June–December 1874 The Civil War

A Rebel’s Recollections

A Confederate soldier from a plantation family provides a Southern perspective.
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 …

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