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[17]

Chapter 1: explanation of the title-scheme of the work.

“Four years under Marse Robert.”

At the first blush this title may strike one as inaccurate, lacking in dignity, and bordering on the sensational. Yet the author prefers it to any other and is ready to defend it; while admitting, though this may seem inconsistent, that explanations are in order.

Not one of his men was an actual follower of Robert Lee for four full years. In fact, he was not himself in the military service of Virginia and of the Confederate States together for that length of time, and he did not assume personal command of what was then the Confederate Army of the Potomac and later, under his leadership, became the “Army of Northern Virginia,” until June 1, 1862.

But more than a year before, indeed just after the secession of the State, Governor Letcher had appointed Lee to the chief command of the Virginia troops, which, under his plastic hand, in spite of vast obstacles, were turned over in a few weeks in fair soldierly condition to the Confederate Government, and became the nucleus of the historic Army of Northern Virginia; and their commander was created one of the five full generals provided for by law in the military service of the Confederate States.

As full general in the Confederate service, Lee was not at first assigned to particular command, but remained at Richmond as “Military Adviser to the President.” In that [18] position, as also in his assignment, somewhat later, to the conduct, under the advice of the President, of the operations of all the armies of the Confederate States, he of course had more or less supervision and control of the armies in Virginia. Such continued to be Lee's position and duties, and his relations to the troops in Virginia, until General Joseph E. Johnston, commanding the army defending Richmond, was struck down at Seven Pines, or Fair Oaks, June 1st, 1862, when President Davis appointed Lee to succeed him in command of that army.

From this brief review it appears clearly that the men who, after June 1st, 1862, followed Lee's banner and were under his immediate command were, even before that time and from the very outset, in a large and true sense his soldiers and under his control; so that, while strictly speaking no soldier followed Lee for four years, yet we who served in Virginia from the beginning to the end of the war are entitled, in the customary and popular sense, to speak of our term of service as “Four years under Lee.”

But our claim is, “Four years under Marse Robert.” Why “Marse Robert?”

So, in Innes Randolph's inimitable song, “A good old Rebel,” the hero thus vaunts his brief but glorious annals:

I followed old Mars' Robert
For four year, near about;
Got wounded in three places
And starved at Pint Lookout.

Again, why “Marse Robert?”

The passion of soldiers for nicknaming their favorite leaders, re-christening them according to their unfettered fancy and their own sweet will, is well known. “The little corporal,” “The iron Duke,” “Marshall forwards,” “Bobs,” “Bobs Bahadur,” “Little Mac,” “Little Phil,” “Fighting Joe,” “Stonewall,” “Old Jack,” “Old Pete,” “Old Jube,” “Jubilee,” “Rooney,” “Fitz,” “Marse Robert” --all these and many more are familiar. There is something grotesque about most of them and in many, seemingly, rank disrespect. Yet the habit has never been regarded as a violation [19] of military law, and the commanding general of an army, if a staunch fighter, and particularly if victory often perches on his banner, is very apt to win the noways doubtful compliment of this rough and ready knighthood from his devoted troops. But however this may be, “Marse Robert” is far away above the rest of these soldier nicknames in pathos and in power.

In the first place, it is essentially military.

Though in form and style as far as possible removed from that model, this quaint title yet rings true upon the elemental basis of military life-unquestioning and unlimited obedience. It embodies the strongest possible expression of the short creed of the soldier:

Their's not to reason why,
Their's but to do and die.

I do not believe an army ever existed which surpassed Lee's ragged veterans in hearty acceptance and daily practice of this soldier creed, and there is no telling to what extent their peculiar nickname for their leader was responsible for this characteristic trait of his followers. Men who spoke habitually of their commanding general as “Master” could not but feel the reflex influence of this habit upon their own character as soldiers. This much may certainly be said of this graphic title of the great captain; but this is not all.

“Marse Robert!” It goes without saying that the title is distinctively Southern.

The homely phrase was an embodiment of the earliest and strongest associations of the men applied in reverent affection, but also in defiant yet pathetic protest. It was, in some sense, an outcry of the social system of the South assailed and imperilled by the war and doomed to perish in the great convulsion. The title “Marse Robert” fitted at once the life of the soldier and the life of the slave, because both were based upon the principle of absolute obedience to absolute authority.

In this connection it may not be uninteresting to note --what is perhaps not generally known — that during the [20] last months of the war the Confederate authorities canvassed seriously the policy of arming the Southern slaves and putting them in the field as soldiers. I was told by a leading member of the Senate of Virginia that, by special invitation, General Lee came over from Petersburg and appeared before, as I remember, a joint committee of the two Houses, to which this matter had been referred, and gave his opinion in favor of the experiment upon the ground, mainly, that unhesitating and unlimited obedience — the first great lesson of the soldier — was ingrained, if not inborn, in the Southern slave.

Yet once more — to christen Lee “Master” was an act of homage peculiarly appropriate to his lofty and masterful personality.

There never could have been a second “Marse Robert;” as, but for the unparalleled elevation and majesty of his character and bearing, there would never have been the first. He was of all men most attractive to us, yet by no means most approachable. We loved him much, but we revered him more. We never criticised, never doubted him; never attributed to him either moral error or mental weakness; no, not even in our secret hearts or most audacious thoughts. I really believe it would have strained and blurred our strongest and clearest conceptions of the distinction between right and wrong to have entertained, even for a moment, the thought that he had ever acted from any other than the purest and loftiest motive. I never but once heard of such a suggestion, and then it so transported the hearers that military subordination was forgotten and the colonel who heard it rushed with drawn sword against the major-general who made it.

The proviso with which a ragged rebel accepted the doctrine of evolution, that “the rest of us may have descended or ascended from monkeys, but it took a God to make Marse Robert,” had more than mere humor in it.

I am not informed whether the figure of speech to which I am about to refer ever obtained outside the South, or whether its use among us was generally known beyond our borders. It undoubtedly originated with our negroes, being [21] an expression of their affectionate reverence for their masters, by metaphor, transferred to the one great “Lord and master” of us all; but it is certainly also true that Southern white men, and especially Southern soldiers, were in the habit-and that without the least consciousness of irreverence — of referring to the Divine Being as “Old Marster,” in connection especially with our inability to comprehend His inscrutable providences and our duty to bow to His irreversible decrees. There is no way in which I can illustrate more vividly the almost worship with which Lee's soldiers regarded him than by saying that I once overheard a conversation beside a camp fire between two Calvinists in Confederate rags and tatters, shreds and patches, in which one simply and sincerely inquired of his fellow, who had just spoken of “Old Marster,” whether he referred to “the one up at headquarters or the One up yonder.”

We never compared him with other men, either friend or foe. He was in a superlative and absolute class by himself. Beyond a vague suggestion, after the death of Jackson, as to what might have been if he had lived, I cannot recall even an approach to a comparative estimate of Lee.

As to his opponents, we recked not at all of them, but only of the immense material force behind them; and as to that, we trusted our commanding general like a providence. There was at first a mild amusement in the rapid succession of the Federal commanders, but even this grew a little trite and tame. There was, however, one point of great interest in it, and that was our amazement that an army could maintain even so much as its organization under the depressing strain of these successive appointments and removals of its commanding generals. And to-day I, for one, regard the fact that it did preserve its cohesion and its fighting power under and in spite of such experiences, as furnishing impressive demonstration of the high character and intense loyalty of our historic foe, the Federal Army of the Potomac.

As to the command of the Army of Northern Virginia, so far as I know or have reason to believe, but one man in the Confederate States ever dared to suggest a change, and that [22] one was Lee himself, who — after the battle of Gettysburg, and again, I think, though I cannot verify it, when his health gave way for a time under the awful strain of the campaign of 1864-suggested that it might be well he should give way to a younger and stronger man. But the fact is, that Lee's preeminent fitness for supreme command was so universally recognized that, in spite of the obligation of a soldier to undertake the duties of any position to which he may be assigned by competent authority, I doubt whether there was an officer in all the armies of the Confederacy who would have consented to accept appointment as Lee's successor in command of the Army of Northern Virginia--possibly there was one--and I am yet more disposed to question whether that army would have permitted Lee to resign his place or any other to take it. Looking back over its record, from Seven Pines to Appomattox, I am satisfied that the unquestioned and unquestionable preeminence, predominance, and permanence of Lee, as its commander-in-chief, was one of the main elements which made the Army of Northern Virginia what it was.

I have said we never criticised him. I ought, perhaps, to make one qualification of this statement. It has been suggested by others and I have myself once or twice felt that Lee was too lenient, too full of sweet charity and allowance. He did not, as Jackson did, instantly and relentlessly remove incompetent officers.

The picture is before you, and yet it is not intended as a full picture, but only as such a presentation of him, from the point of view of his soldiers, as will explain and justify the quaint title which they habitually applied to their great commander. I have not attempted and shall not attempt a complete portrait. Why should I, when the most eloquent tongues and pens of two continents have labored to present, with fitting eulogy, the character and career of our great Cavalier. It is our patent of nobilty that he is to-day regarded — the world over — as the representative of the soldiery of the South. [23]

Not only is it true of him, as already intimated, that he uniformly acted from the highest motive presented to his soul-but so impressive and all-compelling was the majesty of his virtue that it is doubtful whether any one ever questioned aught of this. It is perhaps not too much to say that the common consensus of Christendom-friend and foe and neutral-ranks him as one of the greatest captains of the ages and attributes to him more of the noblest virtues and powers, with less of the ordinary selfishness and littleness of humanity, than to any other great soldier. This is what is meant by our dedication — that the world has come to view him very much as his ragged followers did in the grand days when they were helping him to make history.

Can you point to another representative man upon whom the light of modern day has been focussed with such intensity, of whom these supreme things may be said with so little strain; or rather, with acquiescence practically universal? For our part, we say emphatically-we know not where to look for the man.

The scheme of this book is a modest one. The author makes no pretense that he is qualified to write history or to discuss learnedly, from a professional standpoint, the battles and campaigns of armies; while of course an old veteran cannot be expected always and absolutely to refrain from saying how the thing looked to him. All that is really proposed-and the writer will be more than content if he acquit himself fairly well of this limited design — is to state clearly and truthfully what he saw and experienced as a private soldier and subordinate officer in the military service of the Confederate States in Virginia from 1861 to 1865.

It is not proposed, however, to give a consecutive recital of all that occurred during these four years, even within the narrow range of the writer's observation and experience; but rather to select and record such incidents, arranged of course in a general orderly sequence, as are deemed to be of inherent interest, or to shed light upon the portrait of the Confederate soldier, the personality of prominent actors in the war drama upon the Southern side, the salient points [24] of the great conflict, or the general conditions of life in and behind the Confederate lines.

Again, such are the imperfections of human observation and such the irregularities and errors of human memory, especially in the record of events long past, that many may be disposed to question the value of such a book as this, written to-day, relating to our civil war. I can only reply that not a few of the incidents recorded were reduced to writing years ago, indeed soon after they occurred; while perhaps as much has been gained in perspective as has been lost in detail, by waiting. Certainly it can be better determined to-day what is worthy of preservation and publication than it could have been immediately after the war.

The slips and vagaries of memory, however, cannot be denied or excluded. It can only be said, “forewarned is forearmed.” I shall endeavor to exercise that conscientious care which the character of the work requires, but cannot hope to attain uniform and unerring accuracy in every detail. In the record of conversations, interviews, and speeches I shall sometimes adopt the form of direct quotation, even where not able to recall the precise words employed by the speakers and interlocutors — if I am satisfied this form of narrative will best convey the real spirit of the occasion.

And as the writer is, in the main, to relate what he saw and heard and did, he craves in advance charitable toleration of the first personal pronoun in the singular number.

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