The infantry of the army of Northern Virginia.
[The following response to a toast at the banquet of the Richmond Howitzers
, December 13th, mas received with great enthusiasm, and there has been a general demand for its publication.
We comply with pleasure, for, although it will lack the inspiration of the occasion, and the graceful delivery of the eloquent speaker, it is a tribute well worthy of a place in our records:]
The Infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia; the men whose patient suffering in camp, whose heroic endurance in the trenches and on the march, and whose dauntless courage on the field lent unwonted attractions to grim-visaged war itself; the men who never faltered in the unequal contest they waged against sickness, and hunger and want, overwhelming numbers and still more overwhelming odds in all the appliances of modern war which human skill and boundless wealth could command; the men whose steady tramp, as elbow to elbow they marched up to the cannon's opening mouth 'mid whirring shot and hurtling shell, and whose wild rebel yell when the red field was won, seem even now to echo in our ears; what tongue can fitly speak their praise?
An angel's heart, an angel's mouth,
Not Homer's, could alone for me
Hymn well the great Confederate South,
Virginia first, and Lee.
My comrades, I would not if I could, draw any invidious comparisons between the dashing troopers who charged on a hundred hard-fought fields with Ashby
, and Hampton
, and Stuart
, and the brave cannoneers whom the gallant Pelham
and the heroic Pegram
led, and that matchless infantry that composed the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia, and “for four years carried the revolt on its bayonets.”
What soul-stirring thoughts, what glorious recollections, what thrilling memories of all that men hold great in war and good and true in
individual conduct, come crowding on our minds as through the vista of the years gone by we trace their historic march from glory-crowned Manassas
with its victorious shout, to Appomattox
with its sad miserere
of defeat and despair, when on the 9th of April, 1865, they yielded to the tyranny of fate, and saw
Their warrior banner take its flight
To greet the warrior's soul.
The world remembers, and you and I who saw its meteor rise, its. magnificent development, and its tearful fall, can never forget that there was once a great Confederate South that played no mean nor insignificant part in the wonderful drama of the ages.
We acknowledged its laws, we honored its civil rulers, we loved its military heroes, and we followed its blood-baptized flag — emblem to us of a cause that was right and just; and I see nothing inconsistent with our obligations to the present in assembling here to-night to strengthen the friendships, to revive the memories, and renew the associations of the past.
It is, indeed, meet and right that we should sometimes turn aside from the bustle and turmoil of business, and the selfish struggle for wealth and power and place, which tend to dwarf our affections and repress the better feelings of our nature, and from the contemplation and the study of the noble examples and the worthy deeds of those who have made the past illustrious, draw lessons which may enable us to meet with braver spirits and more trustful hearts the responsibilities of the present and the trials of the future.
And where, search all the pages of history, call over the names which have shed such imperishable lustre on the magnificent empires and the great republics of ancient times; go to Santa Croce
and Westminster Abbey
, where rest the mightiest kings of thought and action, poets, painters and philosophers, statesmen, orators and heroes, and tell me where you can find exemplars more worthy of imitation than Stonewall Jackson
and Robert Lee
But it is not of the great leaders of that splendid infantry of whom General Lee
once said that, “the stragglers of the Army of Northern Virginia are better than the best troops of the enemy,” that I desire alone, or chiefly to speak.
They have written their names with their swords high on the Roll of Fame, and though no lofty monuments be reared to bear their virtues to the ages yet to come, they will be remembered as long as the recital of great deeds grandly done, awakens a responsive throb in the hearts of men. I prefer to remind you of the private soldiers and the subordinate officers; the men who, without the
spur of ambition, the love of glory or the hope of reward, other than that which the consciousness of duty well performed brings to every true and manly heart, through the summer's burning heat and the winter's pitiless cold, through rain, and snow, and ice, with bodies half clad and feet oftimes unshod, ill-fed, ill-armed and ill-equipped, worn down with hunger and disease, in victory and in defeat, followed the flag and fought the battles of the South
with the sublime devotion of Christian martyrs and the knightly courage of Sydney and Bayard
These, these are they who deserve the highest meed of praise, and in their ragged, war-worn ranks were found, of heroes the truest, the bravest and the best, and earth has for me few more hallowed spots than the little grass-grown mound that marks the shallow grave where the unknown soldier sleeps, and after “life's fitful fever” sleeps well, we trust, in the great Confederacy of the Southern Dead
Ah, realm of tombs!
But let her bear
This blazon to the last of times,
No nation rose so white and fair,
Or fell so free of crimes.
The widow's moan, the orphan's wail
Comes ‘round thee.
Yet in truth be strong:
Eternal right though all else fail,
Can never be made wrong.
It has sometimes been said, and the effort has been made to prove that the hearts of the private soldiers were not in that momentous struggle for home rule, for local self-government, for the preservation of the rights of the States and the liberties of the people.
The charge is a compound slander, a slander alike on the living and the dead; for you
know full well how all dissensions were healed, all party differences dispelled, when Mr. Lincoln
's proclamation destroyed the last hopes of a peaceful separation of the States; how men of all ranks and professions and shades of opinion, unionists and secessionists alike, sprang to arms to repel the invaders of their rights and their soil.
Nor were the fires of patriotism kindled in the hearts of our men alone.
ταυταν ὴ επε ταυτα,
this or upon this, were the parting words of the Spartan
mother as she gave to her son his father's shield, and sent him forth to die, if needs were, in defense of his country.
And with a devotion purer, deeper, broader still, the glorious women of the South
, mothers, wives and daughters girded the sword on the loins of their sons and their husbands, their sweet-hearts and their brothers, and with
a prayer on their lips, but no tear in their eyes, bade them good-bye and God-speed in the day of battle.
Never, in truth, had any soldiery such unanimity of thought, purpose and feeling as the infantry of the Army of Northern Virginia.
In its ranks the professional man, the student and the farmer, the merchant and the mechanic, the old and the young, the rich and the poor, fought side by side, animated by the same principles, sustained by the same hopes, sharing the same hardships and equally loyal to the same great cause, the defense of their country, their firesides and their homes, and the vindication of constitutional freedom guarded by constitutional law.
A hundred years and more ago, the most profound political philosopher and the most accomplished orator of modern times said of their forefathers, that “these people of the Southern Colonies
are much more strongly, and with a higher and more stubborn spirit attached to liberty than those to the northward. * * * In other countries the people more simple, of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance; here they anticipate the evil and judge of the pressure of the grievance, by the badness of the principle.
They augur misgovernment at a distance, and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”
These words of Mr. Burke
are as applicable to the soldiers of 1861-5 as to their patriot sires of 1776.
Their strong love of liberty and keen appreciation of its blessings, their sturdy self-reliance and habits of rule, exaggerated doubtless by the peculiar conditions of Southern society, gave them a conscious self-respect, a spirit of personal independence, a sense of their own importance, an individuality and pride that made each man feel as if the fate of every battle hung on his single arm.
Thoroughly satisfied of the justice of their cause, animated by the loftiest patriotism, shrinking from no hardships, regardless of every danger, impatient only of the restraints of military discipline and the distinctions of military rank, in war and “in peace which hath its victories no less renowned than war,” they have illustrated every virtue that dignifies and ennobles man; and when sectional prejudices and strife-engendered passions shall have passed away, their unparalleled achievments appreciated and applauded by friends and foes alike, will be garnered up in the great store-house of history as part and parcel of these χτήματα εζ αει,
those eternal possessions which constitute a nation's crowning glory.
But, Mr. Chairman
, the lateness of the hour not the poverty of my theme, warns me to forbear; and, as the toast to which I have ventured this unworthy response is the last in regular order this evening, I hope
I may be excused, if in closing I offer you one in return, in words which I heard for the first time,old as they are, around a camp-fire in the army of Northern Virginia one cold and cheerless night towards the close of 1861, from the lips of a gallant infantry officer now “dead on the field of glory.”
They will not be on this account the less appropriate to this occasion:
When the black-lettered list to the gods was presented,
The list of what Fate for each mortal intends;
At the long string of ills a kind goddess relented,
And slipped in three blessings-wife, children and friends.
In vain surly Pluto maintained he was cheated,
For justice divine could not compass its ends,
The scheme of man's penance he swore was defeated,
Since earth becomes heaven with wife, children and friends.
If the stock of our bliss is in stranger hands vested,
The fund ill secured oft in bankruptcy ends--
But the heart issues bills which are never protested,
When drawn on the firm of wife, children and friends.
Though valor still burns in his life's dying embers,
The death-wounded tar who his colors defends,
Drops a tear of regret as he dying remembers
How blessed was his home with wife, children and friends.
The soldier, whose deeds live immortal in story,
Whom duty to far distant latitudes sends,
With transport would barter whole ages of glory
For one happy day with wife, children and friends.
The spring-time of youth, still unclouded by sorrow,
Alone on itself for enjoyment depends,
But drear is the twilight of age if it borrow
No warmth from the smile of wife, children and friends.
Let us drink, for my verse growing colder and colder,
To subjects too solemn insensibly tends.
Let us drink, pledge me high, love and virtue shall flavor
The glass which I fill to wife, children and friends.