A REBEL’S RECOLLECTIONS.
LEE, JACKSON, AND SOME LESSER WORTHIES.
THE story goes that when Napoleon thanked a private one day for some small service, giving him the complimentary title of "captain," the soldier replied with the question, "In what regiment, sire?" confident that this kind of recognition from the Little Corporal meant nothing less than a promotion, in any case; and while commanders are not ordinarily invested with Napoleon’s plenary powers in such matters, military men are accustomed to value few things more than the favorable comments of their superiors upon their achievements or their capacity. And yet a compliment of the very highest sort, which General Scott paid Robert E. Lee, very nearly prevented the great Confederate
from achieving a reputation at all. Up to the time of Virginia’s secession, Lee was serving at Scott’s head-quarters, and when he resigned and accepted a commission from the governor of his native State, General Scott, who had already called him "the flower of the American army," pronounced him the best organizer in the country, and congratulated himself upon the fact that the Federal organization was already well under way before Lee began that of the Southern forces. This opinion, coming from the man who was recognized as best able to form a judgment on such a subject, greatly strengthened Lee’s hand in the work he was then doing, and saved him the annoyance of dictation from people less skilled than he. But it nearly worked his ruin, for all that. The administration at Richmond was of too narrow a mold to understand that a man could be a master of more than one thing, and so, recognizing Lee’s supreme ability as an
organizer, the government seems to have assumed that he was good for very little else, and until the summer of 1862 he was carefully kept out of the way of all great military operations. When the two centres of strategic interest were at Winchester and Manassas, General Lee was kept in Western Virginia with a handful of raw troops, where he could not possibly accomplish anything for the cause, or even exercise the small share of fighting and strategic ability which the government was willing to believe he possessed. When there was no longer any excuse for keeping him there, he was disinterred, as it were, and reburied in the swamps of the South Carolina coast.
I saw him for the first time, in Richmond, at the very beginning of the war, dining with him at the house of a friend. He was then in the midst of his first popularity. He had begun the work of organization, and was everywhere recognized as the
leader who was to create an army for us out of the volunteer material. I do not remember, with any degree of certainty, whether or not we expected him also to distinguish himself in the field, but as Mr. Davis and his personal followers were still in Montgomery, it is probable that the narrowness of their estimate of the chieftain was not yet shared by anybody in Richmond. Lee was at this time a young-looking, middle-aged man, with dark hair, dark moustache, and an otherwise smooth face, and a portrait taken then would hardly be recognized at all by those who knew him only after the cares and toils of war had furrowed his face and bleached his hair and beard. He was a model of manly beauty; large, well made, and graceful. His head was a noble one, and his countenance told, at a glance, of his high character and of that perfect balance of faculties, mental, moral, and physical, which constituted the chief element of his greatness.
There was nothing about him which impressed one more than his eminent robustness, a quality no less marked in his intellect and his character than in his physical constitution. If his shapely person suggested a remarkable capacity for endurance, his manner, his countenance, and his voice quite as strongly hinted at the great soul which prompted him to take upon himself the responsibility for the Gettysburg campaign, when the people were loudest in their denunciations of the government as the author of that ill-timed undertaking.
I saw him next in South Carolina during the winter of 1861-62. He was living quietly at a little place called Coosawhatchie, on the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. He had hardly any staff with him, and was surrounded with none of the pomp and circumstance of war. His dress bore no marks of his rank, and hardly indicated even that he was a military man. He was much given to solitary afternoon
rambles, and came almost every day to the camp of our battery, where he wandered alone and in total silence around the stables and through the gun park, much as a farmer curious as to cannon might have done. Hardly any of the men knew who he was, and one evening a sergeant, riding in company with a partially deaf teamster, met him in the road and saluted. The teamster called out to his companion, in a loud voice, after the manner of deaf people:
"I say, sergeant, who is that durned old fool? He’s always a-pokin’ round my hosses just as if he meant to steal one of ’em."
Certainly the honest fellow was not to blame for his failure to recognize, in the farmer-looking pedestrian, the chieftain who was shortly to win the greenest laurels the South had to give. During the following summer General Johnston’s "bad habit of getting himself wounded" served to bring Lee to the front, and from that
time till the end of the war he was the idol of army and people. The faith he inspired was simply marvelous. We knew very well that he was only a man, and very few of us would have disputed the abstract proposition that he was liable to err; but practically we believed nothing of the kind. Our confidence in his skill and his invincibility was absolutely unbounded. Our faith in his wisdom and his patriotism was equally perfect, and from the day on which he escorted McClellan to his gun-boats till the hour of his surrender at Appomattox, there was never a time when he might not have usurped all the powers of government without exciting a murmur. Whatever rank as a commander history may assign him, it is certain that no military chieftain was ever more perfect master than he of the hearts of his followers. When he appeared in the presence of troops he was sometimes cheered vociferously, but far more frequently his coming was greeted
with a profound silence, which expressed much more truly than cheers could have done the well – nigh religious reverence with which the men regarded his person.
General Lee had a sententious way of saying things which made all his utterances peculiarly forceful. His language was always happily chosen, and a single sentence from his lips often left nothing more to be said. As good an example of this as any, perhaps, was his comment upon the military genius of General Meade. Not very long after that officer took command of the army of the Potomac, a skirmish occurred, and none of General Lee’s staff officers being present, an acquaintance of mine was detailed as his personal aid for the day, and I am indebted to him for the anecdote. Some one asked our chief what he thought of the new leader on the other side, and in reply Lee said, "General Meade will commit no blunder in my front, and if I commit one he will make haste to take
advantage of it." It is difficult to see what more he could have said on the subject.
I saw him for the last time during the war, at Amelia Court House, in the midst of the final retreat, and I shall never forget the heart-broken expression his face wore, or the still sadder tones of his voice as he gave me the instructions I had come to ask. The army was in utter confusion. It was already evident that we were being beaten back upon James River and could never hope to reach the Roanoke, on which stream alone there might be a possibility of making a stand. General Sheridan was harassing our broken columns at every step, and destroying us piecemeal. Worse than all, General Lee had been deserted by the terrified government in the very moment of his supreme need, and the food had been snatched from the mouths of the famished troops (as is more fully explained in another chapter) that the flight of the president and his followers might be hastened.
The load put thus upon Lee’s shoulders was a very heavy one for so conscientious a man as he to bear; and knowing, as every Southerner does, his habit of taking upon himself all blame for whatever went awry, we cannot wonder that he was sinking under the burden. His face was still calm, as it always was, but his carriage was no longer erect, as his soldiers had been used to see it. The troubles of those last days had already plowed great furrows in his forehead. His eyes were red as if with weeping; his cheeks sunken and haggard; his face colorless. No one who looked upon him then, as he stood there in full view of the disastrous end, can ever forget the intense agony written upon his features. And yet he was calm, self-possessed, and deliberate. Failure and the sufferings of his men grieved him sorely, but they could not daunt him, and his moral greatness was never more manifest than during those last terrible days. Even
in the final correspondence with General Grant, Lee’s manliness and courage and ability to endure lie on the surface, and it is not the least honorable thing in General Grant’s history that he showed himself capable of appreciating the character of this manly foeman, as he did when he returned Lee’s surrendered sword with the remark that he knew of no one so worthy as its owner to wear it.
After the war the man who had commanded the Southern armies remained master of all Southern hearts, and there can be no doubt that the wise advice he gave in reply to the hundreds of letters sent him prevented many mistakes and much suffering. The young men of the South were naturally disheartened, and a general exodus to Mexico, Brazil, and the Argentine Republic was seriously contemplated. General Lee’s advice, "Stay at home, go to work, and hold your land," effectually prevented this saddest of all
blunders; and his example was no less efficacious than his words, in recommending a diligent attention to business as the best possible cure for the evils wrought by the war.
From the chieftain who commanded our armies to his son and successor in the presidency of Washington-Lee University, the transition is a natural one; and, while it is my purpose, in these reminiscences, to say as little as possible of men still living, I may at least refer to General G. W. Custis Lee as the only man I ever heard of who tried to decline a promotion from brigadier to major general, for the reason that he thought there were others better entitled than he to the honor. I have it from good authority that President Davis went in person to young Lee’s headquarters to entreat a reconsideration of that officer’s determination to refuse the honor, and that he succeeded with difficulty in pressing the promotion upon the
singularly modest gentleman. Whether or not this younger Lee has inherited his father’s military genius we have no means of knowing, but we are left in no uncertainty as to his possession of his father’s manliness and modesty, and personal worth.
Jackson was always a surprise. Nobody ever understood him, and nobody has ever been quite able to account for him. The members of his own staff, of whom I happen to have known one or two intimately, seem to have failed, quite as completely as the rest of the world, to penetrate his singular and contradictory character. His biographer, Mr. John Esten Cooke, read him more perfectly perhaps than any one else, but even he, in writing of the hero, evidently views him from the outside. Dr. Dabney, another of Jackson’s historians, gives us a glimpse of the man, in one single aspect of his character, which may be a clew to the whole. He says there are three
kinds of courage, of which two only are bravery. These three varieties of courage are, first, that of the man who is simply insensible of danger; second, that of men who, understanding, appreciating, and fearing danger, meet it boldly nevertheless, from motives of pride; and third, the courage of men keenly alive to danger, who face it simply from a high sense of duty. 1 Of this latter kind, the biographer tells us, was Jackson’s courage, and certainly there can be no better clew to his character than this. Whatever other mysteries there may have been about the man, it is clear that his well-nigh morbid devotion to duty was his ruling characteristic.
But nobody ever understood him fully, and he was a perpetual surprise to friend and foe alike. The cadets and the graduates of the Virginia Military Institute,
who had known him as a professor there, held him in small esteem at the outset. I talked with many of them, and found no dissent whatever from the opinion that General Gilham and General Smith were the great men of the institute, and that Jackson, whom they irreverently nicknamed Tom Fool Jackson, could never be anything more than a martinet colonel, half soldier and half preacher. They were unanimous in prophesying his greatness after the fact, but of the two or three score with whom I talked on the subject at the beginning of the war, not one even suspected its possibility until after he had won his sobriquet "Stonewall" at Manassas.
It is natural enough that such a man should be credited in the end with qualities which he did not possess, and that much of the praise awarded him should be improperly placed; and in his case this seems to have been the fact. He is much more frequently spoken of as the great marcher
than as the great fighter of the Confederate armies, and it is commonly said that he had an especial genius for being always on time. And yet General Lee himself said in the presence of a distinguished officer from whose lips I heard it, that Jackson was by no means so rapid a marcher as Longstreet, and that he had an unfortunate habit of never being on time. Without doubt he was, next to Lee, the greatest military genius we had, and his system of grand tactics was more Napoleonic than was that of any other officer on either side; but it would appear from this that while he has not been praised beyond his deserving, he has at least been commended mistakenly.
The affection his soldiers bore him has always been an enigma. He was stern and hard as a disciplinarian, cold in his manner, unprepossessing in appearance, and utterly lacking in the apparent enthusiasm which excites enthusiasm in others. He
had never been able to win the affection of the cadets at Lexington, and had hardly won even their respect. And yet his soldiers almost worshiped him. Perhaps it was because he was so terribly in earnest, or it may have been because he was so generally successful, – for there are few things men admire more than success, – but whatever the cause was, no fact could be more evident than that Stonewall Jackson was the most enthusiastically loved man, except Lee, in the Confederate service, and that he shared with Lee the generous admiration even of his foes. His strong religious bent, his devotion to a form of religion the most gloomy, – for his Calvinism amounted to very little less than fatalism, and his men called him "old bluelight," – his strictness of life, and his utter lack of vivacity and humor, would have been an impassable barrier between any other man and such troops as he commanded. He was Cromwell at the head of
an army composed of men of the world, and there would seem to have been nothing in common between him and them; and yet Cromwell’s psalm-singing followers never held their chief in higher regard or heartier affection than that with which these rollicking young planters cherished their sad-eyed and sober-faced leader. They even rejoiced in his extreme religiosity, and held it in some sort a work of supererogation, sufficient to atone for their own worldly-mindedness. They were never more devoted to him than when transgressing the very principles upon which his life was ordered; and when any of his men indulged in dram-drinking, a practice from which he always rigidly abstained, his health was sure to be the first toast given. On one occasion, a soldier who had imbibed enthusiasm with his whisky, feeling the inadequacy of the devotion shown by drinking to an absent chief, marched, canteen in hand, to Jackson’s tent, and gaining admission
proposed as a sentiment, "Here’s to you, general! May I live to see you stand on the highest pinnacle of Mount Ararat, and hear you give the command, ‘By the right of nations front into empires, – worlds, right face!’"
I should not venture to relate this anecdote at all, did I not get it at first hands from an officer who was present at the time. It will serve, at least, to show the sentiments of extravagant admiration with which Jackson’s men regarded him, whether it shall be sufficient to bring a smile to the reader’s lips or not.
The first time I ever saw General Ewell, I narrowly missed making it impossible that there should ever be a General Ewell at all. He was a colonel then, and was in command of the camp of instruction at Ashland. I was posted as a sentinel, and my orders were peremptory to permit nobody to ride through the gate at which I was stationed. Colonel Ewell, dressed in
a rough citizen’s suit, without side-arms or other insignia of military rank, undertook to pass the forbidden portal. I commanded him to halt, but he cursed me instead, and attempted to ride over me. Drawing my pistol, cocking it, and placing its muzzle against his breast, I replied with more of vigor than courtesy in my speech, and forced him back, threatening and firmly intending to pull my trigger if he should resist in the least. He yielded himself to arrest, and I called the officer of the guard. Ewell was livid with rage, and ordered the officer to place me in irons at once, uttering maledictions upon me which it would not do to repeat here. The officer of the guard was a manly fellow, however, and refused even to remove me from the post.
"The sentinel has done only his duty," he replied, "and if he had shot you, Colonel Ewell, you would have had only yourself to blame. I have here your written order that the sentinels at this gate shall allow nobody
to pass through it on horseback, on any pretense whatever; and yet you come in citizen’s clothes, a stranger to the guard, and try to ride him down when he insists upon obeying the orders you have given him."
The sequel to the occurrence proved that, in spite of his infirm temper, Ewell was capable of being a just man, as he certainly was a brave one. He sent for me a little later, when he received his commission as a brigadier, and apologizing for the indignity with which he had treated me, offered me a desirable place upon his staff, which, with a still rankling sense of the injustice he had done me, I declined to accept.
General Ewell was at this time the most violently and elaborately profane man I ever knew. Elaborately, I say, because his profanity did not consist of single or even double oaths, but was ingeniously wrought into whole sentences. It was profanity
which might be parsed, and seemed the result of careful study and long practice. Later in the war he became a religious man, but before that time his genius for swearing was phenomenal. An anecdote is told of him, for the truth of which I cannot vouch, but which certainly is sufficiently characteristic to be true. It is said that on one occasion, the firing having become unusually heavy, a chaplain who had labored to convert the general, or at least to correct the aggressive character of his wickedness, remarked that as he could be of no service where he was, he would seek a less exposed place, whereupon Ewell remarked:
"Why, chaplain, you’re the most inconsistent man I ever saw. You say you’re anxious to get to heaven above all things, and now that you’ve got the best chance you ever had to go, you run away from it just as if you’d rather not make the trip, after all."
I saw nothing of General Ewell after he
left Ashland, early in the summer of 1861, until I met him in the winter of 1864-65. Some enormous rifled guns had been mounted at Chaffin’s Bluff, below Richmond, and I went from my camp near by to see them tested. General Ewell was present, and while the firing was in progress he received a dispatch saying that the Confederates had been victorious in an engagement between Mackey’s Point and Pocotaligo. As no State was mentioned in the dispatch, and the places named were obscure ones, General Ewell was unable to guess in what part of the country the action had been fought. He read the dispatch aloud, and asked if any one present could tell him where Mackey’s Point and Pocotaligo were. Having served for a considerable time on the coast of South Carolina, I was able to give him the information he sought. When I had finished he looked at me intently for a moment, and then asked, "Aren’t you the man who came so near shooting me at Ashland?"
I replied that I was.
"I’m very glad you didn’t do it," he said.
"So am I," I replied; and that was all that was said on either side.
The queerest of all the military men I met or saw during the war was General W. H. H. Walker, of Georgia. I saw very little of him, but that little impressed me. strongly. He was a peculiarly belligerent man, and if he could have been kept always in battle he would have been able doubtless to keep the peace as regarded his fellows and his superiors. As certain periods of inaction are necessary in all wars, however, General Walker was forced to maintain a state of hostility toward those around and above him. During the first campaign he got into a newspaper war with the president and Mr. Benjamin, in which he handled both of those gentlemen rather roughly, but failing to move them from the position they had taken with regard to his promotion,
– that being the matter in dispute, – he resigned his commission, and took service as a brigadier-general under authority of the governor of Georgia. In this capacity he was at one time in command of the city of Savannah, and it was there that I saw him for the first and only time, just before the reduction of Fort Pulaski by General Gilmore. The reading-room of the Pulaski House was crowded with guests of the hotel and evening loungers from the city, when General Walker came in. He at once began to talk, not so much to the one or two gentlemen with whom he had just shaken hands, as to the room full of strangers and the public generally. He spoke in a loud voice and with the tone and. manner of a bully and a braggart, which I am told he was not at all.
"You people are very brave at arms-length," he said, "provided it is a good long arms-length. You aren’t a bit afraid of the shells fired at Fort Pulaski, and you
talk as boldly as Falstaff over his sack, now. But what will you do when the Yankee gun-boats come up the river and begin to throw hot shot into Savannah? I know what you’ll do. You’ll get dreadfully uneasy about your plate-glass mirrors and your fine furniture; and I give you fair warning now that if you want to save your mahogany you’d better be carting it off up country at once, for I’ll never surrender anything more than the ashes of Savannah. I’ll stay here, and I’ll keep you here, till every shingle burns and every brick gets knocked into bits the size of my thumbnail, and then I’ll send the Yankees word that there isn’t any Savannah to surrender. Now I mean this, every word of it. But you don’t believe it, and the first time a gun-boat comes in sight you’ll all come to me and say, ‘General, we can’t fight gun-boats with any hope of success, – don’t you think we’d better surrender?’ Do you know what I’ll do then ? I’ve had
a convenient limb trimmed up, on the tree in front of my head-quarters, and I’ll string up every man that dares say surrender, or anything else beginning with an s."
And so he went on for an hour or more, greatly to the amusement of the crowd. I am told by those who knew him best that his statement of his purposes was probably not an exaggerated one, and that if he had been charged with the defense of the city against a hostile fleet, he would have made just such a resolute resistance as that which he promised. His courage and endurance had been abundantly proved in Mexico, at any rate, and nobody who knew him ever doubted either.
Another queer character, though in a very different way, was General Ripley, who for a long time commanded the city of Charleston. He was portly in person, of commanding and almost pompous presence, and yet, when one came to know him, was as easy and unassuming in manner as
if he had not been a brigadier-general at all. I had occasion to call upon him officially, a number of times, and this afforded me an excellent opportunity to study his character and manners. On the morning after the armament of Fort Ripley was carried out to the Federal fleet by the crew of the vessel on which it had been placed, I spent an hour or two in General Ripley’s head-quarters, waiting for something or other, though I have quite forgotten what. I amused myself looking through his telescope at objects in the harbor. Presently I saw a ship’s launch, bearing a white flag, approach Fort Sumter. I mentioned the matter to my companion, and General Ripley, overhearing the remark, came quickly to the glass. A moment later he said to his signal operator, –
"Tell Fort Sumter if that’s a Yankee boat to burst her wide open, flag or no flag." The message had no sooner gone, however, than it was recalled, and instructions
more in accordance with the rules of civilized warfare substituted.
General Ripley stood less upon rule and held red tape in smaller regard than any other brigadier I ever met My company was at that time an independent battery, belonging to no battalion and subject to no intermediate authority between that of its captain and that of the commanding general. It had but two commissioned officers on duty, and I, as its sergeant-major, acted as a sort of adjutant, making my reports directly to General Ripley’s head-quarters. One day I reported the fact that a large part of our harness was unfit for further use.
"Well, why don’t you call a board of survey and have it condemned?" he asked.
"How can we, general? We do not belong to any battalion, and so have nobody to call the board or to compose it, either."
"Let your captain call it then, and put your own officers on it."
"But we have only one officer, general, besides the captain, and there must be three on the board, while the officer calling it cannot be one of them."
"Oh, the deuce!" he replied. "What’s the difference? The harness ain’t fit for use and there’s plenty of new in the arsenal. Let your captain call a board consisting of the lieutenant and you and a sergeant. It ain’t legal, of course, to put any but commissioned officers on, but I tell you to do it, and one pair of shoulder-straps is worth more now than a court-house full of habeas corpuses. Write ‘sergeant’ so that nobody can read it, and I’ll make my clerks mistake it for ‘lieutenant’ in copying. Get your board together, go on to say that after a due examination, and all that, the board respectfully reports that it finds the said harness not worth a damn, or words to that effect; send in your report and I’ll approve it, and you’ll have a new set of harness in three days. What’s the
use of pottering around with technicalities when the efficiency of a battery is at stake? We’re not lawyers, but soldiers."
The speech was a peculiarly characteristic one, and throughout his administration of affairs in Charleston, General Ripley showed this disposition to promote the good of the service at the expense of routine. He was not a good martinet, but he was a brave, earnest man and a fine officer, of a sort of which no army can have too many.