previous next

Chapter 2: Introductory Sketches.

  • Ante-war history of the author
  • -- the fight for the “Speakership” in 1860 -- Vallandigham, of Ohio -- Richmond after the John Brown raid -- Whig and Democratic conventions of Virginia in 1860.

There are features of my antecedent personal history calculated, perhaps, to impart a somewhat special interest to my experiences as a Confederate soldier. I was the eldest son of the Rev. Joseph C. Stiles, a Presbyterian minister, born in Georgia, where his ancestors had lived and died for generations, but who moved to the North and, from my boyhood, had lived in New York City and in New Haven, Conn. I was prepared for college in the schools of these two cities and was graduated at Yale in 1859. It so happened that I had never visited the South since the original removal of the family, which occurred when I was some twelve years of age; so that practically all my education, associations and friendships were Northern. True, I took position as a Southerner in all our college discussions and debates, but never as a “fire-eater” or secessionist. Indeed, I was a strong “Union man” and voted for Bell and Everett in 1860.

After my graduation in 1859 I passed the late summer and autumn in the Adirondack woods fishing and hunting with several classmates, and devoted the rest of the year to general reading and some little teaching, in New Haven; until, becoming deeply interested in the fierce struggle over the Speakership of the House of Representatives, I went to Washington, and from the galleries of the House and Senate eagerly overhung the great final debates. I had paid close attention to oratory during my college course and I doubt whether there was another onlooker in the Capitol more deeply absorbed than I. On more than one occasion [26] the excitement and pressure of the crowd in the galleries of the House was fearful, and once at least persons were dragged out, more dead than alive, over the heads of others sc densely packed that they could not move; but I never failed to secure a front seat.

I grew well acquainted — that is, by sight — with the party leaders, and recall, among others, Seward and Douglas and Breckenridge, Davis and Toombs and Benjamin, in the Senate; Sherman and Stevens, Logan and Vallandigham, Pryor and Keitt, Bocock and Barksdale, and Smith, of Virginia, in the House. It became intensely interesting to me to observe the part some of these men played later in the great drama: Seward as the leading figure of Lincoln's Cabinet; Davis as President of the Southern Confederacy; Benjamin, Toombs, and Breckenridge as members of his Cabinet, the two latter also as generals whom I have more than once seen commanding troops in battle; “Black JackLogan,--hottest of all the hotspurs of the extreme Southern wing of the Democratic party in the House in 1860,--we all know where he was from 1861 to 1865; and glorious old “Extra Billy” Smith, soldier and governor by turns; Barksdale, who fell at Gettysburg, was my general, commanding the infantry brigade I knew and loved best of all in Lee's army and which often supported our guns; and poor Keitt! I saw him fall at Cold Harbor in 1864 and helped to rally his shattered command.

The Republican party had nominated John Sherman for Speaker, and he was resisted largely upon the ground of his endorsement of Hinton Rowan Helper's book, which was understood as inciting the negro slaves of the South to insurrection, fire, and blood. The John Brown raid had occurred recently, and Col. Robert E. Lee had led the party of United States Marines which captured the raiders and their leader. They had just been convicted and executed as murderers. The excitement was frightful and ominous, and scenes of the wildest disorder occurred in the House. One of these was in every way so remarkable that I ask leave to describe it somewhat fully.

The Republican leaders had become convinced they could not elect Sherman, and about the same time the Demo [27] crats, seeing there was no possibility of electing their original candidate, Thomas S. Bocock, of Virginia, had put up William N. H. Smith, of North Carolina, an old line Whig, or Southern American, and it seemed certain they would elect him. Indeed, he was elected and his election telegraphed all over the land; but before the result of the ballot could be announced, Henry Winter Davis, of Maryland, and E. Joy Morris, of Pennsylvania, as I recollect, Northern Americans or Republicans, who had voted for Smith, changed their votes and everything was again at sea. It was then openly proposed to withdraw Sherman; and John Hickman, of Pennsylvania, who had been elected as an anti-Lecompton Democrat, but had gone over to the Republicans, took the floor to resist what he characterized as cowardice and treachery. Hickman had not voted for Sherman until the crisis was reached, but had been openly charged, on the floor of the House, with secretly desiring and plotting to elect him. Pryor and Keitt and other hotheaded Southerners had attacked Hickman fiercely, and leading Northern Democrats had upbraided him for his desertion. Under these taunts and thrusts he had become the bitterest man upon the floor.

In the gloom which seemed to overshadow the House, Hickman, as he rose, looked pale, repellent, ghastly, almost ghostly. Repeatedly during his harangue, which was really one of great power, he walked from his seat in the back part of the House, down the narrow aisle toward the Clerk's desk, his right arm lifted high above his head, his fist clinched and his whole frame trembling with passion, and as he reached the open space in front of the desk he would shriek out the climax of a paragraph, simultaneously smashing his fist wildly down upon a table that stood there.

The speech produced a profound, almost awful, impression. I remember the peroration as if it were yesterday, as he shouted, on his last stride down the aisle, glaring around upon his Republican associates: “I know not and I care not what others may do, but as for me and my house, we intend to vote for John Sherman-until Gabriel's last trump, the crack of doom, and the day of judgment.” [28]

In spite of this powerful protest, as soon as the dilatory tactics of the opposition were exhausted and the ballot was called, it became evident that Sherman had been withdrawn; indeed he. withdrew his own name, and Pennington, of New Jersey, a moderate Republican, and personally an unobjectionable man, was put up in his place. There was nothing that could now be done; this call of the roll would end it all.

The Democrats went wild and every moment wilder, as the Republicans-even John Sherman's most devoted friends as their names were called-one after another fell into line and voted, full-voiced, for “Pennington.” That is; all the Democrats went wild except Vallandigham, of Ohio. He sat coolly in his seat, while Barksdale, Keitt, Houston, Logan, and the rest surged around him. When they appealed to him, with excited gesticulations, he simply brushed them aside and kept his eyes fixed on a particular spot on the Republican side. As Hickman's name was called and he rose and voted for Pennington, Vallandigham sprang to his feet and, stretching out his right arm toward the Clerk's desk, in a long, resonant drawl that would not be drowned, he shouted: “Mr. Clerk, I move that this House do now adjourn!”

Cries from the Republican side: “Sit down! Sit down! Order! Order! You can't interrupt the ballot! Sit down!”

But Vallandigham went right on. He would not sit down, and he would interrupt the ballot-and he did.

Mr. Clerk, I move that this House do now adjourn, especially, sir” --both arms now extended, mouth wide open, eyes wide staring-“especially, sir, since we have just had Gabriel's last trump, the crack of doom and the day of judgment!”

I question if anything like it ever occurred in the history of legislative bodies; or if any speech or stroke of daring leadership ever produced such an effect. A yell went up from the entire House-Democrats and Republicans joining in it. There was a wild burst and bolt, of perhaps half the delegates, out of the chamber, and then a rush of the rest for Vallandigham. [29]

I remember that old Houston, of Alabama, who weighed about a ton, ran up, puffing like a porpoise, and threw his immense bulk into Vallandigham's arms, rolling him upon the floor. Poor Barksdale lost his wig in the scrimmage. In a twinkling the hero of the moment was lifted high upon the shoulders of his party friends, who marched triumphantly all over the House, bearing him aloft and almost waving him like a banner.

By this flash of lightning out of the heavens, as it were, the Democrats gained another day, though they did not win the fight.1

I cannot forbear another anecdote of this remarkable man; for while not an eye and ear witness to it as to that just related, the utterance attributed to him bears so unmistakably the impress of his vigorous, incisive intellect and his power of crushing sarcasm, that I am almost willing to vouch for the truth of the recital.

As the story goes, some time during the first half of the war Mr. Thaddeus Stevens, or some other equally singlehearted patriot, alarmed at the rapid depreciation of the currency, offered in the House a measure providing in substance that gold should not be sold at a premium; when from [30] the back benches, where the little Democratic contingent was then wont to abide, Vallandigham arose and drawled out: “Mr. Speaker! I move you, sir, the following amendment to the bill: ‘Provided that, during the pendency of this act, the laws of nature and of finance and of common sense be, and they are, hereby suspended.’ ”

I do not know whether any biography of Vallandigham has been published, but one should be. We realize, of course, that his attitude, actions, and utterances during the war must have been as offensive and irritating to the bulk of the people of the Northern States as they were refreshing and delightful to us of the South; but we believe the time has come when men of all parties would be able to appreciate his tremendous vitality, his unconquerable courage, his unquenchable brilliance.

And, by the way, his death, as the circumstances were narrated at the time in the public press, was even more marvelous and startling than any incident of his checkered life. As I recall the facts, some years after the close of the war he was senior counsel for the defense in a murder trial which excited great popular interest. There had been a collision between the supposed murderer and his victim, at the close of which the latter had fallen mortally wounded by a pistol shot.

Vallandigham's theory was that he had been killed by the accidental discharge of his own weapon, and during an intermission in the trial, taking up a pistol, he proceeded to illustrate to his associate counsel just how the thing might have occurred, when, shocking to relate, it did so occur again — the pistol was accidentally discharged into his own person and Vallandigham fell dead.

At the close of the prolonged fight over the Speakership I left Washington and ran down to Richmond, with a view of “spying out the land” as a place in which to try my fortune when I should have acquired my profession. My father had been pastor of a church in that city for four years during my childhood, and had been much beloved by his people, who received me with more than old Virginia hospitality. I was charmed with everything I saw and every one I met, [31] except that I was shocked and saddened by meeting everywhere young men of my own age in military uniform. They had not long since returned from the camp at Charlestown and the execution of John Brown, and it chilled me to see that they regarded themselves, as they proved indeed to be, the advance guard of the great army which would soon be embattled in defence of the South. I loved the Union passionately, and while I had seen a great deal at Washington that made me tremble for it, yet I had not there seen men armed and uniformed as actual soldiers in the war of disunion.

It was not a little singular that most of these young men --that is to say, those whom for the most part I met in a social way-belonged to the Richmond Howitzers, the very corps which, without choice on my part, I joined in 1861, and with which I served during the greater part of the war.

State conventions, both of the Whig and Democratic parties, sat in Richmond during my visit and discussed, of course, mainly the one absorbing issue. I was an eager observer of the proceedings and much impressed with the high average of intelligence and speaking power in both bodies. This seemed especially true of the Whig Convention-perhaps because I was so much in sympathy with that party in deprecating the disruption of the Union. I confess, however, the question has since been often pressed home upon me whether, after all, the Democrats of Virginia did not, in this great crisis, exhibit a higher degree of prescient statesmanship.

Among the Whig leaders I distinctly recall William Ballard Preston, A. H. H. Stuart, Thomas Stanhope Flournoy, and John Minor Botts. I do not remember whether John B. Baldwin was a member of this convention of 1860. If so, I did not happen to hear him speak. Mr. Preston, Mr. Stuart, and Mr. Flournoy, as well as Mr. Baldwin, were, later, members of the Secession Convention of Virginia, but all were Union men up to President Lincoln's call for troops. Mr. Preston and Mr. Stuart were not only finished orators, but statesmen of ability and experience. Both had graced the Legislature of their State and the Congress of the United [32] States, and both had been members of the Federal Cabinet --Mr. Preston during General Taylor's and Mr. Stuart during Mr. Fillmore's administration. Mr. Preston was afterwards a member of the Confederate Senate and Mr. Stuart one of the commissioners appointed by Virginia to confer with Mr. Lincoln as to his attitude and action toward the seceded States.

Mr. Botts made a very powerful address before the convention, but the spirit of it did not please me. He belittled the John Brown raid, at the same time accusing Governor Wise of having done everything in his power to magnify it. He ridiculed the Governor's military establishment and his “men in buckram,” while dubbing him “The un-epauletted hero of the Ossawattomie war.” He said that old John Brown certainly did a good deal against the peace and prosperity of the commonwealth and the country, but added, “Whatever he left undone in this direction has been most effectually carried out by his executor, the late Governor of Virginia.”

1 It is proper to say that the Congressional Globe makes no mention of this remarkable episode — that is, of the startling culmination of itthough the facts and circumstances leading up to this culmination are there set out substantially as above related. The proceedings of the House, as recorded in the Globe at and about the date, are orderly and consecutive and the adjournments regular. The record, however, does show an adjournment over a day, and it may be well that the unparalleled occurrence above described took place upon that day. Those familiar with Congressional proceedings are aware of the usage or rule preventing any trace upon the record of an irregular or illegal session or adjournment of the House; e. g. the House has occasionally met for business on Sunday and even remained in session all that day, but the entire Sunday session — with everything transacted thereat — is entered as of the preceding day. Therefore, while not assured precisely how the thing was done in this instance, it is not unlikely that the irregular, illegal and abortive proceedings above described took place upon the day covered by the adjournment, and that the entry of the adjournment over that day was an after-thought.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1860 AD (4)
1861 AD (2)
1859 AD (2)
1865 AD (1)
1864 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: