A Rebels Recollections (Part 6)

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

But it was in Richmond that routine was carried to its absurdest extremities. There, everything was done by rule except those things to which system of some sort would have been of advantage, and they were left at loose ends. Among other things a provost system was devised and brought to perfection during the time of martial law. Having once tasted the sweets of despotic rule, its chief refused to resign any part of his absolute sovereignty over the city, even when the reign of martial law ceased by limitation of time. His system of guards and passports was a very marvel of annoying inefficiency. It effectually blocked the way of every man who was intent upon doing his duty, while it gave unconscious but sure protection to spies, blockade-runners, deserters, and absentees without leave from the armies. It was omnipotent for the annoyance of soldier and citizen, but utterly worthless for any good purpose. If a soldier on furlough or even on detached duty arrived in Richmond, he was taken in charge by the provost guards at the railway station, marched to the soldiers' home or some other vile prison house, and kept there in durance during the whole time of his stay. It mattered not how legitimate his papers were, or how evident his correctness of purpose. The system required that he should be locked up, and locked up he was, in every case, until one plucky fellow made fight by appeal to the courts, and so compelled the abandonment of a practice for which there was never any warrant in law or necessity in fact.

Richmond being the railroad centre from which the various lines radiated, nearly every furloughed soldier and officer on leave was obliged to pass through the city, going home and returning. Now to any ordinary intelligence it would seem that a man bearing a full description of himself, and a furlough signed by his captain, colonel, brigadier, division-commander, lieutenant-general, and finally by Robert E. Lee as general-in-chief, might have been allowed to go peaceably to his home by the nearest route. But that was no ordinary intelligence which ruled Richmond. Its ability to find places in which to interfere was unlimited, and it decreed that no soldier should leave Richmond, either to go home or to return direct to the army, without a brown paper passport, signed by an officer appointed for that purpose, and countersigned by certain other persons whose authority to sign or countersign anything nobody was ever able to trace to its source. If any such precaution had been necessary, it would not have been so bad, or even being unnecessary, if there had been the slightest disposition on the part of these passport people to facilitate obedience to their own requirements, the long-suffering officers and men of the army would have uttered no word of complaint. But the facts were exactly the reverse. The passport officials rigidly maintained the integrity of their office hours, and neither entreaty nor persuasion would induce them in any case to anticipate by a single minute the hour for beginning, or to post-pone the time of ending their daily duties. I stood one day in their office in a crowd of fellow soldiers and officers, some on furlough going home, some returning after a brief visit, and still others, like myself, going from one place to another under orders and on duty. The two trains by which most of us had to go were both to leave within an hour, and if we should lose them we must remain twenty-four hours longer in Richmond, where the hotel rate was then sixty dollars a day. In full view of these facts, the passport men, daintily dressed, sat there behind their railing, chatting and laughing for a full hour, suffering both trains to depart and all these men to be left over rather than do thirty minutes' work in advance of the improperly fixed office hour. It resulted from this system that many men on three or five days' leave lost nearly the whole of it in delays, going and returning. Many others were kept in Richmond for want of a passport until their furloughs expired, when they were arrested for absence without leave, kept three or four days in the guardhouse, and then taken as prisoners to their commands, to which they had tried hard to go of their own motion at, the proper time. Finally the abuse became so outrageous that General Lee, in his capacity of general-in-chief, issued a peremptory order forbidding anybody to interfere in any way with officers or soldiers traveling under his written authority.

But the complications of the passport system, before the issuing of that order, were endless. I went once with a friend in search of passports. As I had passed through Richmond a few weeks before, I fancied I knew all about the business of getting the necessary papers. Armed with our furloughs we went straight from the train to the passport office, and presenting our papers to the young man in charge, we asked for the brown paper permits which we must show upon leaving town. The young man prepared them and gave them to us, but this was no longer the end of the matter. These passports must be countersigned, and, strangely enough, my friend's required the sign-manual of Lieutenant X., whose office was in the lower part of the city, while mine must be signed by Lieutenant Y., who made his head-quarters some distance farther up town. As my friend and I were of precisely the same rank, came from the same command, were going to the same place, and held furloughs in exactly the same words, I shall not be deemed unreasonable when I declare my conviction that no imbecility, less fully developed than that which then governed Richmond, could possibly have discovered any reason for requiring that our passports should be countersigned by different people.

But with all the trouble it gave to men intent upon doing their duty, this cumbrous passport system was well-nigh worthless for any of the purposes whose accomplishment might have excused its existence. Indeed, in some cases it served to assist the very people it was intended to arrest. In one instance within my own knowledge, a soldier who wished to visit his home, some hundreds of miles away, failing to get a furlough, shouldered his musket and set out with no scrip for his journey, depending upon his familiarity with the passport system for the accomplishment of his purpose. Going to a railroad station, he planted himself at one of the entrances as a sentinel, and proceeded to demand passports of every comer. Then he got upon the train, and between stations he passed through the cars, again inspecting people's traveling papers. Nobody was surprised at the performance. It was not at all an unusual thing for a sentinel to go out with a train in this way, and nobody doubted that the man had been sent upon this errand.

On another occasion two officers of my acquaintance were going from a southern post to Virginia on some temporary duty, and in their orders there was a clause directing them to "arrest and lodge in the nearest guard-house or jail" all soldiers they might encounter who were absent without leave from their commands. As the train upon which they traveled approached Weldon, N. C., a trio of guards passed through the cars, inspecting passports. This was the third inspection inflicted upon the passengers within a few hours, and, weary of it, one of the two officers met the demand for his passport with a counter demand for the guards' authority to examine it. The poor fellows were there honestly enough, doubtless, doing a duty which was certainly not altogether pleasant, but they had been sent out on their mission with no attendant officer, and no scrap of paper to attest their authority, or even to avouch their right to be on the train at all; wherefore the journeying officer, exhibiting his own orders, proceeded to arrest them. Upon their arrival at Weldon, where their quarters were, he released them, but not without a lesson which provost guards in that vicinity remembered. I tell the story for the sake of showing how great a degree of laxity and carelessness prevailed in the department which was organized especially to enforce discipline by putting everybody under surveillance.

But this was not all. In Richmond, where the passport system had its birth, and where its annoying requirements were most sternly enforced against people having a manifest right to travel, there were still greater abuses. Will the reader believe that while soldiers, provided with the very best possible evidence of their right to enter and leave Richmond, were badgered and delayed as I have explained, in the passport office, the bits of brown paper over which so great an ado was made might be, and were, bought and sold by dealers? That such was the case I have the very best evidence, namely, that of my own senses. If the system was worth anything at all, if it was designed to accomplish any worthy end, its function was to prevent the escape of spies, blockade-runners, and deserters; and yet these were precisely the people who were least annoyed by it. By a system of logic peculiar to themselves, the provost marshal's people seem to have arrived at the conclusion that men deserting the army, acting as spies, or "running the blockade" to the North, were to be found only in Confederate uniforms, and against men wearing these the efforts of the department were especially directed. Non-military men had little difficulty in getting passports at will, and failing this there were brokers' shops in which they could buy them at a comparatively small cost. I knew one case in which an army officer in full uniform, hurrying through Richmond before the expiration of his leave, in order that he might be with his command in a battle then impending, was ordered about from one official to another in a vain search for the necessary passport, until he became discouraged and impatient. He finally went in despair to a Jew, and bought an illicit permit to go to his post of duty.

But even as against soldiers, except those who were manifestly entitled to visit Richmond, the system was by no means effective. More than one deserter, to my own knowledge, passed through Richmond in full uniform, though by what means they avoided arrest, when there were guards and passport inspectors at nearly every corner, I cannot guess.

At one time, when General Stuart, with his cavalry, was encamped within a few miles of the city, he discovered that his men were visiting Richmond by dozens, without leave, which, for some reason or other known only to the provost marshal's office, they were able to do without molestation. General Stuart, finding that this was the case, resolved to take the matter into his own hands, and accordingly with a troop of cavalry he made a descent upon the theatre one night, and arrested those of his men whom he found there. The provost marshal, who it would seem was more deeply concerned for the preservation of his own dignity than for the maintenance of discipline, sent a message to the great cavalier, threatening him with arrest if he should again presume to enter Richmond for the purpose of making arrests. Nothing could have pleased Stuart better. He replied that he should visit Richmond again the next night, with thirty horsemen; that he should patrol the streets in search of absentees from his command; and that General Winder might arrest him if he could. The jingling of spurs was loud in the streets that night, but the provost marshal made no attempt to arrest the defiant horseman.

Throughout the management of affairs in Richmond a cumbrous inefficiency was everywhere manifest. From the president, who insulted his premier for presuming to offer some advice about the conduct of the war, and quarreled with his generals because they failed to see the wisdom of a military movement suggested by himself, down to the pettiest clerk in a bureau, there was everywhere a morbid sensitiveness on the subject of personal dignity, and an exaggerated regard for routine, which seriously impaired the efficiency of the government and greatly annoyed the army. Under all the circumstances the reader will not be surprised to learn that the government at Richmond was by no means idolized by the men in the field.

The wretchedness of its management began to bear fruit early in the war, and the fruit was bitter in the mouths of the soldiers. Mr. Davis's evident hostility to Generals Beauregard and Johnston, which showed itself in his persistent refusal to let them concentrate their men, in his obstinate thwarting of all their plans, and in his interference with the details of army organization on which they were agreed, - a hostility born, as General Thomas Jordan gives us to understand, of their failure to see the wisdom of his plan of campaign after Bull Run, which was to take the army across the lower Potomac at a point where it could never hope to recross, for the purpose of capturing a small force lying there under General Sickles, - was not easily concealed; and the army was too intelligent not to know that a meddlesome and dictatorial president, on bad terms with his generals in the field, and bent upon thwarting their plans, was a very heavy load to carry. The generals held their peace, as a matter of course, but the principal facts were well known to officers and men, and when the time came, in the fall of 1861, for the election of a president under the permanent constitution (Mr. Davis having held office provisionally only, up to that time), there was a very decided disposition on the part of the troops to vote against him. They were told, however, that as there was no candidate opposed to him, he must be elected at any rate, and that the moral effect of showing a divided front to the enemy would be very bad indeed; and in this way only was the undivided vote of the army secured for him. The troops voted for Mr. Davis thus under stress of circumstances, in the hope that all would yet be well; but his subsequent course was not calculated to reinstate him in their confidence, and the wish that General Lee might see fit to usurp all the powers of government was a commonly expressed one, both in the army and in private life, during the last two years of the war.

The favoritism which governed nearly every one of the president's appointments was the leading, though not the only, ground of complaint. And truly the army had reason to murmur, when one of the president's pets was promoted all the way from lieutenant-colonel to lieutenant-general, having been but once in battle, - and then only constructively so, - on his way up, while colonels by the hundred, and brigadier and major generals by the score, who had been fighting hard and successfully all the time, were left as they were. And when this suddenly created general, almost without a show of resistance, surrendered one of the most important strongholds in the country, together with a veteran army of considerable size, is it any wonder that we questioned the wisdom of the president whose blind favoritism had dealt the cause so severe a blow ? But not content with this, as soon as the surrendered general was exchanged the president tried to place him in command of the defenses of Richmond, then hard pressed by General Grant, and was only prevented from doing so by the man's own discovery that the troops would not willingly serve under him.

The extent to which presidential partiality and presidential intermeddling with affairs in the field were carried may be guessed, perhaps, from the fact that the Richmond Examiner, the newspaper which most truly reflected the sentiment of the people, found consolation for the loss of Vicksburg and New Orleans in the thought that the consequent cutting of the Confederacy in two freed the trans-Mississippi armies from paralyzing dictation. In its leading article for October 5, 1864, the Examiner said: -

"The fall of New Orleans and the surrender of Vicksburg proved blessings to the cause beyond the Mississippi. It terminated the régime of pet generals. It put a stop to official piddling in the conduct of the armies and the plan of campaigns. The moment when it became impossible to send orders by telegraph to court officers, at the head of troops who despised them, was the moment of the turning tide."

So marked was the popular discontent, not with Mr. Davis only, but with the entire government and Congress as well, that a Richmond newspaper at one time dared to suggest a counter revolution as the only means left of saving the cause from the strangling it was receiving at the hands of its guardians in Richmond. And the suggestion seemed so very reasonable and timely that it startled nobody, except perhaps a congressman or two who had no stomach for field service.

The approach of the end wrought no change in the temper of the government, and one of its last acts puts in the strongest light its disposition to sacrifice the interests of the army to the convenience of the court. When the evacuation of Richmond was begun, a train load of provisions was sent by General Lee's order from one of the interior dépots to Amelia Court House, for the use of the retreating army, which was without food and must march to that point before it could receive a supply. But the president and his followers were in haste to leave the capital, and needed the train, wherefore it was not allowed to remain at Amelia Court House long enough to be unloaded, but was hurried on to Richmond, where its cargo was thrown out to facilitate the flight of the president and his personal followers, while the starving army was left to suffer in an utterly exhausted country, with no source of supply anywhere within its reach. The surrender of the army was already inevitable, it is true, but that fact in no way justified this last, crowning act of selfishness and cruelty.

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

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