On the 19th of December, 1853, I started from St. Louis on the evening train bound for Chicago. There were only twenty-four passengers, all told. There were no ladies and no children. We were in excellent spirits, and pleasant acquaintances were soon formed. The journey bade fair to be a happy one; and no individual in the party, I think, had even the vaguest presentiment of the horrors we were soon to undergo.
At two o'clock in the morning I was aroused out of an uneasy slumber by the ceasing of all motion about me. The appalling truth flashed upon me instantly - we were captives in a snow-drift!
We had no provisions whatever - in this lay our chief distress. We could not freeze, for there was a good supply of wood in the tender. This was our only comfort. The discussion ended at last in accepting the disheartening decision of the conductor, viz., that it would be death for any man to attempt to travel fifty miles on foot through snow like that. We could not send for help, and even if we could it would not come. We must submit, and await, as patiently as we might, succor or starvation! I think the stoutest heart there felt a momentary chill when those words were uttered.
All day we moped about the cars, saying little, thinking much. Another lingering dreary night - and hunger.
Another dawning - another day of silence, sadness, wasting hunger, hopeless watching for succor that could not come. A night of restless slumber, filled with dreams of feasting - wakings distressed with the gnawings of hunger.
The fourth day came and went - and the fifth! Five days of dreadful imprisonment!
A savage hunger looked out at every eye. There was in it a sign of awful import - the foreshadowing of a something that was vaguely shaping itself in every heart - a something which no tongue dared yet to frame into words.
The sixth day passed - the seventh dawned upon as gaunt and haggard and hopeless a company of men as ever stood in the shadow of death. It must out now! That thing which had been growing up in every heart was ready to leap from every lip at last! Nature had been taxed to the utmost - she must yield. Richard H. Gaston of Minnesota, tall, cadaverous, and pale, rose up. All knew what was coming. All prepared - every motion, every semblance of excitement was smothered - only a calm, thoughtful seriousness appeared in the eyes that were lately so wild.
"Gentlemen: it cannot be delayed longer! The time is at hand! We must determine which of us shall die to furnish food for the rest!"
Mr. John J. Williams of Illinois rose and said: "Gentlemen - I nominate the Rev. James Sawyer of Tennessee."
Mr. Wm. R. Adams of Indiana said: "I nominate Mr. Daniel Slote of New York."
Mr. Charles J. Langdon: "I nominate Mr. Samuel A. Bowen of St. Louis."
Mr. Slote: "Gentlemen - I desire to decline in favor of Mr. John A. Van Nostrand, Jun., of New Jersey."
Mr. Gaston: "If there be no objections, the gentleman's desire will be acceded to."
Mr. Van Nostrand objecting, the resignation of Mr. Slote was rejected. The resignations of Messrs. Sawyer and Bowen were also offered, and refused upon the same grounds.
Mr. A.L. Bascom of Ohio: "I move that the nominations now close, and that the House proceed to an election by ballot."
Mr. Sawyer: "Gentlemen - I protest earnestly against these proceedings. They are, in every way, irregular and unbecoming. I must beg to move that they be dropped at once, and that we elect a chairman of the meeting and proper officers to assist him, and then we can go on with the business before us understandingly."
Mr. Bell of Iowa: "Gentlemen - I object. This is no time to stand upon forms and ceremonious observances. For more than seven days we have been without food. Every moment we lose in idle discussion increases our distress. I am satisfied with the nominations that have been made - every gentleman present is, I believe - and I, for one, do not see why we should not proceed at once to elect one or more of them. I wish to offer a resolution."
Mr. Gaston: "It would be objected to, and have to lie over one day under the rules, thus bringing about the very delay you wish to avoid. The gentleman from New Jersey."
Mr. Van Nostrand: "Gentlemen - I am a stranger among you; I have not sought the distinction that has been conferred upon me, and I feel a delicacy -"
Mr. Morgan of Alabama (interrupting): "I move the previous question."
The motion was carried, and further debate shut off, of course. The motion to elect officers was passed, and under it Mr. Gaston was chosen chairman, Mr. Blake, secretary, Messrs. Holcomb, Dyer, and Baldwin, a committee on nominations, and Mr. R.M. Howland, purveyor, to assist the committee in making selections.
A recess of half an hour was then taken, and some little caucussing followed. At the sound of the gavel the meeting reassembled, and the committee reported in favor of Messrs. George Ferguson of Kentucky, Lucien Herrman of Louisiana, and W. Messick of Colorado as candidates. The report was accepted.
Mr. Rogers of Missouri: "Mr. President - the report being properly before the House now, I move to amend it by substituting for the name of Mr. Herrman that of Mr. Lucius Harris of St. Louis, who is well and honorably known to us all. I do not wish to be understood as casting the least reflection upon the high character and standing of the gentleman from Louisiana - far from it. I respect and esteem him as much as any gentleman here present possibly can; but none of us can be blind to the fact that he has lost more flesh during the week that we have lain here than any among us - none of us can be blind to the fact that through negligence or a graver fault, in thus offering for our suffrages a gentleman who, however pure his own motives may be, has really less nutriment in him than any of us, the committee has been shamefully derelict."
The Chair: "The gentleman from Missouri will take his seat. The Chair cannot allow the integrity of the committee to be questioned save by the regular course, under the rules. What action will the House take upon the gentleman's motion?"
Mr. Halliday of Virginia; "I move to further amend the report by substituting Mr. Harvey Davis of Oregon for Mr. Messick. It may be urged by gentlemen that the hardships and privations of a frontier life have rendered Mr. Davis tough; but, gentlemen, is this a time to cavil at toughness? Is this a time to be fastidious concerning trifles? Is this a time to dispute about matters of paltry significance? No, gentlemen, bulk is what we desire - substance, weight, bulk - these are the supreme requisites now, not talent, not genius, not education. I insist upon my motion."
Mr. Morgan (excitedly): "Mr. Chairman - I do most strenuously object to this amendment. The gentleman from Oregon is old, and furthermore is bulky only in bone, not in flesh. I ask the gentleman from Virginia if it is soup we want instead of solid sustenance? if he would delude us with shadows? if he would mock our suffering with an Oregonian specter? I ask him if he can look upon the anxious faces around him, if he can gaze into our sad eyes, if he can listen to the beating of our expectant hearts, and still thrust this famine-stricken fraud upon us? I ask him if he can think of our desolate state, of our past sorrows, of our dark future, and still unpityingly foist upon us this wreck, this ruin, this tottering swindle, this gnarled and blighted and sapless vagabond from Oregon's inhospitable shores? Never!" (Applause)
The amendment was put to vote, after a fiery debate, and lost. Mr. Harris was substituted on the first amendment. The balloting then began. Five ballots were held without a choice. On the sixth, Mr. Harris was elected, all voting for him but himself. It was then moved that his election should be ratified by acclamation, which was lost, in consequence of his again voting against himself.
Mr. Radway moved that the House now take up the remaining candidates, and go into an election for breakfast. This was carried.
On the first ballot there was a tie, half the members favoring one candidate on account of his youth, and half favoring the other on account of his superior size. The President gave the casting vote for the latter, Mr. Messick. This decision created considerable dissatisfaction among the friends of Mr. Ferguson, the defeated candidate, and there was some talk of demanding a new ballot; but in the midst of it, a motion to adjourn was carried, and the meeting broke up at once.
The preparations for supper diverted the attention of the Ferguson faction from the discussion of their grievance for a long time, and then when they would have taken it up again, the happy announcement that Mr. Harris was ready, drove all thought of it to the winds.
We improvised tables by propping up the backs of car-seats, and sat down with hearts full of gratitude to the finest supper that had blessed our vision for seven torturing days. How changed we were from what we had been a few short hours before! Hopeless, sad-eyed misery, hunger, feverish anxiety, desperation, then - thankfulness, serenity, joy too deep for utterance now. That I know was the cheeriest hour of my eventful life. The wind howled, and blew the snow wildly about our prison-house, but they were powerless to distress us any more. I liked Harris. He might have been better done, perhaps, but I am free to say that no man ever agreed with me better than Harris, or afforded me so large a degree of satisfaction. Messick was very well, though rather high-flavored, but for genuine nutritiousness and delicacy of fibre, give me Harris. Messick had his good points - I will not attempt to deny it, nor do I wish to do it - but he was no more fitted for breakfast than a mummy would be, sir - not a bit. Lean? - why, bless me! and tough? Ah, he was very tough! You could not imagine it - you could never imagine anything like it.
After breakfast we elected a man by the name of Walker, from Detroit, for supper, He was very good. I wrote his wife so afterwards. He was worthy of all praise. I shall always remember Walker. He was a little rare, but very good. And then the next morning we had Morgan of Alabama for breakfast. He was one of the finest men I ever sat down to - handsome, educated, refined, spoke several languages fluently - a perfect gentleman - he a perfect gentleman, and singularly juicy. For supper we had that Oregon patriarch, and he was a fraud there is no question about it - old, scraggy, tough, nobody can picture the reality. I finally said, gentlemen, you can do as you like, but I will wait for another election. And Grimes of Illinois said, 'Gentlemen, I will wait also. When you elect a man that has something to recommend him, I shall be glad to join you again.' It soon became evident that there was general dissatisfaction with Davis of Oregon, and so, to preserve the good-will that had prevailed so pleasantly since we had had Harris, an election was called, and the result of it was that Baker of Georgia was chosen. He was spendid! Well, well - after that we had Doolittle, and Hawkins, and McElroy (there was some complaint about McElroy, because he was uncommonly short and thin), and Penrod, and two Smiths, and Bailey (Bailey had a wooden leg, which was clear loss, but he was otherwise good), and an Indian boy, and an organ-grinder, and a gentleman by the name of Buckminster - a poor stick of a vagabond that wasn't any good for company and no account for supper. We continued on in this fashion for a number of days.
Then the hour for the usual election for breakfast having arrived, and there being no opposition, I was duly elected, after which, there being no objections offered, I resigned. Thus I am here.
Thoughts of great deeds were mine, dear Friend, when first
The clouds which wrap this world from youth did pass.
I do remember well the hour which burst
My spirit's sleep: a fresh May-dawn it was,
When I walked forth upon the glittering grass,
And wept, I knew not why: until there rose
From the near school-room, voices, that, alas'
Were but one echo from a world of woes -
The harsh and grating strife of tyrants and of foes.
And then I clasped my hands and looked around,
But none was near to mock my streaming eyes,
Which poured their warm drops on the sunny ground -
So without shame, I spake:- "I will be wise,
And just, and free, and mild, if in me lies
Such power, for I grow weary to behold
The selfish and the strong still tyrannise
Without reproach or check." I then controlled
My tears, my heart grew calm, and I was meek and bold.
And from that hour did I with earnest thought
Heap knowledge from forbidden mines of lore,
Yet nothing that my tyrants knew or taught
I cared to learn, but from that secret store
Wrought linked armour for my soul, before
It might walk forth to war among mankind.
From The Revolt of Islam
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