The Wormwood Cordial of History: With a Fable
THE great war which is upon us is shaking us down into solidity as corn is shaken down in the measure. We were heaped up in our own opinion, and sometimes running over in expressions of it. This rude jostling is showing us the difference between bulk and weight, space and substance.
In one point of view we have a right to be proud of our inexperience, and hardly need to blush for our shortcomings. These are the tributes we are paying to our own past innocence and tranquillity. We have lived a peaceful life so long that the traditional cunning and cruelty of a state of warfare have become almost obsolete among us. No wonder that hard men, bred in foreign camps, find us too good-natured, wanting in hatred towards our enemies. We can readily believe that it is a special Providence which has suffered us to meet with a reverse or two, just enough to sting, without crippling us, only to wake up the slumbering passion which is the legitimate and chosen instrument of the higher powers for working out the ends of justice and the good of man.
There are a few far-seeing persons to whom our present sudden mighty conflict may not have come as a surprise; but to all except these it is a prodigy as startling as it would be, if the farmers of the North should find a ripened harvest of blood-red ears of maize upon the succulent stalks of midsummer. We have lived for peace: as individuals, to get food, comfort, luxuries for ourselves and others ; as communities, to insure the best conditions we could for each human being, so that he might become what God meant him to be. The verdict of the world was, that we were succeeding. Many came to us from the old civilizations; few went away from us, and most of these such as we could spare without public loss.
We had almost forgotten the meaning and use of the machinery of destruction. We had come to look upon our fortresses as the ornaments, rather than as the defences of our harbors. Our war-ships were the Government’s yacht-squadron, our arsenals museums for the entertainment of peaceful visitors. The roar of cannon has roused us from this Arcadian dream. A ship of the line, we said, reproachfully, costs as much as a college; but we are finding out that its masts are a part of the fence round the college. The Springfield Arsenal inspired a noble poem ; but that, as we are learning, was not all it was meant for. What poets would be born to us in the future without the “placida quies ” which “ sub libertate ” the sword alone can secure for our children ?
It is all plain, but it has been an astonishment to us, as our war-comet was to the astronomers. The comet, as some of them say, brushed us with its tail as it passed; yet nobody finds us the worse for it. So, too, we have been brushed lightly by mishap, as we ought to have been, and as we ought to have prayed to be, no doubt, if we had known what was good for us; yet at this very moment we stand stronger, more hopeful, more united than ever before in our history.
Misfortunes are no new things; yet a man suffering from furuncles will often speak as if Job had never known anything about them. We will take up a book lying by us, and find all the evils, or most of those we have been complaining of, described in detail, as they happened eight or ten generations before our time.
It was in “ a struggle for NATIONAL independence, liberty ofconscience, freedom of the seas, against sacerdotal and worldabsorbing tyranny.” A plotting despot is at the bottom of it. “ While the riches of the Indies continue, he thinketh he will be able to weary out all other princes.”
But England had soldiers and statesmen ready to fight, even though “ Indies”—the King Cotton of that day — were declared arbiter of the contest. “ I pray God,” said one of them, “ that I live not to see this enterprise quail, and with it the utter subversion of religion throughout Christendom.” —" The war doth defend England. Who is he that will refuse to spend his life and living in it ? It her Majesty consume twenty thousand men in the cause, the experimented men that will remain will double that strength to the realm.” — “ The freehold of England will he worth but. little, if this action quail; and therefore I wish no subject to spare his purse towards it.” —" God hath stirred up this action to be a school to breed up soldiers to defend the freedom of England, which through these long times of peace and quietness is brought into a most dangerous estate, if it should be attempted. Our delicacy is such that we are already weary ; yet this journey is nought in respect to the misery and hardship that soldiers must and do endure.”
“ There can be no doubt,” the historian remarks, " that the organization and discipline of English troops were in anything but a satisfactory state at that period.”—" The soldiers required shoes and stockings, bread and meat, and for these articles there were not the necessary funds.”—" There came no penny of treasure over.” —“There is much still due. They cannot get a penny, their credit is spent, they perish for want of victuals and clothing in great numbers. The whole are ready to mutiny.” — " There was no soldier yet able to buy himself a pair of hose, and it is too, too great shame to see how they go, and it kills their hearts to show themselves among men.” — These " poor subjects were no better than abjects,” said the Lieutenant-General. “ There is but a small number of the first bands left,” said another, —" and those so pitiful and unable to serve again as I leave to speak further of them, to avoid grief to your heart. A monstrous fault there hath been somewhere ” Of what nature the " monstrous fault ” was we may conjecture from the language of the Commander-in-Chief. “ There can be no doubt of our driving the enemy out of the country through famine and excessive charges, if every one of us will put our minds to forward, without making a miserable gain by the wars.” ( We give the Italics as we find them in the text.) He believed that much of the work might be speedily done ; for he " would undertake to furnish from hence, upon two months’ warning, a navy for strong and tall ships, with their furniture and mariners.”
In the mean time " there was a whisper of peace-overtures,” " rumors which, whether true or false, were most pernicious in their effects ”; for " it was war, not peace,” that the despot " intended,” and the " most trusty counsellors [of England] knew to be inevitable.” Worse than this, there was treachery of the most dangerous kind. “ Take heed whom you trust,” said the brother of the Commanderin-Chief to him ; " for that you have some false boys about you.” In fact, " many ot those nearest his person and of highest credit out of England were his deadly foes, sworn to compass his dishonor, his confusion, and eventually his death, and in correspondence with his most powerful adversaries at home and abroad.”
It was a sad state of things. The General " was much disgusted with the raw material out of which he was expected to manufacture serviceable troops.” " Swaggering ruffians from the disreputable haunts of London ” " were not the men to be intrusted with the honor of England at a momentous crisis.” " Our simplest men in show have been our best men, and your gallant blood and ruffian men the worst of all others.” (The Italics again are the author’s.) Yet, said the muster-master, " there is good hope that his Excellency will shortly establish such good order for the government and training of our nation, that these weak, badly furnished, ill-armed, and worse trained bands, thus rawly left unto him, shall within a few months prove as well armed, complete, gallant companies as shall be found elsewhere in Europe.”
Very pleasant it must have been to the Commander-in-Chief to report to his Government that in one of the first actions “ five hundred Englishmen of the best Flemish training had flatly and shamefully run away.” Yet this was the commencement of the struggle which ended with the dispersion and defeat of the great Armada, and destroyed the projects of the Spanish tyrant for introducing religious and political slavery into England ! It seems as if Mr. Motley’s Seventh Chapter were a prophecy, rather than a history.
An invasion and a conspiracy may always be expected to make head at first. The men who plan such enterprises are not fools, but cunning, managing people. They always have, or think they have, a primâ facie case to start with. They have been preparing just as the highwayman has been preparing for his aggressive movement. They expect to find, and they commonly do find, their victims only half ready, if at all forewarned, and to take them at a disadvantage. If conspirators and invaders do not strike heavy blows at once, their cause is desperate; if they do, it proves very little, because that is the least they expected to do.
It Is very easy to run up a score behind the door of a tavern ; credit is good, and chalk is cheap. But these little marks have all got to be crossed out by-and-by, and the time will surely come for turning all empty pockets wrong side out. The aggressors begin in a great passion, and are violent and dangerous at first; the nation or community assailed are surprised, dismayed, perhaps, like the good people in the coach, when they sec Dick Turpin’s pistol thrust in at the window.
The Romans were certainly a genuine fighting people. They kept the state on a perpetual military footing. They were never without veterans, men and leaders bred in camp and experienced in warfare. Yet what a piece of work their African invader cut out for them ! It seemed they had to learn everything over again. Thousands upon thousands killed and driven into Lake Trasimenus,—fifteen thousand prisoners taken ; total rout again at Cannæ,— rings picked from slain gentlemen’s fingers by the peck or bushel, — everything lost in battle, and a great revolt through the Southern provinces as a natural consequence. What then ? Rome was not to be Africanized as yet. The great leader who had threatened the capital, and scored these portentous victories, had at last to pay for them all in defeat and humiliation on his own soil.
Even the robber Spartacus beat the Roman armies at first, with their consuls at their head, and laid waste a large part of the peninsula. These violent uprisings and incursions are always dangerous at their onset; they are just like new diseases, which the doctors tell us must be studied by themselves, and which are rarely treated with great success until near the period of their natural cessation. After a time Fabius learns how to handle the hot Southern invaders, and Crassus the way of fighting the fierce gladiators with their classical bowie-knives.
Remember, Rome never is beaten,— Romans may be. It is inherent in the very idea of a republic that its peaceful servants shall he liable to be taken at fault. The counsels of the many, which are meant to secure all men’s rights in tranquil times, cannot in the nature of things adapt themselves all at once to the sudden exigencies of war. Consequently, a republic must expect to be beaten at first by any concentrated power of nearly equal strength. After a time the commander-in-chief emerges from the confused mass of counsellors, and substitutes the action of one mind and will for the conflict of many. The Romans recognized the Dictatorship as the necessary complement of the Republic ; and it is worthy of remark that that high office was never abused so long as the people were worthy to be free. “ Ne quid detrimenti respublica capiat ” was the formula according to which they surrendered their liberty for the sake of their liberty. A great danger, doubtless, for a people not leavened through and through with the spirit of freedom; but not so where the army is only the representative of a selfgoverning community. This army is not like to enslave itself or the families it comes from, to please the leader whom it trusts for an emergency. The pilot is absolute while the vessel is coming into harbor, but the crew are not afraid of his remaining master of the ship. Washington’s reply to Nicola’s letter, proposing to make him King, was written at a time when the republican system under the shadow of which three generations have been bred up to manhood was but as a grain of mustard-seed compared to this mighty growth which now spreads over our land. It is not likely that another man will make out so good a claim to supremacy as he; it is pretty certain, that, if he does, he will not have the opportunity of rejecting the insignia of royalty, and if this should happen, he can hardly forget the great example before him.
It is curious to see that the difficulties a general has to contend with now are much the same that were found in the first Revolution; bad food, — the poor surgeon at Valley Forge, whose diary was printed the other day, could not keep it on his stomach at any rate,— insufficient clothing, and no shoes at all, as the bloody snow bore witness, — and among our own New England troops “ a spirit of insubordination which they took for independence,” as Washington expressed himself. We do not think the New England men have rendered themselves liable to this reproach of late, — and this is a remarkable tribute to the influence of a true republican training. But in various quarters there has been enough of it, and the consequent disorganization of at least one free and easy regiment is no more than might have been expected.
A panic or two, with all the disgrace and suffering that attach to such hysterical paroxysms, or at least a defeat, are the experiences through which half-organized bodies often pass to teach them the meaning of discipline and mechanical habit. An army must go through the annealing process like glass; let a few regiments be cracked to pieces because their leaders did not know how to withdraw them gradually from the furnace of action, and the lesson will be all the better remembered because taught by a costly example. Our early mishaps were all predicted, sometimes in formal shape, as in various letters dated long before the breaking out of hostilities, and very often in the common talk of those about us. But, after all, when the first chastisement from our hard schoolmaster, Experience, comes upon us, it is a kind of surprise, in spite of all our preparation.
A writer in the present number of this magazine shows us that there is a complete literature of panics, not merely as occurring among new levies, but seizing on the best-appointed armies, containing as much individual bravery as any that never ran away from an enemy. The men of Israel gave way before the men of Benjamin, “ retired ” in the language of Scripture, in order to lead them into ambush. At a given signal they faced about, and the men of Benjamin “were amazed” (panic-struck) and “turned their backs before the men of Israel unto the way of the wilderness,”—took to the woods, as we should say. Their enemies did not lie still or run as fast the other way, like ours at Bull Run, but they “ inclosed ” them, and “ chased them, and trode them down with ease,” and “ gleaned of them in the highways,” and “ pursued hard after them.” Yet " all these were men of valor.”
Not to return to our old classical friends, what modern nation has ever known how to fight that had not learned how to be beaten and how to run ? The English ran ninety miles from Bannockburn, scared by the “gillies” and the baggage-wagons. They paid back their debt at Culloden. The Prussian armies were routed at Jena and Auerstädt. They had their revenge in the “ sauve qui peut” of Waterloo. The great armada, British and French, undertook to bombard Sebastopol, and eight ships of the line were so mauled that they had to go back to Toulon and Portsmouth for repairs. Lord Raglan is said to have so far despaired of success as to have contemplated raising the siege. Everybody remembers the feeling produced by the repeated fruitless attacks on the fortifications, the three unsuccessful bombardments, the divided counsels, the disappointment and death of Lord Raglan, the complaints of Canrobert of the want of a single commanding intellect, and the relinquishment of his own position to Pelissier, itself a confession of failure. If there ever was a campaign begun with defeat and disaster, it was that which ended with the fall of Sebastopol.
Read the account of the retreat of the advanced force of our own army at the Battle of Monmouth Court-House. Washington could not believe the first story told him. Presently he met one fugitive after another, and then Grayson’s and Patton's regiments in disorderly retreat, He did not know what to make of it. There had been no fighting except a successful skirmish with the enemy’s cavalry. He met Major Howard; this officer could give no reason for the running, — had never seen the like. Another officer swears they are flying from a shadow. Lee tries to account for it, — troops confused by contradictory intelligence, by disobedience of orders, by the meddling and blundering of individuals, — vague excuses all, the plain truth being that they had given way to a panic. But for Washington’s fierce commands and threats, the retreat might have become a total rout.
It is curious to see how the little incidents, even, of our late accelerated retrograde movement recall those of the old Revolutionary story. Mr. Russell speaks thus of the fugitives: " Faces black and dusty, tongues out in the heat, eyes staring, — it was a most wonderful sight.” If Mr. Russell had ever read Stedman’s account of his own countrymen’s twenty-mile run from Concord to Bunker’s Hill, he would have learned that they “ were so much exhausted with fatigue, that they were obliged to lie down for rest on the ground, their tongues hanging out of their mouths, like those of dogs after a chase.” One rout is as much like another as the scamper of one flock of sheep like that of all others.
A pleasing consequence of this war we are engaged in has hardly been enough thought of. It is a rough way of introducing distant follow-citizens of the same land to each other’s acquaintance. Next to the intimacy of love is that of enmity. Nay,
For all that beauty sighs to grant
With half the fervor hate bestows
Upon the last embrace of foes,
When, grappling in the fight, they fold
Those arms that ne’er shall lose their hold.”
“ We shall learn to respect each other,” as one of our conservative friends said long ago. It is a great mistake to try to prove our own countrymen cowards and degenerate from the old stock. It is worth the price of some hard fighting to show the contrary to the satisfaction of both parties. The Scotch and English called each other all possible hard names in the time of their international warfare; but the day has come for them, as it will surely come for us, when the rivals and enemies must stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder, each proud of the other’s bravery.
For three-quarters of a century we have been melting our several destinies in one common crucible, to mould a new and mighty empire such as the world has never seen. Our partners cannot expect to be allowed to break the crucible or the mould, or to carry away the once separate portions now flowing in a single incandescent flood. We cannot sell and they cannot buy our past. Our nation has pledged itself to unity by the whole course of its united action. There is one debt alone that all the cotton-fields of the South could never pay: it is the price of our voluntary humiliation for the sake of keeping peace with the slaveholders. We may be robbed of our inalienable nationality, if treason is strong enough, but we are trustees of the life of three generations for the benefit of all that are yet to be. We cannot sell. We dare not break the entail of freedom and disinherit the firstborn of half a continent.
When the Plebeians seceded to the Mons Sacer, some five hundred years before the Christian era, the Consul Menenius Agrippa brought them back by his well-known fable of the Belly and the Members. Perhaps it would be too much to expect to call back our seceders with a fable which they will hardly have the opportunity of reading in the present condition of the postal service, but the state of the case may be put with a certain degree of truth in this of
THE FRONT-TEETH AND THE GRINDERS.
Once on a time a mutiny arose among the teeth of a worthy man, in good health and blessed with a sound constitution, commonly known as Uncle Samuel. The cutting-teeth, or incisors, and the eye-teeth, or canines, though not nearly so many, all counted, nor so large, nor so strong as the grinders, and by no means so white, but, on the contrary, very much discolored, began to find fault with the grinders as not good enough company for them. The eye-teeth, being very sharp and fitted for seizing and tearing, and standing out taller than the rest, claimed to lead them. Presently, one of them complained that it ached very badly, and then another and another. Very soon the cutting-teeth, which pretended they were supplied by the same nerve, and were proud of it, began to ache also. They all agreed that it was the fault of the grinders.
About this time, Uncle Samuel, having used his old tooth-brush (which was never a good one, having no stiffness in the bristles) for four years, took a new one, recommended to him by a great number of people as a homely, but useful article. Thereupon all the front-teeth, one after another, declared that Uncle Samuel meant to scour them white, which was a thing they would never submit to, though the whole civilized world was calling on them to do so. So they all insisted on getting out of the sockets in which they had grown and stood for so many years. But the wisdom-teeth spoke up for the others and said, —
“ Nay, there be but twelve of you frontteeth, and there be twenty of us grinders. We are the strongest, and a good deal nearest the muscles and the joint, but we cannot spare you. We have put up with your black stains, your jumping aches, and your snappish looks, and now we are not going to let you go, under the pretence that you are to be scrubbed white, if you stay. You don’t work half so hard as we do, but you can bite the food well enough, which we can grind so much better than you. We belong to each olher. You must stay.”
Thereupon the front-teeth, first the canines or dog-teeth, next the incisors or cutting-teeth, proceeded to declare themselves out of their sockets, and no longer belonging to the jaws of Uncle Samuel.
Then Uncle Samuel arose in his wrath and shut his jaws tightly together, and swore that he would keep them shut till those aching and discolored teeth of his went to pieces in their sockets, if need were, rather than have them drawn, standing, as some of them did, at the very opening of his throat and stomach.
And now, if you will please to observe, all those teeth are beginning to ache worse than ever, and to decay very fast, so that it will take a great deal of gold to stop the holes that are forming in them. But the great white grinders are as sound as ever, and will remain so until Uncle Samuel thinks the time has come for opening his mouth. In the mean time they keep on grinding in a quiet way, though the others have had to stop biting for a long time. When Uncle Samuel opens his mouth, they will be as ready for work as ever; but those poor discolored teeth will be tender for a great while, and never be so strong as they were before they foolishly declared themselves out of their sockets.
The foregoing fable is respectfully dedicated to the Southern Plebs, who, under the lead of their “ Patrician ” masters, have “seceded,” like their predecessors in the days of Menenius Agrippa.