June–December 1874 The Civil War

A Rebel’s Recollections

A Confederate soldier from a plantation family provides a Southern perspective.
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Throughout the war, The Atlantic’s coverage reflected an almost exclusively Northern point of view. But nearly a decade after the war ended, the magazine offered a Southerner’s perspective, via a seven-part series by George Cary Eggleston, whose family had owned a Virginia plantation and who had fought for the South under J. E. B. Stuart.

When word first got out that The Atlantic would serve as a platform for a Confederate soldier, “there was,” Eggleston would later recall, “a good deal of not very friendly surprise.” But Eggleston’s exposition of the Southern perspective was so sensitively handled that when the second installment appeared, The Atlantic’s editor, William Dean Howells, informed him that former naysayers “had begun to sing psalms in his ears.” Franklin Sanborn, one of John Brown’s funders (and the author of “John Brown and His Friends”), even invited Eggleston to a dinner at which, Eggleston later recalled, “there should be nobody present but ‘original abolitionists’ and my rebel self.”

—Sage Stossel
J. E. B. Stuart, the flamboyant Confederate commander of the cavalry in Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, in an 1863 portrait (George S. Cook/National Portrait Gallery)

The reader must make of himself, for the time at least, a Confederate. He must put himself in the place of the Southerners and look at some things through their eyes …

I shall make no attempt whatever to prove my postulates, but any one interested in these pages will find it to his advantage to accept them, one and all, as proved, pending the reading of what is to follow. After that he may relapse as speedily as he pleases into his own opinions. Here are the postulates:—

1. The Southerners honestly believed in the right of secession, not merely as a revolutionary, but as a constitutional right. They not only held that whenever any people finds the government under which it is living oppressive and subversive of the ends for which it was instituted, it is both the right and the duty of that people to throw off the government and establish a new one in its stead; but they believed also that every State in the Union held the reserved right, under the constitution, to withdraw peaceably from the Union at pleasure.

2. They believed that every man’s allegiance was due to his State only, and that it was only by virtue of the State’s continuance in the Union that any allegiance was due to the general government at all; wherefore the withdrawal of a State from the Union would of itself absolve all the citizens of that State from whatever obligations they were under to maintain and respect the Federal constitution. In other words, patriotism, as the South understood it, meant devotion to one’s State, and only a secondary and consequential devotion to the Union, existing as a result of the State’s action in making itself a part of the Union, and terminable at any time by the State’s withdrawal.

3. They were as truly and purely patriotic in their secession and in the fighting which followed, as were the people of the North in their adherence to the Union itself. The difference was one of opinion as to what the duties of a patriot were, and not at all a difference in the degree of patriotism existing in the two sections.

4. You, reader, who shouldered your musket and fought like the hero you are, for the Union and the old flag, if you had been bred at the South, and had understood your duty as the Southerners did theirs, would have fought quite as bravely for secession as you did against it; and you would have been quite as truly a hero in the one case as in the other, because in either you would have risked your life for the sake of that which you held to be the right. If the reader will bear all this in mind we shall get on much better than we otherwise could, in our effort to catch a glimpse of the war from a Southern point of view …

the men who made the army

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 …

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 …

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 … And yet they acquitted themselves reasonably well … 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 …

They thought too, that, fighting on their own soil, in an essentially defensive struggle, they would have some advantage, as they certainly did … These were the grounds of their hopes; but had there been no hope for them at all, I verily believe they would have fought all the same. Certainly they had small reason to hope for success after the campaign of 1863, but they fought on nevertheless, until they could fight no more. Let the reader remember that as the Southerners understood the case, they could not, without a complete sacrifice of honor, do anything else than fight on until utterly crushed …

the conduct of the women

The women of the South could hardly have been more desperately in earnest than their husbands and brothers and sons were, in the prosecution of the war …

The fact that all the men capable of bearing arms went into the army, and staid there, gave to every woman in the South a personal interest not only in the general result of each battle, but in the list of killed and wounded as well … They believed it to be the duty of every able-bodied man to serve in the army, and they eagerly sent the men of their own homes to the field, frowning undisguisedly upon every laggard until there were no laggards left …

In Richmond, when the hospitals were filled with wounded men brought in from the seven days’ fighting with McClellan, and the surgeons found it impossible to dress half the wounds, a band was formed, consisting of nearly all the married women of the city, who took upon themselves the duty of going to the hospitals and dressing wounds from morning till night …

Every Confederate remembers gratefully the reception given him when he went into any house where these women were. Whoever he might be, and whatever his plight, if he wore the gray he was received, not as a beggar or tramp, not even as a stranger, but as a son of the house, for whom it held nothing too good, and whose comfort was the one care of all its inmates, even though their own must be sacrificed in securing it …

But if the cheerfulness of the women during the war was remarkable, what shall we say of the way in which they met its final failure and the poverty that came with it? The end of the war completed the ruin which its progress had wrought. Women who had always lived in luxury, and whose labors and sufferings during the war were lightened by the consciousness that in suffering and laboring they were doing their part toward the accomplishment of the end upon which all hearts were set, were now compelled to face not temporary but permanent poverty, and to endure, without a motive or a sustaining purpose, still sorer privations than any they had known in the past … They kept their spirits up through it all, however, and improvised a new social system in which absolute poverty, cheerfully borne, was the badge of respectability. Everybody was poor except the speculators who had fattened upon the necessities of the women and children, and so poverty was essential to anything like good repute. The return of the soldiers made some sort of social festivity necessary, and “starvation parties” were given, at which it was understood that the givers were wholly unable to set out refreshments of any kind. In the matter of dress, too, the general poverty was recognized, and every one went clad in whatever he or she happened to have. The want of means became a jest, and nobody mourned over it; while all were laboring to repair their wasted fortunes as they best could …

of the time when money was “easy”

The modest Dunker Church, seen in this September 1862 stereograph of Antietam, created a poignant backdrop for one of the war’s bloodiest battles. (Library of Congress)

The financial system adopted by the Confederate government was singularly simple and free from technicalities. It consisted chiefly in the issue of treasury notes enough to meet all the expenses of the government …

We knew only that money was astonishingly abundant. Provisions fell short sometimes, and the supply of clothing was not always as large as we should have liked, but nobody found it difficult to get money enough …

We were never able to determine what was a fair price for anything. We fell into the habit of paying whatever was asked, knowing that to-morrow we should have to pay more …

The feeling was universal that the speculators were fattening upon the necessities of the country and the sufferings of the people. Nearly all mercantile business was regarded at least with suspicion, and much of it fell into the hands of people with no reputations to lose …

The financial condition got steadily worse to the end. I believe the highest price, relatively, I ever saw paid, was for a pair of boots. A cavalry officer, entering a little country store, found there one pair of boots which fitted him. He inquired the price. “Two hundred dollars,” said the merchant. A five hundred dollar bill was offered, but the merchant, having no smaller bills, could not change it. “Never mind,” said the cavalier, “I’ll take the boots anyhow. Keep the change; I never let a little matter of three hundred dollars stand in the way of a trade.”

That was on the day before Lee’s surrender, but it would not have been an impossible occurrence at any time during the preceding year …

It is impossible to say precisely when the conviction became general in the South that we were to be beaten. I cannot even decide at what time I myself began to think the cause a hopeless one, and I have never yet found one of my fellow-Confederates, though I have questioned many of them, who could tell me with any degree of certainty the history of his change from confidence to despondency …

Up to the hour of the evacuation of Richmond, the newspapers were as confident as ever of victory. During the fall of 1864 they even believed, or professed to believe, that our triumph was already at hand. The Richmond Whig of October 5, 1864, said: “That the present condition of affairs, compared with that of any previous year at the same season, at least since 1861, is greatly in our favor, we think can hardly be denied” …

And yet I think we must have known from the beginning of the campaign of 1864 that the end was approaching …

If General Grant had failed to break our power of resistance by his sledge-hammer blows, it speedily became evident that he would be more successful in wearing it away by the constant friction of a siege … During the first two months of the siege my own company, which numbered about a hundred and fifty men, lost sixty, in killed and wounded, an average of a man a day …

There was no longer any room for hope except in a superstitious belief that Providence would in some way interfere in our behalf, and to that very many betook themselves for comfort … I think hardly any man in that army entertained a thought of coming out of the struggle alive …

Prayer-meetings were held in every tent. Testaments were in every hand, and a sort of religious ecstasy took possession of the army … Men in this mood make the best of soldiers, and at no time were the fighting qualities of the Southern army better than during the siege …

When at last the beginning of the end came, in the evacuation of Richmond and the effort to retreat, everything seemed to go to pieces at once. The best disciplinarians in the army relaxed … their reins. The best troops became disorganized, and hardly any command marched in a body. Companies were mixed together, parts of each being separated by detachments of others … The battery to which I was attached was captured near Amelia Court House, and within a mile or two of my home.

Read the full text of this article here.

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