A Rebel's Recollections (Part 2)

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

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


A NEWSPAPER correspondent has told us that the great leader of the German armies, Count Von Moltke, has never read anything - even a history - of our war, and that when questioned on the subject, he has said he could not afford to spend time over "the wrangling of two armed mobs." If he ever said anything of the kind, which is doubtful, his characterization of the two armies had reference, probably, to their condition during the first year or two of the struggle, when they could lay very little claim indeed to any more distinctively military title. The Southern army, at any rate, was simply a vast mob of rather ill-armed young gentlemen from the country. 1 As I have said

1. In order that no reader may misconceive the spirit in which this chapter is written, I wish to say, at the outset, that in commenting upon the material of which the Southern army was made up, nothing has been further from my thought than to reflect, even by implication, upon the character of the Union army or of the men who composed it, for indeed I honor both as highly as anybody can. I think I have outlived whatever war prejudices I may have brought with me out of the struggle, and in writing of some of the better characteristics of the early Virginian volunteers, I certainly have not meant to deny equal or like excellence to their foemen. I happen, however, to know a great deal about the one army and very little about the other, - a state of things consequent upon the peculiar warmth with which we were always greeted whenever we undertook to visit the camps of our friends on the other side. Will the reader please bear in mind, then, that my estimate of the character of the Southern troops is a positive and not a comparative one, and that nothing said in praise of the one army is meant to be a reflection upon the other? Between Bull Run and Appomattox I had ample opportunity to learn respect for the courage and manliness of the men who overcame us, and since the close of the war I have learned to know many of them as tried and true friends, and gentlemen of noblest mold.

in a previous chapter, every gentleman in Virginia, not wholly incapable of rendering service, enlisted at the beginning of the war, and the companies, unarmed, untrained, and hardly even organized, were sent at once to camps of instruction. Here they were in theory drilled and disciplined and made into soldiers, by the little handful of available West-Pointers and the lads from the Military Institute at Lexington. In point of fact, they were only organized and taught the rudiments of the drill before being sent to the front as full-fledged soldiers; and it was only after a year or more of active service in the field that they began to suspect what the real work and the real character of the modern soldier is.

Our ideas of the life and business of a soldier were drawn chiefly from the adventures of Ivanhoe and Charles O'Malley, two worthies with whose personal history almost every man in the army was familiar. The men who volunteered went to war of their own accord, and were wholly unaccustomed to acting on any other than their own motion. They were hardy lovers of field sports, accustomed to out-door life, and in all physical respects excellent material of which to make an army. But they were not used to control of any sort, and were not disposed to obey anybody except for good and sufficient reason given. While actually on drill they obeyed the word of command, not so much by reason of its being proper to obey a command, as because obedience was in that case necessary to the successful issue of a pretty performance in which they were interested. Off drill they did as they pleased, holding themselves gentlemen, and as such bound to consult only their own wills. Their officers were of themselves, chosen by election, and subject, by custom, to enforced resignation upon petition of the men. Only corporals cared sufficiently little for their position to risk any magnifying of their office by the enforcement of discipline. I make of them an honorable exception, out of regard for the sturdy corporal who, at Ashland, marched six of us (a guard detail) through the very middle of a puddle, assigning as his reason for doing so the fact that "It's plagued little authority they give us corporals, and I mean to use that little, anyhow." Even corporals were elected, however, and until December, 1861, I never knew a single instance in which a captain dared offend his men by breaking a noncommissioned officer, or appointing one, without submitting the matter to a vote of the company. In that first instance the captain had to bolster himself up with written authority from head-quarters, and even then it required three weeks of mingled diplomacy and discipline to quell the mutiny which resulted.

With troops of this kind, the reader will readily. understand, a feeling of very democratic equality prevailed, so far at least as military rank had anything to do with it. Officers were no better than men, and so officers and men messed and slept together on terms of entire equality, quarreling and even fighting now and then, in a gentlemanly way, but without a thought of allowing differences of military rank to have any influence in the matter. The theory was that the officers were the creatures of the men, chosen by election to represent their constituency in the performance of certain duties, and that only during good behavior. And to this theory the officers themselves gave in their adhesion in a hundred ways. Indeed, they could do nothing else, inasmuch as they knew no way of quelling a mutiny.

There was one sort of rank, however, which was both maintained and respected from the first, namely, that of social life. The line of demarkation between gentry and common people is not more sharply drawn anywhere than in Virginia. It rests there upon an indeterminate something or other, known as family. To come of a good family is a patent of nobility, and there is no other way whatever by which any man or any woman can find a passage into the charmed circle of Virginia's peerage.

There is no college of heralds, to be sure, to which doubtful cases may be referred, and there is no law governing the matter; but every Virginian knows what families are, and what are not good ones, and so mistakes are impossible. The social position of every man is sharply defined, and every man carried it with him into the army. The man of good family felt himself superior, as in most cases he unquestionably was, to his fellow-soldier of less excellent birth; and this distinction was sufficient, during the early years of the war, to override everything like military rank. In one instance which I remember, a young private asserted his superiority of social standing so effectually as to extort from the lieutenant commanding his company a public apology for an insult offered in the subjection of the private to double duty, as a punishment for absence from roll-call. The lieutenant was brave enough to have taken a flogging at the hands of the insulted private, perhaps, but he could not face the declared sentiment of the entire company, and so he apologized. I have known numberless cases in which privates have declined dinner and other invitations from officers who had presumed upon their shoulder-straps in asking the company of their social superiors.

In the camp of instruction at Ashland, where the various cavalry companies existing in Virginia were sent to be made into soldiers, it was a very common thing indeed for men who grew tired of camp fare to take their meals at the hotel, and one or two of them rented cottages and brought their families there, excusing themselves from attendance upon unreasonably early roll-calls, by pleading the distance from their cottages to the parade-ground. Whenever a detail was made for the purpose of cleaning the camp-ground, the men detailed regarded themselves as responsible for the proper performance of the task by their servants, and uncomplainingly took upon themselves the duty of sitting on the fence and superintending the work. The two or three men of the overseer class who were to be found in nearly every company turned some nimble quarters by standing other men's turns of guard-duty at twenty-five cents an hour; and one young gentleman of my own company, finding himself assigned to a picket rope post, where his only duty was to guard the horses and prevent them, in their untrained exuberance of spirit, from becoming entangled in each other's heels and halters, coolly called his servant and turned the matter over to him, with a rather informal but decidedly pointed injunction not to let those horses get themselves into trouble if he valued his hide. This case coming to the ears of Colonel (afterwards General) Ewell, who was commanding the camp, that officer reorganized the guard service upon principles as novel as they were objectionable to the men.

He required the men to stand their own turns, and, worse than that, introduced the system, in vogue among regular troops, of keeping the entire guard detail at the guardhouse when not on post, an encroachment upon personal liberty which sorely tried the patience of the young cavaliers.

It was in this undisciplined state that the men who afterwards made up the army under Lee were sent to the field to meet the enemy at Bull Run and elsewhere, and the only wonder is that they were ever able to fight at all. They were certainly not soldiers. They were as ignorant of the alphabet of obedience as their officers were of the art of commanding. And yet they acquitted themselves reasonably well, a fact which can be explained only by reference to the causes of their insubordination in camp. These men were the people of the South, and the war was their own; wherefore they fought to win it of their own accord, and not at all because their officers commanded them to do so. Their personal spirit and their intelligence were their sole elements of strength. Death has few terrors for such men, as compared with dishonor, and so they needed no officers at all, and no discipline, to insure their personal good conduct on the field of battle. The same elements of character, too, made them accept hardship with the utmost cheerfulness, as soon as hardship became a necessary condition to the successful prosecution of a war that every man of them regarded as his own. In camp, at Richmond or Ashland, they had shunned all unnecessary privation and all distasteful duty, because they then saw no occasion to endure avoidable discomfort. But in the field they showed themselves great, stalwart men in spirit as well as in bodily frame, and endured cheerfully the hardships of campaigning precisely as they would have borne the fatigues of a hunt, as incidents encountered in the prosecution of their purposes.

During the spring and early summer of 1861, the men did not dream that they were to be paid anything for their services, or even that the government was to clothe them. They had bought their own uniforms, and whenever these wore out they ordered new ones to be sent, by the first opportunity, from home. I remember the very first time the thought of getting clothing from the government ever entered my own mind. I was serving in Stuart's cavalry, and the summer of 1861 was nearly over. My boots had worn out, and as there happened at the time to be a strict embargo upon all visiting on the part of non-military people, I could not get a new pair from home. The spurs of my comrades had made uncomfortable impressions upon my bare feet every day for a week, when some one suggested that I might possibly buy a pair of boots from the quartermaster, who was for the first time in possession of some government property of that description. When I returned with the boots and reported that the official had refused my proffered cash, contenting himself with charging the amount against me as a debit to be deducted from the amount of my pay and clothing allowance, there was great merriment in the camp. The idea that there was anybody back of us in this war - anybody who could, by any ingenuity of legal quibbling, be supposed to be indebted to us for our voluntary services in our own cause - was too ridiculous to be treated seriously. "Pay money" became the standing subject for jests. The card-playing with which the men amused themselves suffered a revolution at once; euchre gave place to poker, played for "pay money," the winnings to fall due when payday should come, - a huge joke which was heartily enjoyed.

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