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Chapter 25: Potpourri

  • Startling figures as to the numbers and losses of the Federal armies during the war
  • -- demoralizing influence of earth-works -- attrition and starvation -- lack of sleep vs. lack of food -- night blindness in the Army of Northern Virginia -- desertions from the Confederate armies -- prison life -- Deforest medal -- Gen. Lee's hat.

Some years ago, during the discussion of the pension legislation of Congress, the following statements, substantially, were published at Washington in The National Tribune of May 16, 1889. We do not vouch for their accuracy, but there is truth enough in the figures to make them valuable, and power enough to startle the thoughtful reader.

The article asserts that the Federal force invading the South from 1861 to 1865 was fully twice as large as was ever put afield by any other modern nation, and that it contested more battles, did more fighting, and lost more in killed and wounded than all the armies of modern Europe in the last three-quarters of a century, that is, since the close of the Napoleonic wars in 1815.

It states that 2,320,272 men served an average of three years during our war; that no other war of the century has lasted so long or been filled with such continuous and sanguinary fighting; that 2,261 battles and skirmishes were fought, many of them more destructive of human life than any other battles in modern history; that over 400,000 men lost their lives in the struggle — that is, double the number of the entire army of Great Britain, 143,000 more than that of Austro-Hungary; more than Napoleon arrayed against the coalition of England, Russia, Prussia, Sweden and [347] Spain; and twice as many as he had when he began his Waterloo campaign. The article closes with these words:

Our war lasted nearly seven times as long as the Franco-Prussian struggle, and we lost over six times as many killed on the field of battle as the Germans lost in overrunning the whole of France.

As I understand, the above figures represent the number and losses of the Federal armies alone. If so, what a story they tell of the fighting power of the little Confederacy, cut off from the world in its death grapple, opposing the great hosts of the Union with less than one-third their numbers, and meeting, among the overwhelming myriads of its foes, more imported foreigners than the entire number of the native soldiers of the South.

In my account of the campaign of 1864, especially of Spottsylvania and Cold Harbor, in noting our first real experience of fighting “in the trenches” and behind the “works,” I failed to mention its tendency to demoralize the men.

The protection of a little pile of earth being in front of a man and between him and his enemy, his natural tendency is to stay behind it, not only as to part, but as to the whole of his person. I have more than once seen men behind such a line fire their muskets without so much as raising their heads above the curtain of earth in front of them; fire, indeed, at such an inclination of their gun-barrels upward as to prevent the possibility of hitting an enemy unless that enemy were suspended in the sky or concealed in the tree tops.

So greatly did this desire to fight behind protection increase that I have seen men begin digging every time the column halted, until their commanding officers declared that any man caught intrenching himself without orders should be punished severely. It is fair to say that, after a while, the better men of the army, at least, learned to use without abusing the vantage ground of earth-works.

In commenting upon Grant's theory and plan of attrition, I should have added that one feature of it was to turn loose upon our armies and our homes the twin giant of starvation. [348]

Especially was this the case after Sherman started through Georgia and our communications began to be cut by Federal raiding parties in all directions. Sometime ago, I do not remember just how long, Mr. George Cary Eggleston, in a graphic paper upon the campaign of 1864, wrote in a very feeling and original way of the pains and pangs of hunger, and how deeply they depressed and deteriorated his entire being. I take no issue with him as to this statement, and yet, to me, even greater suffering and deterioration came from lack of sleep. I do not know that I have ever suffered more, physically and mentally, than from intense desire and demand of my whole being for deep, unbroken sleep, combined with inability to get more than a snatch at a time, which was almost worse than none at all. Such was frequently our experience, especially upon night marches and during long-continued battle.

I am inclined to think my unusual muscular strength saved me from that general giving way which, in the case of most men, follows quickly upon lack of sufficient food; but on the other hand, I seemed to be peculiarly susceptible to the suffering, even torture and almost madness, which accompanies or follows lack of sleep. I believe it was Napoleon who defined a soldier to be a man who could eat and sleep in one day for three. My army experience inclines me to say that a better definition could scarcely be framed, at least on the purely physical side.

Perhaps the most peculiar and striking fact or feature of the physical condition of General Lee's army during the latter half of the war was night blindness — the men affected being unable to see after sunset, or a little later.

I do not know what proportion of the men were so affected, but it is safe to say that thousands were. Many of them were as good and true men as any in the service; indeed, I have seen men led by the hand all night in order to go into battle with the command in the morning.

The doctors tell us that these symptoms were to be accounted for as among the expressions of an anaemic and scorbutic condition, which itself resulted from lack of proper and sufficient nutrition. It would be interesting to know [349] to what extent, if at all, the Federal armies weer so affected. There may have been investigations and reports embodying this and other points of interest with regard to the matter, but, if so, I have never seen them. Indeed, my purpose is merely to record the fact, which 1 believe to be for the most part unknown even to the intelligent public of this generation.

There is one feature of our Confederate struggle, to which I have already made two or three indirect allusions, as to which there has been such a strange popular misapprehension that I feel as if there rested upon the men who thoroughly understand the situation a solemn obligation to bring out strongly and clearly the sound and true view of the matter. I refer to an impression, quite common, that the desertions from the Confederate armies, especially in the latter part of the war, indicated a general lack of devotion to the cause on the part of the men in the ranks.

On the contrary, it is my deliberate conviction that South ern soldiers who remained faithful under the unspeakable pressure of letters and messages revealing suffering, starvation, and despair at home, displayed more than human heroism.

The men who felt this strain most were husbands of young wives and fathers of young children, whom they had supported by their labor, manual or mental. As the lines of communication in the Confederacy were more and more broken and destroyed, and the ability, both of county and public authorities and of neighbors, to aid them became less and less — the situation of such families became more and more desperate, and their appeals more and more piteous to their only earthly helpers who were far away, filling their places in “the thin gray line.” Meanwhile the enemy sent into our camps, often by our own pickets, circulars offering our men indefinite parole, with free transportation to their homes.

I am not condemning the Federal Government or military authorities for making these offers or putting out these circulars; but if there was ever such a thing as a conflict of duties, that conflict was presented to the private soldiers of [350] the Confederate army who belonged to the class just mentioned, and who received, perhaps simultaneously, one of these home letters and one of these Federal circulars; and if ever the strain of such a conflict was great enough to unsettle a man's reason and to break a man's heart strings, these men were subjected to that strain.

Ask any Confederate officer who commanded troops during the latter part of the war and who was loved and trusted by his men. He will tell you of letters which it would have seared your very eyeballs to read, but that they could not be read without tears-letters in which a wife and mother, crazed by her starving children's cries for bread, required a husband and father to choose between his God-imposed obligations to her and to them and his allegiance to his country, his duty as a soldier; declaring that if the stronger party prove recreant to the marriage vow, the weaker will no longer be bound by it; that if he come not at once, he need never come; that she will never see him again nor recognize him as her husband or the father of her children.

In order that it may be seen that I am not drawing an imaginary or exaggerated picture, I quote from page 145 of Colonel Taylor's “Four years with General Lee” --a passage which, by the way, I had not read until after I had penned the foregoing upon this topic. Says Colonel Taylor:

A few words in regard to this desertion. The condition of affairs throughout the South at that period was thoroughly deplorable. Hundreds of letters addressed to soldiers were intercepted and sent to the Army Headquarters, in which mothers, wives and sisters told of their inability to respond to the appeals of hungry children for bread, or to provide proper care and remedies for the sick; and in the name of all that was true, appealed to the men to come home and rescue them from the ills which they suffered and the starvation which threatened them. Surely never was devotion to one's country and to one's duty more sorely tested than was the case with the soldiers of Lee's army during the last year of the war.

Many a noble officer, reading such a letter with a poor fellow of his command at nightfall, has realized how entirely inadequate was the best sympathy, advice, and comfort he [351] could give; and when, at next morning's roll-call that man failed to answer to his name, has felt far more of pity than of condemnation. Soldiers would not prevent the departure oi a comrade who was known to have received such a letter. Officers of courts-martial, compelled by sense of duty to order the execution as a deserter of a man absent without leave under such circumstances, have confessed to me that they shuddered, as if accessories before the fact to murder.

Some years ago, cowering under a great rock on the edge of the Aletsch glacier, in an Alpine thunder-storm, with Prof. (Sir John) Tyndall, Lady Tyndall, and my brotherin-law, Professor Newton, of Yale University, I related a story which was told me by Dr. Hunter McGuire and other eye-witnesses, of Jackson's agonized suffering, yet refusal to interfere with a death sentence imposed by a court-martial, under circumstances such as I have described. Lady Tyndall shuddered and averted her face; but her husband, perceiving that she did so, said with emphasis:

My dear, awful as it was, Jackson was right;

then, turning to me, he added, “Mr. Stiles, God never made a greater or a righter human soul than Stonewall Jackson. No, sir, I do not believe it within the power-even of the Lord God Almighty — to make one!”

In this general connection I cannot but refer with pride to the unshaken condition and magnificent record of my old battery, even on that fearful retreat from Richmond, and up to and at the very end. The evening before Sailor's Creek we passed them on the road near Amelia Court House, and I was delighted to find their condition about as good as I ever saw it, and their mettle quite as high. They were better supplied than we, and, for the last time, I plundered Billy's haversack for a morsel of food.

As I have always understood, and believe to be true, they went down and passed into history, with the immortal Army of Northern Virginia, with all their men, save two, present for duty, or honorably accounted for.

There are several minor and personal matters, more or less connected with my army experience, which I have been specially requested to touch upon. One of these is my prison [352] life. It may be that I shall deem this worthy of more extended notice hereafter, so that for the present I shall confine myself to one or two points.

When it was proposed to release the field officers at Johnson's Island, in the summer of 1865, I was one of those called upon by the prison authorities to aid in the preparation of the numerous requisite “papers,” and when, long after midnight, I handed in my batch, Major Lee, the courteous and kindly commandant of the post, when he had looked them over, said they were all right, except that I had been guilty of just such an omission as he would undertake to say had never before occurred, in like circumstances — that is, I had forgotten to prepare any paper for my own release.

I assured him that he was mistaken, that I certainly had not overlooked my own case, and he hastily ran through his pile of papers again.

“Yes, Major,” said he, “I am right. There are no papers here for you.”

“True,” said I, “but you did not say there were no papers for me, but that I had forgotten to prepare any. In this you are in error. I did not forget — I never proposed to write any paper for myself-you see, I am not going to leave just yet. I have taken a great fancy to you and I propose to stay with you a while longer.”

The commandant at first seemed to regard the matter as a joke; but when he found I really did not propose to submit any papers for my own release, he began to fear I had lost my mental balance, and sent me to my quarters, sending the post-surgeon after me, to see whether I was in normal condition. I assured the doctor, and he saw for himself, that I was perfectly sound in mind and body, and he so reported.

The next day, as soon as the prisoners had left, Major Lee sent for me, and I explained to him that the oath demanded of us entered into the domain of my convictions and feelings, requiring me to swear in substance that I abandoned the “heresy of secession,” and regarded and would continue to regard the United States with patriotic devotion. I contended that the Government had nothing to do with the exercise of my intellect or affections, and that I could not [353] myself voluntarily control their operations or conclusions; that I would never take an oath of the character of that demanded, and did not feel disposed to take any oath whatever under duress and imprisonment; that, in fact, I questioned whether an oath exacted under such circumstances was legally valid; but that I preferred not to subject myself to the moral strain of toning down and whittling away the obligation of any oath I might take; that, indeed, as the war was, or seemed to be, practically over, with no organized Confederate force in the field, I ought to be released upon indefinite parole not to take up arms against the United States; but that I was willing to accept a brief parole, say of thirty days, conditioned at the expiration of that time to take the simple oath of allegiance or leave the country; that as at present advised and inclined, I would join any nation, or government, or people under Heaven-even the Hottentots — to fight against the United States, if there was a fair chance of success; but if allowed to go out and mingle freely with the people of the South, and especially of Virginia, for a short time, and to see for myself that they had, as he assured me, given up all purpose and hope of independence, I might then be able to take the simple oath of allegiance intelligently and honestly, and in case I did so might well prove a better, that is, a more reliable, citizen than some who had raised no such question of conscience.

Major Lee was very kind and considerate. He attempted at first to reason me out of my position, and failing in that said he would incorporate the substance of what I had said in his report to the Government, and ask my release on parole; which he did, but the application was refused. He then suggested that perhaps I could formulate my own position more clearly and strongly than he had done, and said he would forward any paper of that character I might prepare, and he furnished me with writing materials for the purpose. Of course, with my comrades all departed, there was a great calm, a melancholy stagnation in “the prison pen,” and I revelled for days, almost weeks, in applying my little knowledge of law and my large sympathy with “general principles” to the preparation of paper after paper on the laws of war, as related to my case, and bearing on my [354] application to be released on parole. Suffice it to say these papers were all endorsed by Major Lee, “Respectfully forwarded approved” --and all backed by the Commissary-General of Prisoners, “Respectfully returned disapproved.”

At last, however, Mrs. A. D. Egerton, a noble lady of Baltimore, and my sister,--having managed in some way to get hold of one of these papers, weeks after I had been removed from Johnson's Island and incarcerated in a stone casemate in Fort Lafayette, in New York Harbor,--secured an interview with the Secretary of War, and Mr. Stanton endorsed the paper with his own hand.

“Let this young officer have any parole he asks, conditioned, at its expiration, to take the oath or go back to prison.”

The big-brained, terrible man cut right through to my half-formed purpose of going to Maximilian-and he did not propose to leave any such loop-hole in the net in which the Government at the time held me fast. It is a pleasure to record this incident, to the honor of a man who gave few opportunities to the people of the South for kindly words or feelings.

The iron door of my cell opened to these dear ladies, armed with this “ukase of the Czar,” and I walked forth a free man once more — that is, in a modified sense. This was, I think, in October, 1865. At the expiration of my brief parole, being satisfied that the fond dream of Confederate independence was ended forever, I took the simple oath of allegiance to the United States, sadly turned my back upon the only great thing in my life, and dropped into the undistinguishable mass of “The people.”

Another matter of a personal nature, which I mention by special request, is the post-collegiate history of the DeForest gold medal, which I had the honor to take in the class of 1859, at Old Yale, and the formative influence it exercised upon my after life.

In 1859, when I took the medal, the die for it had not been cast, and the trustees or managers of the fund were advised that they were legally compellable to melt up ten gold eagles, or, at least, a hundred dollars' worth of gold, in the general form of a medal, and to have engraved upon [355] it the legend prescribed in the legal instrument of donation. My recollection is the medal was a long time reaching me, and when it came it was in this “questionable shape.” I carried the lump of gold in my pants pocket for months, and as the mighty conflict drew on and I grew more moody and unhappy, I walked much alone, and used occasionally to shy my golden disc at cats and other objects, until the inscription became battered and defaced beyond recognition.

It was probably after my return from New York in the spring of 1861 that one of my uncles, a cotton manufacturer from Northern Georgia, was sitting one evening with the family in our parlor in New Haven and I was filliping the great round piece of yellow metal up to the ceiling, when he asked what it was, and I answered:

A lump of gold.

“Nonsense, Bob,” said Uncle B. “What is it, really?”

“It is really a piece of gold, Uncle. If you doubt it, examine it and see for yourself!” --tossing it to him.

“Why, I really believe it is gold. How did you come by it, boy, and what are you going to do with it?”

When I explained, my uncle said:

Well, it is certainly good for nothing now as a medal. We don't know what is coming upon us; you'd better let me take it South and put it in cotton for you.

“All right,” I replied; “only let me first have a piece clipped off to make a breast-pin for mother;” which was done next morning. The little pin was made, my mother wore it for years, my sister has it now and my little daughter is to have it. “Uncle B.” took the three-quarter moon of gold with him, and I cannot recall ever thinking of it again until the fall of 1865, just after I was released from prison.

I was on the border line of Albemarle and Orange Counties, Virginia, helping my brother, Randy, to harvest a little corn crop, which he had cultivated on shares, after getting out of prison in the spring. It was toward the gloaming and I was seated on a pile of corn, which we were anxious to finish that night. A solitary horseman came riding across the open country from the direction of the railroad, evidently an ex-Confederate cavalryman, and as we all, in those [356] days, seemed to have a sort of intuitive knowledge of each other's whereabouts, I was not surprised when he rode close to us, tossing a letter upon the corn pile as he passed, and saying:

I was at Gordonsville, Bob, and hearing you were in these parts, I asked for you at the office. That's all there was.

I thanked him and he rode on. When it got too dark to work I threw a fodder stalk on the smouldering fire and opened my letter. It contained the account of my cotton merchant, and not only his account but his check for $350, balancing the same.

It was the one moment of my life when I seemed to be possessed of boundless wealth.

I had on my old Confederate uniform,--indeed these were the only clothes I had,--but I walked to the University that night and entered the law class next morning, under that prince of men and of teachers, John B. Minor. I had no resources whatever outside of my little fairy-story fortune, and I really do not see how, without it, I could have resumed and completed my professional studies.

I had shared my large capital to some extent with my brother, and about the time I began to be seriously troubled again with the ever-pressing question of ways and means, entering my almost barren room one day after lecture, I found on my table an envelope addressed to me and inside of it $75 in greenbacks, and-written in a hand with which I was not familiar, and entirely without date or signaturethe words, “From an old friend of your father.”

About the time this second supply of bread and water the ravens had brought was exhausted, at the minimum rate of college expenses, another envelope, addressed in the same hand, was left in the same place, and inside of it $75 more, but not even the scrape of a pen accompanying. I have never heard so much as one word that shed any light upon the identity of the kind donor, and this aggregate of $150 is the only money I owe to-day.

My sister, Josephine, who, with Mrs. Egerton, procured my release from prison, was quite intimate with General [357] Lee's family and a great favorite with the general. She is consequently something of an heiress in interesting mementoes of him given her by his own hand.

She has a lock of his hair and one of Traveler's, a star from his coat collar, the wooden inkstand, which he used generally in our war, and, if I mistake not, in the Mexican War also, and the remains of a pound of tea he gave her, asking that we should make tea from it the first time we were fortunate enough to have a family reunion. She has also the general's parade hat, or rather she and I have committed this to the keeping of the Confederate Museum in Richmond. The circumstances connected with this latter gift are strongly characteristic.

My sister had been spending the morning at the general's residence, 707 East Franklin Street, Richmond, Va., sitting most of the time with the ladies of the family in Mrs. Lee's room. The general was preparing for a trip somewhere, and was leisurely packing his trunk, that is, after the ladies had done what they could to aid him-and every now and then he would enter the room where they were bringing in his hand something which he thought would interest them. In one of these incursions he brought a widebrimmed drab or gray-brown felt hat, saying:

Miss Josie, has your father a good hat?

My sister replied that she really did not know, as we had not seen him for some time.

“Well,” said the general, “I have two good hats, and I don't think a good rebel ought to have two good articles of one kind in these hard times. This was my dress-parade hat. Take it, please, and if your father has not a good hat, give him this one from me.”

Father would not wear the hat, deeming it too sacred a thing for common use; but after the general's death, by permission of his daughters, who were present, I wore it at two of our great Confederate reunions, with my dear old Confederate jacket, and I need scarcely say was the object of more intense interest than ever in my life, before or since. I made bold, too, to have my photograph taken with the hat on — of course, the jacket, too,--as a sort of heirloom for my family.

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