A Rebel's Recollections (Part 1)

A confederate soldier from a plantation-owning family offers the Southern point of view on the Civil War

Meantime a terrible dread was brooding over the minds of the Virginian people. They were brave men and patriots, who would maintain their honor at any cost. They were ready to sacrifice their lives and their treasures in a hopeless struggle about an abstraction, should the time come when their sense of right and honor required the sacrifice at their hands. There was no cowardice and no hesitation to be expected of them when the call should come. But they dreaded war, and most of them prayed that it might never be. They saw only desolation in its face. They knew it would lay waste their fields and bring want upon their families, however it might result in regard to the great political questions involved in it. And so they refused to go headlong into a war which meant for them destruction. Some of them, believing that there was no possibility of avoiding the struggle, thought it the part of wisdom to accept the inevitable and begin hostilities at once, while the North was still but poorly prepared for aggressive measures. But the majority of the Virginians were disposed to wait and to avoid war altogether, if that should prove possible. These said, "We should remain quiet until some overt act of hostility shall make resistance necessary." And these were called cowards and fogies by the brave men of the hustings already alluded to.

There was still another class of men who were opposed to secession in any case. Of these, William C. Wickham, of Hanover, and Jubal Early will serve as examples. They thought secession unnecessary and imprudent in any conceivable event. They believed that it offered no remedy for existing or possible ills, and that it could result only in the prostration of the South. They opposed it, therefore, with all their might; not only as not yet called for, but as suicidal in any event, and not to be thought of at all. And yet these men, when the war came, believed it to be their duty to side with their State, and fought so manfully in behalf of the South as to make themselves famous military leaders.

Why, then, the reader doubtless asks, if this was the temper of the Virginians, did Virginia secede after all? I answer, because circumstances ultimately so placed the Virginians that they could not, without cowardice and dishonor, do otherwise; and the Virginians are brave men and honorable ones. They believed, as I have said, in the abstract right of any State to secede at will. Indeed, this right was to them as wholly unquestioned and unquestionable as is the right of the States to establish free schools, or to do any other thing pertaining to local self-government. The question of the correctness or incorrectness of the doctrine is not now to the purpose. The Virginians, almost without an exception, believed and had always believed it absolutely, and believing it, they held of necessity that the general government had no right, legal or moral, to coerce a seceding State; and so, when the President called upon Virginia for her quota of troops with which to compel the return of the seceding States, she could not possibly obey without doing that which her people believed to be an outrage upon the rights of sister commonwealths, for which, as they held, there was no warrant in law or equity.

She heartily condemned the secession of South Carolina and the rest as unnecessary, ill-advised, and dangerous; but their secession did not concern her except as a looker-on, and she had not only refused to be a partaker in it, but had also felt a good deal of indignation against the men who were thus endangering the peace of the land. When she was called upon to assist in reducing these States to submission, however, she could no longer remain a spectator. She must furnish the troops, and so assist in doing that which she believed to be utterly wrong, or she must herself withdraw from the Union. The question was thus narrowed down to this: Should Virginia seek safety in dishonor, or should she meet destruction in doing that which she believed to be right? Such a question was not long to be debated. Two days after the proclamation was published Virginia seceded, not because she wanted to secede, - not because she believed it wise, - but because, as she understood the matter, the only other course open to her would have been cowardly and dishonorable.

Now, unless I am sadly mistaken, the Virginians understood what secession implied much more perfectly than did the rest of the Southern people. They anticipated no child's play, and having cast in their lot with the South, they began at once to get ready for war. From one end of the State to the other, every county seat became a drill field. The courts suspended their sessions, on the ground that it was not a proper time for the enforced collection of debts. Volunteer companies soon drained the militia organization of its men. Public opinion said that every man who did not embrace the very surest and earliest opportunity of getting himself mustered into actual service was a coward; and so, to withdraw from the militia and join a volunteer company, and make a formal tender of services to the State, became absolutely essential to the maintenance of one's reputation as a gentleman.

The drilling, of which there was literally no end, was simply funny. Maneuvers of the most utterly impossible sort were carefully taught to the men. Every amateur officer had his own pet system of tactics, and the effect of the incongruous teachings, when brought out in battalion drill, closely resembled that of the music at Mr. Bob Sawyer's party, where each guest sang the chorus to the tune he knew best.

The militia colonels, having assumed a sort of general authority over the volunteer companies which had been formed out of the old militia material, were not satisfied with daily musterings of the men under their captains, - musterings which left the field-officers nothing to do, - and so in a good many of the counties they ordered all the men into camp at the county seat, and drew upon the people for provisions irregular, disorderly affairs, over which no rod of discipline could very well be held, as the men were not legally soldiers, and the only punishment possible for disobedience or neglect of duty was a small fine, which the willful men, with true Virginian contempt for money in small sums, paid cheerfully as a tax upon jollity.

The camping, however, was enjoyable in itself, and as most of the men had nothing else to do, the attendance upon roll-call was a pretty full one. Every man brought a servant or two with him, of course. How else were his boots and his accouterments to be kept clean, his horse to be groomed, and his meals cooked? Most of the ladies came, too, in their carriages every morning, returning to their homes only as night came on; and so the camps were very picturesque and very delightful places to be in. All the men wore epaulets of a gorgeousness rarely equaled except in portraits of field-marshals, and every man was a hero in immediate prospect.

One day an alarming report came, to the effect that a little transport steamer, well known in James River, was on her way up to Richmond with ten thousand troops on board, and instantly the camps at the courthouses along the railroads were astir. It entered into nobody's head to inquire where so many troops could have come from at a time when the entire active force of the United States army from Maine to Oregon was hardly greater than that; nor did anybody seem surprised that the whole ten thousand had managed to bestow themselves on board a steamer the carrying capacity of which had hitherto been about four or five hundred men. The report was accepted as true, and everybody believed that the ten thousand men would be poured into Richmond's defenseless streets within an hour or two. In the particular county to which I have alluded in the beginning of this chapter, the cavalry captain sent for half a dozen grindstones, and set his men to grinding their sabres, - a process which utterly ruined the blades, of course. The militia colonel telegraphed a stump speech or two to Richmond, which did no particular harm, as the old station agent who officiated as operator could not for his life send a message of more than three words so that it could be read at the other end of the line. A little telegraphic swearing came back over the wires, but beyond that the colonel's glowing messages resulted in nothing. Turning his attention to matters more immediately within his control, therefore, he ordered the drums to beat, and assembling the men he marched them boldly down to the railroad station, where mounting a goods box he told them that the time for speech-making was now past; that the enemy (I am not sure that he did not say "vandal," and make some parenthetical remarks about "Attila flags" and things of that sort which were favorites with him) was now at our very thresholds; that he (the colonel) had marched his command to the depot in answer to the call of his country; that they would proceed thence by rail to Richmond and at once encounter the enemy, etc., etc., etc. He had already telegraphed, he said, to General Lee and to Governor Letcher, requesting them to dispatch a train (the colonel would have scorned to say "send cars" even in a telegram), and the iron horse was doubtless already on its way.

No train came, however, and after nightfall the men were marched back to their quarters in the court-house.

A few days later some genuine orders came from Richmond, accepting the proffered services of all the companies organized in the county, and ordering all, except the one cavalry troop, into camp at Richmond. These orders, by some strange oversight, the colonel explained, were addressed, not to him as colonel, but to the several captains individually. He was not disposed to stand on ceremony, however, he said; and so, without waiting for the clerical error to be rectified, he would comply with the spirit of the order, and take the troops to Richmond as soon as the necessary transportation should arrive. Transportation was a good, mouth-filling word, which suited the colonel exactly. In order that there should be no delay or miscarriage, he marched the men a hundred yards down the hill to the station, ten hours in advance of the time at which the cars were to be there; and as there was nothing else to do, he and his lieutenant thought the occasion a good one for the making of a speech apiece. The colonel expressed his hearty sympathy with the woes of the cavalry, who were to be left at home, while the infantry was winning renown. And yet, he said, he had expected this from the first. The time had been, he explained, when the cavalry was the quick-moving arm of the service, but now that the iron horse - The reader must imagine the rest of that grandiloquent sentence. I value my reputation for veracity too much to risk it by following the colonel in this, his supreme burst of impassioned oratory. He was sorry for the cavalry, but they should console themselves with the thought that, as preservers of order in the community and protectors of their homes, they would not be wholly useless in their own humble way; and should any of them visit the army, they would always meet a hearty welcome in his camp. For the present his head-quarters would be in the Spottswood Hotel, and he would be glad, whenever military duty did not too greatly absorb his attention, to grasp the hand of any member of the troop who, wishing to catch a glimpse of real warfare, should seek him there.

The train came, after a while, and the unappreciative railroad men obstinately insisted that the State paid for the passage of certain designated companies only, and that these distinguished field-officers, if they traveled by that train at all, must pay their way at regular passenger rates. The colonel and his lieutenant pocketed the insult and paid their fare; but when, upon the arrival of the troops at Richmond, nobody seemed to know anything about these field-officers, and the companies were sent, without them, into camps of instruction, the gallant leaders returned by passenger train to their homes. The colonel came back, he said in a speech at the station, still further to stir the patriotism of the people. He had been in consultation with the authorities in Richmond; and while it would not be proper for him to reveal even to these, his patriotic countrymen, the full plan of campaign confided to him as a field-officer, he might at least say to them that the government, within ten days, would have fifteen thousand men in line on the Potomac, and then, with perchance a bloody but very brief struggle, this overwhelming force would dictate terms to the tyrants at Washington.

This time the colonel got himself unmistakably laughed at, and, so far as I have heard, he made no more speeches.

Meantime it had become evident to everybody that a very real and a very terrible war was in prospect, and there was no longer any disposition to tolerate nonsense of the sort I have been describing. As fast as arrangements could be made for their accommodation, the volunteers from every part of the State were ordered into camps of instruction at Richmond and Ashland. As soon as any company was deemed fit for service, it was sent to the front and assigned to a regiment. Troops from other States were constantly pouring into Richmond, and marching thence to the armies which were forming in the field. The speech-making was over forever, and the work of the war had begun.

[Go to "A Rebel's Recollections" June 1874, July 1874, August 1874, September 1874, October 1874, November 1874, December 1874]

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