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War as a popular Educator.

John A. Wright.
When the historian comes to write a truthful narrative of our civil war, the many able and varied accounts of different incidents connected therewith, that have been published in the weekly will be a source of profound satisfaction. No statement that will shed any light upon the causes, that will illustrate the condition of the people, or the progress of that dreadful contest, will be considered as useless. In the hope of contributing something toward a true history, it is here proposed to make a short statement of the general condition of the people other than of the Southern States, and more particularly of the State of Pennsylvania, when the insurrection in the South became an assured fact. The mutterings of discontent that for thirty years previous to 1861 had been heard from the South had made but little impression on the minds of the staid people of Pennsylvania. Their faith in the form of government, and the successful working for many years of the institutions engrafted into it, had given them a settled confidence in its efficiency to deal justly with all parts of the country. The people of Pennsylvania could not entertain the thought that the majority could inflict any wrong upon the minority that would be irreparable, or that would warrant any resort to rebellious measures. This conviction was no mere sentiment; it was based on an educated understanding of the principles which underlie the government itself. It is not claiming too much to argue that the marked agreement in the opinions of the people, on the questions which were raised at that time affecting the teachings of the [161] Constitution of the United States, was largely due to the education received by them in the public and private schools of the Commonwealth. This fact should be carefully noted by the school authorities, and the fullest provision be made in the future for the study of the history of our continent, of the government, and the principles on which the Constitution of the nation is founded.

To the general education of the people in 1861 is due the calmness of-their conduct and the fixedness of their purpose. It was not the rush of youthful fire, which over-rode the wiser and more cautious thoughts of middle and old age, nor was it the yieldings of youth to the influence of older minds; but the expression of public opinion was a unit, the result of education. The only question that was deemed worthy of discussion, when the act of attempted dissolution was enacted, was not the right connected with it, but the humanitarian question of avoiding the horrors of a civil war. In connection with this educated thought of the people there was a moral training. The people of Pennsylvania were disposed to leave the solution of the slavery question to the disposition of the people of the South, and they fully understood that it was a difficult social question to manage. But when, through the great prosperity that the system of slavery had brought to the South, after many years of depression, they were convinced that its social character was to be fully merged into political efforts to secure its enlargement and continuance, then the moral sentiment was aroused in opposition to such extension of its borders and attempts at making it a permanent institution in this country, which was in opposition to their view of the true principles of the form of government.

This condensed statement represents the condition of public opinion on these questions in 1860. The political sentiments and partisan relations of the people rapidly changed from the beginning of 1860.

The exciting general election of that year brought out a full discussion of the prominent political questions, and as any party was supposed to sympathize with possible rebellion, so far was that party in the minority. Yet even then the probability of such a result as civil war was not accepted, nor could the people comprehend what it meant, for, with the exception of the Indian war, and the war with Mexico, their knowledge of war was as read of in books.

The financial condition of the country in the beginning of 1861 was unpromising. The difficulties of 1857 had not been forgotten; the traces and effects of the financial troubles of that year were still apparent. The country was but slowly recovering. Labor was still unemployed; wages were low; the prices of real estate had receded; [162] prices of the products of the soil and of manufactures were not remunerative, and a large amount of money laid idle for want of profitable employment. The difficulty of making collections in the Southern country increased the financial dilemma, and as the fact grew upon the people that war was inevitable, the certainty of immense losses to the merchants of the North caused further depression, and, with the announcement of war, there was an almost total collapse of credit and destruction of values. For a time the people were at sea without a compass or rudder. National growth or development always moves in lines; not like the tree that develops its branches and twigs equally, and makes, when grown, one of the most beautiful of God's creations; but nations develop as certain ideas take possession of its people, and such are run out until it is necessary to take up a new thought to preserve the results of the last. So there is always a want of completeness, of roundness, in national thought, practice and growth. When lines of thought in a nation become antagonistic, the result must be the destruction of both or the supremacy of one. To solve such questions, war comes in as the final arbiter. It is as yet a necessity. Wars between civilized people have been caused, in the past, more by diversity of opinion than by desire for conquest, and will be for years to come. War tests principles. When the successful thought assumes its position after war, it will be found to have elevated the people, advanced and enlarged their ideas, and given them a consciousness of power they did not have before they passed through this trying ordeal.

But the realities of war the people of Pennsylvania did not understand nor appreciate. The military spirit had almost died out from the impulse it received after the close of the Mexican war. Here and there, throughout this broad Commonwealth, could be occasionally heard the fife and drum, and the tramp, tramp of a few badly-drilled volunteers. Public opinion was not favorable to military organizations, and their efforts on parade were a subject of sport. It was much easier to pay a militia fine than to go through the expense and drudgery of a drill. The people thought the small national army was sufficient to man a few forts, keep up the pretense of a military organization, and take care of the Indians. They had no fear of a foreign war, and Mexico had been taught its lesson. The military school at West Point was considered by many people as a useless expense. For what good, they would ask, would be militia trainings or organized volunteer regiments, of what service an expensive army organization, when the country has no foes? The [163] people of this country were in a position unlike those of any other nation. They did not feel directly the control of the General Government. They paid no government taxes; such as were raised were indirect. In no way was the hand of the General Government openly laid upon them or visible. So far, then, as their immediate interests were concerned, everything tended to give the people a sense of security, and the remotest thought was of a possible war. When, then, war was actually declared by the South, by firing on the flag of the country at Fort Sumter, on the 14th of April, 1861, the thrill that went through every nerve of the people of the North was a startling sensation. It wakened them up to a new fact-the struggle of ideas had commenced; war was inevitable. Whatever of secret hostility there might have been in certain quarters to the success of the North, was forbidden expression. The first gun fired at Sumter cemented the North. The thrill that awoke the people of this country to a realization of the fact of war, woke up with it their patriotism as founded upon education, religious teaching, moral principles, and the innate love of country. The education of the people enabled them to understand the issues made, with the probable consequences of any possible result, and as they thought, their minds grew and developed until they felt that the responsibility of the future of this great continent was upon them; that the great test of the democratic form of government was placed in their hands to determine. This sense of responsibility was shared by all classes, and the voice of the people of the North was so unanimous that to oppose it was at the risk of personal safety. There was then no hesitation as to what to do; but how to do it was the problem.

Here was war upon the people; war by land and by sea. There was entire unpreparedness as to organization in most of the loyal States, and in none less than in Pennsylvania. There were a few of the trained officers who served in the Mexican war available, and some of the ex-officers of the regular army, both those who had resigned after years of service, and graduates of West Point who had served in the army the legal time. Many of these were physically unfitted for duty. Yet when the call was made for 75,000 men-three months men — the eagerness to be accepted showed the feeling of the people, and their confidence in their ability to master the new science. It required but a short experience for the people to learn that a good and reliable soldier is composed of neither hirelings nor vagabonds; but the best material to be found is necessary to constitute an army that will be obedient to orders, and submit to the severe discipline that is required. The old notion that to be a good [164] soldier a man must lose his identity and become a machine, is an error. The experience of this country, and of Germany, in its recent war with France, proved that an intelligent soldiery is more reliable, and the degree of reliability is in proportion to the intelligent appreciation of the causes that produced the war, and what was to be done.

A very striking evidence of the want of preparation for war was exemplified in the absence of any government troops in the city of Baltimore on the 19th of April, 1861, when the Massachusetts regiment, a uniformed and well drilled body of men, was attacked on its passage through that city by a hastily gathered mob, and a large number of soldiers from the city of Philadelphia, under Colonel Small, were driven back because they were without arms and ammunition; and, further, that the General Government were deprived at that date of access northward by rail and by telegraph. It may surprise many, when they learn that for several days after the 19th of April, 1861, almost the entire correspondence between the Eastern, the Middle, and the Western States, and the government at Washington, was carried by private messengers, sent daily by various routes from Harrisburg to Washington, and vice versa, under the instructions of Governor A. G. Curtin. The. necessities of the situation after the government's requisition for three months men was filled, developed the importance of something more than a militia organization for the protection of the people and their property in the State of Pennsylvania. What the future might produce the wisest men at that time could not foresee. What effect a possible success on the part of the South might have been on the position of some of the leading men in the North, was unknown.

The Governor of Pennsylvania, A. G. Curtin, with great wisdom and foresight, recommended to the Legislature of that State the formation of fifteen full regiments-thirteen to be of infantry, one of light artillery, and one of cavalry — to be known as the “Reserve volunteer Corps of Pennsylvania,” to be used firstly in the defense of the State, and, secondly, to be transferred to the authority of the General Government if not required by the State-thereby covering any probable situation that the chances of war might produce. The eagerness to enter the army in defense of the life of the nation very rapidly filled these regiments. They were organized and officered under the authority of Governor Curtin, as well as clothed, equipped and provisioned at the expense of the State. The history of this organization, the only one of its kind in the States, has been often and well written, and as long as the State of Pennsylvania maintains [165] a separate existence, or the records of history preserve the sad story of the civil war, so long will be preserved the record of the bravery and skill of the men and officers of the Reserve Corps of the State of Pennsylvania. After the inglorious defeat at Bull Run — a battle between undrilled men, where the chances of success or defeat were at best but equal — the terror and dismay which prevailed over the North was rapidly quieted when it was known that Governor Curtin had offered this Reserve Corps to the General Government for three years service. It was a nucleus around which a new army might be formed, and one that could maintain its ground in defense of the capital after the discharge of the three months men, and until reinforced by the soldiers of other States. The best that could be done, in the haste to join the regiments for the three months service, was to push the men forward to the front as rapidly as they were mustered into service; but here was a body of men, while their drill had not been completed; and to soldiers of older service would have been but raw recruits, yet they had the organization and accepted the idea of long and hard service, and very rapidly adapted themselves to the new situation.

The battle of Bull Run, the return of the three months men, the attack and defense of Fort Sumter, the early efforts of the navy, very rapidly educated the people in what war was, and how it was to be met. With success, the public mind exhibited a constant tendency to go back to its state of quiet. Adversity aroused the people, and developed increased determination and energy. The change that the first year of the war produced in the condition of the people was marked. The government becoming the employer, there was a demand for labor, for all kinds of manufactured goods and articles, for the productions of the soil, for the building and armament of ships of war, and war material. The inventive powers of the people were taxed to produce deadlier weapons and more destructive guns, to increase certainty of result in attack, as well as safety in defense. Very many of the inventions thus worked out have been adopted and modified by the experienced engineers and artillerists of the Old World, and have given our makers of firearms a pre-eminence which secures them large orders from these governments. The “Monitor,” the Gatling, the breech-loading guns, both great and small, and many others might be mentioned in this list of inventions thus used. The impetus to productions of all kinds, arising from the demands for government supplies, and the heavy tariffs that was placed on imported goods through the increased price of gold, gave the fullest employment to the people. Emigration rapidly increased, and as [166] the country was losing its best men on the battle-fields and in the hospitals, their places were rapidly filled by the hardy emigrants. The abundance of money and apparent prosperity gave rise to an undue spirit of speculation. The people acted as though the money expended by the government, and the lives lost, was so much added to the value of property in place of properly considering it as a loss; and it did seem at one time as if the higher the prices of land, of labor, and material rose, the greater was the demand for all. These things gave the appearance of the highest state of prosperity, and did much to make many people look upon war as the legitimate road to success. Among the civilized nations of the earth the United States has, in proportion to the means of her people, occupied a high place in the line of humanitarian institutions. War means the wounding of men, the presence of diseases which come from exposure, hardships, irregularities of living and overtasking of powers of endurance. It means mental as well as physical agony; it makes widows and orphans, leaving them helpless and poor; it takes away from old age the support of the strong-armed son; the tendency of war on the morals of men in the army is bad, the excitement of the passions, the absence of home restraints and home comforts operate injuriously.

The presence of all these liabilities and evils to which the men were exposed who offered their lives in defense of their country excited in the people an earnest desire and a feeling of imperative duty to provide for them in the way best fitted to meet the varied demands. The medical department of the government developed great ability in the professional part of its work and great inventive power in planning hospitals, ambulances, couches, chairs, etc., many of which should be added to the list of improvements which foreign governments have adopted. In the French and German war the hospital accommodations were largely copies of the plans worked out by the officers in charge of the medical department of our army. Wherever permanent hospitals were built, every aid and attention that could be furnished by the voluntary contribution of the people, both male and female, were gladly offered-whether these contributions were in the form of flowers to enliven the sufferer, and of enticing cookery to tempt the appetite, of willingness to be eyes, arms or hands to write the letters of love to those at home, or whatever was needed that would comfort the invalid. The Sanitary Commission and the Christian Commission were as ready to afford all the comfort and aid they could on the field of battle or in the far off temporary hospital as in the permanent hospital. Aid was tendered the widow and the orphans, and the aged fathers and [167] mothers were not neglected. Every care was taken that all moral influences should be placed around the men. Everything was done that would in any way contribute to the comfort and well-being of the men engaged in the service of the country; and, while no amount of attention will remove the sufferings and hardships that go with war, yet it was found to be possible to ameliorate some of their sufferings and to provide for the living. The State of Pennsylvania again, through the recommendation of Governor A. G. Curtin, who was as ready to recommend the care of all sufferers by the war as he was to urge by his eloquent voice the people to arms in defense of the nation, provided for the education and sustenance of the orphan children of dead soldiers. This noble institution has done a great work, and many will rise to call the State blessed.

From a quiet, peaceful people, but little interested in the world's progress, innocent of a knowledge of the arts of war, cultivating the soil, digging in the mines, melting the ore, handling goods-though these were done with little profit-quietly awaiting better times, with ill — will to no nation or section of our own country, with confidence in the perpetuity of the government, and faith in its power, though unseen, to protect them, if needed, with their schoolhouses and churches conveniently placed and well attended; from this state of almost pastoral quiet they had been awakened on one Sabbath morning in April, 1861, and in a year they are a restless, nervous people, thoroughly absorbed in a great civil war, accounts reaching them daily, and almost hourly, of a success here, or a defeat there, with the lives of their friends, their relatives-brothers, sons, husbands at peril; this people talk and think of war, its management, its strategies, its losses, and its honors, as though they had been students of war all their lives. Those at home are at work for those in the field or on the sea; the women prepare bandages, and nurse the sick and wounded in place of the lighter employments of a home-life. The people have learned what it is to support the government, and their means are poured out in its defense; for if their government fails, they see but little hope for the future. The children in the school-houses are taught about war; the playful drill of the boys, the play-gun and cannon, are instilling into them what may be the necessities of the future; the girls are as proud of their boy-soldiers as the maiden when the country places its laurel wreath of honor on her beloved. The churches are crowded with thoughtful worshipers, prayers are earnest; there is something to pray for. It is a test of the God they worship — the deliverance of the Israelites from bondage is in their minds, and when the cloud is darkest they [168] see light through the darkness. The people are in deep earnest, every power is strained. What a change one year has produced. The real condition of the people before the war will be, perhaps, as well understood by the contrast with that of 1862 and succeeding years. That this war has produced like effects with all other wars of principle is unquestioned. The people of this country lived a century in the four years of war. The realities of life with its probabilities were taught them by a new teacher. They learned the value of a stable government, the necessity that in its Constitution there must exist all power to perpetuate and preserve its life; that this continent can only be developed under a strong government, and made a safe home for the millions that will till its fields, cultivate its fruits, clear its forests, mine its ores, teach its children, and give higher education to its people in all the arts and sciences that will add to their happiness. This war taught the people their strength and their ability to meet promptly and adequately every emergency, and developed the great truth that a republican form of government can withstand and overcome an internal revolution. This truth is the more strongly marked by the character, ability and perseverance of the people of the revolting States. The war was a hard, bloody struggle-but man's salvation is by the same emblem.

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