A Rebels Recollections (Part 6)

A confederate soldier from a plantation-owning family offers the Southern point of view on the Civil War
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[Go to "A Rebel's Recollections" June 1874, July 1874, August 1874, September 1874, October 1874, November 1874, December 1874]

A LITTLE BRIEF AUTHORITY

THE history of the Confederacy, when it shall be fully and fairly written, will appear the story of a dream to those who shall read it, and there are parts of it at least which already seem a nightmare to those of us who helped make it. Founded upon a constitution which jealously withheld from it nearly all the powers of government, without even the poor privilege of existing beyond the moment when some one of the States composing it should see fit to put it to death, the Richmond government nevertheless grew speedily into a despotism, and for four years wielded absolute power over an obedient and uncomplaining people. It tolerated no questioning, brooked no resistance, listened to no remonstrance.

It levied taxes of an extraordinary kind upon a people already impoverished almost to the point of starvation. It made of every man a soldier, and extended indefinitely every man's term of enlistment. Under pretense of enforcing the conscription law it established an oppressive system of domiciliary visits. To preserve order and prevent desertion it instituted and maintained a system of guards and passports, not less obnoxious, certainly, than the worst thing of the sort ever devised by the most paternal of despotisms. In short, a government constitutionally weak beyond all precedent was able for four years to exercise in a particularly offensive way all the powers of absolutism, and that, too, over a people who had been living under republican rule for generations. That such a thing was possible seems at the first glance a marvel, but the reasons for it are not far to seek. Despotisms usually ground themselves upon the theories of extreme democracy, for one thing, and in this case the consciousness of the power to dissolve and destroy the government at will made the people tolerant of its encroachments upon personal and State rights; the more especially, as the presiding genius of the despotism was the man who had refused a promotion to the rank of brigadier-general of volunteers during the Mexican war, on the ground that the general government could not grant such a commission without violating the rights of a State. The despotism of a government presided over by a man so devoted as he to State rights seemed less dangerous than it might otherwise have appeared. His theory was so excellent that people pardoned his practice. It is of some parts of that practice that we shall speak in the present chapter.

Nothing could possibly be idler than speculation upon what might have been accomplished with the resources of the South if they had been properly economized and wisely used. And yet every Southern man must feel tempted to indulge in some such speculation whenever he thinks of the subject at all, and remembers, as he must, how shamefully those resources were wasted and how clumsily they were handled in every attempt to use them in the prosecution of the war. The army was composed, as we have seen in a previous chapter, of excellent material; and under the influence of field service it soon became a very efficient body of well-drilled and well-disciplined men. The skill of its leaders is matter of history, too well known to need comment here. But the government controlling army and leaders was both passively and actively incompetent in a surprising degree. It did, as nearly as possible, all those things which it ought not to have done, at the same time developing a really marvelous genius for leaving undone those things which it ought to have done. The story of its incompetence and its presumption, if it could be adequately told, would read like a romance. Its weakness paralyzed the army and people, and its weakness was the less hurtful side of its character. Its full capacity for ill was best seen in the extraordinary strength it developed whenever action of a wrong-headed sort could work disaster, and the only wonder is that with such an administration at its back the Confederate army was able to keep the field at all. I have already had occasion to explain that the sentiment of the South made it the duty of every man who could bear arms to go straight to the front and to stay there. The acceptance of any less actively military position than that of a soldier in the field was held to be little less than a confession of cowardice; and cowardice, in the eyes of the Southerners, is the one sin which may not be pardoned either in this world or the next. The strength of this sentiment it is difficult for anybody who did not live in its midst to conceive, and its effect was to make worthy men spurn everything like civic position. To go where the bullets were whistling was the one course open to gentlemen who held their honor sacred and their reputation dear. And so the offices in Richmond and elsewhere, the bureaus of every sort, on the proper conduct of which so much depended, were filled with men willing to be sneered at as dwellers in "bomb-proofs" and holders of "life insurance policies."

Nor were the petty clerkships the only positions which brought odium upon their incumbents. If an able-bodied man accepted even a seat in Congress, he did so at peril of his reputation for patriotism and courage, and very many of the men whose wisdom was most needed in that body positively refused to go there at the risk of losing a chance to be present with their regiments in battle. Under the circumstances, no great degree of strength or wisdom was to be looked for at the hands of Congress, and certainly that assemblage of gentlemen has never been suspected of showing much of either; while the administrative machinery presided over by the small officials and clerks who crowded Richmond was at once a wonder of complication and a marvel of inefficiency.

But, if we may believe the testimony of those who were in position to know the facts, the grand master of incapacity, whose hand was felt everywhere, was President Davis himself. Not content with perpetually meddling in the smallest matters of detail, and prescribing the petty routine of office work in the bureau, he interfered, either directly or through his personal subordinates, with military operations which no man, not present with the army, could be competent to control, and which he, probably, was incapable of justly comprehending in any case. With the history of his quarrels with the generals in the field, and the paralyzing effect they had upon military operations, the public is already familiar. Leaving things of that nature to the historian, I confine myself to smaller matters, my purpose being merely to give the reader an idea of the experiences of a Confederate soldier, and to show him Confederate affairs as they looked when seen from the inside.

I can hardly hope to make the ex-soldier of the Union understand fully how we on the other side were fed in the field. He fought and marched with a skilled commissariat at his back, and, for his further staff of comfort, had the Christian and Sanitary commissions, whose handy tin cups and other camp conveniences came to us only through the uncertain and irregular channel of abandonment and capture; and unless his imagination be a vivid one, he will not easily conceive the state of our commissariat or the privations we suffered as a consequence of its singularly bad management. The first trouble was, that we had for a commissary-general a crotchety doctor, some of whose acquaintances had for years believed him insane. Aside from his suspected mental aberration, and the crotchets which had made his life already a failure, he knew nothing whatever of the business belonging to the department under his control, his whole military experience having consisted of a few years' service as a lieutenant of cavalry in one of the Territories, many years before the date of his appointment as chief of subsistence in the Confederacy. Wholly without experience to guide him, he was forced to evolve from his own badly balanced intellect whatever system he should adopt, and from the beginning of the war until the early part of the year 1865, the Confederate armies were forced to lean upon this broken reed in the all-important matter of a food supply. The generals commanding in the field, we are told on the very highest authority, protested, suggested, remonstrated almostdaily, but their remonstrances were unheeded and their suggestions set at naught. At Manassas, where the army was well-nigh starved out in the very beginning of the war, food might have been abundant but for the obstinacy of this one man. On our left lay a country unsurpassed, and almost unequaled, in productiveness. It was rich in grain and meat, these being its special products. A railroad, with next to nothing to do, penetrated it, and its stores of food were nearly certain to be exposed to the enemy before any other part of the country should be conquered. The obvious duty of the commissary-general, therefore, was to draw upon that section for the supplies which were both convenient and abundant. The chief of subsistence ruled otherwise, however, thinking it better to let that source of supply lie exposed to the first advance of the enemy, while he drew upon the Richmond depots for a daily ration, and shipped it by the overtasked line of railway leading from the capital to Manassas. It was nothing to him that he was thus exhausting the rear and crippling the resources of the country for the future. It was nothing to him that in the midst of plenty the army was upon a short allowance of food. It was nothing that the shipments of provisions from Richmond by this railroad seriously interfered with other important interests. System was everything, and this was a part of his system. The worst of it was, that in this all-important branch of the service experience and organization wrought little if any improvement as the war went on, so that as the supplies and the means of transportation grew smaller, the undiminished inefficiency of the department produced disastrous results. The army, suffering for food, was disheartened by the thought that the scarcity was due to the exhaustion of the country's resources. Red tape was supreme, and no sword was permitted to cut it. I remember one little circumstance, which will serve to illustrate the absoluteness with which system was suffered to override sense in the administration of the affairs of the subsistence department. I served for a time on the coast of South Carolina, a country which produces rice in great abundance, and in which fresh pork and mutton might then be had almost for the asking, while the climate is wholly unsuited to the making of flour or bacon. Just at that time, however, the officials of the commissary department saw fit to feed the whole army on bacon and flour, articles which, if given to troops in that quarter of the country at all, must be brought several hundred miles by rail. The local commissary officers made various suggestions looking to the use of the provisions of which the country round about was full, but, so far as I could learn, no attention whatever was paid to them. At the request of one of these post commissaries, I wrote an elaborate and respectful letter on the subject, setting forth the fact that rice, sweet potatoes, corn meal, hominy, grits, mutton, and pork existed in great abundance in the immediate neighborhood of the troops, and could be bought for less than one third the cost of the flour and bacon we were eating. The letter was signed by the post commissary, and forwarded through the regular channels, with the most favorable indorsements possible, but it resulted in nothing. The department presently found it impossible to give us full rations of bacon and flour, but it still refused to think of the remedy suggested. It cut down the ration instead, thus reducing the men to a state of semi-starvation in a country full of food. Relief came at last in the shape of a technicality, else it would not have been allowed to come at all. A vigilant captain discovered that the men were entitled by law to commutation in money for their rations, at fixed rates, and acting upon this the men were able to buy, with the money paid them in lieu of rations, an abundance of fresh meats and vegetables; and most of the companies managed at the same time to save a considerable fund for future use out of the surplus, so great was the disparity between the cost of the food they bought and that which the government wished to furnish them.

The indirect effect of all this stupidity - for it can be called by no softer name - was almost as bad as its direct results. The people at home, finding that the men in the field were suffering for food, undertook to assist in supplying them. With characteristic profusion they packed boxes and sent them to their soldier friends and acquaintances, particularly during the first year of the war. Sometimes these supplies were permitted to reach their destination, and sometimes they were allowed to decay in a depot because of some failure on the part of the sender to comply with the mysterious canons of official etiquette. In either case they were wasted. If they got to the army they were used wastefully by the men, who could not carry them and had no place of storage for them. If they were detained anywhere, they remained there until some change of front made it necessary to destroy them. There seemed to be nobody invested with sufficient authority to turn them to practical account. I remember a box of my own, packed with cooked meats, vegetables, fruits, - all perishable, - which got within three miles of my tent, but could get no farther, although I hired a farmer's wagon with which to bring it to camp, where my company was at that moment in sore need of its contents. There was some informality, - the officer having it in charge could not tell me what, - about the box itself, or its transmission, or its arrival, or something else, and so it could not be delivered to me, though I had the warrant of my colonel in writing, for receiving it. Dismissing my wagoner, I told the officer in charge that the contents of the box were of a perishable character, and that rather than have them wasted, I should be glad to have him accept the whole as a present to his mess; but he declined, on the ground that to accept the present would be a gross irregularity so long as there was an embargo upon the package. I received the box three months later, after its contents had become entirely worthless. Now this is but one of a hundred cases within my own knowledge, and it will serve to show the reader how the inefficiency of the subsistence department led to a wasteful expenditure of those private stores of food which constituted our only reserve for the future.

And there was never any improvement. From the beginning to the end of the war the commissariat was just sufficiently well managed to keep the troops in a state of semi-starvation. On one occasion the company of artillery to which I was attached lived for thirteen days, in winter quarters, on a daily dole of half a pound of corn meal per man, while food in abundance was stored within five miles of its camp - a railroad connecting the two points, and the wagons of the battery lying idle all the while. This happened because the subsistence department had not been officially informed of our transfer from one battalion to another, though the fact of the transfer was under their eyes, and the order of the chief of artillery making it was offered them in evidence. These officers were not to blame. They knew the temper of their chief, and had been taught the omnipotence of routine.

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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