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[44]

Chapter 4: from civil to military life

  • Off for Manassas
  • -- first glimpse of an Army and a battle-field -- the Richmond Howitzers -- intellectual atmosphere of the camp -- essential spirit of the Southern volunteer.


The exact dates of the personal movements and experiences thus far narrated cannot be determined. This is largely due to a habit of destroying family letters, and this to a weak dread of opening them, or even of looking upon them, after the lapse of years.

Up to this point the lack of such letters has signified little. It can make little difference just when I left New York for New Ha.ven, or when we left New Haven for Richmond, or Richmond for Manassas. This book is not intended to be a rigid record of the daily succession and the precise dates of camp and march and battle; and yet there is no gainsaying the almost inestimable value of letters to a book of reminiscence, furnishing contemporaneous record and comment so much more vivid and accurate than memory. In the absence of these I shall have to rest largely, for the elements of time and date, upon the relation of what I may record to the general movement of the campaigns, which will, for the most part, prove sufficient for my purpose. For example, I know that Beers' funeral was just after the battle of Chancellorsville, May 3, 1863; that we arrived in Richmond a short time before the battle of Bethel, June 10, 1861; that we left Richmond almost immediately after the battle of Manassas, July 21, 1861.

It was not our fault that we did not leave earlier. My brother and I had volunteered in an infantry company called after a favorite corps which had left the city for the front, “Junior company F,” which was being drilled in awkward [45] squads in a large basement room under the Spotswood Hotel. We felt that the Juniors were hanging fire too long. The city was crowded with troops from all over Virginia and the South, pressing to the front, and with swarms of gaily dressed staff officers and military attaches and hangers-on, and we longed to be away, out of this martial show, and off to the real front. We grew daily more restless, especially after the affair at Bethel-sometimes spoken of as “Big Bethel,” “Great Bethel,” or “Bethel Church.” The main armies were facing each other in central Virginia, and as day after day and week after week passed, we began to feel that it would be a personal reflection upon us if another fight should occur without our being in it.

Suddenly the great battles of Manassas shocked the city and shook the continent, and we could stand it no longer. As I remember, it was but a day or two after the main fight of July 21 that my brother and I met two soldiers of the First Company, Richmond Howitzers, who were in the city on business for the company, and were to return next day. So without saying “by your leave” to any one, we boarded the cars next morning with these men. They undertook to conceal us on the train till it started and to secure our enrollment in the company when we arrived-undertakings skilfully and faithfully performed.

The ride to Manassas was certainly not a reassuring experience. The train was crowded almost to suffocation with troops from a far Southern State. They had been long on the way and were worn with travel in the heat of summer. Some of the men were sleepy and sprawling, others restless and noisy, and both men and cars were very dirty. It was a tedious trip, but it ended at last, and we were glad to make our escape. As we stepped from the train we were met by two or three more of the Howitzers, to one of whom was committed the duty of piloting us to the camp of the battery.

We were very much struck with our guide. Scarcely more than a half-formed country lad, he was yet a fellow of genuine, transparent nature, healthy and hearty and strong in body and mind; one of the sturdiest, manliest figures and [46] faces I ever looked upon. He seemed to be exceptionally right-minded, broad-minded, and intelligent, was evidently glad to see us and “to tell us all about it” --the army and the battle and the service, as he saw them-and we heard much from him during our brief walk of just what we wanted to know.

Such he was then. For the next four years he was the equal of any soldier in that incomparable army. To-day, thank God he still lives, is perhaps the best beloved and most trusted friend I have on earth, one of the best citizens and farmers in Virginia — a man whom everybody knows and trusts and looks up to and leans upon.

At last we were in “the army;” and what was it after all? We walked perhaps a mile or more through the camps, and the prominent ideas borne in upon me were-multitude, overloading, lack of cohesion and of organization, absence of women and children, and a general sense of roughness and untidiness, of discomfort and confusion. Of course these impressions were soon to give way to others; but it was not alone my impressions that changed, it was the army itself. During the few months next ensuing it dispensed with useless baggage and equipment, acquired cohesion, organization, power and endurance, and men learned to do fairly well for themselves what women had theretofore invariably done for them. Under the discipline of the next twelve months, imperfect as it was, we trained down and trained up, just as the fighting men do, to a condition of bare, hard flesh; compact yet supple muscles; clean, clear lungs; sound, strong hearts; and perfect possession and control of all our fighting powers.

In connection with this process of training down to fighting weight, it occurs to me that the wagon train of the First Company, Richmond Howitzers, during the first nine months of the war was, I verily believe, quite as large as that of any infantry brigade in the army during the grand campaign of 1864. Many of the private soldiers of the company had their trunks with them, and I remember part of the contents of one of them consisted of a dozen face and a smaller number of foot or bath towels; and when the order came [47] for trunks to be sent back to Richmond or abandoned, the owner of this elaborate outfit, although but a “high private in the rear rank,” actually wrote and sent in to the captain an elegant note resigning his “position.” Yet this curled and scented gentleman became a superb soldier and used to laugh as heartily as any of us when, in after years, at some point of unusual want and stringency and discomfort, some impudent rascal would shout out, “Jim, old fellow, don't you think it's about time for you to resign again?”

As to the battle-field, if it showed marked traces of the conflict that had taken place I do not recall them. One scene and incident, however, I do recall, which made a very tender impression upon me. Not long after our arrival the battery was about to change its position, indeed I think the head of the column was already in motion, when some one said to me, “Captain ---- is lying in that house over yonder seriously, or it may be mortally, wounded; don't you want to go and see him a moment?” I did not want to go, but I knew the poor fellow's sisters and felt as if I ought to go, and I went. Few interviews have ever made deeper impression upon me. The heroic Christian man had been a prominent member of the Richmond bar and the mainstay and support of his sisters. He was now lying seriously wounded, in a deserted house, from which, as I remember, even the doors and windows had been carried off, and in which there seemed to be little or no furniture save the bed he occupied. The attendant who took care of him was not at the moment in the building. My comrade and I entered and I walked to the bedside, made myself known to the Captain and told him that I had seen his sisters within a day or two and that they were well, but very anxious about him. He did not seem to be suffering greatly at the time, but was evidently death-struck and I think fully aware of it. Yet there was no shrinking and no tremor. His voice was firm and clear and he was entirely self-possessed. I took his hand, or he took mine, and my recollection is that my comrade and I knelt by the bedside and we all prayed together for a few moments, and then we left him there in that desolate place to meet the last enemy; but I felt, and I am sure he did, that he would not meet him alone. [48]

I had helped to take wounded men from the trains in Richmond, but they were surrounded by relatives and friends, or by admiring, almost worshiping crowds, and the entire city, with all it contained of sympathy and help, was at their feet. Here, however, was an entirely different picture, and for a long time my mind every now and then reverted to it with a sadness I could not dispel.

The intellectual atmosphere of the Confederate camps was far above what is generally supposed by the people of this generation, even in the Southern States, and this intellectual aspiration and vigor of the men were exhibited perhaps equally in their religious meetings and services and in their dramatic representations and other exhibitions gotten up to relieve the tedium of camp. But however this may be in general it cannot be denied that the case of the Richmond Howitzers was exceptional in this regard. The corps was organized at the time of the John Brown raid by George W. Randolph, afterwards Secretary of War, and has never been disbanded. In 1861 it was recruited up to three companies and formed into a battalion, but unfortunately the first company was never associated with the other two in the field. The composition of the three companies was very similar; that is, all of them were made up largely of young business men and clerks of the highest grade and best character from the city of Richmond, but included also a number of country boys, for the most part of excellent families, with a very considerable infusion of college-bred men, for it was strikingly true that in 1861 the flower of our educated youth gravitated toward the artillery. The outcome was something quite unparalleled, so far as I know. It is safe to say that not less than one hundred men were commissioned from the corps during the war, and these of every rank from a Secretary of War down to a second lieutenant.

Few things have ever impressed me as did the intellectual and moral character of the men who composed the circle I entered the day our guide led my brother and myself to the Howitzer camp. I had lived for years at the North, had graduated recently at Yale, and had but just entered [49] upon the study of law in the city of New York when the war began. Thus torn away by the inexorable demands of conscience and of loyalty to the South, from a focal point of intense intellectual life and purpose, one of my keenest regrets was that I was bidding a long good-by to congenial surroundings and companionships. To my surprise and delight, around the camp fires of the First Company, Richmond Howitzers, I found throbbing an intellectual life as high and brilliant and intense as any I had ever known.

The Howitzer Glee Club, trained and led by Frederick Nicholls Crouch, author of “Kathleen Mavoureen,” was the very best I ever heard, and rendered music at once scientific and enjoyable. No law school in the land ever had more brilliant or powerful moot court discussions than graced the mock trials of the Howitzer Law Club. I have known the burial of a tame crow to be witnessed not only by the entire command, but by scores, perhaps hundreds, of intelligent people from a neighboring town, and to be dignified not only by salvos of artillery, but also by an English speech, a Latin oration, and a Greek ode, which would have done honor to any literary or memorial occasion at old Yale.

There was a private soldier in the battery — not the poet of the crow's death either — a Grecian of such finished skill that I have known him keep, for months together, a diary of the movements of the battery, in modern Greek; and have watched him-wondering if there was anywhere to be found another man of scholarship and scholarly enthusiasm so great — as he dodged the persistently pursuing smoke of a camp fire and by its wretched, flickering light, with painstaking care, jotted down his exquisite, clear Greek lettering that looked like the most perfect output of the most perfect Greek press in Germany. So much for the intellectual life of our camp and march.

What now of the essential spirit of these young volunteers? Why did they volunteer? For what did they give their lives? We can never appreciate the story of their deeds as soldiers until we answer this question correctly.

Surely it was not for slavery they fought. The great majority of them had never owned a slave and had little or [50] no interest in the institution. My own father, for example, had freed his slaves long years before; that is, all save one, who would not be “emancipated,” our dear “Mammy,” who clung to us when we moved to the North and never recognized any change in her condition or her relations to us. The great conflict will never be properly comprehended by the man who looks upon it as a war for the preservation of slavery.

Nor was it, so far as Virginia was concerned, a war in support of the right of secession or the Southern interpretation of the Constitution. Virginia did not favor this interpretation; at least, she did not favor the exercise of the right of secession. Up to President Lincoln's call for troops she refused to secede. She changed her position under the distinct threat of invasion. This was the turning point. The Whig party, the anti-secession party of Virginia, became the war party of Virginia upon this issue. As John B. Baldwin, the great Whig and Union leader, said, speaking of the effect of Lincoln's call for troops, “We have no Union men in Virginia now.” The change of front was instantaneous, it was intuitive. Jubal Early was the type of his party — up to the proclamation, the most extreme antisecessionist and anti-war man in the Virginia Convention; after the proclamation, the most enthusiastic man in the Commonwealth in advocacy of the war and personal service in it.

But coming closer down, let us see how the logic of these events wrought itself out among my comrades of the Howitzer Company. We will take as a type in this instance the case of a brilliantly endowed youth of excellent family in Richmond, who, like the guide who piloted us to the battery upon the field of Manassas, became one of my closest and dearest friends, but unlike him and most unhappily for his family and his comrades, sealed his fate and his devotion with his life at Gettysburg.

He was a student at the University of Virginia in the spring of 1861, and perhaps the most extreme and uncompromising “Union man” among all the young men gathered there. Indeed, so exaggerated were his anti-secession views [51] and so bold and aggressive was he in advocacy of them, that he became very unpopular, and his friends feared serious trouble and even bloody collision. The morning President Lincoln's proclamation appeared he had gone down town on personal business before breakfast, and while there happened to glance at a paper. He returned at once to the University, but not to breakfast; spoke not a word to any human being, packed his trunk with his belongings, left a note for the chairman of the faculty explaining his conduct, boarded the first train for Richmond and joined a military company, before going to his father's house or taking so much as a morsel of food.

What was the overwhelming force which thus in a moment transformed this splendid youth? Was it not the God-implanted instinct which impels a man to defend his own hearth-stone?

There were 896 students at Harvard in 1861, there were 604 at the University of Virginia. Why was it that but 73 out of the 896 joined the first army that invaded the South, while largely over half of the 604 volunteered to meet the invaders? It was manifestly this instinct of defense of home which gave to the Confederate service, from 1861 to 1865, more than 2,000 men of our University, of whom it buried in soldiers' graves more than 400; while but 1,040 Harvard men served in the armies and navies of the United States during the four years of the war, and of these only 155 lost their lives in the service.1

Here, then, we have the essential, the distinctive spirit of the Southern volunteer. As he hastened to the front in the spring of 1861, he felt: “With me is Right, before me is Duty, behind me is Home.”

1 Figures taken from catalogues of the two institutions, for 1860-6&. Prof. Schele's Historical Catalogue of Students of the University of Virginia, a careful statement by Prof. (Col.) Charles S. Venable of the same institution; and Francis H. Brown's “Roll of Students of Harvard University Who Served in the Army or Navy of the United States During the War of the Rebellion,” prepared by order of the Corporation.

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