was too strained for safety, and sure to snap in twain. Listen to the narrative of a participator in much that occurred on this eventful occasion:
“I do not know who conceived the idea of going” (in order to be nearer the prisoners), “on the ‘Laurel Hill,’ the large river steamer lying beside the ‘Empire Parish.’ My companions and myself saw the move and followed the crowd on board. As the day advanced, the numbers grew so great that their demonstrations of love and respect nettled the Federals. It was an ‘ovation to treason’ as they were pleased to term it, and they peremptorily ordered us to ‘leave the boat, go off the levee, disperse.’ The women could see no treason in what they were doing – merely looking at their friends and waving a farewell to them – so they made no move to obey. And this was what started the trouble. An officer, presumably under orders from Captain Thomas, then in charge, gave the order to withdraw the plank and cut the ‘Laurel Hill’ loose from its moorings. Jammed from stem to stern with brave and dauntless women, little children and nurses with babes in their arms, the boat, with stars and stripes flying from its jackstaff, drifted slowly far down the river to the Algiers side. We held our breath as we went off, for we were much startled to find ourselves running away from the ‘Empire Parish,’ but we waved a brave good-bye with our handkerchiefs to those on shore and they could not be kept from waving to us.
“After passing beyond the city, we wondered if they were taking us to Fort Jackson to shut us up as prisoners of war. ‘Many a good Confederate has groaned within its stony walls, why should we escape?’ – we whispered to each other drearily – ‘but at least it will be better than Ship Island.’
“During our enforced excursion down the river, we learned afterward the Federals had certain streets guarded and permitted no one to pass. Relatives of the unwilling passengers on the ‘Laurel Hill’ were wild with fear for their loved ones, and tried to get to the levee, but the guards brutally turned them back.”
While the “Laurel Hill” was drifting out of sight, on the levee the crisis had been reached. The Federal guards grew tired of the noisy but harmless demonstrations and arbitrarily ordered the women to “fall back, fall back, and stop waving their handkerchiefs.” They talked to the winds. Above the rasping order of the guards was heard a laughing retort: “Can’t do it. General Jackson is in the rear, and stands like a Stonewall. Again was the order repeated and still above the din of voices and confusion of the multitude came the same jeering response that was caught up by the crowd like the echo from a bugler’s blast. In the bright sunshine and friendly river breeze, more briskly than ever, fluttered and waved the exasperating and much anathemized handkerchiefs. Finally, Gen. Banks being informed of the state of affairs, sent down the 26th Massachusetts Regiment to clear the levee.
With the hope of quelling the rising tumult, augmented by the arrival of the regiment, a cannon was brought out and trained upon the multitude, the soldiers not caring who were terrified or hurt. In the meantime, imagine the feelings of those Confederate prisoners on the boat, forced to witness the cruel act of cutting loose the “Laurel Hill” with its freight of five hundred women and children, and the cannon turned on the helpless crowd on the levee!
But Gen. Banks met more than he reckoned upon. His cannon neither killed nor drove the women away, for, according to a Union writer, they presented “an impenetrable wall of silks, flounces and graceless impudence.” The excitement was at fever heat. The women now wrought to frenzy with heartache and nerves, would not budge an inch, would not drop a single handkerchief even though faced by the murderous cannon. The soldiers first threatened them with the bayonet, and afterwards actually charged upon them, driving every woman and child two squares from the levee. But “Defiant, both of blow and threat, Their handkerchiefs still waved,” and the onset of the soldiers was unflinchingly met with the parasols and handkerchiefs of the women. Only one casualty was reported – that of a lady wounded in the hand by the thrust of a bayonet. After the fray the ground was covered with handkerchiefs and broken parasols. At last, the belligerent women, tired out but not subdued, went home to sleep in their beds. So much for the battle on the levee. Our narrator on the “Laurel Hill” resumes:
“I do not know how far down the river we were taken, but I do know we had nothing to eat. In the late afternoon the boat hands were marched into the cabin to eat their supper and, when they had finished and marched out again, we were told we could have the hard-tack and black coffee that was left. Some of us were too hungry to resist eating, but the majority took no notice of the invitation. Not one of the ladies showed fear or anxiety. If they felt either, they would not gratify the Federals that much. The bright and witty girls made things very amusing with their repartee, when a good humored officer came among us, but some there were that were surly, and the guards at the head of the gangway heard many a caustic aside expressive of contempt for Yankees and devotion to the Confederates. There was no white feather among them.
“Slowly we drifted on, and no one would tell us where the Captain was taking us. After we were prisoners for a few hours, the ladies in passing through the cabin would ring the bell to let our captors know we were hungry, but none took the gentle hint and soon the bell disappeared.
“That night about nine o’clock we were brought back to the city, and when we were near the landing and saw that it was indeed home, dear old New Orleans, we felt so happy that we broke out into singing “The Marseillaise” “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” and all the Confederate songs we could think of – our own dear poet, ‘Xariffa’ leading the singing. This deeply angered our Federal captors. To punish us, they said we should not land, and proceeded to back out into midstream, where they anchored for the night. The next morning, after sunrise, we were brought to the levee again – a starving crowd and cold from the night air. They set us free, I suppose because they did not know what else to do with so many obstinate rebel women.”
So ends the celebrated “Battle of the Handkerchiefs,” courageously fought on the levee, February 20th, 1863, by the Confederate women of New Orleans.
Battle Of Handkerchiefs
THE BATTLE OF THE HANDKERCHIEFS.