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Historic Diaries: Emily Quiner, 1863

July 3, 1863: Onto a Mississippi Riverboat at Cairo

Editor's Note:

Cairo, Ill.: Cairo is situated in extreme southwestern Illinois at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, near Kentucky and Missouri. Arriving here, Emily had reached the edge of war territory. Both Missouri and Kentucky were border states: they sanctioned slavery, but did not secede. Kentucky was divided between a Union-sympathizing legislature and a secessionist governor; as a result, it remained neutral. Missouri was so torn apart that internal civil war ravaged the state throughout the war years.


In September 1861, Confederate forces had broken Kentucky's neutrality and seized the river town of Columbus, to fortify the Mississippi. In November 1861, Union brigadier general Ulysses S. Grant set out from Cairo with 3,000 troops hoping to capture Belmont, situated across from Columbus on the Missouri bank. He was unsuccessful, and the Confederates remained in control of the southern Mississippi River until February 1862, when Grant captured Forts Henry and Donelson in Tennessee and the Confederates withdrew from Columbus.


A drawing of Fort Cairo by Alexander Simplot


An 1863 photograph of a steamboat in Cairo


View the entire handwritten diary.


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Passed the night comfortably. The stopping of the cars early this morning awakened us. Found ourselves standing still in an interminable swamp with two or three feet of water as far as you could see on either side of the track, with rank grass and trees and weeds. The cars were very close [hot and stuffy], and I very imprudently opened a window [?] my repenting of it immediately, however, for the first breath of the air was like pestilence, I came near fainting and did not recover from the effect of this for some time. After stopping here for something like half an hour owing to some derangement in the machinery, we moved on and soon entered the city of Cairo. The most miserable, desolate-looking place on the face of the earth is this same Cairo. We only stayed long enough to go down to the wharf and get aboard the steamer, but that was as long as we cared about staying. We hardly got a glimpse of any body but negroes, and poor white folks.


Went on board the steamer Hope, got our breakfast, and soon had made ourselves comfortable for the day. The captain took us up to the pilot house where it was cool, and enjoyed the prospect very much. The Mississippi River was quite a disappointment to me, instead of the majestic stream] of which so much has been said and sung, I saw only a comparatively narrow and a superlatively muddy stream, that looked anything but majestic, as the steamer moved down, however, it widened and seemed more like my preconceived notions of old Mississippi. We reached Columbus early in the forenoon, stopped about two hours. It looks like a strong military post, the cannon flanked on the heights and the white tents of the garrison in the distance give it quite an aire militaire, while the mule teams and contrabands which throng the streets give one quite an idea of a Kentucky town. We stayed in the pilot house until dinner time. On the opposite shore from Columbus is the site of the famous battle of Belmont, so disastrous to us. It is an innocent looking spot enough, being a level piece of ground, partially covered with timber. It is hard to realize that these places have ever been the scene of such terrible conflicts. Met a brother-in-law of Gov. Salomon on the boat, he is a very pleasant man, said he would send us transportation to Vicksburg. He offered us wine before we had been acquainted fifteen minutes, which owing to our temperance principles we were obliged to refuse. Went to bed tonight very tired.

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