Bayou (Part III)
The three men thanked Ezekiel for his help in transporting them and made their way up the path through the rose garden and then the parterre, finally making their way up to the front steps. The home was exquisite. The columns stood before two stories of living space, not counting the exposed basement, which was originally the main floor of the house when it was built by Thibodaux's great grandfather in the 1790's. The gardens were well manicured and the front steps started in two opposing segments before meeting on a landing and forming one set of steps to the front porch.
The butler greeted them at the door, directed porters on where to carry the baggage, helped the men with their hats and then announced them to the gathering in the gentlemen's parlor. There was beautiful piano music coming from across the hall in the ladies' parlor. Mr.s Thibodaux was playing music and chatting with the wives of the men who were meeting in the gentlemen's parlor.
Uriah remembered his grandmother playing piano in the ladies' parlor of the family home on Savannah. His grandfather made sure to keep a well-tuned piano in the ladies' parlor so there would be beautiful music in the gentlemen's parlor, which was just across the hall. The other fond memory stoked was from the painting on the wall in the hallway. It was a mainstay in the grand houses of the South. The painting depicted the surrender at Arlington House, and among the Confederate officers lined up and politely watching from along the wall, just to the right of John Gordon, was Elijah Meigs - in his prime and on one of the grandest days of his life. That painting always made Uriah smile.
But Uriah turned to the serious conversation that had already started. The greetings were brief, the drinks were hastily poured and Thibodaux was nervous. He laid out his dilemma. A young upstart, one of those "new money" guys by the name of Michael Blanchard had set up shop around the next bend in the bayou, just before the town of Magnolia Landings. He was doing well in business and attracting a lot of attention. His parties were starting to be the fad in the area. They were known for their dancing and raucous jazz music. Thibodaux found them to be vulgar, a hideous affront to the parties of true aristocrats, especially his.
Uriah was beginning to wonder if he had been called across the world to listen to his friend complain that a younger man had set up shop next door and started having more exciting parties when Thibodaux got to the meat of the complaint.
"Cotton Mills." Thibodaux spat out in disgust, "He's wanting to bring in cotton mills. And not just that, other factories as well. He's partnered with some Yankee scoundrel - my apologies, Mr. Athern - to bring all sorts of factories down here."
Athern chuckled at the perceived offense but then responded, "Gentlemen, we can maintain our partnerships and export your goods to Boston and Portland. If it is guaranteed raised without slave labor, we can expand our deal. Between me, my contacts in New England, and our British friends here, we can buy every boll of cotton you all produce, and then some and give you very good prices. But we're all in agreement that we are bound by conscience and the laws of our nations that we cannot buy slave cotton."
"Slavery is the right of every free man in the Confederacy." said a voice from across the room, "It's the law of the land".
"Agreed." Answered another voice, "And if we start talking abolition in this room, we're going to have big trouble on our hands."
There was grumbling among the group that threatened to get out of hand. But Uriah raised his voice over the din, "Ain't a soul in here talking about abolition, except you two." The chatter stopped and then Uriah continued, "We're talking manumission. It's all your choice. The law says you can own slaves. It doesn't say you have to. And just because something is legal, doesn't mean that it's right. Regardless of what any of us personally think about slavery right now, if what Thibodaux says is the truth, slavery, and our insistence on maintaining it, could be the downfall of our way of life."
Uriah got several strange looks from the men in the room. the thought that slavery was going to destroy the Southern way of life seemed so foreign to the men in the room. These men were planters. Some owned slaves and some did not. But none of them openly supported abolition. Uriah was the only Confederate in the room that had ever taken the argument that far. The din started to revive and then Uriah spoke up again.
"I want y'all to think about this. Cotton mills ain't new. And they ain't run by slaves. Some Yankee comes down here plantin' cotton mills and somebody is going to have to work there. They'll start buying up farms and building factories on the land and then they'll hire laborers from the displaced farmers. Then when those factories make money, they'll pay the laborers a little and then they'll send the rest up north, except the part they pay the guy that runs the place. And if there is one thing you're gonna hate worse than a Yankee living down here, it's gonna be a rich Yankee living down here."
The room fell quiet. Even the piano music had stopped. "Once we become an industrial nation, we lose our way of life. The leaders of companies will call the shots, not planters and farmers. This whole bayou could wind up looking like the Quarter. We'll be dealing with big cities like New York, Chicago, and Boston. The small farmers will be out. They'll be working in factories and reliant on others for their living. Or, we can find ways to grow cotton, tobacco, sugar, and whatever else without slaves. We can export, get paid and save our agrarian system. It's all up to y'all."
Thibodaux broke the silence, "I'm really leaning toward what Uriah is saying this time guys. We can't let this Fitzgerald guy come in here - "
"Fitzgerald?" Uriah blurted out, not even realizing he had cut Thibodaux off.
"Yeah, This Yankee's name is Ben Fitzgerald Jr."
"I'm familiar with Mr. Fitzgerald. He's not really a Yankee. He grew up in Georgia. His grandfather was a copperhead from Massachusetts that relocated before the war. Ben Jr. and I met in Athens in college. His father was a smuggler, an industrialist, and a scoundrel. Ben is cut from the same cloth. The Meigs and Fitzgerald families have a rivalry that dates back to the war. If y'all can help steer the rest of Blanchard's team our direction and get us an exporters' alliance, I will deal with Ben myself."
"How do you suggest we do this?", Thibodaux asked.
"When is the next jazz party?" Uriah asked with a smile.
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Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire