A Rebel's Recollections (Part 2)

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

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


A NEWSPAPER correspondent has told us that the great leader of the German armies, Count Von Moltke, has never read anything - even a history - of our war, and that when questioned on the subject, he has said he could not afford to spend time over "the wrangling of two armed mobs." If he ever said anything of the kind, which is doubtful, his characterization of the two armies had reference, probably, to their condition during the first year or two of the struggle, when they could lay very little claim indeed to any more distinctively military title. The Southern army, at any rate, was simply a vast mob of rather ill-armed young gentlemen from the country. 1 As I have said

1. In order that no reader may misconceive the spirit in which this chapter is written, I wish to say, at the outset, that in commenting upon the material of which the Southern army was made up, nothing has been further from my thought than to reflect, even by implication, upon the character of the Union army or of the men who composed it, for indeed I honor both as highly as anybody can. I think I have outlived whatever war prejudices I may have brought with me out of the struggle, and in writing of some of the better characteristics of the early Virginian volunteers, I certainly have not meant to deny equal or like excellence to their foemen. I happen, however, to know a great deal about the one army and very little about the other, - a state of things consequent upon the peculiar warmth with which we were always greeted whenever we undertook to visit the camps of our friends on the other side. Will the reader please bear in mind, then, that my estimate of the character of the Southern troops is a positive and not a comparative one, and that nothing said in praise of the one army is meant to be a reflection upon the other? Between Bull Run and Appomattox I had ample opportunity to learn respect for the courage and manliness of the men who overcame us, and since the close of the war I have learned to know many of them as tried and true friends, and gentlemen of noblest mold.

in a previous chapter, 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.

Our ideas of the life and business of a soldier were drawn chiefly from the adventures of Ivanhoe and Charles O'Malley, two worthies with whose personal history almost every man in the army was familiar. 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. While actually on drill they obeyed the word of command, not so much by reason of its being proper to obey a command, as because obedience was in that case necessary to the successful issue of a pretty performance in which they were interested. Off drill they did as they pleased, holding themselves gentlemen, and as such bound to consult only their own wills. Their officers were of themselves, chosen by election, and subject, by custom, to enforced resignation upon petition of the men. Only corporals cared sufficiently little for their position to risk any magnifying of their office by the enforcement of discipline. I make of them an honorable exception, out of regard for the sturdy corporal who, at Ashland, marched six of us (a guard detail) through the very middle of a puddle, assigning as his reason for doing so the fact that "It's plagued little authority they give us corporals, and I mean to use that little, anyhow." Even corporals were elected, however, and until December, 1861, I never knew a single instance in which a captain dared offend his men by breaking a noncommissioned officer, or appointing one, without submitting the matter to a vote of the company. In that first instance the captain had to bolster himself up with written authority from head-quarters, and even then it required three weeks of mingled diplomacy and discipline to quell the mutiny which resulted.

With troops of this kind, the reader will readily. understand, a feeling of very democratic equality prevailed, so far at least as military rank had anything to do with it. Officers were no better than men, and so officers and men messed and slept together on terms of entire equality, quarreling and even fighting now and then, in a gentlemanly way, but without a thought of allowing differences of military rank to have any influence in the matter. The theory was that the officers were the creatures of the men, chosen by election to represent their constituency in the performance of certain duties, and that only during good behavior. And to this theory the officers themselves gave in their adhesion in a hundred ways. Indeed, they could do nothing else, inasmuch as they knew no way of quelling a mutiny.

There was one sort of rank, however, which was both maintained and respected from the first, namely, that of social life. The line of demarkation between gentry and common people is not more sharply drawn anywhere than in Virginia. It rests there upon an indeterminate something or other, known as family. To come of a good family is a patent of nobility, and there is no other way whatever by which any man or any woman can find a passage into the charmed circle of Virginia's peerage.

There is no college of heralds, to be sure, to which doubtful cases may be referred, and there is no law governing the matter; but every Virginian knows what families are, and what are not good ones, and so mistakes are impossible. The social position of every man is sharply defined, and every man carried it with him into the army. The man of good family felt himself superior, as in most cases he unquestionably was, to his fellow-soldier of less excellent birth; and this distinction was sufficient, during the early years of the war, to override everything like military rank. In one instance which I remember, a young private asserted his superiority of social standing so effectually as to extort from the lieutenant commanding his company a public apology for an insult offered in the subjection of the private to double duty, as a punishment for absence from roll-call. The lieutenant was brave enough to have taken a flogging at the hands of the insulted private, perhaps, but he could not face the declared sentiment of the entire company, and so he apologized. I have known numberless cases in which privates have declined dinner and other invitations from officers who had presumed upon their shoulder-straps in asking the company of their social superiors.

In the camp of instruction at Ashland, where the various cavalry companies existing in Virginia were sent to be made into soldiers, it was a very common thing indeed for men who grew tired of camp fare to take their meals at the hotel, and one or two of them rented cottages and brought their families there, excusing themselves from attendance upon unreasonably early roll-calls, by pleading the distance from their cottages to the parade-ground. Whenever a detail was made for the purpose of cleaning the camp-ground, the men detailed regarded themselves as responsible for the proper performance of the task by their servants, and uncomplainingly took upon themselves the duty of sitting on the fence and superintending the work. The two or three men of the overseer class who were to be found in nearly every company turned some nimble quarters by standing other men's turns of guard-duty at twenty-five cents an hour; and one young gentleman of my own company, finding himself assigned to a picket rope post, where his only duty was to guard the horses and prevent them, in their untrained exuberance of spirit, from becoming entangled in each other's heels and halters, coolly called his servant and turned the matter over to him, with a rather informal but decidedly pointed injunction not to let those horses get themselves into trouble if he valued his hide. This case coming to the ears of Colonel (afterwards General) Ewell, who was commanding the camp, that officer reorganized the guard service upon principles as novel as they were objectionable to the men.

He required the men to stand their own turns, and, worse than that, introduced the system, in vogue among regular troops, of keeping the entire guard detail at the guardhouse when not on post, an encroachment upon personal liberty which sorely tried the patience of the young cavaliers.

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. They were certainly not soldiers. They were as ignorant of the alphabet of obedience as their officers were of the art of commanding. And yet they acquitted themselves reasonably well, a fact which can be explained only by reference to the causes of their insubordination in camp. 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, as soon as hardship became a necessary condition to the successful prosecution of a war that every man of them regarded as his own. In camp, at Richmond or Ashland, they had shunned all unnecessary privation and all distasteful duty, because they then saw no occasion to endure avoidable discomfort. But in the field they showed themselves great, stalwart men in spirit as well as in bodily frame, and endured cheerfully the hardships of campaigning precisely as they would have borne the fatigues of a hunt, as incidents encountered in the prosecution of their purposes.

During the spring and early summer of 1861, the men did not dream that they were to be paid anything for their services, or even that the government was to clothe them. They had bought their own uniforms, and whenever these wore out they ordered new ones to be sent, by the first opportunity, from home. I remember the very first time the thought of getting clothing from the government ever entered my own mind. I was serving in Stuart's cavalry, and the summer of 1861 was nearly over. My boots had worn out, and as there happened at the time to be a strict embargo upon all visiting on the part of non-military people, I could not get a new pair from home. The spurs of my comrades had made uncomfortable impressions upon my bare feet every day for a week, when some one suggested that I might possibly buy a pair of boots from the quartermaster, who was for the first time in possession of some government property of that description. When I returned with the boots and reported that the official had refused my proffered cash, contenting himself with charging the amount against me as a debit to be deducted from the amount of my pay and clothing allowance, there was great merriment in the camp. The idea that there was anybody back of us in this war - anybody who could, by any ingenuity of legal quibbling, be supposed to be indebted to us for our voluntary services in our own cause - was too ridiculous to be treated seriously. "Pay money" became the standing subject for jests. The card-playing with which the men amused themselves suffered a revolution at once; euchre gave place to poker, played for "pay money," the winnings to fall due when payday should come, - a huge joke which was heartily enjoyed.

From this the reader will see how little was done in the beginning of the war to ward the organization of an efficient quartermaster's department, and how completely this ill-organized and undisciplined mob of plucky gentlemen was left to prosecute the war as best it could, trusting to luck for clothing and even for food. Of these things I shall have occasion to speak more fully in a future chapter, wherein I shall have something to say of the management of affairs at Richmond. At present, I merely refer to the matter for the purpose of correcting an error (if I may hope to do that) which seems likely to creep into history. We have been told over and over again that the Confederate army could not possibly have given effectual pursuit to General McDowell's flying forces after the battle of Bull Run. It is urged, in defense of the inaction which made of that day's work a waste effort, that we could not move forward for want of transportation and supplies. Now, without discussing the question whether or not a prompt movement on Washington would have resulted favorably to the Confederates, I am certain, as every man who was there is, that this want of transportation and supplies had nothing whatever to do with it. We had no supplies of any importance, it is true, but none were coming to us there, and we were no whit better off in this regard at Manassas than we would have been before Washington. And having nothing to transport, we needed no transportation. Had the inefficiency of the supply department stopped short at its failure to furnish wagon trains, it might have stood in the way of a forward movement. But that was no ordinary incompetence which governed this department of our service in all its ramifications. The breadth and comprehensiveness of that incompetence were its distinguishing characteristics. In failing to furnish anything to transport, it neutralized its failure to furnish transportation, and the army that fought at Bull Run would have been as well off anywhere else as there, during the next ten days. Indeed, two days after the battle we were literally starved out at Manassas, and were forced to advance to Fairfax Court House in order to get the supplies which the Union army had left in abundance wherever there was a storing-place for them. The next morning after the battle, many of the starving men went off on their own account to get provisions, and they knew very well where to find them. There were none at Manassas, but by crossing Bull Run and following the line of the Federal retreat, we soon gathered a store sufficient to last us, while the authorities of the quartermaster's department were finding out how to transport the few sheet-iron frying-pans which, with an unnecessary tent here and there, were literally the only things there were to be transported at all. Food, which was the only really necessary thing just then, lay ahead of us and nowhere else. All the ammunition we had we could and did move with the wagons at hand.

To return to the temper of the troops and people. Did the Southerners really think themselves a match for ten times their own numbers? I know the reader wants to ask this question, because almost everybody I talk to on the subject asks it in one shape or another. In answer let me say, I think a few of the more enthusiastic women, cherishing a blind faith in the righteousness of their cause, and believing, in spite of historical precedent, that wars always end with strict regard to the laws of poetic justice, did think something of the sort; and I am certain that all the stump speakers of the kind I have hitherto described held a like faith most devoutly. But with these exceptions I never saw any Southerner who hoped for any but well-fought-for success. It was not a question of success or defeat with them at all. They thought they saw their duty plainly, and they did it without regard to the consequences. Their whole hearts were in the cause, and as they were human beings they naturally learned to expect the result for which they were laboring and fighting and suffering; but they based no hopes upon any such fancy as that the Virginian soldier was the military equivalent of ten or of two Pennsylvanians armed as well as he. On the contrary, they busily counted the chances and weighed the probabilities on both sides from the first. They claimed an advantage in the fact that their young men were more universally accustomed to field sports and the use of arms than were those of the North. They thought too, that, fighting on their own soil, in an essentially defensive struggle, they would have some advantage, as they certainly did. They thought they might in the end tire their enemy out, and they hoped from the first for relief through foreign intervention in some shape. 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, and he will then be prepared to understand how small a figure the question of success or failure cut in determining their course.

The unanimity of the people was simply marvelous. So long as the question of secession was under discussion, opinions were both various and violent. The moment secession was finally determined upon, a revolution was wrought. There was no longer anything to discuss, and so discussion ceased. Men got ready for war, and delicate women with equal spirit sent them off with smiling faces. The man who tarried at home for never so brief a time, after the call to arms had been given, found it necessary to explain himself to every woman of his acquaintance, and no explanation was sufficient to shield him from the social ostracism consequent upon any long-tarrying. Throughout the war it was the same, and when the war ended the men who lived to return were greeted with sad faces by those who had cheerfully and even joyously sent them forth to the battle.

Under these circumstances, the reader will readily understand, the first call for troops took nearly all the men of Virginia away from their homes. Even the boys in the colleges and schools enlisted, and these establishments were forced to suspend for want of students. In one college the president organized the students, and making himself their commander, led them directly from the class-room to the field. So strong and all-embracing was the thought that every man owed it to the community to become a soldier, that even clergymen went into the army by the score, and large districts of country were left too without a physician, until the people could secure, by means of a memorial, the unanimous vote of the company to which some favorite physician belonged, declaring it to be his patriotic duty to remain at home. Without such an instruction from his comrades no physician would consent to withdraw, and even with it very many of them preferred to serve in the ranks.

These were the men of whom the Confederate army was for the first year or two chiefly composed. After that the conscription brought in a good deal of material which was worse than useless. There were some excellent soldiers who came into the army as conscripts, but they were exceptions to the rule. For the most part the men whose bodies were thus lugged in by force had no spirits to bring with them. They had already lived a long time under all the contumely which a reputation for confessed cowardice could bring upon them. The verdict of their neighbors was already pronounced, and they could not possibly change it now by good conduct. They brought discontent with them into the camp, and were sullenly worthless as soldiers throughout. They were a leaven of demoralization which the army would have been better without. But they were comparatively few in number, and as the character of the army was crystallized long before these men came into it at all, they had little influence in determining the conduct of the whole. If they added nothing to our strength, they could do little to weaken us, and in any estimate of the character of the Confederate army they hardly count at all. The men who early in the war struggled for a place in the front rank, whenever there was chance of a fight, and thought themselves unlucky if they failed to get it, are the men who gave character afterwards to the well-organized and well-disciplined army which so long contested the ground before Richmond. They did become soldiers after a while, well regulated and thoroughly effective. The process of disciplining them took away none of their personal spirit or their personal interest in the war, but it taught them the value of unquestioning obedience, and the virtue there was in yielding it. I remember very well the extreme coolness with which, in one of the valley skirmishes, a few days before the first battle of Bull Run, a gentleman private in my own company rode out of the ranks for the purpose of suggesting to J. E. B. Stuart the propriety of charging a gun which was shelling us, and which seemed nearer to us than to its supporting infantry. I heard another gentleman without rank, who had brought a dispatch to Stonewall Jackson, request that officer to "cut the answer short," on the ground that his horse was a little lame and he feared his inability to deliver it as promptly as was desirable.

These men and their comrades lost none of this personal solicitude for the proper conduct of the war, in process of becoming soldiers, but they learned not to question or advise, when their duty was to listen and obey. Their very errors, as General Stuart once said in my hearing, proved them the best of material out of which to make soldiers. "They are pretty good officers now," he said, " and after a while they will make excellent soldiers too. They only need reducing to the ranks."

This personal interest in the war, which in their undisciplined beginning led them into indiscreet meddling with details of policy belonging to their superiors, served to sustain them when as disciplined soldiers they were called upon to bear a degree of hardship of which they had never dreamed. They learned to trust the management of affairs to the officers, asking no questions, but finding their own greatest usefulness in cheerful and ready obedience. The wish to help, which made them unsoldierly at first, served to make them especially good soldiers when it was duly tempered with discipline and directed by experience. The result was that even in the darkest days of the struggle, when these soldiers knew they were losing everything but their honor, when desperation led them to think of a thousand expedients and to see every blunder that was made, they waited patiently for the word of command, and obeyed it with alacrity and cheerfulness when it came, however absurd it might seem. I remember an incident which will serve to illustrate this. The Federal forces one day captured an important fort on the north side of James River, which had been left almost unguarded, through the blundering of the officer charged with its defense. It must be retaken, or the entire line in that place must be abandoned, and a new one built, at great risk of losing Richmond. Two bodies of infantry were ordered to charge it on different sides, while the command to which I was then attached should shell it vigorously with mortars. In order that the attack might be simultaneously made on the two sides, a specific time was set for it, but for some unexplained reason there was a misunderstanding between the two commanders. The one on the farther side began the attack twenty minutes too soon. Every man of the other body, which lay there by our still silent mortars, knew perfectly well that the attack had begun, and that they ought to strike then if at all. They knew that, without their aid and that of the mortars, their friends would be repulsed, and that a like result would follow their own assault when it should be made, twenty minutes later. They remained as they were, however, hearing the rattle of the musketry and listening with calm faces to the exulting cheers of the victorious enemy. Then came their own time, and knowing perfectly well that their assault was now a useless waste of life, they obeyed the order as it had been delivered to them, and knocked at the very gates of that fortress for an hour. These men, in 1861, would have clamored for immediate attack as the only hope of accomplishing anything, and had their commander insisted, in such a case, upon obeying orders, they would in all probability have charged without him. In 1864 having become soldiers, they obeyed orders even at cost of failure. They had reduced themselves to the ranks - that was all.

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